Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk: 1967: What the year of rebellion tells us

Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk: 1967: What the year of rebellion tells us

We have entered a difficult moment for commemorations of the transformative '60s.

The recently released film "Detroit" by Kathryn Bigelow powerfully pushes the question of commemorating the 1960s black urban rebellions into public consciousness.

Memorializing the civil rights movement's triumphs, while difficult, was relatively easy compared to what lies ahead. Last year, the 50th anniversary of black power launched the challenge to America's mainstream memorialization of the 1960s. This year, 2017, is the 50th anniversary of what former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee executive director James Forman Sr. calls "the Year of Rebellion."

I say rebellion because a race riot is an event in which at least one group of civilians publicly assaults at least one other group of civilians in an effort at ethnic cleansing. Racial conflagrations from Cincinnati in 1831 to Detroit in 1943 fit this description. The 1960s-era conflagrations (and those since) are not race riots but uprisings against racial oppression.

Though initially difficult memorialization of the civil rights movement has become a tool that further legitimizes the state. The rebellions challenge its legitimacy.

The U.S. state begrudgingly partnered with remnants of the civil rights movement to commemorate its deceased leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., and that social movement's victorious struggles. However, we fail to acknowledge that it took 15 years of demonstrations and the largest petition is U.S. history to force Congress to make MLK's birthday a federal holiday. Ironically, the partnership with the state falsely suggests that it was supportive of the movement for racial equality and that the struggle is largely over.

Few admit that they opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or the Fair Housing Act of 1968. More importantly, journalists and historians rarely remind the public of the breadth and strength of the movement's opposition. Thus, today's public assumes the civil rights movement's fragile social changes were brought about with broad societal support.

The 1960s black rebellions challenge American myths. Their frequency, breadth, and impact calls into question the society's democratic pretensions. They expose the myth of social mobility as the false foundation upon which the American dream is erected. Between the black working class response to Bull Conner's unleashing of water hoses and police dogs on black children and the end of the decade around 750 rebellions occurred in nearly 260 cities. Three hundred people were killed, nearly 13,000 suffered injuries, 60,000 people were arrested, and nearly a billion dollars of property was destroyed. The human and property cost was greater than what occurred in many colonies undergoing decolonization.

Despite the misnomer, Martin Luther King, Jr. insightfully describes "a riot as the language of the unheard." In 1964, only about 100 blacks held elected office. By 1970, nearly 1,500 did. Yet, the rebels were not necessarily represented. During the Detroit rebellion, one activist exposed the class divide, declaring, "When he (middle-class blacks) gets into the system he become whiter than whitey." In a 15-city survey, 51 percent of black "political workers" claimed blacks viewed their city councilpersons as representatives of local government, not the black community. The urban rebellions were attempts to voice the anguish of working class blacks.

The King quote reflects why the rebellions are as Ashley Howard claims black "working class activism." The rebellions were both a cry for relief and a call for resistance. Why? Black respondents to a Kerner Commission survey attributed the rebellions to five major causes: 1) lack of progress toward equality (72 percent); 2) lack of jobs (67 percent); 3) lack of decent housing (67 percent); 4) lack of quality education (61 percent); and 5) police brutality (49 percent).

For these reasons, the rebellions had wide support. In each city, about 15 percent of the black community participated in the rebellion. Though they were working class actions, support for the rebellions transcended class. A 1966 Harris poll revealed that 91 percent of respondents "thought the race revolt was supported by the rank and file of Negroes?" On average, according to national surveys, 50 percent of blacks considered the rebellions as "helpful."

What is the legacy of the rebellions?

I'd say mixed. On the one hand, they accelerated white urban flight. But make no mistake that process picked up once the civil rights movement began to crack the edifices of residential and school apartheid. Manufacturing also fled the cities, but again, at best, the rebellions sped up a process that was already underway. And, despite their uneven results, Black political representation, even at its meager levels, is impossible to imagine without the rebellions.

How shall we memorialize the rebellions?

First, we must stop calling them riots. Second, we must accurately depict their causes, long term and trigger incidents. Third, we should present them as efforts by the unheard to make their grievances heard. Fourth, we should present the rebellions as struggles to democratize the political and economic decisions that determined the quality of Blacks lives. Finally, we should understand the rebellions as a challenge to the legitimacy of black subordination.

For in the end, as King observes, the rebellions were "the beginning of a stirring of those people in our society who have been bypassed by the progress of the past decade."

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is schajua@gmail.com.

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