Americans have protested against injustice for centuries. When the protests turn violent, different terms are often used to classify them: civil unrest, riots, disorders, and rebellions, to name a few. What determines which term is used? Oftentimes, it is the race of those protesting. According to historian Jack Schneider, history has shown that white citizens who rise up against tyranny or inequality are honored as heroes or patriots. Conversely, when people of color do the same, they are usually labeled as rioters or troublemakers. These misnomers are generally perpetuated through mainstream media coverage that tends to focus more on the protest tactics and violence, rather than the underlying issues of the social movements themselves. Furthermore, scholars cite lack of diversity in news organizations, as well as biases against protests that do not follow the status quo, as some of the main reasons for inadequate—and at times, inaccurate—coverage of race-related protests. This, in turn, contributes to the delegitimization of the larger movements. The main goal of this project is to contribute to the larger discussion of how race-related protests are covered in newspapers and perceived by the general public.
The scholarship on race-related riots addresses two schools of thought that theorize why they occurred. The first argues that these events were acts of protest against centuries of racial inequality and violence towards Black Americans. The second views them as irrational and spontaneous actions by angry individuals. These contrasting interpretations were present in political discussions and media coverage during the 1960s and are still apparent today. This project uses a methodological approach based on the first school of thought. For this reason, my research briefly extends to the larger national scope of the unrest that occurred throughout the summer of 1967. This contextualization will help students understand that Boston’s incident was not unique to that period and was instead a piece of a larger national movement among Black Americans. Additionally, my project explores the inequitable experiences Black Bostonians endured, as well as the various events that contributed to the implosion of racial tensions in June 1967.
A Note on Terminology
This project is titled Riots or Rebellions to reflect the debates surrounding the Roxbury events, as seen in its newspaper and media coverage. According to historian Peter B. Levy, in a legal sense, the term “riot” is defined as an event “involving at least thirty participants and personal injury and/or property damage.” Historian Jack Schneider elaborates on this definition by describing it as an event that “disturbs an otherwise peaceful society” through “an expression of power and energy.” Some historians reject the term, preferring to use “rebellion” or “uprising” because they believe they provide a more accurate description of the intentions of those who participated in the events. As Schneider states, “a rebellion is inherently meaningful [as] it connotes resistance to authority or control.” Although I agree with this, politicians, the media, and the majority of the general public (then and now) use the term “riot.” This is reflected in the majority of the primary sources I consulted during my research. As this is primarily a historical research project, I have chosen to use all three interchangeably to maintain continuity. Other terms I occasionally use include: “civil unrest,” “civil disturbance,” and “civil disorder.”
A Note on Language in Primary Sources
Please note that this project incorporates newspaper articles that were originally published in the 1960s. Some of the articles may contain language that was widely used during that time, but is now considered offensive and outdated. I have chosen not to edit these words out because I believe they contribute to our understanding of how certain newspaper publications approached and covered race-related topics. The online teaching website Facing History and Ourselves provides an excellent resource on how to approach dehumanizing language used in historical documents in classroom settings.
About the Author
Danielle Rose graduated from Northeastern University's Public History MA program in spring 2021. This project was completed as a requirement for a graduate certificate in Digital Humanities. Prior to her move to Boston, Danielle worked as a museum educator in Miami, FL.
 Peter B. Levy, The Great Uprising: Race Riots in Urban America during the 1960s, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 1.
 Jack Schneider, “Ferguson: Riot or Rebellion?” Huffington Post, February 18, 2015, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/ferguson-race-riots-rebellion_b_6354102.
 Schneider, “Ferguson: Riot or Rebellion?”