1967 Riot History

The 1960s was a tumultuous decade characterized by an unprecedented amount of violent protests in Black communities across the United States. Although many of these acts of rebellion generally escalated from a single incident involving the police, protestors cited pent-up frustration over centuries of racial injustice as the main reason for participating. The riots were not spontaneous bursts of anger, but rather retaliation against systemic racial inequality and oppression, such as housing discrimination, segregated school systems, and police brutality.

The summer of 1967 was particularly devastating. Over 150 cities around the U.S. experienced race-related disturbances, though they varied in size and severity. Historians often refer to this period as the “long, hot summer.” Law enforcement often used extreme measures to put an end to the resistance. The National Guard was even deployed to several states. The damage was also extensive—thousands of people were injured, hundreds were killed, and property damage rose to tens of millions of dollars.

The two largest incidents occurred in Newark, New Jersey and Detroit, Michigan. Newark’s five-day rebellion started on July 12th after a rumor that a Black cab driver had been killed while in police custody. The violence quickly spread to neighboring New Jersey cities. In Detroit, Black residents retaliated after police raided a party at a bar in the city’s oldest Black neighborhood on July 23rd. With an estimated 2,000 injuries and over 4,000 arrests, Detroit’s riot is still considered one of the most violent of the 20th century. Explore the interactive map to view other cities affected during the long, hot summer.

A group of young Black men being searched by a Michigan State Officer during the Detroit riots. (AP Photo)

The Kerner Commission

In response to a summer of nationwide riots, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders on July 28, 1967 to investigate the widespread violence. Nicknamed the Kerner Commission after its chair Governor Otto Kerner, the eleven-member team was tasked with answering three seemingly basic questions: (1) What happened? (2) Why did it happen? (3) What can be done to prevent it from happening again? They completed their investigation on March 11, 1968, and concluded that the “nation [was] moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” It established that Black Americans protested against unjust social, economic, and political circumstances caused by divisive race relations. The report cited white racism as the primary contributor to this divisiveness. It also included a number of recommendations on how to improve these circumstances, including better employment opportunities and housing equality, and encouraged open dialogue to improve racial attitudes.

News and Media Coverage

The Kerner Commission also examined how the media covered the protests, as well as issues regarding race. The Commission concluded that news and media outlets tried to give a balanced account of the unrest. However, it also accused them of sensationalism and creating distorted views of the events. News stations often focused on the violence and constantly displayed images of burning buildings, looting, altercations between police and protestors, and law enforcement in riot gear. This skewed the public’s perception of the events and contributed to public fear and confusion. Additionally, the Kerner Commission reported that many news organizations did not adequately address the underlying problems concerning the African-American community and race relations. Some Black Americans referred to mainstream news outlets as the “white press,” and argued that they only discussed negative topics, like crime or violence, when they covered the Black community.

Aerial shot of a destroyed block in Detroit. (AP Photo)

A man throwing a shoe at police during the Newark Riots.
(AP Photo)

Public Perceptions

The skewed media coverage heavily influenced the public’s perception of the unrest. A 1967 study by the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence at Brandeis University surveyed both Black and white residents in several U.S. cities to determine what they considered the main causes for the riots were. Black residents were more likely to cite high unemployment, bad living conditions, and police brutality as reasons for the riots. Contrastingly, the surveyed white residents blamed outside troublemakers and news of rioting in other cities for the increase in violence across the country. These differing views reflected the divisive racial relations mentioned in the Kerner Commission report.

Sources consulted for this page can be found here.