July/August 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 4
Amid all the love-ins, acid tests, and dreamy good feeling, the summer of 1967 also saw some of the greatest internal violence since the Civil War as riots broke out in at least seventy American cities from Grand Rapids to Boston, Buffalo to Tampa. The riots shared a bleak uniformity—each with an inciting police incident, brutality either real or alleged, looting, and fire bombing.
The violence in Newark and Detroit began with the usual combination of heat, long-held grievance, and powerful rumor. In Newark, stories that a black cab driver had been fatally beaten by police on the night of July 12 brought a crowd down to the station. After some rock throwing, the protesters were dispersed by the police, but then roamed the early-morning streets looting and torching businesses. Almost three thousand National Guardsmen were called out. Snipers fired from rooftops all over town at anyone wearing a uniform. Newark’s “open rebellion,” as Gov. Richard Hughes called it, took six days to finally burn out. By then twelve hundred people had been arrested and twenty-six killed. Before the riots Newark had more condemned housing than any other American city; afterward many of these buildings had been torched, and hundreds of businesses had been looted.
Within a week Detroit was blazing too. On July 23 the city’s police arrested seventy-three patrons of a club serving liquor after hours. The club happened to be a gathering place for some of the leaders of the city’s “black power” movement. The arrests, happenstance or not, provoked scattered looting nearby that expanded into fire bombings. Some community leaders later charged that the catastrophe that followed could have been avoided had the police been quicker to move against this initial looting on Sunday morning.
Instead, President Lyndon Johnson and Gov. George Romney met fire with fire by calling in Gen. John L. Throckmorton, forty-seven hundred paratroopers, and three thousand National Guardsmen, plus tanks and armed helicopters. After two days of battles between snipers and roving tanks, Throckmorton reported, “The east side is secure.” The heaviest fighting took place within a mile of General Motors headquarters. “If we see anyone move,” said one Guardsman, “we shoot and ask questions later.” Much of the fighting occurred in total darkness because streetlights had been smashed. The looting extended over most of the city, and some of the plundering was the work of integrated groups. Unlike earlier riots of that summer, painted “Soul Brother” signs on black-owned businesses were no protection against the mobs.
South Bend, Indiana, and East Harlem, in New York City, suffered their own series of lootings during these same days, but nothing like those in Detroit, where on July 26 helicopters were still sweeping rooftops and tanks were searching the business district for gunmen. By midnight Throckmorton pronounced the city “under control except for a few isolated snipers.” The riots ended after nearly a week; forty-three had died and five thousand had lost their homes in the violence.