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The American Civil Rights Movement
The American Civil Rights Movement

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8 Urban riots

Despite these legislative advancements, however, racial inequalities had not been eliminated. Because of legal codes of segregation, civil rights activism had largely focused its attentions on the South, but as the 1960s progressed, it became increasingly apparent that discrimination was by no means restricted to that area. Although Black people were not subjected to formal segregation outside the South, northern cities were also beset with racial tensions. Black Americans across the United States were often discriminated against when looking for jobs and housing, and they were less likely to be promoted at work. Poverty and unemployment were also common within the black neighbourhoods of northern cities (often known as ghettos).

These sources of discontent provoked a backlash in the form of urban riots that engulfed many cities throughout the 1960s. Between 1963 and 1972, there were over 750 urban revolts across the United States. These riots – described by the historian Peter Levy as ‘the Great Uprising’ – largely involved young Black men, occurred in black neighbourhoods, and affected every city in the United States with a black population of more than 50,000 (Levy, 2018, p. 1). One of the most dramatic of these occurred in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles, during the summer of 1965, in response to an incident of alleged police brutality. Rioters burned down white businesses and shops, while clashes with the police and the National Guard resulted in the deaths of 34 Black men.

Many of the moderate leaders of the civil rights movement were shocked by these events and turned their attentions to the northern cities where poverty and racial discrimination intersected. King, for example, began campaigning against housing discrimination in Chicago in 1966. He organised marches through the white suburbs and witnessed first-hand the appalling racism that existed there. In 1968, he established the Poor People’s Campaign, which focused on tackling economic injustice. That year, while campaigning on behalf of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, King was assassinated, sparking another wave of urban riots across the country. There were uprisings in over a hundred cities, including Washington D.C., New York City, Detroit and Chicago.