There is a current confusion about the 1960s, a decade that produced tremendous social and political progress, widespread alienation and urban violence.
It is important to review the litany of change and grief in that period, because there are those in the 1980s who naively believe that the major positive accomplishments of the '60s somehow grew out of the riots and urban unrest.
The overwhelming majority of the gains in the mid-'60s came not from violence, but in response to disciplined, mass nonviolent demonstrations such as those in Birmingham, the March on Washington in 1963, St. Augustine in 1964 and Selma in 1965.
The civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 had been signed into law before the fires raged in Watts, Chicago, Newark and Detroit.
These and other laws helped to create millions of new job opportunities and educational opportunity grants that opened the nation's university systems to hundreds of thousands of black students. These laws brought expansion of health care, food stamps and other benefits for the poor. This all occurred in the early years of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" as a direct result of the civil rights movement of the first half of the '60s.
In the latter years of the Johnson administration, however, we saw the nation turn its attention to the war in Southeast Asia while ignoring our own cities, and we witnessed a sudden onslaught of reactionary politics that gave us Richard Nixon and the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. This was the time of the infamous urban convulsions that swept the country. This violence produced no significant government action, in contrast to the results achieved by the earlier, disciplined movements.
Black leaders learned that violence was harmful, not helpful, to their interests. A tour of those burned-out neighborhoods today shows no significant change. Business, jobs and new investment have yet to be enticed into those communities.
Yet in recalling the riots of the '60s, it is not enough to deplore violence and its negative impact. We must understand why it happened and what remedies can be found, because explosive conditions still exist.
In 1968, the Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders attributed the violence to social and economic conditions, and pointed out that the explosions were triggered by incidents of political oppression or personal humiliation. The commission stated, "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal." The commission recognized the danger of racial polarization and conflict, and called for massive rebuilding of the cities.
Martin Luther King Jr. called violence "the language of the unheard." The recent anger and rage of Miami is much less likely to spread where black and white leaders are sensitive enough to listen to the anguish of the poor.
The mayors, the news media and even the police of most of the big cities today are much more aware of the problems of the central cities. The private sector, in many cases, has been willing to work to help the poor and blacks into the economic mainstream.
There still exists in major metropolitan areas excessive unemployment and insufficient minority participation in the political and economic sectors. Government officials have not been able to deal adequately with inner-city problems -- problems requiring the highest priority on the agendas of local, state and national leadership.