On Aug. 7, 1968, as the Republican Party held its convention eight miles away in Miami Beach, a crowd of protesters gathered for a black-empowerment rally in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood. An oven-like summer heat, trapped by stucco and concrete in the nearly treeless area, bore down on everyone.
Fliers announced the rally from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m., with speeches by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain. Both men were in town for the convention — Abernathy to protest and Chamberlain to throw his support to Richard Nixon. The handbills concluded with an ominous warning: “If coverage of the black mass rally is desired, you must send black reporters only.”
Liberty City was like a pot waiting to boil over. Resentments among African Americans had simmered in the community over treatment by white shopkeepers and absentee — often out-of-state — landlords. The neighborhood, once a Depression-era model of government housing with single-family homes and open spaces, was overpopulated.
Residents bridled under the “stop and frisk” policies of Miami Police Chief Walter Headley. In February, two patrolmen had strip-searched Robert Owens, a teenager suspected of carrying a concealed knife into a pool hall. The cops then dangled Owens — dressed in only his shorts and a sweater — by his feet over a bridge, a hundred feet above the Miami River.
The tensions led to a three-day riot that summer. By the conflict’s end, three people had died at the hands of police, 18 were wounded, and 222 arrests were made.
The rioting began when a white Miami Herald reporter refused to leave the rally. Three men carried him out, and soon after, 15 officers, mostly white, arrived and ordered protesters to disperse. Two black officers entered the headquarters of one of the rally’s sponsors, the Vote Power League, but soon exited after a shouting match.
Police staked out one corner of the street, revving their motorcycles, as protesters staked out the other. By 5 p.m., as the pickets grew in number, officers set up two roadblocks in the area and then withdrew to reorganize. The crowd raged into the street, targeting white motorists with chunks of fallen concrete from adjacent buildings.
Austin Long-Scott, who covered many riots in the 1960s under the byline Austin Scott for the Associated Press, termed it “baiting the trap,” saying the police presence “created resentment.”
“They were unable to effectively defuse the resentment, and then they walked away without doing anything to keep unsuspecting people from driving into danger,” Scott said.
Around 7 p.m., a yellow Mercury with a “Wallace for President” bumper sticker sped through an intersection but stalled a half-block away. The crowd ran and caught up with the car but — for a moment — stopped.
The terrified driver attempted to open the door, then hesitated to get out. An elderly black motorist pulled up alongside him. Several in the crowd loudly admonished the man not to help, according to Scott’s notes on the incident. The crowd resumed its fusillade of rocks and debris, Scott wrote, sending a piece through the windshield and hitting the George Wallace supporter in the head. He got out, his face bloodied, and stumbled to a bar, where he escaped through a back door.
The crowd advanced on the vehicle and cheered as they turned it over. When someone dropped a match in the gas tank, the Mercury burst into flames.
As the night went on, nearly 300 people trashed and looted the white-owned shops along 62nd Street, interrupted only by volleys of tear gas from the police.
That day, Abernathy, scheduled to appear late at the rally, rode to the Republican Convention in a mule train as part of the Poor People’s Campaign, a multiracial group pushing to continue Martin Luther King Jr.’s work. He learned of the rioting only after arriving at the convention, and he quickly hopped in a cab for Liberty City.
Florida Gov. Claude Kirk left the convention, too. On a makeshift platform across the street from the Vote Power building, Kirk, a conservative Republican who campaigned against forced school busing, vainly attempted to charm and persuade a crowd of angry youth.
Contrasting Kirk’s performance with New York Mayor John Lindsay’s calming presence in Harlem after King’s assassination earlier that year, commentator Gary Wills wrote, “Kirk does not know who is in the crowd. Unlike Lindsay, he has walked into a ghetto where he has no intelligence network, no friendly leaders he keeps in touch with day by day. He is at the mercy of the punks.”
Kirk, Abernathy and Dade County Mayor Chuck Hall held a tense meeting with residents to discuss community grievances. The governor suggested they continue the discussion the next morning. But then he failed to show — and things got ugly again.
Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd along 62nd Street. Responding to what they thought was sniper fire, the officers fired warning shots in the air. The rioters responded with rocks and bottles.
City officials requested assistance from the Florida Highway Patrol, which spread more tear gas indiscriminately through the neighborhood with a truck-mounted insect fogger. The gas gagged all in the vicinity, including a 5-month-old infant.
Later that day, police said, they heard gunshots from a sniper and sent eight officers with rifles toward an alley in a housing project. They fired 20 shots into the alley over 10 minutes. No one returned fire.
Bystanders found John J. Austin, 27, and Moses Cannon, 28, dead and unarmed. In another nearby gun battle, an unarmed 45-year-old bystander, Ejester Cleveland, died in crossfire after walking out on his porch.
“This was all a battlefield,” Liberty City resident Barry Gilmore told the Miami News. “The police were at each end and bullets were flying up and down. … The police could have shot in the air but they drew down on the people. They said snipers fired on them but you can walk all through here and ask all the people and not one will tell you there was a sniper. The police probably heard shots from their own men in the next block.”
By the evening, the city imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and Kirk called in more than 500 National Guardsmen. However, it wasn’t guardsmen who quieted the riot, but heavy rains that blanketed the neighborhood on Aug. 9.
Three white television reporters were hit by rocks and bricks during the initial disturbances at the Vote Power building. The Washington Post’s Hollie West, a black reporter quickly dispatched from the convention floor to Liberty City to cover the riot, was arrested in the crowd when police refused to acknowledge his press credentials. He spent four hours in a jail cell with 24 other inmates before an editor posted his bond. West, 80, recalled that he was the only prisoner wearing a suit and tie.
Across Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach, Nixon accepted his party’s presidential nomination with strident rhetoric that criticized Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.
“For the past five years, we have been deluged by government programs for the unemployed; programs for the cities; programs for the poor,” Nixon said in his acceptance speech. “And we have reaped from these programs an ugly harvest of frustration, violence and failure across the land.”
The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, a federal task force, found no connection between the GOP convention and the Liberty City riot.
But it also cited as a prime factor for the discontent a December 1967 news conference by Headley, who was quoted as saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Though Headley died four months after the riots, aggressive policing continued to cast a pall over race relations in Miami.
And 12 years later, after four officers were acquitted in the killing of an unarmed motorist, Liberty City burned again.