In the aftermath of the unrest, it has become common to draw parallels to the bloodshed, the political upheaval and the sense of social rupture of 1968, the year when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated and dozens were killed when race riots broke out across the nation (not to mention the thousands who died fighting in Vietnam.)
“What’s happening now is terrible,” tweeted the Atlantic magazine’s James Fallows, but 1968 was “incomparably worse.”
The nation is so different today that any direct comparison with 1968 rings false. But the racial unrest of the 1960s offers an insight into the not-so-distant roots of many of today's divisions — and a lesson that would be well-heeded today: Fear is a powerful force in American politics.
The race riots of the 1960s were pivotal not only for the plight of black Americans but also for public policy and urban life in general. Between 1964 and 1971, more than 200 people died, and thousands more were injured in these uprisings, which took place in several dozen cities across the nation and accelerated white Americans' leaving cities for the suburbs. Many of these riots were precipitated by encounters between black residents and police. The Watts riots in Los Angeles, which resulted in 34 deaths — most of them black — began as a traffic stop, which evolved into a scuffle and then erupted into a community uprising.
Even at the time, the government understood that these outbursts were about more than brutal policing. Black Americans were expressing their frustrations with racism and their lack of economic opportunity — over their sense that the civil rights movement had, despite progress, failed to fulfill its promises. In 1968, the Kerner Commission, a panel of experts convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson to study the riots, proposed a solution that sounds radical even today. The commission recommended a massive public-works program: the creation of 2 million jobs for the inner city, a basic minimum income for urban families and subsidies to expand the stock of affordable housing by 6 million units.
“Only a commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale can shape a future compatible with the historic ideals of American society,” the commission declared in its report.
These recommendations may not have been politically practical, but there was not even an attempt at a compromise. Instead, historians say, the fear of black urban unrest soured Americans on the idea of reducing crime by fixing the underlying social problems. In 1968, the nation voted in Richard Nixon, who ran on a law-and-order platform promising to clean up the cities. Under Nixon, the federal “war on crime” reached brutal heights. The over-policing of black neighborhoods and the militarization of American police are trends that originated in that era.
Fast forward to 2016, and it's worth noting that, as terrible as it was, the shooting of police in Dallas appears to be an isolated incident. Up until the shooting began Thursday night, the Black Lives Matter protest was peaceful. Smiling police officers posed with demonstrators and posted pictures on the department's Twitter accout. Dallas police say that the suspect who died during the SWAT standoff disavowed any connection to any group or movement. “He said he was upset about the recent police shootings,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown said. “The suspect said he was upset at white people. The suspect stated he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.
Other protests since have been, broadly speaking, peaceful, though there have been concerns about an excessive number of arrests in some cities, particularly Baton Rouge.
There’s may be no real comparison between 1968 and 2016, but it doesn't mean the two are disconnected in history or in the lessons we can learn. The impact of the 1960s race riots is felt today in the way the police operate in many urban neighborhoods, in depressed property values and the limited accumulation of black wealth, and in the geography of our cities. More broadly, the events of the 1960s illustrate how white anxiety over black violence became a political force that carved America in the shape we see today.
There are still those today who would stoke those fears, who talk of race wars and seek to divide the nation. But instead of casting blame on the protesters or taking up the banner of “Blue Lives Matter,” Brown begged people for their support at a news conference Friday. "All I know is that this must stop, this divisiveness between our police and our citizens," he said.
On the House floor Friday, Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) urged the nation to come together. "Let’s not lose sight of the values that unite us, our common humanity," he said, adding: “A few perpetrators of evil do not represent us. They do not control us.”
Perhaps that’s the greatest difference between 2016 and 1968 — our instinct, now, to seek unity after a racially divisive tragedy like this. The greatest similarity is that there’s still so much work left to be done.