The answers have implications for the next weeks and months. In the 1968 election, Richard Nixon, writes James Fallows, “knew that the specter of disorder — especially disorderly conduct by black Americans, face-to-face with police — was one of his strongest weapons.” Historian Niall Ferguson goes further, suggesting that unlike in 1968, today’s “urban unrest with a racial dimension might actually save a beleaguered incumbent.”
It is tempting but problematic to draw easy inferences linking past and present. Glib comparisons obscure what persists from the 1960s, reducing a long movement for racial justice to a comparison of presidential rhetoric. Seeing 1968 and 2020 as flash points in law and order, as moments of “culture war,” makes it difficult to see what has changed over more than a half-century. The who, the where and the why of 2020 cannot be boiled down to a reprise of 1968, nor can we predict political responses by catching a glimpse of the past through our rearview mirrors.
The period from 1963 to 1969 was perhaps the most extended period of mass protest in American history. The wave began with what observers called the “Negro revolt” of 1963, when black activists inspired and outraged by protests and police violence in Birmingham, Ala., took to the streets in huge numbers.
Demonstrations and unrest swept through America in the mid-1960s, from massive black-led boycotts of segregated schools in Cleveland and Boston to the rise of black power to the long hot summers, culminating in uprisings in 163 cities and towns, as small as Wadesboro, N.C., and as large as Newark and Detroit in July 1967. In Detroit, it took 17,000 armed officials, including the local and state police, the National Guard and the 101st Airborne to put down an uprising that spread over nearly 100 square miles, leading to more than 7,000 arrests and 43 deaths. Yet another major wave of uprisings swept through 110 cities in April 1968 following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Nearly every one of these uprisings — like those today — were sparked by African Americans’ deep distrust of the police. The issue of police violence remains urgent today: The excruciating video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck is a reminder of the grim continuity of racial injustice and policing in the United States, this time circulating worldwide instantaneously online rather than appearing, as did news of most racist incidents 50 years ago, in the pages of African American weekly publications with smaller, primarily local audiences.
The images of police violence, both then and now, found a receptive audience because they were the most visible manifestation of pervasive racial inequality in every major institution in American life — schools, housing, health care and workplaces. Although there has been progress in race relations in the United States, largely as a result of victories of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s, African Americans are still at the bottom of the economic ladder today. In 2020, blacks have only about a tenth of the household wealth of whites, face disproportionately high unemployment rates and have been hit harder than any other group by covid-19.
Protest fills a vacuum left by the abdication of political leadership. Black protesters and rebels in the 1960s took to the pavement to express their fury at local governments for ignoring their needs. They lamented that civil rights laws seemed to accomplish little more than token change; they reviled urban renewal for bulldozing black neighborhoods; and they saw the federal government as moving too slowly and too late.
Likewise, in 2020, the Floyd protests have grown out of resentment at city governments whose policies favor upscale real estate development over community redevelopment and have yet to solve the problems of overpriced housing and underfunded schools. They point their fingers toward a White House that seems bent on fomenting racial divisions for President Trump’s political goals.
But if the 2020 protests share much in common with their 1960s predecessors, they also differ in important ways.
The crowds in our big cities today are far more racially diverse today than they were 52 years ago. In some suburbs and small towns, from Bellingham, Wash., to Bloomington, Ind., they are overwhelmingly white. Yes, some demonstrations for racial justice in the 1960s were interracial — but when it came to civil rights, African Americans often protested with only modest white support, if any at all. The advent of rioting — led by black rebels, overwhelmingly centered in segregated African American neighborhoods — reflected the harsh racial realities of the time. America was, in the words of the Kerner Commission (empaneled by the Johnson administration in 1967 to explore the causes of urban unrest) two nations, one black, one white, separate and unequal, especially when it came to housing and education.
Despite reports of white looters in some cities then, most civil disorder was led by African Americans. In the ‘60s, looting and burning happened in black neighborhoods. “Mom and pop” businesses, including black-owned stores in many cities, were targets, not department stores, luxury chains and shopping malls. With few exceptions, ‘60s urban rebels stayed away from businesses with a predominantly white clientele. Looting, vandalism and arson wiped out whole blocks of retail in places like North Philadelphia, Harlem, Watts in Los Angeles, Chicago’s West Side and Detroit’s Twelfth Street, leaving nearby white areas untouched.
In 2020, by contrast, angry crowds in New York shattered windows in wealthy Soho, pillaged chain stores in Union Square and even hit the iconic Macy’s flagship. In Philadelphia, the first wave of unrest swept through the upscale shops and chains near Rittenhouse Square, before spreading to more working-class blocks in West Philadelphia and other outlying neighborhoods. In Los Angeles, protesters mostly avoided places like Watts and turned their anger on places like Rodeo Drive and the Grove shopping mall.
Why are today’s uprisings more interracial and more decentralized? Why have the targets changed? We are seeing a new, hybrid form of protest emerging in places that are responding to two interconnected realities in urban American today: racial injustice that falls especially hard on African Americans, and deep economic insecurities that affect blacks along with a far wider swath of the population, including the young whites who have joined protests in huge numbers.
The 1960s protests happened at a moment of great economic prosperity that conspicuously left a growing segment of the black population on the sidelines. The 2020 protests, by contrast, are playing out in the context of a massive economic collapse that is affecting people of color particularly harshly (half of all working-age African Americans are unemployed today) but hitting everyone hard. The diversity of this year’s protests points to the reality that during a deep recession, in the midst of a pandemic, everyone is a potential agitator.
And the protests of 2020, while they echo those of the 1960s, have also been influenced by a new wave of protests over the last few decades. Just as important to today’s generation are more recent demonstrations against police violence and global capitalism, at home and abroad. Many of those on the streets around the United States came of age during or after the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests. They watched images of the massive demonstrations over the next several years against austerity in Madrid, economic insecurity in Sao Paulo, gentrification in London and an unpopular government in Paris. They came of age in the shadow of the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and the large Black Lives Matter protests in 2014 and 2015.
That explains why the protesters in Philadelphia who shouted “no justice, no peace,” the demonstrators in Minneapolis who prayed at the site of George Floyd’s murder, and activists who lit police cars on fire in Union Square and Brooklyn were followed by others who shattered the windows of Urban Outfitters, Target and even Coach, which to many protesters symbolize a racially unequal economy.
In the 1960s, protests tended to be siloed by race. Many white antiwar activists supported racial equality in principle, but decided to focus on Vietnam instead. African Americans had good reasons to be opposed to the war, but as historian Simon Hall shows, they weren’t always made welcome on white campuses and at white-led marches. Many black power advocates and rioters were impatient with the glacially slow progress toward racial equality and suspicious of paternalistic whites. They demanded self-determination. And the divisions were worsened by the fact that a majority of whites believed that King and the civil rights movement were pushing too far, too fast, and that both nonviolent protests and urban uprisings represented a failure in law and order. In that climate, it was easy to for politicians like Nixon to demonize protesters and demand police crackdowns.
But in 2020, the diversity of the protests, their spread nationwide and the sheer numbers on the streets have changed the equation. While Trump and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have attempted to stoke the flames of law and order politics, majorities of Americans surveyed have expressed some sympathy for the protests and their goals. Those sentiments are now shaping discussions of policing locally and nationally, from the proposed restructuring of the Minneapolis police force to the “Justice in Policing Act,” introduced in the U.S. House, that would outlaw dangerous police practices such as chokeholds and no-knock searches nationwide.
The uprisings of the 1960s ended with some modest gains, including community redevelopment programs in some cities; the growing representation of African Americans in government employment, including the police; and growing black political representation. But the post-riot years also saw the dramatic militarization of law enforcement, an attack on social welfare, the war on drugs and a dramatic increase in the imprisonment of black men.
Whether we follow a similar path in 2020 remains an open question, to be settled in city halls and in this November’s elections. And what demands the protesters raise next, what happens when the next George Floyd is killed, what happens if unemployment remains high and what happens if the White House continues to stoke the fires of division all remain to be seen.
We will have to wait for the lessons of 2020 — rather than extrapolate from what happened a half-century ago.