The radicalism of the mid- to late 1960s reflected a growing acceptance of militancy in blacks. Leaders like Robert F. Williams, Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, and Stokely Carmichael called for self-defense initiatives and economic self-help for the black urban poor.
These endeavors reflected, perhaps, the notion that the civil rights movement had benefited the African American middle-class but had done little to improve the condition of the black masses. This circumstance was compounded by specific sociological phenomena that convulsed black communities around the country. One of the most significant responses to successful civil rights legislation and court rulings by whites was urban flight. As the doctrine of social integration became more of a reality in the United States, white Americans began leaving major cities and created exclusive all-white suburbs. In the wake of this considerable white flight, jobs, services, and tax funding for local schools disappeared. In addition, banks, grocery stores, and restaurants left inner city neighborhoods and relocated to the expanding white suburbs. This reshaping of the urban-suburban landscape across the country created what can be called the Doughnut Effect-essentially, once prosperous cities became impoverished, mostly black cores surrounded by affluent white suburban peripheries.
Thus, the ”black ghetto” was created. As high school dropout rates, unemployment, underemployment, crime, and drug use began to soar in inner-city ghettos, the hope that once provided impetus for the civil rights movement began to fade. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the last year of his life, sought to reorient the movement to deal with the growing problem of poverty in the United States. His ”Poor People’s Campaign” was short-lived, and no relief for the spreading problem of urban poverty seemed to be in sight. Combined with worsening economic conditions in black inner cities, police brutality became a growing issue. In addition to alleged beatings, a number of unarmed black men had been killed by white police officers in incidents that were later deemed justifiable homicides. Without hope, lacking any support from federal, state, or local government institutions, black urbanites created their own solution to the enormous problems they faced-urban rebellions. Beginning with the 1965 Watts riot in Los Angeles and continuing into the twenty-first century with the 2001 Cincinnati riot, a new pattern of racial strife emerged. In more than three dozen cases-including examples in Detroit, Michigan (1967); Augusta, Georgia (1970); Miami (1980) and Tampa, Florida (1987); Los Angeles, California (1992); and Cincinnati, Ohio (2001)-race riots or urban rebellions began in impoverished black communities typically after instances of police brutality.
The only exception to this rule was the 1992 Los Angeles riot, which was sparked after three white police officers were initially found not guilty of various charges in relation to the videotaped beating of an African American, Rodney King. The ensuing riot was linked more to the perception of injustice by an all white jury than to the actual beating, which occurred several months prior to the controversial ruling. In every case, however, black urban residents looted and burned businesses owned by non-blacks who reportedly had long histories of either not hiring African Americans or of treating black customers with disrespect. In addition, white motorists were attacked and white police officers and firefighters became targets of black rage.
It was in the aftermath of the 1967 urban rebellions in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan, that President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, headed by Gov. Otto Kerner of Illinois. In their final report, published in 1968, the eight-member commission concluded as follows:
There was, typically, a complex relationship between the series of incidents and the underlying grievances. For example, grievances about allegedly abusive police practices, unemployment and underemployment, housing, and other conditions in the ghetto, were often aggravated in the minds of many Negroes by incidents involving the police, or the inaction of municipal authorities on Negro complaints about police action, unemployment, inadequate housing or other conditions.
In the estimation of the Kerner Commission, poverty, more than anything else, created the necessary conditions for the twenty-three urban riots that occurred between 1964 and 1967. In addition to poverty, the Kerner Commission cited white racism as a cause of urban rioting, noting that the United States was ”moving toward two societies, one black, one white-separate and unequal.” In fully implicating white Americans in the creation of black ghettos, the Kerner Commission created a long list of recommendations for government reform to address these issues. Although the Johnson administration did not enact any of the specific recommendations of the Kerner Commission, the concerns the report raised became a linchpin in Johnson’s ”War on Poverty” and his goal to create ”the Great Society.”