RACE RIOTS Contrary to popular impression, race riots in the United States have occurred throughout the greater portion of American history and do not represent a phenomenon of relatively recent origin. During the thirty-year period preceding the Civil War, for example, race riots (in the form of what were called "nigger hunts" or "coon hunts") were especially common throughout the United States. Bands of whites would "invade" black settlements or black sections of cities to plunder, kill and rape without the slightest provocation. The Cincinnati, Ohio riot of 1829, for example, drove at least a thousand frightened blacks from their homes to escape white violence.
Immediately following the Civil War, racial riots were frequent occurrences. The Memphis, Tennessee riot of 1866 was typical. According to the New York Times, a white mob entered the "colored" district and "commenced firing upon every Negro who made himself visible. One Negro on South Street, a quiet, inoffensive laborer, was shot down almost in front of his own cabin, and after life was extinct his body was fired into, cut and beat in a most horrible manner." The Memphis riot left fifteen blacks dead, with the Times reporting that "not a white man was fired upon by a Negro."
Many of the most violent racial riots in American history took place during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Beginning with the New Orleans riot of 1900, racial confrontations followed in Springfield, Ohio (1904 and 1906), Atlanta, Georgia (1906), Springfield, Illinois (1908) and East St. Louis, Illinois (1917). The East St. Louis riot was of particular significance in that forty-four blacks were killed, many of whom died when they were blockaded and burned alive in their houses. Property damage was estimated at a half million dollars, while nearly six thousand blacks were driven from their homes. Similar to the early riots and "nigger hunts," the East St. Louis incident was provoked by whites against blacks. In fact, with but few exceptions, racial rioting prior to the 1960's was characterized by whites entering black districts with the intent of creating havoc and destruction.
On the other hand, the more familiar race riots during the 1960's were precipitated by blacks in their own communities and did not represent attempts to "invade" white districts to provoke racial disturbances. The first of the major contemporary race riots took place in 1965 in Watts, the black section of Los Angeles, California. Lasting five days, the Watts riot ended with thirty four dead, more than one-thousand injured, some four thousand arrests and estimated property damage of $40 million. Nearby 10,000 black rioters took to the streets, fighting against a force of more than 15,000 police and National Guardsmen in Watts. A similar riot occurred in 1966 in Cleveland, Ohio, while the Newark, New Jersey riot and the Detroit, Michigan riot followed in 1967. The Newark and Detroit uprisings were especially violent, resulting in a total of sixty-nine deaths, over three-thousand injuries and well over $500 million in property damage. Then, following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, thousands upon thousands of urban blacks took to the streets throughout the United States in what seemed to many as a prelude to an all-out race war. Although such a war did not materialize, the conditions which caused the recent ghetto rioting have persisted.
As the Kerner Commission Report stated in 1968, police harassment and brutality, inadequate housing, unemployment, inferior educational opportunities and an all-pervasive pattern of white racism which permits and even encourages the continuance of ghetto conditions are among the underlying causes of black urban rioting. See also: GHETTO and KERNER REPORT.