Ferguson and the history of riots and protest
by Travis Atria
What I have to say is for White people, like me. After researching and writing a book about soul music during the Civil Rights era, I learned much about our country’s racial history. Since many of my White friends are confused by what’s going on in Ferguson, Missouri—and since I can’t speak for non-White people—I’d like to share what I learned with them in particular.
Specifically, let’s talk riots. The kind that are breaking out in pockets across Ferguson after a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed, Black teenager. From what I can tell, White people don’t understand riots or police brutality. I believe it’s because we are generally unaware of the conditions that cause them, and schools—at least the ones I went to—do a criminally awful job of explaining those conditions.
All of this starts, rather obviously, with slavery. It is our original sin, and as the Bible says, the child will pay for the father’s sins. But for our purposes, let’s start after the Civil War. Since the end of slavery, race riots have been commonplace, but until the 1940s, they were mostly White-on-Black affairs. To get a sense what those riots looked like, consider Eugene Williams, a Black teenager who, in 1919, swam across an invisible line of demarcation separating the White beach from the Negro beach in Lake Michigan. White beachgoers stoned him until he drowned. For the next thirteen days, Whites deluged Blacks in Chicago with a tidal wave of violence, murder, and destruction. Roving gangs patrolled the streets looking for buildings to burn and Blacks to kill. The National Guard had to be called to stop them.
In the South, riots often took the form of lynch mobs, which were busy between the end of slavery and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1900, for instance, 106 Blacks were lynched in America—that’s roughly two lynchings per week for an entire year. These scenes were gruesome. Sometimes, they’d castrate the hanging man and put his genitals in his mouth. Sometimes, they’d leave the body strung up for days as a warning. Sometimes, the corpse swung in the Southern breeze until stray dogs nipped the flesh away. Law enforcement not only refused to investigate or prosecute lynchings, they often took part in them.
In 1943, a riot in Detroit changed everything. According to Great Migration historian, Isabel Wilkerson, “This was the first major riot in which Blacks fought back as earnestly as the Whites and in which Black residents, having become established in the city but still relegated to rundown ghettos, began attacking and looting perceived symbols of exploitation.” After that, race riots took the form we now know.
Before we get to that, a word about the Great Migration, which is really the genesis of these riots. Around World War I, Blacks began leaving the South in mass numbers. Thank the transcontinental railway for that. They ended up bunching in major northern cities where the trains stopped—places like Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and New York. When they arrived, no “decent” White person would have them in his or her neighborhood. Take Cicero—a suburb of Chicago—for instance. When a Black family tried to move there in 1951, a mob threw the family’s furniture out of a third-floor window, destroyed their possessions and their apartment, piled everything on the grass outside, and set it on fire. Not satisfied, they firebombed the entire building. Then they rioted for a few more days until the National Guard came to stop it.
These occurrences were rather ordinary. As a result, Blacks were shunted into ghettos. Many couldn’t afford anything else, so the government began building housing projects to hold the millions of migrants flooding these big cities. However, even if a Black could afford better housing, the North had de facto segregation, which still exists in some form or other. De facto segregation took many forms. For instance, realtors often had unwritten agreements not to sell houses to Blacks. Look up the terms “redlining” and “blockbusting.” Your stomach will turn.
De facto segregation also barred Blacks from White schools and decent jobs. As a result, the only work available for many was doing the most dangerous jobs for the longest hours and lowest pay. For instance, a Pullman porter in the early 1900s had to work more than ten hours a day, seven days a week, on a train to earn a month’s salary.
Perhaps now you can see the picture emerging. Barred from decent education, jobs, bank loans, and property ownership—i.e. the American Dream, aka the only means of upward mobility—Blacks festered in ghettos. These conditions bred poverty, and poverty bred hunger, and hunger bred anger. Add to that the constant threat of police brutality, which was and is a very real extension of institutional racism, and it was only a matter of time before the anger boiled over.
Fast-forward a bit to Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It looked great on paper, but it did little to change attitudes, and it hardly touched de facto segregation because that wasn’t codified the way Jim Crow was. Then, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, which, again, looked great on paper, but changed very little about real life, in which Blacks suffered exponentially higher rates of joblessness and poverty than White Americans. In fact, they still do. A recent New York Times article showed that the current wealth gap between Whites and Blacks in America is greater than it was in Apartheid-era South Africa.
Now take a trip to Watts, a Black neighborhood in Los Angeles. In 1965, an instance of police brutality set off a riot that lasted six days. That was just the beginning. Over the next four years, riots tore through Chicago, Atlanta, Newark, Cleveland, and on, and on. It got worse after April 4, 1968, the day of King’s assassination. Since then, police brutality has remained a fact of American life, as have riots in response, and the ultimate exoneration of the officers involved—look at Rodney King.
Now, back to Ferguson. The main area where so many of my fellow White people seem to be confused is context. I see too many people treating Ferguson as a one-off—a thing that only exists in the present. To understand it, you must understand the past, the thousands of times this same story has played out in eerily similar ways. To do that, to educate yourself, is to take a step toward empathizing with fellow Americans who have been pushed to the point where they must burn, and smash, and tear apart their own communities because of a pressure that White Americans, myself included, cannot understand. Keep in mind, most protests were peaceful, too.
None of this will fix the problems, but it is a step. Because Ferguson will happen again, just as another hurricane will someday hit Florida. The only difference is that another Ferguson doesn’t have to happen, but we need to talk about more than race to stop it. We need to talk about class and the distribution of wealth—topics that cause too many people’s ears to shut and mouths to fill with cries of socialism, rendering sober discussion impossible. Perhaps understanding history can help break this chain.
Perhaps, finally, we can stop paying for our fathers’ sins.
Travis Atria has written features for Wax Poetics including Smokey Robinson, KRS-One, Erykah Badu, Bobby Womack, Lamont Dozier, Solomon Burke, Billy Cox, Nas, Janelle Monae, and Swamp Dogg.
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