Two of the nation’s deadliest riots exploded 50 years ago–in July 1967, within two weeks of each other.

Image from Newark riots. Started July 11, 1967. Photo by Don Hogan Charles for the New York Times

July 11th 1967, The Newark Riots blew up on an early Sunday morning, after a cab driver was brutally beaten by Newark police. After four days of rioting, looting, and destruction, 26 were dead and hundreds injured.

On July 23rd, 1967, Detroit erupted in a riot triggered by a police raid of an unlicensed after-hours bar, where 82 African Americans were celebrating the return of two local GIs from the Vietnam War. In the end 43 were killed, 1,189 injured, 200 arrests and more than 2000 buildings destroyed.

Chicago is no stranger to riots and neither am I.

I lived in West Garfield Park during the August 1965 riot, overshadowed by the much more violent Watts riots in Los Angeles, exploding at the same time.

West Garfield Park was my community during my formative years, from birth to age seventeen. It’s where my family had a presence beginning in 1912, when my grandparents settled there, until 1995, when I sold my childhood home after my mom’s death.

My parents still owned and personally cared for three small apartment buildings in West Garfield Park during the riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. That 50th anniversary will be coming up next April 4th.

So I prefer to write about the community of my youth. You can google dozens of article and analyses of the Newark and Detroit riots of July 1967.

I’ll save commentary on the 1968 riots for another post – but both 1965 and

Redlined: To be published by She Writes Press: April 3, 2018

1968 uprisings figure prominently in my book: Redlined: A Memoir of Race, Change, and Fractured Community in 1960s Chicago.

For the 50th anniversary of the 1965 riots, August 12, 2015, I wrote an article for The Chicago Tribune Flashback feature, “Fatal firetruck accident sparked riot in 1965.”

One of the most telling quotes in that story is this one by Sheila Radford Hill, who was a high school sophomore at Garfield Park’s Providence St. Mel High School and is now the chief diversity officer at Dominican University in River Forest.

Speaking of the fire and police departments at the time, she said, “The services that you would think, as a white person, would be there for you were against you as a black person.” That pretty much sums up the experience of every black person back in the 1960s, and is still the experience of far too many blacks today.

As a white person, it never occurred to me to be fearful of police or fire fighters. But it also never occurred to me or my parents that blacks, just because they were black, couldn’t get a mortgage to buy a home! It was basically written into law: The FHA colluded with banks to systematically deny home loans to blacks. An investor couldn’t get financing for a project to develop scores of houses – if even one black lived in them.

For an in-depth view of this policy read: The Color of Law, A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein. Here’s a recent NPR interview with the author.

You should be feverish with rage after reading about the government-sponsored injustice described in that book. And then you can ponder that injustice of redlining piled on top of one travesty after another, and think about the “last straw:”

  • a black cab driver beaten to a pulp for a broken tail-light – and you get Newark;
  • black revelers celebrating a Vietnam Vet’s homecoming-all placed under arrest;
  • A despised all-white fire department’s mistake causes the death of a young black woman in West Garfield Park. Even though it was an accident, the all-white fire fighters at the Firehouse at Wilcox and Pulaski had mis-served, underserved, and downright hurt the black community for years.

How would you react if, for years and decades, you felt that you couldn’t trust– or had to fear — the people in government services, from police, to fire fighters, to the FHA? What would be your “last straw?”