Tears of America: The Riots of 1968

U.S. National Archives

An exploration into the riots of 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This exhibit concentrates on six major cities that were devastated by civil unrest in the days and weeks following Dr. King's death. These cities are Baltimore (Maryland), Boston (Massachusetts), Cleveland (Ohio), Detroit (Michigan), Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), and Washington D.C. (the nation's capital). Within each photograph from these cities lies a story of tragedy and the loss of pride behind the destruction of America's vibrant neighborhoods within the African American community. These photos were taken a year or more after the uprisings, as part of documentation by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Known from its history and reputation as mob city, Baltimore has experienced riots regarding race issues and civil rights before. In April of 1968, however, the city was thrown into chaos as black citizens of Baltimore took to the streets in rage and pain after hearing about the assassination of Dr. King. Like most cities at the time, Baltimore residents experienced not only the pain and loss of a great leader, but they also experienced the loss of their homes, as well as many small businesses and private institutions once owned by African Americans. Initially, the rioters were only targeting white owned businesses, but in the midst of the violence a few black owned businesses were also destroyed with stones, fires, bombs and looting mobs. On April 9th, the Baltimore riots were over and the city eventually became calm, despite the ruined buildings and smell of smoke that forced business owners to flee the city.
The day after the assassination, James Brown held a performance on April 5 at the Boston Garden that was also broadcast on local television which helped quell the city from spiraling out of control. However, many Bostonian residents had already let loose their anger on the city on the day Dr. King was assassinated. April 4th was a chaotic day for Boston as African American civilians flooded the streets, attacking local businesses, looting stores, bashing windows and cars as well as setting buildings on fire. On the outside, it seemed as if the city would go up in flames, but to many citizens within the black community the riots marked the complete end of King’s non-violent method of protest as black militants called the outbreaks uprisings - not pure riots. While many African Americans understood the frustration and anger on Dr. King's death, there were also frustrations on the racial issues occurring in Boston within the areas of school segregation, unemployment, poverty, and police brutality. Yet, there was division among black citizens on whether to justify the rioters' action as revenge against racism and white supremacy or simple criminality exploiting one of the darkest moments within American history. In either case, the Boston Uprising of 1968 caused considerable damage to the city.
Although there was no direct action of riots in April, Cleveland did experience civil unrest about three months later. On July 23rd, 1968, a violent shootout between Cleveland police and the Black Nationalists of New Libya in Glenville spiraled into chaos that lasted for five days. The civil unrest in Glenville lasted from July 24th to July 28th. The city lost 63 businesses during the riot and millions of dollars in property value had vanished within those few treacherous days. The shootout in Glenville and the Cleveland riots of 1968 left an impression of the growing atmosphere that was changing America in the wake of Dr. King’s death. 
The riots in Detroit erupted in the same ways as other cities had spiraled into chaos. From April 4th to the 5th, the city's public buildings and private businesses were destroyed due to looting, ransacking, and arson as African Americans of Virginia Park expressed their pain, anger and rage. The Detroit riots of 1968 may be considered a continuation of the riot of 1967. In addition the Dr. King's assassination in 1968, the issues of civil rights, employment discrimination, poverty, racial profiling and police brutality lay at the center of both riots. The reason for the eruption of violence is the feeling of loss African Americans felt surrounding Dr. King's death. There is also a common belief that Black Power advocates (BPA) and Black militants (BM) who looked upon Dr. King's assassination and death as a sign of betrayal from the US government allowing the enemies of this steadfast and peaceful leader to destroy him. For these two groups, the BPAs and the BMs had some manor of respect toward Dr. King in regards to his goals to help African Americans achieve the American Dream, even if these same groups criticized his non-violent tactics. From these images, the riots of Detroit in 1968 would have been considered an act of war against those who murdered a man of peace.
Like Baltimore, Pittsburgh has experienced riots before, and just like most of the cities during the late 1960s, Pittsburgh fell victim to the rage and frustrations of the 1968 riots. Most of the rioting occurred in the historically African American neighborhood Hill District.  For seven days, beginning on April 5th, Pittsburgh residents rioted for reasons such as segregation in public schools, lack of job opportunities, and pay inequality. Most of the unrest was brought to an end by the National Guard and the city was restored to order by April 12th. Like all the riots across America that year, Pittsburgh was left with approximately $600,000 in damages caused by an estimated 500 fires.
Washington, D.C.
These final photographs are focusing on the damages inflicted in Washington, D.C. starting on April 4th 1968. For four days, the nation's capital was covered with the sight and smell of smoke as rioters set fires throughout the city streets. Like all the American cities at the time, African Americans faced numerous challenges in Washington, D.C. regarding civil rights, inadequate living conditions, unemployment and racial tensions. After news of the assassination was heard, civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael and others took to the streets. At some point the first stone was thrown and the looting, vandalism, and arson began. By April 8th, order had been restored back to the city with the assistance of the National Guard. After the riots concluded, the damage had been done to such an extent that it took decades for parts of the city to fully recover from those dark days in April of 1968.
Credits: Story

Presented: by the National Archives Records and Administration. July 25, 2018.

Exhibit Created: by Gregory I. Foster,Intern for the African American Effinity Group, Say It Loud!; Textual Processing Division at the National Archives Records and Administration.

Supervisors: Gabrielle Downer and Netisha Currie, Say It Loud! Textual and Processing Division at the National Archives Records and Administration.

These Photographs are from RG 207 General Records from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, series Photographs Relating to Housing Used in the Optical Disk Project, 1992-1995(NAID 535506).

Credits: All media
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