How the Ferguson Protest Has Its Roots in the Racial Unrest of the 1960s

Recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri have highlighted once again that the USA’s racially tempestuous history is still shaping communities.

This latest unrest resembles the race riots that rocked northern cities in the 1960s. For example those in Philadelphia, Harlem and Rochester in 1964 were all in the response to the police beating or killing a black citizen. It is a template for many modern racial confrontations – frustrated black communities turn on a police force that they consider prejudiced and oppressive.

Harlem_riot_1964

Before the rise of the civil rights movement racist violence usually involved mobs of white citizens forming militias spontaneously and attacking blacks, often with the complicity but not sole active participation of the police.

The transition between the that form of violence in the early 20th century and that seen in the 1960s can be explained by a single trend –  the police gradually became a proxy for racially conservative white communities. As vigilante activity was restricted through tighter laws and external political pressure, the police, drawing almost exclusively from the white community were charged with defending the whites from the ‘black enemy.’

In the 1960s, in response to black activism, police in racially divided communities began to fully adopt a front-line, war-like mentality. They were responsible for opposing a supposed threat to the existing social order. Perhaps the most notorious instance of this mentality in action was in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. The thuggish Police Commissioner Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, a publicity seeking racist, ordered high-intensity fire hoses and police dogs turned on a crowd of peaceful civil rights protesters, many of whom were children.

Scenes of this violence were broadcast globally and were generally met with horror within the USA. However, attitudes morphed as the civil rights movement migrated north and concomitantly adopted a more militant tone. Frustration at slow progress on civil rights, and the especially desperate situation for many blacks in the northern ghettos, manifest in extensive and alarming rioting and looting.

As race riots rocked major northern centres the matter became one of social order. Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968, and the fact that George Wallace won 10% of the popular vote running as an independent, suggest that Americans favoured a return to conservative values.

Soon therefore northern police were adopting the front-line approach of their southern comrades, interpreting black unrest as a threat to social order that must be contained. Combined with the war on crime under Nixon this mutated into the policy of targeting policing which is the bane of black communities today.

It is this general historical trend that has perpetuated a brand of protest that one sees in Ferguson today. A mutual suspicion between black and white communities has been created by the culmination of several processes.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.