Peter B. Levy. The Great Uprising: Race Riots in Urban America during the 1960s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 344 pp. $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-108-43403-4.
Reviewed by Christopher A. Huff (Beacon College)
Published on H-1960s (March, 2019)
Commissioned by Zachary J. Lechner (Centenary College of Louisiana)
In The Great Uprising, Peter Levy aims to broaden our understanding of the post-World War II African American freedom struggle by examining two of its interconnected but often separately studied components—the traditional civil rights movement and the wave of race-based conflict that occurred in American cities during the 1960s and early 1970s. Through a study of three cities—Cambridge, Maryland, Baltimore, and York, Pennsylvania—Levy argues that the conflicts that occurred there constitute part of a "great uprising" of African Americans against entrenched, systemic racism and prejudice.
According to Levy, the more than 750 urban revolts that occurred in approximately 525 American cities between 1963 and 1972 should be considered as "one of the central developments of modern American history" (p. 1). These conflicts pointed out the shortcomings of the civil rights movement and the failure of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act to resolve the African American freedom struggle. Historians generally agree with this assessment. Levy moves the discussion forward, however, by challenging us to rethink this moment in history in terms of both time and place.
Levy's study contributes to a growing body of work that questions the traditional chronology of the African American freedom struggle, in which violence defined the late 1960s but only after the earlier "heroic" phase had reached its conclusion. Instead, as Levy explains, violent confrontations increased as the southern phase of the civil rights movement moved toward its conclusion in the middle of the decade.
Levy's comparative approach also helps scholars broaden their gaze when looking at racial conflict during the civil rights era. As he correctly points out, too often, the uprisings in Newark, New Jersey, Detroit, and the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles serve as the sole points of discussion when examining the era's racial violence. This restricted view has encouraged Americans then and now to consider racial issues as generally limited to large urban centers that contained ghettoized minority populations. Levy's study challenges this conclusion by exploring racial violence in cities not just smaller in size than Los Angeles or Detroit, but which also possessed demographics in which the African American population varied in both numbers and political influence. By implying that racial violence had the potential to break out in almost any community during the 1960s and 1970s, Levy lays the foundation for reassessing the cause of the Great Uprising.
Many Americans in the 1960s considered urban uprisings as little more than spontaneous outbursts of violence that had few goals beyond arson and looting and which, ultimately, led to white backlash against African Americans. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission and formed by President Johnson in 1967, partially corrected this misconception by showing that, while still spontaneous, these conflicts had deep roots in the social and economic conditions experienced by African Americans over decades of life in American cities. This conclusion, which got closer to the core issues, still presented problems. Most notably, it placed primary blame for violence at the feet of African Americans and, by focusing on long-term causation, let white Americans off the hook for their role in stirring up violence.
In the most significant contribution of his study, Levy reveals the weaknesses of these conclusions. In his exploration of events in Cambridge, Maryland, he demonstrates how the Kerner Commission avoided including the city in its final report in part because "it recognized that Cambridge's revolts did not fit neatly with its depiction of what riots were and why they were taking place" (p. 105). In fact, the commission's field report about Cambridge possessed "a bevy of extremely disparaging information" about the bigotry of the city's white elite and "suggested that whites, including local authorities, had precipitated the violence and allowed the fire to burn out of control" (p. 106). For Levy, the failure of the Kerner Commission to include this information "suggests that both liberals and conservatives prioritized silencing black radicals over maintaining rule of law" (p.106). The main radical under scrutiny in Cambridge was Black Panther leader H. Rap Brown, who had made an appearance in the city immediately before violence erupted in July 1967. Levy concludes that the State of Maryland's efforts to hold Brown responsible for the violence in Cambridge acted as a means of placing blame on African Americans while allowing white officials to avoid recognizing their own culpability for what had occurred.
Levy's study also challenges the traditional narrative of urban conflict by exploring how African Americans, far from being the cause of violence, actually often helped prevent it. In his discussion of the 1968 uprising in Baltimore, Levy dissects the role played by local civil rights organizations in the Cherry Hill neighborhood in preventing violence from breaking out during the April 1968 uprising following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The riots of 1968, in Levy's analysis, mark a tipping point for race relations in the United States. The efforts of white politicians, like Maryland governor Spiro Agnew, to blame African American radicals for urban violence largely succeeded, as a majority of white Americans by 1968 considered blacks responsible for their social and economic condition. The support of white Americans for civil rights waned as the nation became increasingly radicalized and conservative politicians called for a return to law and order. But, for many African American activists, the urban conflicts of late 1960s did not signal the end of the freedom struggle, but rather the transition to a phase characterized by a more decentralized, but still committed, movement for social and economic change.
The Great Uprising makes an important contribution to the growing body of work that challenges traditional narratives of the civil rights movement. Through his comparison of three urban areas of various size and demographic make-up, Levy convincingly argues that, far from disconnected and spontaneous, the hundreds of urban revolts that occurred during the 1960s and early 1970s should be seen as a key part of the civil rights movement. More importantly, Levy's argument that a good deal of the blame for what happened and why during the Great Uprising should be placed squarely on the shoulders of white leaders is a point that needs emphasizing in a nation that still routinely views African Americans as the cause of racial violence.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-1960s.
Christopher A. Huff. Review of Levy, Peter B., The Great Uprising: Race Riots in Urban America during the 1960s.
H-1960s, H-Net Reviews.
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