Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Peter B. Levy's "The Great Uprising"

Peter B. Levy is a Professor of History at York College, York, PA.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Great Uprising: Race Riots in Urban America during the 1960s, and reported the following:
How did Americans respond to the Great Uprising of the 1960s, the term I use in my recently published book by the same name to describe the race riots of the 1960s? Why were they taking place and how should (and did) the nation respond? To answer these questions, I examine three demographically distinct communities, Cambridge Maryland, a small town of 10,000 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Baltimore, Maryland, one of the nation’s largest industrial cities during the 1960s, and York, Pennsylvania, a mid-sized city whose riot received little attention until 2001 when its two-term mayor, Charlie Robertson, was arrested for allegedly helping to murder a black woman during its 1969 revolt—he was a city policeman at the time.

As I suggest on page 99, Americans were not of one mind when it came to answering the aforementioned questions. “Statements made by a wide variety of officials, from Cambridge Police Chief Brice Kinnamon to Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew, reinforced by sensational media coverage, which highlighted the fiery rhetoric of black radicals like H. Rap Brown … [emphasized] that radicals had caused the revolts and that those who had rioted had done so for fun and profit, not political reasons (p. 99).” In contrast, the Kerner Commission concluded that the “social and economic conditions of the nation’s urban ghettos, not radicals and/or moral failings on the part of blacks (p. 99)” had caused the riots. “Or as the Commission declared in its oft-cited summation of its five hundred plus page report, ‘What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it (pp. 99-100).”

Even though it was a bi-partisan commission and based its findings on the work of hundreds of highly-trained social scientists and the testimony of hundreds more, most Americans, including President Johnson, rejected these claims. As I write on page 99, public polls revealed that “45 percent of whites blamed outside agitators for the nation’s urban unrest, whereas less than one-third … saw either ghetto conditions or ‘promises not kept’ as the cause … [and] 71 percent of whites believed that the riots were ‘part of an organized effort,’ not ‘spontaneous eruptions (p. 99).’” In other words, conservatives won the debate over what had caused the revolts and, in turn, determined that the nation would not respond with renewed efforts to combat the ills of the ghettos, as recommended by the Kerner Commission, but instead favored a “law and order” strategy which prioritized cracking down on radicals and those Agnew and other deemed culpable of enabling them. By re-examining the riots of the 1960s, including the greatest wave of social unrest in modern history, which took place fifty years ago following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, The Great Uprising seeks to enhance our understanding of the causes of the revolts themselves and the nation’s response.
Visit Peter. B. Levy's website.

--Marshal Zeringue