A Brief History of Race Riots in America

On May 25, 2020, an African-American man named George Floyd died at the unjustified use of excessive physical force by 4 police officers: Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, and J.A. Kueng (seen kneeling on George for nearly nine minutes) and Tou Thao (officer on the scene). On Thursday, May 28, 2020, the news went viral and the Minneapolis Third Precinct was set ablaze by protesters. The next day, Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The other 3 officers have been fired but have not received charges yet, despite the family’s wishes and protesters’ demands. To review where the officers went wrong, please review the Minneapolis PD Policy & Procedure Manual; I recommend starting with Volume Five: Code of Conduct and Use of Force.

In the last seven days, I’ve been presented with an overwhelming amount of information regarding the riots/events related to George Floyd’s death and it’s breaking my heart every day to see my people being violated on so many levels… [TRIGGER WARNING] From a grandmother who was shot in the face with rubber bullets in San Diego, a man tear gassed in his car with his pregnant wife in Denver, and right here in Brooklyn where Assembly Woman, Diana Richardson was pepper sprayed in the face – she had this to say: “This is uncalled for. I would never come out here to be in a position like this. I’m actually out here to assure the peace is [kept]”… I don’t know how much more I can take of this violence against my people. To everyone reading this, I want to remind you to stay strong. It’s going to get worse before it can get better “And even though you’re fed up, you got to keep your head up” 

In this blog, I want to share a brief history of race riots in America. Most of these riots were started by White Americans against African Americans, in an effort to remove black people from their neighborhoods, destroy their land and property, and violate their rights to freedom. I will also be addressing some of our historically worthy protests and riots where we fight back for the unjust crimes committed against us by fellow civilians and government entities. Here is the list:

Wilmington Massacre, North Carolina (1898)

As a result of Mississippi’s new constitution in 1890, raising barriers to voter registration, a coup d’etat formed from the state’s white Southern Democrats. On November 10, 1898, they led a mob of 2,000 white men to the local Fusionist government where they violently overthrew black and white political officials from the city, destroyed the property and businesses of black citizens built up since the Civil War, including the only black newspaper in the city (The Daily Record), and killed more than 300 people. This white supremacist group used acts of political terrorism to take the law into their own hands and violated the legal citizenship, individual rights, and equal protection under the law that blacks were guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

Atlanta Race Riots, Georgia (1906)

In September 1906, the local newspapers reported four separate stories of African American men assaulting white women. However, none of the reports led to substantial evidence.

From September 22nd – September 24th, an attack was led by armed mobs of white Americans (included civilians, Georgia National Guard and Fulton County Police) against African Americans. Blacks were hung from lamp posts, shot, beaten, and stabbed to death, pulled from their cars, and attacked in the street. The white mobs invaded the black neighborhoods, destroying their homes and businesses. The final death toll estimates that 100 African Americans and 2 white Americans were killed in the riots.

Later, two African Americans were indicted by a grand jury for raping Ethel and Mabel Lawrence. When African Americans reported their abuse by the National Guard, instead of helping them, governor M. Hoke Smith introduced new legislation designed to marginalize African Americans by raising barriers to voter registration (1908 suffrage).

Red Summer: DC, IL, Nebraska, SC, TX, TN, AR (1919)

After World War I, there was an economic slump and these riots were not only about race. They were caused by the labor unrest of white industrialists who were now competing for jobs and housing with European Americans and African Americans.

The Red Summer Riots occurred from January 1st – September 14th, 1919.  It was marked by hundreds of deaths and casualties across the United States; white supremacist terrorist attacks and riots ensued in D.C., Chicago, Omaha, Charleston, Longview, Knoxville, and Elaine. Notably for the first time, many black people fought back, notably in Chicago and Washington, D.C. A. Philip Randolph, a civil rights activist, publicly defended the right of black people to self-defense.

The highest number of fatalities resulted in Elaine, Arkansas, where an estimated 240 black people and 5 white people were killed. This became known as the “Elaine Massacre”. In Chicago, white mobs lynched at least 43 African Americans, with 16 hung and others shot, while another 8 men were burned at the stake. Extensive property damage was also recorded. The state governments were unwilling to interfere or prosecute such mob murders by white Americans.

Following the “Red Summer”, there were 38 separate racial riots against blacks by whites.

Tulsa Race Massacre, Oklahoma (1921)

The Tulsa Race Massacre took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921, after a 19-year-old African American boy named Dick Rowland, a shoe shiner, was accused of physically assaulting Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white girl who worked as an elevator operator. He was taken into custody. A group of angry white locals showed up to the courthouse where Rowland was being held and lynched him. The news spread and alerted the local black community, who showed up to the courthouse armed. Shots were fired and 12 people were killed: 10 white and 2 black.

White rioters rampaged through black neighborhoods overnight killing black men, looting stores and burning homes. The attack was carried out on the ground and from private aircraft, destroying more than 35 square blocks of the district – at that time, the wealthiest black community in the United States, known as “Black Wall Street“.

The next day, Oklahoma National Guard troops declared martial law and settled the unrest. But by that point about 10,000 black people were left homeless, and property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property (equivalent to $32.25 million in 2019).

More than 800 people were hospitalized and as many as 6,000 black residents were detained at large facilities, many for several days. A 2001 state commission examination of events was able to confirm 39 dead, 26 black and 13 white, however, based on contemporary autopsy reports, death certificates and other records the estimates increased to 150–300 dead, 75 were white.

Detroit Race Riot, Michigan (1943)

On June 20, 1943, a group of white teenagers at Belle Isle Park started a riot, leading the conflict into the city. They aggravated crowds with false rumors of racial attacks in both the black and white communities. The riots broke out in both areas, however, most of the riot took place in the black area of Paradise Valley, the poorest neighborhood of the city. It continued for 2 days until 6,000 federal troops were ordered into the city to restore the peace. A total of 34 people were killed (25 black, 9 white), 433 people were wounded (75% black), and property valued at $2 million was destroyed (equivalent to $27.5 million in 2015).

Birmingham Campaign, Alabama (1963)

The Birmingham Campaign was a movement led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) whose mission was to bring national attention to desegregate public facilities in Birmingham, Alabama. The campaign was led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverends James Bevel and Fred Shuttlesworth, among others.

The local Ku Klux Klan targeted the campaign and placed bombs throughout the city at the residences of Reverend A. D. King and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and business of the A.G. Gaston Motel. Some believe that the bombings were carried out in cooperation with orders from the Birmingham police.

Initially, protests started with people singing “We Shall Overcome” and only throwing rocks and other small objects. A wave of military soldiers were deployed to intervene for the first time independent of enforcing a court injunction, under the commands of Governor George Wallace. More than 50 people were wounded and hospitalized, while others ran and hid to avoid the tear gas and sub-machine guns being used against their peaceful protest.

Race Riots Continued – Fighting Back:

Harlem Riot, New York (1964)

James Powell, a 15 year old African American boy, was shot and killed by police Lt. Thomas Gilligan in front of Powell’s friends and about 12 other witnesses (details on the investigation). Immediately after the shooting, 300 students from Powell’s school began rallying and protesting. The protest quickly turned into a riot that lasted for 6 consecutive nights of rioting (from July 16th – July 22nd) in Harlem and Brooklyn. A total of 4,000 New Yorkers participated in the riots which led to attacks on the NYC PD, vandalism, and looting in stores. Several protesters were severely beaten by NYPD officers. As a result, there was 1 dead rioter, 118 injured, and 465 arrested.

Long Hot Summer of 1967

The long, hot summer of 1967 refers to the 159 race riots that erupted across the United States that year. In June, there were riots in Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Tampa. In July, there were riots in Birmingham, Chicago, New York City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Rochester, Plainfield, and Toledo. The most destructive riots of the summer took place in New Jersey, and Michigan. As a result of the rioting in the summer of 1967 and the preceding two years, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the Kerner Commission to investigate the rioting and urban issues of Black Americans. Perceptions of Causes of the Riots and Proposed Approaches to “Prevent Racial Outbreaks”: published here.

McDuffie Riots: Miami, Florida (1980):

On December 21, 1979, Arthur McDuffie, a 33 year old African American salesman and former Marine was beaten by 5 Dade County Public Safety Department officers, who were trying to arrest him after a high-speed chase. His skull was shattered, and he died on the scene. The officers were charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and tampering with the evidence and went on trial. When it was time for the verdict, all-white, all-male jury acquitted the five defendants. Subsequently, riots broke out in the black neighborhoods of Black Grove, Overtown, Liberty City, and Brownsville in Miami. The National Guard was ordered in by Governor Bob Graham. 18 people were murdered by snipers, 350 people were injured, and 600 arrests were made. In 1981, Dade County paid McDuffie’s family a settlement of $1.1 million after they filed a civil lawsuit against the officials.

Rodney King Riots: LA, California (1992)

Unrest began in South Central Los Angeles on April 29, after a trial jury acquitted four officers of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for usage of excessive force in the arrest and beating of Rodney King, which had been videotaped and widely viewed in TV broadcasts. Thousands of people rioted over a six-day period. The disorder continued causing widespread looting, assault, arson, and murder occurred during the riots, until the California Army National Guard, the United States military, and several federal law enforcement agencies intervened. By the time the riots ended, 63 people were dead, 2,383 people were injured, and more than 12,000 people were arrested. The property damage estimated over $1 billion, mostly Koreatown.

On March 16, 1991 (a year prior), a black ninth-grader Latasha Harlins was at a convenient store when she put a $1.79 bottle of orange juice in her bag and approached the counter with money in her hand (security cameras showed). The local storekeeper, Soon Ja Du, didn’t see the money, however, and confronted Harlins over what she thought was an attempted theft. After a brief scuffle, Harlins left the orange juice on the counter and started to leave, only to be shot in the back by the storekeeper. Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 5 years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine.

St. Petersburg Riots, Florida (1996):

After Officer Jim Knight stopped 18 year old, Tyron Lewis, for speeding, he claimed to accidentally fire his weapon, fatally wounding the black teenager. Riots broke out, lasting for 2 days. The riot resulted in 11 injuries which included a police officer, 20+ arrests, and multiple fires set by rioters causing an estimated $5 million in property damage.

Cincinnati Riots, Ohio (2001):

Riots broke out for 5 days after the fatal shooting of an unarmed young black male, Timothy Thomas, by Cincinnati police officer Steven Roach. 158 people were arrested in practice of civil disobedience and 800 were arrested for curfew violations.

The Shooting of Oscar Grant: Oakland, California (2009)

Oscar Grant III was a 22 year old African American man who was fatally shot in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009 by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Police Officer Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, California. The officer was responding to reports of a fight on a crowded BART train returning from San Francisco. Several officers detained Grant and other passengers on the platform at the Fruitvale BART Station. BART officer Anthony Pirone kneed Grant in the head and forced the unarmed Grant to lie face down on the platform. While Pirone held Grant down, Mehserle drew his pistol and shot Grant in the back.

The Shooting of Michael Brown: Ferguson, Missouri (2014)

On August 10, 2014, the day after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. The protests sparked a debate in America about the relationship between law enforcement officers and African Americans, the militarization of police, and the use of force laws in Missouri and nationwide. The riots occurred in waves. First wave was following Michael Brown’s death until August 25, 2014. The second wave followed the verdict to not indict the officer responsible, which lasted from November 24 – December 2, 2014. The third wave occurred on the anniversary of the shooting from August 9 – August 11, 2015. There were a total of 16 injuries (10 civilians, 6 police officers) and 321 arrests.

White people in this country continue to fear us, black people, because they know of the crimes that they have committed against the laws of nature and against our people. They fear that one day we will rise up and do to them what they’ve done to us. It is vital for us to be aware and stay informed, the greatest notch in your tool belt is knowledge. Don’t let them keep hiding the truth from us in books. Read about our history, teach your children, challenge the process, inspire others and continue to grow beyond where you’re at today. This is not over yet.

To learn about other race riots in America, here is a full list of historical race riots in America.

About Brittany J. Rosario 48 Articles
Brittany J. Rosario is a Versatile Writer, who isn't afraid of expressing herself through various media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Spotify podcast. She enjoys writing poetry, abstract painting, freestyle dancing and reviewing popular culture, history and iconic moments. Being a content creator gives her a different perspective on life. Her purpose is to maintain a positive and informative environment where people can be their true selves.