Excerpts From "The Crises in America's Cities"
(Re: the causes of urban "riots.")
Dr. Martin Luther King
August 15, 1967

[In July of 1967, Black communities in Detroit and Newark explode in urban violence, as had Harlem, Watts, and other cities before them. 26 people are killed in Newark, 43 in Detroit. Almost all of the fatalities are Blacks killed by police. In both cities there are thousands of injuries, thousands of arrests, and massive property damage before the National Guard manages to suppress the outbreak. As with Watts in '65, and Cleveland in '66, television images of armed soldiers patrolling ravaged American streets in military vehicles dominate the news. In response, Dr. King issues a statement titled "The Crises in America's Cities," portions of which are excerpted below.]

A million words will be written and spoken to dissect the ghetto outbreaks, but for a perceptive and vivid expression of culpability I would submit two sentences written a century ago by Victor Hugo:

If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed
The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.

The policy makers of the white society have caused the darkness; they created discrimination; they created slums; they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the great crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also declare that the white man does not abide by law in the ghettos. Day in and day out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than the prisoner makes a prison.

Let us say it boldly that if the total slum violations of law by the white man over the years were calculated and were compared with the lawbreaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man.

After establishing the general cause of outbursts, it is possible to identify five immediate causes:

  1. The white backlash.
  2. Unemployment.
  3. General discriminatory practices.
  4. War.
  5. Features peculiar to big cities: crime, family problems, and intensive migration.

I place the white backlash first because the outbursts have an emotional content that is a reaction to the insults and depravity of the white backlash.

Many people point out that there have been years of some progress, and this is true. Yet equally true is the fact of an animalistic reaction by a significant section of the white population. In the midst of progress Negroes were being murdered in the South and cynical white jurors automatically freed the accused. In Chicago last year thousands of vicious white hoodlums with murder in their hearts bombarded Negroes with rocks and bottles because they dared to ask to be neighbors.

The white backlash said Negroes should not confuse improvements with equality. True equality, it said will be resisted to the death. The so-called riots in a distorted and hysterical form were a Negro response that said inequality will now be resisted to the death.

The second major cause is unemployment because it furnishes the bulk of the shock troops. Government figures reveal that the rate of unemployment for Negroes runs as high as 15% in some cities — and for youth up to 30-40%! It is not accidental that the major actors in all the outbreaks were the youth. With most of their lives yet to live, the slamming of doors in their faces could be expected to induce rage and rebellion.

This is especially true when a boastful nation, while neglecting them, gloats over its wealth, power, and world pre-eminence. Yet almost 40% of Negro youth waste their barren lives standing on street corners.

. . .

The third cause is discrimination, which pervades all experiences of Negro life. It pushes the Negro off the economic ladder after he has ascended a few rungs. It stultifies his initiative and insults his being. Even the few Negroes who realize economic security do not attain respect and dignity, because on upper levels discrimination closes different doors to them.

Discrimination is a hell hound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking movement of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them.

The fourth cause is the war in Vietnam. Negroes are not only conscripted in double measure for combat, but they are told the billions needed for remaking their lives are necessary for foreign intervention. Democracy at home is starved to seek a spurious democracy abroad. Dictators, oligarchies, are given our resource to perpetuate their rule at the rate of $80,000,000 per day [equal to $560,000,000 per day in 2014], but we cannot afford to spend 10% of this on anti-poverty programs.

. . .

Finally, a complex of causes is found in the conditions of urban life. Crime is well organized in the cities and produces an underclass of great numbers. Rackets are the big business of the ghetto, with masses of employees. In any period of unrest they utilize conditions for advantage. Organized crime has a protected sanctuary in the slums, with police tolerance, if not connivance. It becomes a normal feature of life, poisoning the young and confounding the adult. It add, in substantial numbers, the professional criminal to outbreaks, exacerbating the results. When they merge with the declassed and dispossessed, also numerous in the slums, a large anti-social force is assembled.

. . .

The riots are not simply a reign of terror or a splurge of crime, though both elements are partially present. They are also a wildly emotional protest and a desperate attempt to display the utter desperation that has engulfed many Negroes. The vast majority who actively participated were remarkably discriminating in avoiding harm to persons, venting their anger by appropriating or destroying property. there is an ironic purpose in this choice; to attack a society that appears to cherish property above people, the worst wounds to inflict on it are those to property.

. . .

The white society failed to move when the conservative McCone Commission warned two years ago after Watts, "The existing breech, if allowed to persist, could in time split our society irretrievably. So serious and so explosive is the situation that unless it is checked, the August (1965) riots may seem by comparison to be only a curtain-raiser for what could blow up one day in the future." The white society did not move and Newark came after Watts and was followed by Detroit.

We will have to make them move. We will have to remind them that in the 18th Century, Thomas Jefferson said, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just." In the second half of the 20th Century his warning can no longer remain unheeded.

Copyright © Martin Luther King, 1967.

See Impact of Northern Urban Rebellions on Southern Freedom Movement and Ghettos and the Persistance of Poverty for background & more information.

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