riots in Detroit
Three Lions / Getty

The Crisis in America’s Cities

Martin Luther King Jr. on what sparked the violent urban riots of the “long hot summer” of 1967

Editor’s Note: Read The Atlantic’s special coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

Image above: The riots in Detroit brought fires and looting.

Three weeks after 43 people were killed in race riots in Detroit—the worst of the more than 150 urban riots during the “long hot summer” of 1967—King addressed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. He delineated the causes of the violence, notably “the white backlash,” black unemployment, racial discrimination, and the war in Vietnam.

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 greater 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 a 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 told Negroes that there were limits to their progress; that they must expect to remain permanently unequal and permanently poor. 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.

I proposed that a national agency be established to immediately give employment to everyone needing it. Training should be done on the job, not separated from it and often without any guarantee of employment in which to use the training. Nothing is more socially inexcusable than unemployment in this age. In the thirties when the nation was bankrupt, it instituted such an agency, the W.P.A. In the present conditions of a nation glutted with resources it is barbarous to condemn people willing to work to soul-sapping inactivity and poverty.

National Guard, Detroit
The National Guard was called in to keep the peace in Detroit. (Lee Balterman / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty)

I am convinced that one massive act of concern will do more than the most massive deployment of troops to quell riots and still hatreds. I am not convinced that the statesmanship exists in Washington to do it. Hugo could have been thinking of 20th century America when he said, “There is always more misery among the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher classes.”

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 moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them.

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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 resources to perpetuate their rule at the rate of $80,000,000 per day, but we cannot afford to spend 10% of this on anti-poverty programs …

To war against your own people, while warring against another nation, is the ultimate in political and social bankruptcy.

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 …

Cities are also victims of the anarchic migrations of Negroes. Although everyone knew in the past decade that millions of Negroes would have to leave the land without schooling, no national planning was done to provide remedies. White immigrants in the 19th century were given free credit and land by the government. In the early 20th century a plethora of social agencies helped them to adjust to city life. The economy readily absorbed white workers into factories and trained them to skills. There were obstacles and privations for white immigrants but every step was upward; care and concern could be found.

When the Negro migrated he was substantially ignored or grossly exploited within a context of searing discrimination. He was left jobless and ignorant, despised and scorned as no other American minority has been …

To list the causes is to structure the remedial program. A program is not, however, our problem. Our real problem is that there is no disposition by the [Johnson] Administration nor Congress to seek fundamental remedies beyond police measures. The tragic truth is that Congress, more than the American people, is now running amok with racism. We must devise the tactics, not to beg Congress for favors, but to create a situation in which they deem it wise and prudent to act with responsibility and decency.

Some people assert riots are just such a method. Perhaps it would be well to examine the nature of the outbreaks. They reveal in the first place that the time we have is shorter than many of us believed. Patience is running out and the intransigence and hostility of government—national, state and municipal—is aggravating grievances to explosive levels.

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 outbursts cannot be considered an insurrection, because insurrections are organized and can sustain themselves for more than a few days. The riots are powered by spontaneous bitter emotions and therefore die out rapidly.

smoke billows over city street
Rolls Press / Popperfoto / Getty

We have not devised the tactics for urban slum reform. We spent ten years in the South using new tactics of nonviolence that were successful. But in the Northern cities, with time running out, we failed to achieve creative methods of work. As a result, a desperate, essentially leaderless mass of people acted with violence and without a program …

There is probably no way, even eliminating violence, for Negroes to obtain their rights without upsetting the equanimity of white folks. All too many of them demand tranquility when they mean inequality …

Nonviolent action in the South was effective because any form of social movement by Negroes upset the status quo. When Negroes merely marched in Southern streets it was close to rebellion. In the urban communities marches are less disquieting because they are not considered rebellions and secondly, because the normal turbulence of cities absorbs them as merely transitory drama which is ordinary in city life.

To raise protest to an appropriate level for cities and to invest it with aggressive but nonviolent qualities, it is necessary to adopt civil disobedience. To dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it can be more effective than a riot because it can be longer-lasting, costly to the society but not wantonly destructive. Moreover, it is more difficult for government to quell it by superior force. Mass civil disobedience can use rage as a constructive and creative force. It is purposeless to tell Negroes they should not be enraged when they should be.

This excerpt appears in the special MLK issue print edition with its original title, “The Crisis in America’s Cities.” © 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., © renewed 1995 Coretta Scott King. All works by Martin Luther King Jr. have been reprinted by arrangement with the Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., care of Writers House as agent for the proprietor, New York, New York.