National Guardsmen patrol the streets of Chicago
Bettmann / Getty

Where Have All the Rioters Gone?

Good jobs in black communities have disappeared, evictions are the norm, and extreme poverty is rising. Cities should be exploding—but they aren’t.

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

Image Above: National Guardsmen patrol the streets of Chicago, where riots broke out after King was killed.

On August 5, 1966, someone struck Martin Luther King Jr. in the head with a rock. The assault happened not in Birmingham or in Memphis but in Chicago. Earlier that year, King had moved into a run-down apartment on the city’s West Side to bring national attention to the plight of blacks trapped in slum housing and confined to overcrowded schools. That day, he was marching in a white neighborhood for the right of families like his to live wherever they chose. The rock dropped King to one knee. He stayed like that for a moment, trying to get past the pain. “Aides and bodyguards closed in around King,” one account reads, “holding placards aloft to shield him from the missiles that followed.” The white onlookers broke into a riot, bloodying dozens of marchers.

While recovering from his injury, King said he needed to appear in public “to bring this hate into the open.” In a country that had never been shy about its hatred of black people, this was an odd remark. But King’s audience was amnesiac white northerners who had shielded themselves from the racial clash. During the Great Migration, black families fleeing Ku Klux Klan terrorism and dirt poverty in the rural South moved to urban ghettos in the North. As the folk saying went, “The South doesn’t care how close a Negro gets, just so he doesn’t get too high; the North doesn’t care how high he gets, just so he doesn’t get too close.” When he did get too close, hard and heavy objects rained from the sky. In 1919, a black teenager in Chicago named Eugene Williams drifted to the white side of the Lake Michigan swimming area. White bathers pelted him with rocks. The youngster drowned, and 38 others (23 black, 15 white) died in the week of rioting that ensued.

Historically, whites have been the ones to cast the first stones, inciting and then dominating most American race riots. Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921: Whites destroyed a prosperous black community, using machine guns and even dropping bombs from planes. Detroit, 1943: Skirmishes between white and black youths escalated into a full-blown riot that left 34 people dead, most of them black. Milwaukee, 1967: Thousands of whites beat back a crowd protesting housing segregation, hurling rocks and bottles of urine.

But the riotous images that loop in our collective memory are those of Watts and Detroit and Baltimore in the 1960s. The unrest reached an epitome in April 1968, when black anguish over King’s murder saw city after city set on fire. King himself was only 39 years old when he died, but many black youths spoke a different language. Theirs wasn’t the cadenced, masculine oratory of the southern pulpit but the quick, clean shatter of brick through glass. This was speech that possessed, in the literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick’s estimation, “the brutality of the city and an assertion of threatening power at hand, not to come.” That power was unleashed in more than 100 cities, where blacks looted and burned white-owned establishments.

Fires break out after MLK assassination
Fires break out after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (Lee Balterman / The Life Picture Collection / Getty)

The Holy Week Uprising, people called it, harking back to Christ’s own one-man riot, when he used a whip of cords to cleanse the temple of money changers and merchants. Most white Americans blamed the riots on “looters and undesirables,” according to opinion polls; most black Americans saw them as a reaction to “discrimination and unfair treatment.” What lawmakers saw was a fast-unspooling crisis. So they acted by providing more educational and welfare services, and by establishing seasonal programs for young people—cheekily referred to as “antiriot insurance.” Most important, having long refused to criminalize housing discrimination, Congress pushed through the 1968 Civil Rights Act, commonly called the Fair Housing Act. It was the outcome King had fought for, brought about by methods he had condemned.

Fifty years later, our cities, in both the North and the South, remain sharp-line segregated. Not only that, but the decades following the Holy Week Uprising have witnessed a surge in mass incarceration that has disproportionately caged poor black men; a loss of manufacturing jobs that has left many black men unemployed; soaring housing costs and an epidemic of evictions, felt most acutely in low-income communities of color; and the gutting of welfare, which has led to a spike in extreme poverty.

By these measures, things have grown worse. Yet the streets, for the most part, have remained clear and quiet. Only two significant riots have broken out since the early 1970s: in Miami in 1980 and in Los Angeles in 1992, both of them in response to the acquittals of police officers who had beaten unarmed black men. Recent years have witnessed spates of unrest protesting police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, and beyond, but these have been short-lived affairs resulting in few serious injuries and restrained arson. The 2015 unrest in Baltimore after Freddie Gray died in police custody resulted in an estimated $9 million in property damage and no deaths. The 1992 L.A. riots, by comparison, caused more than $1 billion in property damage and 63 deaths.

Why don’t American cities burn like they used to? The late urban historian Michael Katz observed that the federal government’s response to the Holy Week Uprising—criminalizing residential segregation—wound up reorganizing city neighborhoods in ways that tempered unrest. For much of the 20th century, riots often erupted after black bodies touched white bodies, were accused of violating white bodies, or even floated into white-claimed waters. In northern cities, riots broke out most frequently after blacks streamed in but before whites packed up and moved. Once housing discrimination was no longer legally protected, middle-class black families began leaving the ghetto; in turn, white families moved to the suburbs. “With so many whites gone,” Katz wrote, “boundaries became less contentious, eroding one major source of civil violence.”

At the same time, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had a massive impact. In the 15 years after it became law, the number of black elected officials nationwide jumped from 100 to 1,813. Major cities elected their first black mayors, and toothier antidiscrimination laws opened opportunities for black people in business and real estate. Yet just when they were making inroads into positions of influence, white flight eroded cities’ tax base, which worsened the plight of poor blacks left behind and muddied who was to blame. “People said that we burned down our community,” Tommy Jacquette, a participant in the 1965 Watts riot, recounted in the Los Angeles Times four decades later. “No, we didn’t. We had a revolt in our community against those people who were in here trying to exploit and oppress us. We did not own this community.” But as the years passed and blacks did, in fact, come to own their communities, it wasn’t so clear anymore whose windows to smash in response to persistent oppression.

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The country also began incarcerating millions of its citizens. From 1970 to 2003, the number of state and federal prisons grew sevenfold. The United States currently has the world’s highest incarceration rate (see “Freedom Ain’t Free”). The long arm of the law has disproportionately swept up poor black men and Latinos; if they were incarcerated at the same rate as whites, the U.S. prison and jail population would be half of what it is today. When politicians justified tough-on-crime policies by denouncing “violence in our streets” and vowing to enforce “law and order,” as Barry Goldwater did in 1964, they weren’t talking only, or even primarily, about assaults, robberies, and other typical forms of lawbreaking. They meant civil-rights demonstrations—and riots in particular. Nationwide, funding for riot control spiked, especially in cities that had experienced riots before and had sizable black populations. Urban police departments bought militarized weapons, vehicles, and surveillance equipment. Small towns got in on the action. In 1983, only 13 percent of towns with a population of 25,000 to 50,000 had a swat team; by 2005, 80 percent of them did, according to the criminologist Peter Kraska. Disaffected black youths hurled bricks and lit fires. The police bought tanks.

Mass incarceration incapacitated vast numbers of young black men, who in previous generations had been the main actors in urban uprisings, while police militarization allowed the authorities to meet rioters with a fierce display of force. These moves may well have helped squelch unrest. But rioting was not the only casualty of this war on crime. Other political activity, from civil disobedience to voting, was also affected. Long-standing state laws deprived the growing number of convicted felons of the right to vote. The chilling effect of incarceration spread to neighbors and kin: Research by the political scientist Traci Burch shows that people in communities with high incarceration rates are far less likely to sign a petition or join a protest than people in other communities. Even minor encounters with law enforcement may discourage people from voting. A study by the political scientists Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman found that people who have simply been stopped and questioned by the police are less likely to cast a ballot than their peers who have never had a brush with the law. The nation’s criminal-justice system “trains people for a distinctive and lesser kind of citizenship,” Weaver wrote in the Boston Review.

Something else might be doing that too: social-service providers, like those supplying food and medical care. The rise of the nonprofit sector has been so impressive that social scientists now speak of voluntary organizations making up a “shadow state apparatus,” in the words of Jennifer Wolch, a professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. These social-service providers constitute a powerful, widely embraced force for good. But charities may unintentionally steer communities away from political engagement. John McKnight, a former civil-rights organizer and a professor emeritus of social policy at Northwestern, worries that the presence of experts might “push out the problem-solving knowledge and action of friend, neighbor, citizen, and association.” The result, McKnight argues, is that poor urban families are socialized to behave more like clients than citizens to get their basic needs met.

Clients stand in line, fill out forms, wait their turn; citizens demand their rights. Social-service providers are pro-innovation, but riots are anti-innovation; primitive tools—rocks, fire—will do. Social-service providers value credentials; rioters don’t care whether letters follow your last name. You need no training to riot, which is why children are often spotted amid the tear gas and rubble. Social-service providers follow a process; riots call for immediate action. The rise of the social-service sector may have had the effect of subduing riots, because well-meaning outsiders are increasingly the ones addressing problems in poor communities in place of local residents, who might take matters into their own hands. Or fists.

“A riot is the language of the unheard,” King explained years ago. “And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”

America fails to hear still. The urban explosions of the civil-rights era are over, but the social evils the rioters seethed about—racism, poverty—remain. Despite the uprisings in Ferguson and elsewhere, a general stillness persists. Riots were terrifying spectacles, as the social order was defied and defended through blood and ruin. But the quiescence we have today is unsettling in its own way. For all their destructive power, the riots of the 1960s at least were bluntly honest, a message that the fight for equality had a long way to go. Whatever the rioters’ motives—some rushed in for the cause, others for sport—every riot was inherently political, propelled by a shameful past and the search for a better, if unarticulated, future. The Holy Week Uprising was a grievance, brutally filed. In the torrents was something like hope.

This article appears in the special MLK issue print edition with the headline “Riots Are the Language of the Unheard.”