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Social Protest and Unrest “The Language of the Unheard”

The HistoryMakers e1589803022222In recent weeks we have seen our country and the world respond to longstanding racism and police brutality by speaking out on social media and city streets. While social media has sparked a new form of activism in recent decades, taking to the streets is an ancient method for fighting oppression. Our HistoryMakers can recall a century’s worth of protests and riots that responded to hundreds of years of violent oppression, which is still ever present in 2020.

A protester confronting the National Guard Minneapolis Minnesota May 29 2020
A protester confronting the National Guard, Minneapolis, Minnesota, May 29, 2020

Ethnic studies professor William King (1940 – ), who was also a founding member of The National Council for Black Studies, described why the United States has seen these protests and riots from the oppressed African American community: “It was one of the few things available, one of the few tools, available to them to make known their displeasure with the way they were being treated… You have a society that is predicated on the principles of exclusion and exploitation. You have a society whose very economic system means that anything and everything in that society is for sale. You have a society that, on the one hand encourages competition so that you will not come to see that by focusing on your supposed opponent, you don’t have the resources to pay attention to whoever wrote the rules of the competition in the first place. You don’t have the resources to understand that opportunity in the United States is differentially distributed along race, class, and gender lines, okay, that those in power seldom give up more than is necessary to maintain control, because control is requisite to the orderly exercise of authority.”[1] Or, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it in a 1967 speech, “A riot is the language of the unheard.

Front page of the Chicago Defender August 2 1919
Front page of the Chicago Defender, August 2, 1919

Junius “Red” Gaten (1900 – 2005), a Chicago activist and iceman whose clients included Al Capone and Ida B. Wells, recalled riots in the city in 1919 following the murder of Eugene Williams, an African American World War I veteran, at the 31st street beach on Lake Michigan: “At that time, they had a big wire fence, go way out in the lake to separate the blacks from the whites… This boy was a heck of a swimmer… and he showed out showing all the boys how he could swim. And they [the white boys] kept throwing [rocks and bricks] at him, and he would duck… So this boy got hit with a brick, and he went down and he never come back up. So the riot was started.”[2] Bacteriologist Welton Ivan Taylor (1919 – 2012) further explained the violence that followed from the police: “Two of my cousins were taken off of their respective street cars during the race riots and beaten with bats. And both of them ended up with fractured skulls… and there were a stack of bodies were pulled over onto the curb by the policemen, who watched it all happen, but he did dispose of the bodies, took them off as they were thrown off the car. And he stacked them all up and called the dead wagon, which was following the street car.”[3] Irma Josephine Barber (1904 – 2004), who worked for the Department of Forestry, remembered violence from white residents: “They were standing in an open car and shooting from–just shooting at random from one side to the other. And they killed one of the old men. And then right across the street from where we lived, there was a, a man–it was a two flat building. And he was reading his Bible and they shot him. And he just fell over…” Ruth Apilado

(1908 – ), founder of America’s Intercultural Magazine, had distant memories of the riot, but recalled: “I remember the riot we were under the bed (laughter) thinking some white folks were gonna kill us.”[4]

Palmer House hotel Chicago Illinois 1927
Palmer House hotel, Chicago, Illinois, 1927

Junius “Red” Gaten also recalled smaller, more personal instances of resistance that produced quick results. At the Palmer House hotel in Chicago in 1927, which became the largest hotel in the world after renovations Gaten helped with that same year, he explained: “They didn’t want no Negroes to ride the front elevators. You had to ride the back, with all the help… I was going through there one day and the man told me, said, ‘If I catch you in here again, I’m gonna–,’ and I knocked him down… I said, ‘Look, I helped to build this place, and don’t you or no damn body else tell me where I can’t walk or can’t do.’”[5] Gaten was arrested and was quickly excused by the hotel owner’s son, but another African American, Oscar De Priest (1871-1951), who would be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives two years later, experienced the same discrimination upon visiting the hotel at the request of Chicago’s then mayor William Hale Thompson (1869-1944).

Thompson and De Priest
Mayor William Hale Thompson and The Honorable Oscar De Priest

Gaten elaborated: “De Priest knocked him down and kicked him, stomped him. They called the police… they got to arguing, and somebody got the news upstairs. Thompson come down and got, said, ‘Turn them men a loose. Leave ’em alone. I’ve been waiting on these fellows a hour, and you got ’em down here,’ said, ‘what the hell’s the matter with y’all?’ That broke up all of that mess. You could ride the front elevators after that day. The next day, you could ride ’em. White folks quit they jobs ’cause Negroes riding the elevators.”[6]

Police confront community members during the Watts riots Los Angeles 1965
Police confront community members during the Watts riots, Los Angeles, 1965

One of the more famous riots in U.S. history occurred several decades later in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. In the midst of daily violence from police, residents took to the streets in 1965 to call attention to this abuse and their deep frustration. Painter Kerry James Marshall (1955 – ) recalled this incident from his point of view as a ten year old boy: “You’re hearing on the news that there was a riot going on down in Watts; then stepping out on the front porch and looking out and seeing smoke in the distance, then all of a sudden you see two or three people run by your house, then two more people, then two more, then ten, then twenty, then a whole lot of people running, then you look down at your corner and there’s a fire down there and you look that way and there’s a fire down there, well it was just chaos… people yelling and hollering and running, but they didn’t seem to be any real anxiety in the air. There was just–it seemed it was excitement in the air. It was just like a maelstrom of energy and you didn’t know what it meant… Then the aftermath of that, you go out and then the next day you started to see, they had martial law–the curfews and stuff-so now you can’t go out. They’re shooting people on Central Avenue. So then you go out the next day and then you realize, ‘Wait a minute, we don’t have a grocery store now (chuckle) down at the end of the block.’ Like none of this, not only the grocery store burned down, but all the mom and pops are gone.[7]

The National Guard on the burning streets of Watts Los Angeles California 1965
The National Guard on the burning streets of Watts, Los Angeles, California, 1965

Education reformer George McKenna, III (1940 – ), who was a teacher in Los Angeles at the time, explained what these types of riots really meant: “A riot says, we got a problem here and we’re suffering. We’re not rioting just because we enjoy violence, we’re oppressed by a lot of things in this community. We can’t get insurance, there’s no markets in our neighborhood, the housing is too expensive, we can’t get a good education. I mean this stuff just came out, all this frustration of being black in Los Angeles… John Buggs, a noted sociologist… had done a study of the adult population of Watts… up to 40 percent of them had never seen the Pacific Ocean. That’s how parochial they were in terms of the confinement in their neighborhood.”[8]

Rioting in Detroit Michigan 1967
Rioting in Detroit, Michigan, 1967

Two years later in Detroit, the police raided an unlicensed after hours club that ignited fierce resistance by the community. Nathan Conyers (1932 – ), brother of The Honorable John Conyers and the first president of the National Black Automobile Dealers Association (now the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers), described how economic oppression almost surpassed the racial motives that resulted in looting: “The build-up to the riot had to do with the police department and the black community. That were getting further and further at odds. Blacks were being arrested, not charged, held incommunicado, often beaten. And it spread from there in a way that belied it being a race riot. It became an economic riot. What happened was that people started exploiting the businesses along the street, breaking windows, taking stuff out. There are pictures of blacks and whites together carrying sofas out of the furniture store window. Sharing and lifting the television set on to the sidewalk. So that it wasn’t–It wasn’t your classic race riot where–that pitted whites against black. It pitted all of those people who were oppressed and abused against the department.”[9] Diana Ross’s sister Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee (1942- ), the first African American female dean of a medical school, explained how she was tasked with assessing the community’s response to the incident by the Detroit News. She reported that “The minority community did not react negatively to the riot, many people did not participate, but they thought it was necessary, it was amazing… it was the burning that had the most negative impact, it was the burning that drove the businesses out, you know. The riot could have occurred, even the looting would have been okay, but it was the actual burning of businesses that drove the businesses out and they never came back.”[10]

Store front in Washington D.C. following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. 1968
Store front in Washington D.C. following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968

The following year in 1968, people took to the streets nationwide after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Honorable Sharon Pratt (1944 – ), the first African American woman mayor of Washington, D.C., described the capital during this time, which was reflective of the mood of African Americans across the nation: “The City [of Washington, D.C.] was just a collective sense of despair. And, and I think, more than grief, ultimately, we saw anger, because here was a person who had for so long–I think helped stabilize what was a very volatile situation. He had been an agent of change, but he had always worked from a place of love, you know, he–that was his whole mantra… It was all focused on love and driven by love. And to think the country could turn on him–well, that, as we saw it, the country turning on him, and to take him out that way was just hard to accept, and that turned quickly to a lot of anger.”[11]

Protesters during the Rodney King trial Los Angeles 1992
Protesters during the Rodney King trial, Los Angeles, 1992

In 1991, the Rodney King case helped usher in the current era of police brutality being captured on video and spread to the masses. Lawyer and former Harvard professor Charles Ogletree (1952 – ) explained how important this case was: “The fact that this person–a photographer [George Holliday] was actually taping when Rodney King was tased by these police officers. That made a big difference… And Rodney King became, in a sense, the symbol of what was going on.[12] Broadcast executive Ronald H. Brewington (1946 – ) described the events: “Economically, the times were bad–people didn’t have money in their pockets. And to see a man named Rodney King get beat down like he did, and then go through that trial and those cops walk. That hurt a lot of people. They were pissed. They were mad… You have people who are what I call stir the pot. They keep people aware, on the cutting edge of certain social issues, certain feelings of the day, you know… And that sits in the back of people’s minds, and let an incident like Rodney King happen, and then immediately the seed has already been planted, they just go ahead and act it out.”[13]

Black Lives Matter protesters in Austin Texas May 31 2020
Black Lives Matter protesters in Austin, Texas, May 31, 2020

In looking at moments like now, it appears not much change has been made. According to Junius “Red” Gaten: “So, you see, you made progress slow, and you only made progress where you began to stretch out and fight. If you fight, don’t demand nothing, you don’t get nothing.[14]

[1] William King (The HistoryMakers A2002.116), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 18, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 4, William King shares his view on urban riots.

[2] Junius “Red” Gaten (The HistoryMakers A2003.037), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 6, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 2, Junius “Red” Gaten talks about the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, pt.1.

[3]Welton Ivan Taylor (The HistoryMakers A2003.056), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 27, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Welton Taylor shares accounts of the Chicago race riot of 1919.

[4] Ruth Apilado (The HistoryMakers A2004.149), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 26, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 4, Ruth Apilado talks about the Chicago Race Riot of 1919.

[5] Junius “Red” Gaten (The HistoryMakers A2003.037), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 6, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 3, Junius “Red” Gaten describes the desegregation of elevators at the Palmer House in Chicago, Illinois.

[6] Ibid.

[7]Kerry James Marshall (The HistoryMakers A2001.046), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, January 4, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 4, Kerry James Marshall remembers the Watts Riots of 1965, Los Angeles, California.

[8] George McKenna, III (The HistoryMakers A2001.048), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, July 24, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, George McKenna remembers the aftermath of the Watts riots of 1965.

[9]Nathan Conyers (The HistoryMakers A2002.149), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 19, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 2, Nathan Conyers discusses the Detroit Riots of 1967.

[10]Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee (The HistoryMakers A2007.212), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, July 25, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 4, Barbara Ross-Lee talks about the 1967 Detroit riots.

[11]The Honorable Sharon Pratt (The HistoryMakers A2007.214), interviewed by Cheryl Butler, July 26, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 8, The Honorable Sharon Pratt recalls the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 1968 Washington, D.C. riots.

[12]Charles Ogletree (The HistoryMakers A2003.075), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, August 10, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 5, tape 15, story 7, Charles Ogletree talks about the aftermath of the attack on Rodney King in 1991.

[13]Ronald H. Brewington (The HistoryMakers A2005.112), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 28, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 6, Ronald H. Brewington remembers the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, California, pt. 2.

[14] Junius “Red” Gaten (The HistoryMakers A2003.037), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 6, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 3.

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