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The Urban Uprisings of the 1960s

In the years following the publication of the Moynihan report in 1965, a series of urban uprisings erupted. Black protestors took to the streets and demanded that their grievances about systemic racism, economic marginalization, and police brutality be heard.  The national media sensationalized these urban rebellions as widespread outbreaks of lawlessness and destruction. Anxious whites compelled their political leaders to contain urban racial animosity and preserve the sacred balance of law and order in American cities. To regain public confidence in his ability to allay growing fears of crime and disorder, President Johnson appealed to academics for policy recommendations. Johnson attempted to incorporate proactive “tough on crime” strategies drawn from scholars like Moynihan and Wilson in order to respond to the raging protests in black urban neighborhoods. In an interview with PBS, Wilson described his interaction with President Johnson, saying:

“After he [Lyndon B. Johnson] won decisively in 1964, he immediately created a national commission on law enforcement and the administration of justice, determined to do whatever was in his power to reduce crime. Well, at that time there weren't many crime specialists in the United States. So, when a colleague of mine at the Harvard Law School, discovered I had been studying police, he decided to put me on a task force of this crime commission. I told him I didn't know anything about crime, and he said, ‘Well, look it up.’”[1]

On March 8, 1965, Johnson formally established the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice proclaiming, “In the longer run we must also deepen our understanding of the causes of crime and of how our society should respond to the challenge of our present levels of crime.”[2] The Commission, comprised of 19 commissioners, 63 staffers, and hundreds of additional advisors and consultants, crafted over 200 ‘specific recommendations’ for structural and operational changes within the federal, state, and local governments. By “call[ing] for a revolution in the way that America thinks about crime,” the commissioners sought to demystify and delineate the complexities of America’s crime problem and focus more broadly on civil institutions, social agencies, and individuals as major agents for controlling the prevalence of crime.[3]

Despite Johnson’s efforts to assuage growing hostility between African American and urban police forces, tensions within urban communities flared across the United States from Harlem to Watts. Each of the “ghetto” rebellions that occurred from 1964 to 1967 exhibited certain commonalities. The impetus behind each uprising stemmed from an incident of police harassment or brutality. These incendiary interactions between individuals and the police eventually incited overwhelming rage among a crowd of onlookers. Upon the arrival of additional police reinforcements, the impassioned protesters ultimately engaged in outright revolt against law enforcement.

[1] Wattenberg, Ben. "James Q. Wilson Interview." The First Measured Century Interviews. Accessed November 26, 2016.

[2] "Lyndon B. Johnson: Special Message to the Congress on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice." Lyndon B. Johnson: Special Message to the Congress on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice. Accessed November 17, 2016.

[3] United States. President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society: A Report by the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. By Nicholas DeB. Katzenbach. Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1967.

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