Summer of Rage

An Oral History of the 1967 Newark and Detroit Riots

by Max Arthur Herman (Author)
©2013 Monographs XXII, 280 Pages


Drawing on oral history interviews and archival materials, Summer of Rage examines the causes and consequences of urban unrest that occurred in Newark and Detroit during the summer of 1967. It seeks to give voice to those who experienced these events firsthand and places personal narratives in a broader theoretical framework involving issues of collective memory, trauma, race relations, and urban development. Further, the volume explores the multiple truths present in these contentious events and thereby sheds light on the past, present, and future of these cities.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • Advance Praise for Summer of Rage
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One-Hell Breaks Loose
  • Chapter Two-Predictable Insurrections
  • Chapter Three-Troublemakers
  • Chapter Four-Restoring Order
  • Chapter Five-Community Torn Apart
  • Chapter Six-The Renaissance City
  • Notes



The origins of this project reach back to my days in graduate school and earlier, to my formative years as a child growing up in Brooklyn N.Y. during the 1970s. At an early age, I became acutely aware of issues involving race. To hear some of my relatives and neighbors talk at that time, it appeared as if our neighborhood was under siege. In their minds, the decline of the city was inextricably linked to the increased presence of racial minorities. Danger always appeared near, especially after my father was mugged at knifepoint on the subway by a group of black teenagers. Like many other families, for whom the city had come to represent crime and disorder (code words for racial transition), we moved out of the city. I spent the next several years, including high school, in a predominantly white, rural community located approximately one hundred mile north of New York City. Nonetheless, the city and its attendant issues of race were never far behind. During visits to relatives who continued to live in Brooklyn and Queens, I wondered what life would have been like had we remained in Brooklyn.

During my first year of graduate school at Yale University, I became acutely aware of the profound sense of racial polarization in the New Haven community. Beyond the gates of the university lurked a sense of danger and despair. Mutual mistrust and hostility existed between town and gown, between privileged students, and those who served them. In passing conversation, students shared information on what streets to avoid. At night, one could hear gunfire in the distance. It was 1992, and racial tensions in America were rising, about to explode in the streets of Los Angeles. When the Los Angeles “riot” or “rebellion” broke out in ← vii | viii → late April, some people in Connecticut, then the most affluent state in the nation, were concerned about the potential for strife in that state’s cities, which were some of the poorest in America. Nonetheless, with the exception of some vociferous protests in Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven, widespread “civil disorder” did not materialize at that time.

In 1993, when the future of the sociology program at Yale seemed uncertain, I transferred to the University of Arizona in Tucson. There I came under the tutelage of Dr. Albert Bergesen. Given my interests in cities and race relations, Dr. Bergesen set me to work on a project that sought to uncover the underlying dynamics of the urban unrest which had recently taken place in Los Angeles. While doing library research on this topic, I came upon an article that detailed the demographic changes that had occurred in one neighborhood/census tract at the epicenter of the L.A riot. In the process of taking a graduate level research methods course, I suggested that we gather data on all of the census tracts in Los Angeles, and see if the presence of riot related violence, e.g. deaths and property damage, was correlated with the changing racial and economic composition of that city’s neighborhoods.

Dr. Bergesen and I worked together on the theoretical component, referencing Susan Olzak’s writings on ethnic competition, fusing them with the previous work of Chicago School theorists, Robert Park and Otis Dudley Duncan, who had examined the phenomena of ethnic succession. It was my task to test this ethnic succession theory of urban unrest in application to Los Angeles. Using the latest GIS (geographic information systems) software, I mapped out where people died and where buildings had burned, overlaying this information with census tract data that measured demographic change and economic deprivation. Based on this analysis I found that in Los Angeles there was a statistically significant relationship between the pace of racial/ethnic transition and the likelihood of riot related deaths and damage taking place in particular neighborhoods such as South Central where African Americans were moving out and Latinos were moving in. Dr. Bergesen and I reported these results in an article that appeared in the February 1998 edition of the American Sociological Review.

For my Ph.D. thesis, I expanded on our study of ethnic succession and urban unrest, utilizing the same methodology to investigate rioting that had occurred earlier in the century in Chicago (1919) and Detroit (1943) as well as Miami (1980). While employed at Rice University and Oberlin College, respectively, on post-doctoral appointments, I continued to expand and revise that doctoral thesis, adding two more cases, Newark (1967) and Detroit (1967) to the previous set. This research culminated in the publication of my first book, titled Fighting in the Streets: Ethnic Succession and Urban Unrest in 20th Century America (Peter Lang Publishers, 2005). In that book, I proposed a general model of urban unrest where ← viii | ix → the potential for violence is a function of rapid changes in the ethnic composition and economic characteristics of city neighborhoods. The main finding was that neighborhoods undergoing the most rapid rate of racial/ethnic change accompanied by economic deprivation were more susceptible to ethnic violence than neighborhoods with more stable populations and more sanguine economic profiles. The combination of rapid racial change combined with economic deprivation, I argued, was—and still is, a particularly dangerous combination.

Nonetheless, certain factors seemed to distinguish the civil disorders of the 1960s from other episodes of urban unrest that had taken place in the 20th century. One key difference was the sheer number of people who were killed by police and military forces during the events of the 1960s. By contrast, the majority of people killed in previous riots were killed by other civilians. To underscore this point, some scholars (Feagin 1969) refer to the events that took place in the 1960s as “police riots” in which predominantly white police officers acted a representatives of dwindling white populations, venting their anger on the new black majorities in these cities.

Another crucial factor distinguishing the riots of the 1960s was the presence of political ideology. Riots at the turn of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st century lacked ideology and instrumentality. Certainly these riots involved grievance against the police and judicial system for miscarriages of justice, but few participants spoke openly about revolution or overthrowing “the system” through collectively orchestrated violence. In the 1960s such language was prevalent. Militant leaders, both black and white, in reaction to the limitations of mainstream civil rights and reform movements, advocated violence to destroy “the system”. People on the streets heard this message and took it literally. Some scholars like Robert Fogelson1 and Doug McAdam2 emphasized that the 1960s era riots were part and parcel of a larger cycle of political protest associated with the Civil Rights Movement, thereby deeming them “riots as protest” or “ghetto revolts”. Such work implied that there was a coherent “riot ideology” which motivated people to take to the streets at that time.

These apparent differences between the 1960s era “rebellions” and “riots” which took place in other time periods led me to challenge some of the theoretical and methodological assumptions of my previous work. To begin with, I discovered that “riots” were more complex events than could be described by one particular theory. Furthermore, I found there are limitations to what maps and statistical analyses could reveal. Correlations imply, but cannot prove, causation. Quantitative analysis could not effectively address the motivations of riot participants or adequately account for the suffering of the victims.

Having spent nearly seven years investigating the causes of urban unrest, I felt I had acquired only a surface level understanding of these phenomena. To truly ← ix | x → understand what happened in cities like Newark and Detroit during the long hot summers of the 1960s, I would have to engage with people who were there at the time. Despite my training as a quantitative sociologist, I was eager to embrace a different mode of acquiring knowledge.

Shortly after arriving in Newark in 2000, where I took a job as an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University, I began an extensive oral history project investigating the meaning and memory of the Newark riot/rebellion of 1967. I continued that work after leaving Rutgers to take a new position at New Jersey City University. Working from my home base in Bloomfield, NJ, an inner core suburb of Newark, I sought to cultivate a series of contacts and establish relationships with people in the local community who had stories to tell about the events that took place in the summer of 1967. Not content to focus exclusively on Newark, and in keeping with a well-established sociological tradition of comparative-historical research, I chose to do a comparative study of two similar, but potentially different events.

For the comparative case, I chose Detroit, a city whose respective “riot” or “rebellion” took place a mere ten days after Newark and which, along with Newark, represented the most destructive episode of civil disorder of that summer. My sense was that I might encounter key similarities among these two cities which had both suffered from de-industrialization and a massive loss of population since their heyday in the 1950s. I wondered if people in the two cities experienced the events of 1967 differently, or if the commonalities of experience outweighed whatever local differences seemed to distinguish the two events and their public perception. In the summer of 2001, with a grant from Rutgers’ Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies, I made my first of five annual summer visits to Detroit, ranging from 10 days to a full two months in 2004. My purpose in doing fieldwork in these two cities was essential the same—to find people who were eyewitnesses to the events of 1967 and to record their memories.

I was soon invited in 2001 to participate as a consultant for the New Jersey Historical Society, which was beginning the planning process for a museum exhibit about civil unrest in America during the 1960s, In 2005, I became the chief oral historian for that exhibit, conducting further interviews under the auspices of the Historical Society. The exhibit titled “What’s Going On: Newark, and the Legacy of the 1960s” opened in September of 2007 to acclaim from historians and museum studies scholars. This book is in many ways a companion piece to the museum exhibit, drawing from over one hundred oral history interviews I had conducted in Newark and Detroit over an eight year period from 2001-2009. I owe the staff of the New Jersey Historical Society, particularly the former President and CEO, Linda Caldwell Epps, a great debt of gratitude for their unwavering support for this project. ← x | xi →

Unlike more traditional sociological studies that involve the analysis of numerical data or survey responses, and which are predicated on detailed, systematic research design, I began this project with a loosely structured plan for gathering data. I first sought to familiarize myself with the respective communities of Newark and Detroit, walking the streets, going to bars and barbershops, attending church services and synagogues—sometime combining visits to all of these different types of venues in the same day. Moving along the continuum between secular and sacred space, I attended religious festivals, carnivals, family parties, protests, and commemoration ceremonies in the two cities. At these venues, there always seemed to be someone eager to tell me their story.

For example, while attending services at a conservative synagogue in Oak Park, Michigan a suburb of Detroit, I mentioned to the rabbi that I was doing a project on the “riots”. After services, a group of congregants approached me, each with their own story to share. As is the custom during Shabbat (Sabbath) services, I was unable to take written notes during, but discretely handed out my business card. I subsequently received several calls during the week from individuals whom I had met that day at temple. In a different vein, one evening while playing pool at a neighborhood bar on the East Side of Detroit, I made the acquaintance of one of the patrons, a thirty-something social worker whose father had been heavily involved as a leader of a black nationalist trade union movement. A few days later her father came to my apartment with a “friend” who happened to be another prominent black labor organizer—a man who himself was arrested during the “rebellion” on a weapons charge. Such encounters ran the gamut from intentional (the synagogue visit) to the serendipitous bar meeting. In either case, it is doubtful that I would have encountered these respondents had I employed a more formal sampling strategy.

As oral historian Paul Thompson notes, the issue of systematic sampling presents oral historians with a challenge. Contrasting the oral history method with survey research techniques, Thompson states:

       Social surveys are normally based on carefully chose samples, designed to secure as representative a group of informants as possible. They confront the oral historian with a dilemma. A survey whose respondents are predetermined, and interviewed according to an inflexible schedule, will collect material of intrinsically lower quality. Some of the best potential informants will be missed, and others often less willing chosen in their place; while the interview itself cannot be sufficiently flexible to draw the most from them. On the other hand, one of the great advantages of oral history is that it enables the historian to counteract the bias in normal historical sources; the tendency, for example, for printed autobiography to come from the professional or upper classes, or from labor leaders rather than the rank and file.3 ← xi | xii →

Nonetheless, Thompson does not entirely reject the idea of sampling. Rather, he suggests:

       “To meet the various problems raised by retrospective representativeness, the oral historian needs to develop, rather than the standardized random battery sample, a method of strategic sampling: a more tactical approach such as the ‘theoretical sampling’ advocated by Glaser and Anselm Strauss in the their The Discovery of Grounded Theory (1967)”.4

That technique involves selecting research cases or subjects on the basis of how they compare with previously selected cases or subjects. In his research on Britain in the Edwardian age, Thompson himself employed what he calls a “quota sample”—a “list of categories of various proportions into which people had to fit in order to be counted.

Acting on the assumption that differently situated individuals would hold different recollections and different perspectives on the events of 1967, I identified several categories of respondents with whom I sought to conduct interviews. Those categories initially consisted of people who lived in the neighborhoods affected by the events (including those who were children at the time), merchants, political activists, police officers, and National Guardsmen. Later, I added two more categories to the previous list of interview subjects: journalists and members of the 82nd Airborne who served in Detroit.

Locating police officers and National Guardsman who were interested in sharing their stories proved to be a more challenging task than finding ordinary citizens with stories to tell. Some were identified by utilizing extended network ties to family and friends of other respondents, such as a former National Guardsmen who was the dentist for a family of Detroit merchants whom I had interviewed earlier. In most cases, however, police and military personnel were recruited through their respective institutions. Shortly after arriving in Detroit in the summer of 2001, my partner Jennifer Oshiki and I contacted the Detroit Police Department who provided us with a list of all active police officers that had been on duty in 1967. We called every number on that list, and despite encountering numerous refusals, we eventually were able to obtain interviews with several police officers. Similarly, we called the National Guard headquarters in Michigan and they provided us with the names of several former Guardsmen who were willing to participate in our study. In New Jersey, I established contact with some former National Guardsman by obtaining referrals from the NJ National Guard Museum in Sea Girt, NJ. In 2004, I worked briefly, along with several colleagues from Rutgers, as an instructor for cultural diversity classes offered to the New Jersey State Police. There I made the acquaintance of a few State Troopers who provided leads to other officers whom had served in Newark in 1967. Members ← xii | xiii → of the 82nd Airborne were located by posting to a discussion board for the retired members of that Army division.

In both cities, several respondents were located as a result of a personal tie or family connection. Some of the interviewees in Newark were the parents and grandparents of students who were enrolled in my classes at Rutgers or NJCU. Other respondents were shopkeepers whose stores I frequented. Some were members of my synagogue, including my dentist who worked as a social worker in Newark’s Central Ward and whose father owned a dry goods store close to the epicenter of the “riot”. Finally, Gabriella Frisoli, an instructional technology expert at Rutgers helped me set up a website www.67riots.rutgers.edu, which included an on-line discussion forum where individuals could post their recollections. In some cases I conducted in-person follow up interviews with people who posted to the discussion forum. For example, I interviewed a woman in Detroit who had mentioned that she was in the “blind pig” (an illegal after-hours drinking establishment) when it was raided by the police on the evening of July 23, 1967—the incident that sparked the Detroit “riot”. Had she not posted her information to the website, it is doubtful that I would have been able to locate her or anyone like her on my own.

The multi-pronged strategy I used to find individuals who were interviewed for the present study is not uncommon for oral history projects. In fact, it bears great resemblance to that employed by Paul Thompson. Describing his research methodology Thompson states:

       It is all too possible to fill a category in the frame locally from a single social network which might, for example, exclude the less respectable. We therefore used a variety of means to find informants: personal contacts, doctor’s lists, welfare centers, visiting organizations, essay competitions, newspapers, and even chance encounter. We tried to notice the social bias which particular methods of contact could produce and to counteract them. And there can be no doubt that the presence of the sample frame itself served to push the search for informants well beyond what would otherwise have seemed sufficient. In oral history work, as in any social research, it is too easy to miss the people at the margins: the very rich and the very poor, the disabled, the homeless and so on. And we certainly found ourselves that the wholly unskilled, the ‘rough’ and ‘unrespectable’ for example, were again and again almost to the last moment socially invisible.5

As Thompson and other practitioners of oral history like Grele 19916, Tonkin, 19927, and Richie 20038 note, a key strength of the oral history method is that it can give voice to people whose stories are often ignored by mainstream historians, namely those who are not in positions of authority. By gathering and presenting the stories of the marginalized, oral histories can help serve as a counterbalance to traditional historical narratives which are typically rely on documents that are written by, and thus reflect, the perspectives of the powerful and privileged. This provides a ← xiii | xiv → sense of balance to the historian’s reconstruction of the past, making the previously “invisible” visible. Thompson remarks:

       Since the nature of most existing records is to reflect the standpoint of authority, it is not surprising that the judgment of history has more often than not vindicated the wisdom of the powers that be. Oral history by contrast makes a much fairer trial possible: witnesses can now be called from the underclasses, the unprivileged and the defeated. It provides a more realistic and fair reconstruction of the past, a challenge to the established account. In so doing, oral history has radical implication for the social message of history as a whole.9


XXII, 280
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2013 (November)
consequences causes trauma urban unrest collective memory,
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2013. 277 pp.

Biographical notes

Max Arthur Herman (Author)

Max Arthur Herman is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at New Jersey City University. Since receiving his M.A. from Yale University and his PhD from the University of Arizona, Herman has taught courses on urban sociology, race and ethnicity, social movements, and the sociology of religion at a variety of public and private universities including Rice University, Oberlin College, and Rutgers University. He is the author of Fighting in the Streets: Ethnic Succession and Urban Unrest in Twentieth Century America (Peter Lang, 2005). In addition to these academic engagements, Herman currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the Jewish Museum of New Jersey, located at historic Congregation Ahavas Sholom in Newark.


Title: Summer of Rage