Major Race Riots in the U.S.

Read about some of the most violent riots in U.S. history

1898: Wilmington, North Carolina

While Democrats held power at the state level in North Carolina, a coalition of white Republicans and African Americans controlled politics in Wilmington, in 1898. A group of Democrats sought to remove blacks from the political scene and launched a campaign to do so by accusing black men of sexually assaulting white women. A prominent black newspaper editor, Alex Manly, responded with an editorial suggesting that it was possible that relations between white women and black men were consensual—a taboo subject at the time. About 500 white men attacked and burned Manly's office. Fourteen African Americans were killed in the violence.

1906: Atlanta, Georgia

Racial tension had been building in Atlanta in 1906 and race-baiting in the state's gubernatorial election brought it to a boil. Blacks in Georgia had begun to prosper economically and socially, and the Democratic candidates for governor, Hoke Smith and Clark Howell, played on whites' fear of a rising black middle class. Anti-black violence broke out in September after two newspapers printed stories about black men assaulting white women. Most of the allegations were false. About 10,000 white men and boys took to the streets, beating black men. Between 25 and 100 blacks were killed and hundreds were injured.

1917: East St. Louis

Several thousand African Americans seeking employment opportunities moved to East St. Louis, historically a white city, from the South during World War. On July 1, a black man was rumored to have killed a white man. Anti-black violence followed, with whites shooting, beating, and lynching African Americans. Arson against African-American homes also occurred. The violence continued for a week. Estimates of deaths range from 40 to 200 African Americans. In addition, some 6,000 blacks fled East St. Louis.

1919: Red Summer

Race riots erupted in 26 U.S. cities during the course of the year, including Washington, DC; Knoxville, Tennessee; Longview, Texas; Phillips County, Arkansas; Omaha, Nebraska; and Chicago. Many of the riots occurred during the summer months, in what is known as the "Red Summer." Racial tension was particularly bad in northern cities as white soldiers returning from World War I found that their jobs had been taken by African Americans who had migrated north during to take advantage of employment opportunities. In addition, black soliders returning from war became embittered by the lack of civil rights extended to them, particularly after they risked their lives fighting for their country. Chicago experienced the most violence. On July 27, 1919, Eugene Willaims, a 17-year-old black man, was swimming with friends in Lake Michigan and entered into a "white only" area of the water. A group of white men threw rocks at Williams. He was hit in the head and drowned. Police refused to arrest the man who threw the rock, and fighting between white and black gangs erupted in Chicago's South Side. The violence escalated, and the state militia was deployed. Fighting continued until Aug. 3, and 15 white people and 23 blacks were killed. About 1,000 black people lost their homes to arson.

1921: Tulsa, Oklahoma

The Greenwood section of Tulsa, the wealthiest black community in the country, erupted in violence on May 31 and June 1 after a young white woman accused a black man, Dick Rowland, of grabbing her arm in an elevator. Rowland was arrested and police launched an investigation. Accounts of the assault were exaggerated, and a mob of armed white men gathered outside the Tulsa County Courthouse. The sheriff enlisted officers to protect Rowland, and an armed group of black men went to the courthouse to help protect Rowland. Gunfire was exchanged between the groups, and the violence intensified. Many of the black people retreated to the Greenwood neighborhood. Whites followed, burning and looting the buildings and homes. About 1,250 homes were destroyed. The Oklahoma National Guard was called in, and imprisoned some 6,000 blacks. There are reports that whites fired on Greenwood from planes. Reports of fatalities vary, but the state of Oklahoma reports that 26 blacks and 10 whites died in the violence. A report released in 2000 by the Tulsa Race Riot Commission said about 300 people died.

1943: Detroit

In the 1940s, Detroit, a segregated city, was a hotbed of racial tension. On a steamy evening in late June, a fistfight broke out between a black and white young men at an amusement park called Belle Isle. The fighting quickly grew in scope and intensity. The violence escalated when rumors about violence against white and black women circulated, and both whites and blacks engaged in retaliatory attacks. Homes and busineses were burned and looted and people were beaten and shot. The fighting raged for three days, and 6,000 U.S. Army troops were brought in. Twenty-five black people and nine whites were killed. About 700 were injured.

1965: Watts

Watts, the predominately black neighborhood in Los Angeles, erupted in riots that lasted from August 11 to 17 after the arrest of 21-year-old Marquette Frye, a black motorist, by a white highway patrolman, Lee Minikus. Racial tension had been on the rise in Los Angeles, and particularly in Watts, because of years of discrimination and racial injustice. A crowd of African Americans gathered and watched as a scuffle broke out between police; Frye; his brother, Ronald; and their mother, Rena Price. Ronald and Price were also arrested. The number of people gathering increased, and the crowd of black onlookers through rocks and concrete at police. Nearly 4,000 National Guardsmen were deployed, in addition to about 1,600 police officers. Martial law was declared and a curfew implemented. More than 30,000 people participated in the riots, fighting with police, looting white-owned homes and businesses, and attacking white residents. The riots left 34 dead, more than 1,000 injured, and about 4,000 arrested.

1967: Newark

Black residents of Newark felt disenfranchised and that they were victims of racial profiling, creating a palpable sense of racial tension. On July 12, John Smith, a black cab driver, was arrested for improperly passing a police car. He was taken to a police station across the street from a public housing project. Residents of the project reported that Smith was seriously injured and was dragged from the police car into the station. They reported the event to several civil rights groups, who asked to see Smith. They requested that Smith be taken to the hospital for treatment. Word of the incident spread, and black leaders organized a peaceful protest. However, the protest turned violent, with black demonstrators throwing bottles, rocks, and Molotov cocktails at the police station. Rioting followed for the next several nights, and the National Guard was deployed. Despite the presence of the National Guard, the violence and looting continued for three nights. The worst rioting in New Jersey's history left 26 dead, 725 injured, about 1,500 arrested, and more than $10 million in property damage.

1968: King Assassination Riots

Riots broke out in about 125 cities following the April 4, 1968, assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Washington, DC, Chicago, and Baltimore experienced the most violence. In Washington, violence broke out hours after the assassination. On April 5, looting, arson and attacks on police increased, and as many as 20,000 people participated in the riots. The National Guard and Marines were dispatched. The riots reached within two blocks of the White House. Twelve people were killed, more than 1,200 buildings were destroyed, and damage was tallied at $27 million, leaving the district's economy in tatters.

Rioting in Baltimore began April 5. Maryland's governor Spiro Agnew called in the National Guard, and later needed to dispatch federal troops to help control the violence and looting. Rioting continued until April 14. Seven people were killed, 700 injured, and about 4,500 were arrested.

In Chicago, rioting took place over a 28-block area in Chicago's West Side. As in other cities, rioters looted stores and homes, set buildings on fire, and broke windows. In addition to some 10,500 police officers, about 6,700 members of the National Guard and 5,000 federal troops were deployed. Eleven people were killed in the violence and 2,150 arrests were made.

1992: Rodney King Riots

In the early hours of March 3, 1991, Rodney King was pulled over for driving recklessly. A witness, George Holliday, videotaped the end of King's encounter with police from his apartment balcony. The video shows the officers severely beating Rodney King in the presence of other L.A. cops—all told, nearly 20 seconds of hitting and kicking as King tries to rise from the ground. Aired repeatedly all over the country and then around the world, the footage shocked viewers and charges were brought against four cops: Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno, Timothy Wind and Stacey Koon. On April 29, 1992, a jury acquitted three of the officers and deadlocked on the charges against Powell. Predominantly African American areas of Los Angeles erupted in violence, and six days of riots led to 50 deaths, thousands of arrests and an estimated one billion dollars in property damage. At one point Rodney King appeared before cameras to make a public plea that included the simple words, "Can we all get along here? Can we all get along?" King was awarded $3.8 million after a civil suit against the city (and others).

2014: Ferguson, Missouri

On Aug. 9, a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old teenager in Ferguson, Mo. Details of the shooting have been under dispute since the incident. Police said that Brown was shot during an altercation with the officer. However, a friend who was with Brown at the time said that the officer shot Brown when he refused to move from the middle of the street and that Brown's hands were over his head at the moment of the shooting. The following night, after a candlelight vigil for Brown, protesters filled the streets near the shooting. Police officers arrived on the scene with riot gear, including rifles and shields. The protest turned violent and images from cell phones went viral on social media, including several accounts of looting.

—Beth Rowen

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