Clarence Page: How riots changed us

Roundup: Talking About History

[Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board.]

Forty years later, residents of Newark, N.J., and Detroit still disagree as to whether the historic July disturbances in their cities should be remembered as "riots" or "rebellions." Let's split the difference, I say. Call them "uprisings." There were more than 100 similar violent disturbances in various cities in 1967. But the most remembered were in Detroit, where 43 people died in late July, and two weeks earlier in Newark, where 26 died.

This was two years after the Watts section of Los Angeles went up in flames and less than a year before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. would ignite dozens more cities.

We remember these disturbances mostly as riots, but that implies something random and irrational. Uprising implies a spontaneous mass action that is more explainable, yet less organized than a rebellion.

The disturbances of the 1960s had distinct causes and effects with which our cities still live. Most were ignited by explosive confrontations with police, but the seeds were set years earlier in urban "ghettos." That was the popular term at the time for the densely populated, economically starved urban communities into which black families were segregated by rampant discrimination in jobs, home mortgages, insurance redlining and other disinvestments.

What's most remarkable to me -- four decades later -- is how few remarks are being made about the upheavals. Even in Newark and Detroit, residents and civic leaders have been divided over how the tragic events should be commemorated or whether they even deserve to be acknowledged.

I attribute this reluctance to an admirable American quality: We are a forward-looking people. Like reluctant alumni at a class reunion, we are nervous about dredging up bad memories.

Besides, there is the lingering fear in many minds that if we talk about riots, they might start up again. In fact, we should try to learn from past mistakes before we make new ones....

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