1964 July 16

Police Shooting Sparks Harlem Riot; Four Years of “Long Hot Summers” Begin


The fatal shooting of a fifteen year-old African-American youth, James Powell, by a white off-duty New York City police officer sparked six days of rioting in Harlem, the center of the African-American community in New York City. An estimated 4,000 people participated in the riot, which left one person dead, 118 people injured, and considerable property damage.

The riot had profound long-term consequences. In addition to riots in Philadelphia, Rochester, and other cities that summer, it led to even more wide-spread rioting across the country in the summers of 1965, 1966, and 1967. That period has been labeled the “long hot summers.” In response to the riots, President Lyndon Johnson created the Kerner Commission (officially the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders) which studied the riots and their causes and issued its report on February 29, 1968.

Fears of a political backlash against the civil rights movement caused the more moderate civil rights groups, the NAACP and the Urban League, the proposed a temporary moratorium on demonstrations until after the November presidential election. They were particularly afraid that a backlash would result in more votes for Republican candidate Barry Goldwater and hurt Democratic Party candidate President Lyndon Johnson. At a meeting on July 29, 1964, however, the two militant civil rights groups, SNCC and C.O.R.E., refused to call off militant civil rights tactics, which they argued had been most successful in achieving civil rights gains.

The riots, together with anti-Vietnam War protests sparked a conservative backlash that derailed the momentum of the civil rights movement and the election of Richard Nixon as President in 1968.

Previous riots, expressing African-American discontent with discrimination, occurred in March 1935 (see March 20, 1935) and August 1, 1943.

Exactly 50 years later, on August 9, 2014, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed Michael Brown, a young African-American man, setting off nationwide protests. In response, President Barack Obama established a President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which made a sweeping set of proposals for police reform. Read the Task Force report issued on March 4, 2014.

Read: National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission), Report (1968)

Read the definitive new book on police shootings: Franklin Zimring, When Police Kill (2017)

And read: Milton Viorst, Fire in the Streets: America in the 1960s (1979)

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