Civil Rights and Riots

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The Facebook post by C. Anita Nunez quoted in the June 4 letters section rewrites history and sends the wrong message about riots as a catalyst for progressive change. She wrote, “After Martin Luther King Jr, was assassinated, 110 cities rioted for a week … At the conclusion, the Civil Rights Act was passed.” The two most important civil rights laws of the 20th century, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were the fruits of a transformative movement led by MLK that was disciplined and scrupulously non-violent. The 1968 riots after his death widened the schism between moderates and militants in the black community and produced a white backlash that Richard Nixon rode to the White House on a law and order platform.

The writer may be referring to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which was signed into law by President Johnson during the MLK riots. But that legislation passed the House with Johnson’s strong support in August 1967 and the Senate in March 1968, weeks before King’s death.

One impact of riots on this law was the inclusion of the controversial Title X, a.k.a the Anti-Riot Act, which was used to prosecute black activist H. Rap Brown later that year. In a recent opinion piece, former President Obama encouraged peaceful protest and aggressive political action on all fronts but cautioned, “Let’s not excuse violence or rationalize it or participate in it. If we want our criminal justice system and American society at large to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.”

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