- The Great Uprising: Race Riots in Urban America during the 1960s by Peter B. Levy
Historians of urban rebellions in the 1960s have tended to focus on clashes in large cities, such as the Watts uprising in Los Angeles in 1965 and the campus and commodity rebellions during the long hot summer of 1967. Surprisingly, comparatively little has been written about the Holy Week Uprising in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., during which 196 cities endured disturbances. Consequently, Peter B. Levy argues, scholars have misunderstood the deeply rooted causes of the rebellions and have viewed them as a collective rupture that effectively marked the end of the long civil rights movement and the liberal consensus. The riots, others have argued, precipitated white backlash and unwittingly catalyzed the mobilization of the so-called silent majority. With a compelling narrative style, Levy counters this interpretation, presenting evidence that the uprisings descended from and inspired ongoing local civil rights activism. Additionally, they did not stoke the flames of white backlash; indeed, many white Americans' attitudes toward black citizens' civil rights gains had already been negative before the uprisings of the late 1960s.
The "Great Uprising," as Levy coins it, was a sustained period of "over 750 urban revolts" that began in 1963 and ended in 1972, touching more than five hundred cities (p. 1). White Americans believed that outside agitators caused the violence and that black people's alleged cultural depravity made it possible. Levy demonstrates otherwise with three case studies: the 1967 disturbance in Cambridge, Maryland, the 1968 uprising in Baltimore, Maryland, and the 1969 revolt in York, Pennsylvania. Dividing the book into three parts, each of which focuses on one of those three rebellions, Levy traces the long tradition of civil rights activism in each locale before describing the causes (namely, housing and employment discrimination, educational disenfranchisement, police violence, white terrorism, racial gerrymandering and political underrepresentation, and environmental racism) and the effects of the violence, the ways contemporaries understood the causes of the violence, and what they believed the government's response should be.
Through a rich use of newspapers, court files, census records, and oral histories (many of which have been digitized by the University of Baltimore), Levy reintroduces inspiring figures such as Gloria Richardson and H. Rap Brown, who were pilloried by the white press and government officials as instigators of violence. Levy argues, alternatively, that civil rights activists and black nationalists prevented violence by providing hope to black Americans. Readers also learn of the lynching of Lillie Belle Allen in 1969 in York by white gangs who had been supplied weapons by the local police department—a harrowing story that had been ignored by the press and historians. And readers meet white terrorists face-to-face, such as Chester Roach, who shot at least ten black youths on a summer night in 1968 in York because they were making too much noise for his liking. [End Page 225]
Levy hints at work that remains to be done. He briefly touches on issues of gender toward the end of most chapters, suggesting, for instance, that Maryland governor Spiro Agnew, white gangs, and black men involved in the rebellions were all motivated in part by a need to assert their manhood, but the claim lacks compelling evidence. Black women's activism was centered on issues of sustaining their families, such as fighting for fair housing, Levy suggests, though whether women were uniquely involved in such struggles remains unclear. That is, Levy has produced a welcome contribution to civil rights movement literature, and in doing so he has also inspired scholars to raise questions about how gender, and presumably sexuality, may reconfigure interpretations of the meaning of the greatest period of domestic disturbances in the United States since the Civil War.