- In the Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crim by Michael W. Flamm
In a year which witnessed over one thousand civilian fatalities at the hands of police (disproportionately people of color) and a successful presidential campaign by Donald Trump which lifted shamelessly from Richard Nixon’s championing of domestic “law and order,” Michael Flamm’s new book on the New York uprisings of 1964 and their political fallout is certainly timely. Having chronicled the mid-sixties rebellions of Newark and Detroit in his first book, Flamm now moves back in time to document the first major urban disorders of the 1960s and their legacies for policing, incarceration, and national political discourse. In doing so, he joins a host of other scholars who have persuasively argued that “law and order” was a firm rhetorical ground on which liberals and conservatives could wage a bipartisan war against poor communities of color. Unfortunately, like Michael Fortner’s controversial new book Black Silent Majority, Flamm also becomes the second author in as many years to empty Harlem of its rich radical and black nationalist political traditions by emphasizing more conservative voices calling for crime control.
Flamm argues that the uprisings in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1964 marked a formative moment in federal politics in which the “black rioter” joined [End Page 530] notions of black criminality at the nexus of white anxiety, one mobilized through the campaigns of Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater’s unprecedented bid for the presidency coincided with the murder of fifteen year-old James Powell at the hands of white police officer, Thomas Gilligan, marking a “pivotal juncture in the nation’s history” which inextricably and irrevocably linked urban rebellions to bipartisan calls for “law and order” aimed at building up the capacities of police and the carceral state (2). The argument that there was a liberal-conservative consensus around this program is not new; Naomi Murakawa, Marie Gottschalk, and Elizabeth Hinton have all persuasively argued that the rhetoric and apparatus which Nixon mobilized in 1968 had been developed during the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. But Flamm argues that historians have neglected the significance of the 1964 rebellions, pointing readers more specifically to what he calls the “extraordinary drama of a single week when peaceful protests and violent unrest intersected, law and order moved to the forefront of presidential politics, the freedom struggle reached a crossroads, and the War on Crime was set in motion” (6).
But in what is less a gripping narrative than a painstaking and often gratuitous minute-by-minute account of the nearly week-long uprising (which Flamm inexplicably calls a “riot” despite noting that this is what whites simplistically referred to it as), the author switches between emphasizing violence in the streets and the fallout at the national level in the White House and amongst moderate civil rights leadership. Flamm is most comfortable when discussing these national figures, such as Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson, and Bayard Rustin. For example, he highlights compelling evidence for the role of the Harlem uprising in the development of national political rhetoric about law and order in his description of Goldwater’s last-ditch attempt to discredit Johnson in the 1964 election through a propaganda film called Choice. Produced by a conservative group called “Mothers for a Moral America,” the film used footage from violence in Harlem and racist tropes of interracial couples dancing to jazz contrasted against white children pledging allegiance and John Wayne advocating law and order. While Flamm is on solid ground when discussing the ways in which federal policy was formed in response to growing public concerns over lawlessness and what white Americans saw as nihilism in the streets, he does not offer anything that expands upon existing scholarship.
With the exception of his second chapter, which traces the development of black culture and politics in Harlem, Flamm’s book is mostly drawn from white journalistic accounts. Although...