"They Aren't Going to Listen to Anything but Violence": African Americans and the 1967 Buffalo Riot

Article excerpt

On Monday, 26 June 1967, a riot broke out in the city of Buffalo, New York, when two white police officers intervened in an altercation between two male African American teenagers. The riot erupted when a crowd of approximately two hundred African Americans, many of whom were residents of the Lakeview Projects, a public housing facility, responded to the perception that the police used excessive force in attempting to subdue the two youths. The rioting continued intermittently until Saturday, I July 1967. (2) On the first night of the riot, reports estimated that the crowd swelled from about 200 to 350 people. By the second night of the riot, approximately 1500 African Americans were involved, throwing stones and bricks at police officers who attempted to subdue the crowds with teargas. (3) The five-night riot resulted in about sixty injuries, over 180 arrests, and approximately $250,000 worth of property damage done to stores and homes. (4)

The Buffalo riot was part of a wave of riots that swept across urban areas of the North in the late 1960s. In spite of the gains made by the Civil Rights movement in the South, the quality of life for African Americans in Northern cities in the 1960s was deteriorating. The Second World War stimulated population growth among African Americans in the North. According to historian Henry Taylor, Buffalo's black population increased exponentially from 1950 to 1970 as African Americans migrated from the South to industrial jobs in the North. As Taylor explains, the growth of Buffalo's African American population then led to the phenomenon of white flight, which also occurred in other Northern cities at the time:

  As thousands of African Americans moved into Buffalo City, even
  greater numbers of whites fled to the emerging suburban hinterland.
  Driven by postwar prosperity, low-interest loan rates (through the
  Federal Housing Authority and the Veterans Housing Administration),
  and radical changes in the home mortgage system, home ownership rose
  and fueled suburban development. Between 1950 and 1970 the Buffalo
  population declined by 117,000 people, a loss of 20 percent. ...
  Most people fleeing the city were white. (5)

White flight resulted in de facto housing segregation, wherein the majority of those living in the East Side of Buffalo were African Americans. At the time of the riot, approximately 100,000 African Americans resided in Buffalo. (6) They constituted 21 per cent of the total population of the city. (7) Most of them lived either within the area affected by the riot or nearby. According to a newspaper article, "the area in which the rioting broke out is bounded [on] the north by Genessee Street, on the west by Jefferson Street, on the south by Broadway and on the east by Fillmore Street." (8) The riot-affected area was referred to by the press as "the Negro ghetto," (9) suggesting that residential segregation was a well-known fact in Buffalo.

In order to comprehend the riot, it is necessary to consider the social conditions that produced it. Historian Kenneth Kusmer asserts that the Northern riots of the 1960s resulted from a combination of racism and deindustrialization. He maintains that "the rapidly growing African American communities of northern cities had largely been excluded from the fruits of urban renewal, suburbanization, and 'growth politics' promoted by white political and business leaders after World War Il ... the riots of the 1960s were one result of this increasing, and unacknowledged, inequality--a trend that coincided with the crisis of the declining industrial city." (10) Deindustrialization led to unemployment, particularly among young African American men, who were the first to be laid off as companies closed down their factories. De facto segregation in housing kept African Americans trapped in the deplorable conditions of Rust Belt cities with dwindling resources, such as Buffalo. In his study of the decline of the city of Detroit, historian Thomas Sugrue argues:

  The combination of discrimination and deindustrialization weighed
  most heavily on the job opportunities of young African American men. …