As I read Michael W. Flamm’s In the Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime, Detroit was observing the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 race riots there. The occasion was memorialized with public lectures and discussions, a digital news project, and the release of Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, Detroit (2017). In recent years, historians have produced books and public commemorations about the racial uprisings in Watts, Newark, and even Rochester, New York. But oddly enough, very little has been written about the New York City riots of 1964, the first of the summer uprisings that became almost commonplace in the late 1960s. As Flamm suggests, it may be that the New York riots do not quite fit our textbook periodization of the black freedom struggle, coming as they did in the heat of Freedom Summer and just days after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As the southern civil rights movement moved toward a crescendo with the Selma protests and the passage of the Voting Rights Act a year later, the summer of 1965 and the Watts riots seem like a more appropriate turning point. But as the author points out, the New York riots are important not just because they marked the first long, hot summer, but because they revealed a new racial fracturing that would “drive a wedge between the civil rights movement and many white liberals” (2). As Flamm argues, conservatives like Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater purposely conflated street crime with urban rioting and civil rights protests, offering “law and order” as an antidote to white fear. Coming in a presidential election year, the 1964 riots proved to be pivotal in that process, as President Lyndon Johnson was pressed to take up the mantle of law and order while simultaneously advancing the War on Poverty. While the latter was overhyped and under-resourced, the War on Crime would become a juggernaut that would consume billions of federal dollars, militarize domestic law enforcement, and lead to the mass incarceration of the nation’s black and Latino populations. And though Democratic support for these programs was rising, it would not be enough to enable Hubert Humphrey to defeat Richard Nixon in 1968. Flamm’s treatment of the riots is riveting. Beginning with the shooting of James Powell, a fifteen-year-old black high school student, by off-duty police lieutenant Thomas Gilligan, the author chronicles the protests that followed and the six days of riots that shook Harlem and the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Following several key figures, but especially Lyndon Johnson and civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, Flamm analyzes the public reactions and political repercussions that led Democrats to support pro–law enforcement measures such as the creation of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration and the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. Scouring government records, press reports, and the papers of public officials and civil rights organizations, Flamm also interviewed surviving participants, including police officers and residents of Harlem and Brooklyn. He thus provides a street-level feel for the events of that feverish time. The result is a much more detailed and textured treatment than previous accounts provide. He lets the participants speak for themselves, leaving us with starkly different views of the same events. This method makes for compelling reading but sometimes leaves the reader wanting more analysis. As is often the case regarding incidents of racial violence, black and white views diverge dramatically. Flamm is careful not to go beyond his sources, but sometimes the broader realities of racial segregation, urban decline, police violence, and white intransigence need further explication to help us understand the depth of black frustration and rage. Moreover, the author tends to see the War on Poverty and the War on Crime as competing programs, the latter providing political cover for the Democrats’ support for anti-poverty programs. But as Elizabeth Hinton has recently argued, the fate of the two was deeply and programmatically intertwined, especially after the urban riots heightened political demands for law and order. Even before Richard Nixon accelerated the War on Crime, the liberal War on Poverty had gradually become the vehicle for anti-crime programs that laid the groundwork for the mass-incarceration regime that followed. These criticisms aside, In the Heat of the Summer is well worth reading, particularly for those interested in the history of New York City. It provides a long-overdue chronicle of that fateful summer and helps us understand a pivotal moment in the tangled history of race and politics in the 1960s. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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