Top 10 Worst Race Riots in American History
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
Script written by Alex Crilly-Mckean.
Mass racial violence in U.S. history is an unfortunate reality. Whether it was the Ferguson unrest due to the death of police-involved shooting of Michael brown, the Watts Riots of 1965 or the Detroit Race Riot of 1943, which saw African-Americans and sailors clashing, race riots in the U.S. historically have been deadly. WatchMojo counts down ten of the most infamous ethnic riots in United States history.
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Script written by Alex Crilly-Mckean.
Top 10 Worst Race Riots in American History
Prejudice has never been uglier. Welcome to WatchMojo.com and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 worst race riots in U.S history.
For this list, we’re looking at the violent skirmishes across American history that were fuelled by racial discrimination.
#10: Baltimore Protests
This backlash towards police was caused by the death of African-American Freddie Gray, who was arrested for possession of a switchblade. The events surrounding the arrest are widely debated, with some claiming police folded him in half, beat him with batons, and that he had to be dragged into the van, while officers claim he could walk without assistance. What we do know for sure is that Gray, who was in good health at the time of arrest, suffered severe spinal injuries from police, fell into a coma, and died a week later. The inconsistencies in the police officers’ story only added fuel to the fire, leading to civil unrest that resulted in mass property damage and over 200 arrests.
#9: Cincinnati Riots
This city had already been on edge following prior allegations of police brutality and racial profiling, and the death of African-American teen Timothy Thomas is said to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. The shooting took place during an arrest attempt, as Thomas was wanted for various non-violent misdemeanors and traffic violations. Trying to evade police, Thomas rounded a corner and surprised an officer who shot him in the chest at point blank range. Following his death, the city erupted into four nights of rioting, which included looting, vandalism, and objects being thrown at officers in protest. An imposed curfew prevented further unrest, but by that point the damage had been done.
#8: Newark Riots
Racism was alive and thriving in New Jersey during the ‘60s, creating a melting pot that was bound to reach a boiling point eventually. African-Americans were left feeling disenfranchised and discriminated against. Police brutality, profiling, restricted access to education and opportunities, not to mention lack of political representation, created a climate of unrest. The catalyst for the ensuing riot came when cabdriver John William Smith was arrested and beaten without cause, and a rumor circulated that he’d been killed while in police custody. This was later proven to be false, but it did little to stop the rioting. Hundreds were injured and 26 individuals ultimately lost their lives.
#7: Ferguson Unrest
When we think of modern conflicts fuelled by a racial divide, none is more shocking or tragic than what occurred in Ferguson, Missouri. After allegedly robbing a convenience store, Michael Brown—who was unarmed—was shot multiple times by an officer. His death took the country by storm, sparking conversations concerning the police force’s relationship with the African American community. As the debates became more heated, misinformation spread that Brown had his hands up in surrender during the shooting, and confrontations quickly escalated in Ferguson. Mass riots broke out, which the police responded to with rapid militarization and force.
#6: The Red Summer
The Red Summer refers to a number of riots that occurred across the country in the summer of 1919, with areas like Washington D.C and Arkansas suffering the most casualties. While there were a few notable exceptions of communities fighting back, namely in Chicago, these riots were primarily caused by prejudiced white men hunting down African Americans. The scale of these killings was huge among the black community, with African-American fatalities nearing the 250-man mark in Elaine, Arkansas, alone versus the five Caucasian men who died in the same rural conflict.
#5: Watts Riots
On August 11th, 1965, Marquette Frye was pulled over by officers and arrested for drunk driving. Frye’s brother and passenger brought their mother to speak with officials, but that’s when everything went downhill. Allegedly she was pushed and Frye was hit, and things quickly spiraled out of control as angry mobs began forming on-scene. It’s considered to be the second worst case of race riots that Los Angeles has ever seen, with Watts becoming something of a battleground. The chaos lasted around six days with 34 people losing their lives and several thousand getting injured. The intervention of the National Guard managed to eventually end it, but property damage had already devastated the neighborhood.
#4: Detroit Race Riot
While the riot that took place in 1967 was just as atrocious, the incidents that occurred 20 years prior represented the worst of racial violence. An altercation that started between teenagers, it eventually led to hundreds of African-Americans clashing with Caucasians and white sailors. This turned out to only be the start, as false gossip spread about white men throwing a black mother and child into the Detroit River, while rumors that a black man murdered and raped a white woman stirred the crowd even further. White mobs were mobilized and predominantly African-American neighborhoods were attacked. White policemen are also said to have gotten involved with the murders, with 24 of the 34 men killed by police being African-American.
#3: King Assassination Riots
Martin Luther King Jr. was a symbol of justice, progress, and equality, so it should come as no surprise that his death sent shockwaves through the country, and caused outrage in the black community. With the States already caught in the middle of so much civil unrest, MLK’s assassination was the spark that led millions to riot across America in over 100 cities, with major locations like Chicago and Washington, D.C. getting involved. Property damage was monumental, thousands of soldiers had to be deployed to bring back order, and the amount of looting and injuries caused in the fallout was heavy.
#2: The New York City Draft Riots
Known to many at the time as Draft Week, the mass conscription of working-class citizens from Lower Manhattan for the ongoing Civil War pushed people to the breaking point. Riots broke out against the draft as it disproportionately targeted the poor since they couldn’t pay the $300 commutation fee to avoid being enlisted for the war. But, it quickly turned into a race riot when white Irish immigrants began attacking black men as they couldn’t register for the draft since they weren’t considered citizens, and were often their only competition when looking for low-income work. By the time Draft Week came to an end, it’s estimated that 120 people had been killed.
#1: The Los Angeles Riots
With 63 deaths, over 2,000 injuries, 12 thousand arrests and a billion dollars in damage, the City of Angels won’t soon be forgetting this bloody mark on its history. Often referred to as the Rodney King riots, this riot happened when an African-American taxi driver was beaten viciously by police following a car chase. The officers were put on trial and, despite the 12-minute long tape showing them beating King each time he tried to stand and using criminally excessive force, not to mention the LAPDs history of racial profiling and bias, they were acquitted. Pandemonium erupted throughout LA, and the National Guard, marines and other military units needed to be called in to prevent further casualties and damage.