Fifty years after the riots that shook America, has anything changed?

Julian Zelizer, CNN Political Analyst | 7/12/2017, 5:22 p.m.
On the hot summer night on of July 12, 1967, two white policemen in Newark, New Jersey, arrested an African-American ...
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Editor's note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst, is the author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." He's co-host of the "Politics & Polls" podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN) -- On the hot summer night on of July 12, 1967, two white policemen in Newark, New Jersey, arrested an African-American cabdriver named John Smith for "tailgating" and driving in the wrong direction. The police also accused Smith of physical assault and using offensive language. Race relations had been growing more tense over the year as Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio announced a series of decisions that had angered the African-American community.

Some of the residents who were living across the street from where the arrest took place walked out of their homes to watch the incident. Smith was badly beaten. As the police hauled him to the Fourth Precinct station, word spread within the community about what was happening. African-American taxi drivers sent out reports through their radios. A crowd slowly gathered to monitor and protest Smith's treatment. Word quickly spread about the arrest and what was taking place inside the station.

Violence later erupted in the city and in other cities in the United States, leading to a nationwide debate over policing, race relations, and urban decay that culminated with the release of the historic Kerner Commission Report, which declared that America was moving toward "two societies, one white, one black -- separate and unequal."

A total of five days of brutal rioting rocked Newark. There were violent clashes between the rioters and the National Guard, who were instructed to use their weapons whenever necessary. One African American man recalled that, as a child living through the riots, "my mother was so afraid, because she has eight kids, she had us under the bed hiding. I remember bullets and stuff coming through."

A member of the National Guard remembered witnessing a fellow guardsman shoot a teenager who had stolen cigarettes, and his fellow guardsmen assaulting an African-American who was handcuffed. "It was just like the Wild West," he said.

When the riots ended on July 17, there were 26 people dead and hundreds injured. But this was not the end of chaos for the country. The riots in Newark were followed by equally devastating riots in Detroit and several other smaller cities across the nation.

On July 23, undercover police in Detroit raided an unlicensed bar where a crowd of working class African-Americans had gathered to welcome home some returning Vietnam War veterans. The raid sparked five days of rioting. After the police rounded up 82 people, a crowd surrounded the police and yelled: "Black power. Don't let them take our people away."

Violence quickly escalated as the officers took the men to jail, and President Johnson signed an order authorizing federal troops to intervene. Forty-three people died, more than a thousand were injured; about seven thousand were arrested.