WARNING: Some of the archival documents featured in this post contain racist language and beliefs.
Written by Sarah Calise, Archivist
This week marks 50 years since the black community in Detroit protested police brutality, segregated housing and schools, and rising unemployment in a five-day rebellion from July 23-27. Over 150 similar revolts occurred throughout the year, especially during June and July. Some historians dubbed this time period as “the long, hot summer of 1967.”
Earlier that year, in April, Nashville experienced its own revolt. The Nashville Banner and other news outlets were quick to blame the days of unrest on Stokely Carmichael, a leader in the Black Power movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Carmichael and other members of the Black Panther Party arrived in Nashville in early April for the IMPACT Symposium held at Vanderbilt University. Following Carmichael’s appearances at colleges and universities throughout Nashville, many black students and members of the black community protested the city’s police brutality and racial discrimination. In an interview, available for viewing in this Vanderbilt University online exhibit, Carmichael discredited The Nashville Banner claim that he and his aides planned the revolts. Instead, Carmichael asserted that the police instigated violence against him and members of the black community. There were a few people, like Vanderbilt student Frank Allen Philpot, who spoke out about how white supremacy and oppression were the real causes of all the uprisings. Read Philpot’s opinion piece on Carmichael below:
For several months after IMPACT, the local government and Nashville newspapers continued to accuse Carmichael and Black Power activists of inciting riots across the country. In late July, following deadly revolts in Newark and Detroit, hundreds of Tennesseans from across the state wrote to Senator Albert Gore asking him and his fellow Congressmen to preserve “law and order,” and Gore agreed. He replied to the letters with this statement:
Below are three representative examples of the kind of letters Gore received from constituents. (Click images to view larger)
Many of the letters directly mentioned Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and SNCC as reasons for concern. The constituents referred to these individuals and organizations as communists, terrorists, and unworthy recipients of President Johnson’s “Great Society” programs. Most of the Tennesseans who wrote Gore believed black civil rights leaders and activists were at fault for the looting, property damage, and unrest. But that was a racist conclusion. Inequalities in housing and education, rising unemployment, unequal access to health care, police brutality, oppressive structures, and the every day microagressions experienced by all black people in the United States were the causes of the revolts.
Congress and Johnson’s administration went through the bureaucratic process to consider solutions. On July 28, 1967, President Johnson established the eleven-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate the uprisings and to provide recommendations for future action. The commission had to answer three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? And, what can be done to prevent it from happening again?
The commission released their 426-page final report in February of 1968 (it is also known as the Kerner Report)–you can view its summary here via the Eisenhower Foundation. In the report, the commission condemned the uprisings for their violence but recognized that oppression from white people and institutions created such violence. The summary reasoned that “White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”
In spring of 1968, Gore received constituent letters about the commission’s report following its nationwide distribution. Below is a letter that made some particularly exceptional points about how the government seemed more focused on suppressing the uprisings rather than addressing the causes:
In his responses to many of these constituents, Gore stated that he and other Members of Congress were working on legislation to address the underlying issues of “civil disorder.” He underlined his previous support for “most of the five” civil rights bills (he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964). However, he also stressed that the passage of laws did not and could not necessarily bring about abrupt change in white people and their racist beliefs. Seen in the excerpt below, Gore wrote candidly that “…one cannot legislate brotherly love, human decency or compassion and, frankly, I do not know what the Congress can do about…aspects of so-called white racism emphasized in the Kerner report.”
By 1970, Gore was out of politics. He lost his seat to Republican Bill Brock, and some historians believe the loss was due to Gore’s anti-Vietnam stance and increasingly progressive support for civil rights legislation.
As we reflect upon the rebellions of 1967 through these archival documents, our nation must consider what has and has not changed over time. Many of the constituent letters to Gore held similar racist beliefs of those today who want to squash protests against police brutality and racial discrimination. What can we learn from these historical documents? How can they improve our understanding of current situations? In what ways do they inform how we address present and future concerns so that we are not having the same discussions another 50 years from now? Archives don’t preserve old stuff collecting dust. They preserve the ideas, people, and events that shaped our past and brought us to the present. The Gore Center shares these documents with the public to demonstrate how history is a tool for advocacy and enacting change.
We encourage you to share with us in the comments section how archives have helped you in your life! If they haven’t yet, then what can we, as archivists and historians, do better to connect you with the power of historical materials?