Explosive Riots That Changed The Course Of American History

Published December 12, 2016
Updated February 10, 2017
Detroit 1967
Crown Heights
Draft Riot
Explosive Riots That Changed The Course Of American History
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"The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win, and their participants know it," said Martin Luther King Jr. in an address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) just weeks before his death on April 4, 1968.

"Hence riots are not revolutionary but reactionary because they invite defeat," King continued. "They offer an emotional catharsis, but they must be followed by a sense of futility."

Just after April 4, King's death set off perhaps the largest and most destructive wave of riots that the United States had ever seen.

And in the years leading up to his death, the civil rights and anti-war causes in which King played a leading role had informed some of U.S. history's most devastating riots (a loaded, often pejorative word that's used instead of, say, "demonstrations" or "protests" in accordance with how marginalized the principal racial and socioeconomic group involved is).

So it is that Martin Luther King Jr., of all people, ought to have known whereof he spoke when he addressed the SCLC in early 1968. But perhaps he wasn't quite right.

King's words do in fact illuminate the essential tension at the core of all riots, one between fury and impotence, zeal and futility. But while King's words ring true in the short term, their accuracy seems to fade as time wears on.

In other words, perhaps riots indeed "cannot win" in the sense that they cannot and do not right the proximate wrongs to which they are reflexively responding -- the Boston Tea Party didn't get the Tea Act repealed, the Rodney King riots didn't put his abusers behind bars, and so on.

However, in the longer view of history, riots certainly can and often do ameliorate the underlying societal ills to which they are responding -- the Boston Tea Party did help usher the colonies toward revolution, the Rodney King riots did lead to the creation of the Rebuild L.A. redevelopment initiative to fight urban decay.

And yes, Rebuild L.A.'s notorious failures outnumber its underpublicized successes, but those successes may never have come to fruition at all without the impetus of the riots.

That's not to condone mass violence and destruction, but instead to suggest that dismissing riots as mere societal tantrums (as Martin Luther King Jr. himself once did) is myopic. For better and worse, riots, maybe more than any other kind of mass civil action, have always both charted and changed the ever tumultuous course of American history.

Underneath the sound and fury, riots have always been one of the few ways for the ignored to make themselves known to the powerful. Or as King himself put it, in what actually may be one of American history's most insightful explanations on the matter, "A riot is the language of the unheard."

From before the American Revolution to the present, the calamitous yet consequential riots above bear out King's words.

Next, read up on the five strangest riots in history. Then, allow these 1968 photos to show you some more of America's worst riots all within that one tumultuous year.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
Cite This Article
Kuroski, John. "Explosive Riots That Changed The Course Of American History." AllThatsInteresting.com, December 12, 2016, https://allthatsinteresting.com/americas-worst-riots. Accessed April 20, 2024.