n Aug. 28, 1964, African-Americans began three nights of rioting in Philadelphia. It was exactly a year after Martin Luther King, Jr. issued his iconic call for black freedom and equality at the March on Washington.
A half-century later we imprison disproportionate numbers of African-Americans, who are more likely to be targeted or killed by law enforcement officials. That’s what unleashed the recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police killing of Michael Brown — an unarmed black man — on Aug. 9.
That was also the most common trigger for the race riots of the 1960s, which sparked panic in the heart of white America. Between June 1963 and May 1968, our cities witnessed 239 riots involving over 200,000 participants. Eight thousand people were injured, and 190 lost their lives.
By August 1967, over half of white Americans told pollsters that they felt scared for their personal safety. Never mind that the vast majority of riot casualties were black. In the Watts riot of 1965 in Los Angeles, for example, 28 of 34 killed were African-American; in Newark’s 1967 riot, 24 of 26 dead were black.
Not surprisingly, the races differed in their analysis of the violence as well. In a 1967 survey, asking respondents to list causes of the riots, over two-thirds of blacks but just one-third of whites cited lack of jobs and decent housing for African-Americans. Half of blacks and less than 10 percent of whites mentioned police brutality.
Over the next 20 years, these numbers would help fuel a tectonic shift in American politics. Souring on the liberal social programs of the Great Society, millions of white Democrats deserted the party. They found a ready home in a revamped GOP and its call for “law and order,” a none-too-subtle appeal to racial anxieties.
And they found an effective standard bearer in Ronald Reagan, who played up the Watts riots in his successful bid to unseat California Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown — the current governor’s father — in 1966. By 1980, when Mr. Reagan swept into the White House, law and order had become the official GOP creed. It resurfaced in 1988, when George H.W. Bush used the figure of Willie Horton — a black rapist paroled by Massachusetts’ Michael Dukakis — to win the presidency.
Democrats tried to play catch-up, but mostly in vain. Warned by an aide that the crime issue “could destroy us,” Lyndon Johnson signed legislation providing federal assistance to state and local governments to step up law enforcement. But the party continued to lose votes on the issue until the election of Bill Clinton, who supported “three strikes and you’re out” sentencing laws and an expanded federal death penalty.
Likewise, Democrats lent their voices to the growing GOP chorus for gun rights. In the midst of the 1960s riots, a white author published a popular guide to “Defending Yourself, Your Family and Your Home” — including suggestions about firearms and tear gas. Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association built bipartisan support for a novel legal theory: that the Second Amendment protected private gun ownership.
Fast-forward to the present, and you can see the fruits of the law-and-order consensus. Between 1980 and 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America skyrocketed from 500,000 to 2.3 million; home to just 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States now houses a quarter of its prisoners. African-Americans are six times as likely to be imprisoned as whites; if present trends continue, one in three black men can expect to spend part of life in prison.
But there’s also been some good news. As public treasuries groan under the burden of law enforcement, Democrats and a few Republicans (including GOP presidential hopeful Rand Paul) are calling for alternatives to incarceration. Mr. Paul has also condemned racial profiling by police, which has come under some welcome bipartisan scrutiny.
Indeed, in the wake of the Ferguson riots, some Republicans attacked law enforcement more than they condemned the people breaking the law. GOP blogger Erick Erickson wrote that police in Ferguson “behaved more like a paramilitary unit than a police force,” while National Review columnist Charles C. W. Cooke noted that episodes like the shooting of Michael Brown “open old and real wounds.”
Yet on guns — and guns alone — the post-1960s consensus continues. Even in the wake of the Sandy Hook schoolhouse massacre, nobody in either party seems ready to take on Americans’ penchant for firearms. The riots of the 1960s spawned a massive campaign to imprison our fellow citizens, all in the service of law and order. It would be ironic — and tragic — if the riots’ lasting legacy was the right of each citizen to wield a lethal weapon against everybody else.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in suburban Philadelphia (firstname.lastname@example.org). He is the author of “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education,” which will be published next spring by Princeton University Press.