Did you know that bricks have been in use for about 9,000 years? The earliest known bricks were discovered near Damascus, Syria. The Romans used bricks for the construction of archways and aqueducts. A brick-making machine of the nineteenth century could crank out 25,000 bricks a day. And, rioters in the 1960s used bricks to smash plate-glass windows.
I think about this now because I have been writing about the Civil Rights Movement. In an era regularly celebrated as nonviolent, it is amazing the number of bricks that went flying around.
Take Birmingham, for instance. Martin Luther King targeted the city in 1963 for a massive display of nonviolent protests. The official response to these demonstrations involved police dogs and firemen from the Birmingham Fire Department using fire hoses to tumble children into the street. An iconic image of the Birmingham Campaign is that of a white police officer and his German Shepherd attacking a peaceful black protestor. Missing from the popular narrative, shaped in large part by images like this, is that many of the protestors were not so peaceful. After bombs were set off at King’s hotel and at his brother’s home, Birmingham became the site of the first urban riot of the 1960s.
At one point, a King colleague tried to convince rioters to go home; a brick landed at his feet. This image—a black rioter hurling a brick at a black preacher—would have cast Birmingham in an entirely different light. In this case, by 1963, many blacks had arrived at the very logical conclusion that being patient and calm was not getting the job done. Indeed, during a massive sympathy march for Birmingham, held in Detroit the following month, marchers sang, “We Shall Overcome” alongside signs held by others that read “Negroes with Guns Shall Overcome.”*
It is a curious thing to me that we seem to take from a story only the parts that suit us. Of course, the story of Birmingham has been intentionally crafted in a way that teaches the value of nonviolence; that we live in a society where a little demonstration is all that is needed to fix whatever might be wrong with us. I can imagine, though, that this lesson might be hard to swallow after being blasted into the street with a fire hose.
I recently travelled to Birmingham. My first stop was the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church which was bombed by the KKK; four little black girls were murdered while preparing for Sunday school only four months after King’s campaign.
Across Sixteenth Street is a park that commemorates the Birmingham Campaign and the attack on the church. During my visit, the park was occupied by dozens of mostly black homeless people who looked on as white tourists like me visited the church. That is, poor black people looked on as middle-class white people visited a black church which had been blown up by a white guy. By the way, the memorial park is named for the first sailor of the U.S. Navy to die in World War I. He had also been a member of the Birmingham Fire Department. Oh, boy.
Most of the riots of the 1960s were in cities outside the South. A prime example is the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles which exploded in 1965 after a routine traffic stop went bad; white cop, young black man, you know the drill.
After Dr. King visited Watts to quell the violence, a reporter asked a rioter if this meant he might stop throwing bricks. The rioter responded, “Martin Luther who?” This is another example of that thing I was talking about.
Unable to control rioters who threw bricks and Molotov cocktails, the police sought the advice of those becoming more adept at dealing with guerilla warfare: the American military fighting in Vietnam. The result? The LAPD literally invented the SWAT team.
The largest uprising of the decade occurred in Detroit in 1967. After the police raided a blind pig (what a cool name for an illegal bar), it took over an hour to arrest and transport eighty prisoners as a late-night crowd gathered to chide the cops. As the last police cruiser pulled away, a brick hurled from the crowd shattered its rear window. It wasn’t the only brick thrown. As the sun came up, the police conducted a sweep operation to clear thousands of rioters. They scattered, but then came back up behind the cops and ran them off with—you guessed it—lots of bricks.
Days later, much of the city lay in ruins, forty-three people were dead, seven thousand had been arrested, and 150,000 rounds of ammunition had been discharged by the Michigan National Guard within some of the most densely populated neighborhoods of the nation’s fifth largest city. Bricks were just no match for .50 caliber machine guns.
If you haven’t noticed, I admire people who stand up to injustice. I have also tried to understand the violence. You see, I am a product of society and of the institutions that make up its parts; served and protected by a police department who see in me the seemingly innocuous description of “white male in his fifties,” housed in neighborhoods whose economic and racial profile afforded opportunities, and obstacles commensurate with my race and station, educated in a public school system based largely upon those neighborhoods staffed with teachers who were able to convince me that the flag deserved my allegiance, and employed in positions that my upbringing made available. In short, the institutions that make up society have had their way with me. This, of course, is true of us all.
Unfortunately, the faith that these forces operate without bias is a luxury reserved only for those raised in an environment where these institutions function over time. On the other hand, if they fail time and again in the same neighborhoods, those looking in on these things should not be surprised when the bricks begin to fly.
Note: *Check out their hero, Robert F. Williams, whose 1962 book, Negroes with Guns, inspired the radical sign. Williams is a key figure in Jimmy P. Morgan’s investigation into Black Power’s role in the Detroit Rebellion of 1967.