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Fifty-five years ago, on July 24, 1964 Harlem was in the process of sweeping up smashed windows, putting out fires and generally recovering from the events only a few days before. A series of events which would be repeated to the point where the days after June in the 1960s would be described as The Long Hot Summer.
The Harlem riot of 1964, or Harlem riots of 1964 occurred between July 16 and 22, 1964. It began after James Powell was shot and killed by police Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan. The second bullet of three fired by Lieutenant Gilligan killed the 15-year-old African American in front of his friends and about a dozen other witnesses. Immediately after the shooting, about 300 students from his school who were informed by the principal rallied. The shooting set off six consecutive nights of rioting that affected the New York City neighborhoods of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. In total, 4,000 New Yorkers participated in the riots which led to attacks on the New York City Police Department, vandalism, and looting in stores. Several protesters were severely beaten by NYPD officers. At the end of the conflict, reports counted one dead rioter, 118 injured, and 465 arrested.
The events of the Harlem riot of 1964 were recorded in the writings of two newspaper reporters, Fred C. Shapiro and James W. Sullivan. They assembled testimonies from other reporters and from residents of each of the boroughs, and gave testimony of their presence at the riots.
Consistently annoyed by the presence of young students on his stoops, Patrick Lynch, the superintendent of three apartment houses in Yorkville, at the time a predominately working-class white area on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, voluntarily hosed down the black students while insulting them according to them: “Dirty niggers, I’ll wash you clean”; this statement had been denied by Lynch. The angry wet black students started to pick up bottles and garbage-can lids and threw them at the superintendent. This immediately drew the attention of three Bronx boys, including James Powell. Lynch then retreated to the inside of the building pursued by Powell, who according to a witness, “didn’t stay two minutes.” As Powell exited the vestibule, off-duty police Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan, who witnessed the scene from a nearby shop, ran to the scene and shot at the 15-year-old James Powell three times. The first round, said to be the warning shot, hit the apartment’s window. The next shot hit Powell in the right forearm reaching the main artery just above the heart. The bullet lodged in his lungs. Finally, the last one went through his abdomen and out his back. The autopsy concluded on the fatality of the chest wound in almost any circumstance. However, the pathologist said that Powell could have been saved suffering only the abdominal perforation with a fast response of the ambulance. The sequence of events is still unclear on many aspects such as the spacing of the shots and, crucially, Powell’s possession of a knife.
The events would be repeated throughout the decade, as domestic unrest and urban decay swept through major metropolitan areas of just about every city in the country, leaving virtually no city untouched.
In this documentary, produced by NBC News and narrated by Edwin Newman, the events in Harlem, as well as Brooklyn and Rochester during the week are fairly well chronicled. They speak to a bigger issue – that the issue of Race relations and the aims of the Civil Rights movement were far from being met, let alone considering being solved. That the problems confronting Black Americans were just as prevalent, if not more prevalent, in the 60s than at almost any other time.
Excuse the TV audio (somebody’s microphone in front of the TV speaker), but it’s the substance of the issue that’s important here, so there’s allowances for that. Otherwise, have a listen for the differences as well as the similarities between the world of 1964 and the world of 2019.