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Gallup Vault: 50 Years Ago, Concern About Racial Trouble
Gallup Vault

Gallup Vault: 50 Years Ago, Concern About Racial Trouble

by Art Swift

An earlier version of this story originally appeared on on July 15, 2016.

Fifty years ago this summer, Americans were grappling with racial strife in major American cities. The new big-budget motion picture Detroit, released this week, examines this in terms of that city's 1967 race riot, the third-most-destructive riot in U.S. history, after the New York draft riots of 1863 and the Los Angeles riots of 1992. During that disquieting summer -- before the Detroit incident but after riots in Massachusetts and Florida in June, and coinciding with five days of rioting in Newark, New Jersey -- one in seven U.S. adults living in cities of 1 million or more said they expected serious racial trouble in the next six months.

Racial Strife in Cities of 1 Million or More
Do you think there is likely to be any serious racial trouble in this community in the next six months?
  July 13-18, 1967
Is likely to be trouble 14
Is not likely 78
No opinion 8

In a follow-up question, respondents offered their top-of-mind explanations for why they did or did not think racial trouble was likely. The reasons given by those who foresaw trouble exposed some anxiety about race relations in the country. George Gallup summarized the range of responses this way: "1. Outside agitators; 2. [Blacks] demanding too much (primarily a white sentiment); 3. Poor living conditions (mentioned by persons of both races); and 4. A tense relationship between [blacks] and the police."

Those who didn't expect problems (the majority of those surveyed) largely cited good relations between blacks and whites in their community.

Racial rioting didn't begin in 1967. Major riots had occurred in Cleveland and elsewhere the year before. But in 1967, Gallup sought to understand why Americans thought the riots were occurring and to find a path forward. A Midwestern homemaker said, "The situation is just about to explode -- people are waiting for an incident." However, a North Carolina resident represented many others who were more confident that cooler heads would prevail, saying, "A lot of people around here are doing their level best to head off trouble."

After Detroit and the other incidents that occurred that summer, concern about racial rioting spiked. Thirty-five percent mentioned racism or race relations as the most important problem in August, up from 1% in January.

Racial riots would continue through the rest of the 1960s, with some of the most pronounced strife occurring after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. By late May of that year, Gallup reported that 30% of adults in cities of 1 million residents or more believed there was likely to be trouble in the next six months, a significant jump in this sentiment from the previous year.

These data can be found in Gallup Analytics.

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