Fifty years ago, shortly after sundown on July 21, 1969, a black woman named Lillie Belle Allen was murdered in York, Pa. Her killing brought to a climax one of the most severe yet least known racial revolts of the 1960s, one in which over 28 other York residents were shot, including Henry Schaad, a white rookie policeman, who died 10 days later.
Largely ignored by the press at the time, these deaths, and the turmoil that surrounded them, attracted little attention until 2001 when York Mayor Charlie Robertson, a police officer in 1969, was charged with Allen’s murder. But little-known as it was, York’s revolt reminds us that racial tensions in America in the 1960s afflicted communities large and small in every region of the country. It also explains why, a half-century later, many of the problems that fueled such revolts have yet to be solved.
For years, many white Americans mistakenly conceived of racism as a “Southern problem” and believed that Jim Crow only resided south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The racial violence of the 1960s throughout the country rudely awakened the nation to the speciousness of this belief.
Yet no sooner had that belief been discarded than it was immediately replaced with a new and equally false one: that America’s race problems extended only to our large cities and their inner-city ghettos, but not beyond that. The terms that we used — and still use — contributed to the misunderstanding of what was taking place. By using the term “riots,” we reinforce the notion that these acts of “collective violence” were spontaneous and apolitical and that they were disconnected to the protests for civil rights in the South. But a closer examination of them, individually and collectively, proves otherwise.
This flawed understanding had real consequences. Focused on large cities, the national media gave sparse coverage to the revolts in York and other midsize and small cities, despite the fact that the majority of them occurred in such places. In 1969 alone, revolts rocked midsized cities like Hartford, Conn., Harrisburg, Pa. and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Ironically, this flawed framing helped to fuel revolts like York’s, because before the summer of 1969 many of York’s white residents fooled themselves into believing that the “riots” that had taken place in Detroit and Newark in 1967 and nearby Baltimore in 1968 had little to do with them. Instead, of recognizing that racial inequality everywhere could lead to racial revolts anywhere, they assumed that racial inequality would only produce uprisings in big-city ghettos.
Indeed, before the summer of 1969, York’s white leaders persistently ignored evidence to the contrary. In the late fall of 1968, community leaders, including York’s two-term Mayor John Snyder, brushed aside a warning from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission’s (PHRC) that if York did not implement significant racial reforms in the areas of housing, employment and relations between African Americans and the government and police, it could expect to experience its own revolt soon.
Having to worry little about appeasing black voters, who comprised just over 10 percent of the voters, Snyder instead accused the commission and a handful of black malcontents of stirring up trouble. Instead of seeking solutions to deep inequality, he expanded a much-despised K-9 force, which was seen as a symbol of racist authority because it had routinely been used to intimidate black youth in York — a phenomenon common across the country.
Snyder was content to ignore the brewing problem, but York’s black residents had long recognized it and pleaded for change. In 1963, upward of 2,000 of York’s black community members demonstrated against police abuse and other forms of discrimination. Yet their calls for substantive racial reform went unheeded. In 1966, local civil rights activists had invited James Farmer, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, to York. Upon surveying the scene, Farmer declared that visiting York was like rereading Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man,” because the “Negro in York is invisible, swept under the rug.” In addition to police abuse, discrimination against black people in housing, employment and education, Farmer observed, went unaddressed by local political and business leaders.
This created a powder keg, one that erupted on July 17, 1969. The revolt was sparked by a series of interrelated events: a black youth reported that he had been burned by a group of white gang member — he later reneged on this claim. In response to the rumor, a cluster of black youths got into a fight with some of these white gang members. Most importantly, one of the white gang members shot two young black men and the police, who were standing nearby at the time, did not apprehend the white shooter.
For the next several days York experienced what some have called a racial civil war. When whites drove through the black community they were met by crowds of young blacks, some of whom threw bricks at them, others of whom fired guns. This included the shooting of Officer Henry Schaad who was hit while driving an armored car into the black community. At the same time, whites attacked blacks who ventured outside of the black community. Particularly after Schaad was shot, the violence and rhetoric of violence in the white community escalated.
Ironically, and tragically, the one person who knew little if anything about this mini-civil war was Allen. Born and raised in Aiken, S.C., she and her family had arrived in York on the evening July 20, for a brief visit with Allen’s sister, Hattie Dickson. After a relaxing day of fishing, on July 21, Allen and several of her other family members set out to buy some food for their children. En route to the store they passed some state troopers, who let them proceed without any warning into one of the epicenters of the previous nights’ violence. It was there that Allen and her family encountered a large gang of armed whites who had assembled with the intent of “protecting” their neighborhood from all and any blacks who ventured into it.
Dickson, who was driving, panicked. Allen exited from the passenger side of the car with the purpose of taking the wheel. Immediately, she was met by a fusillade of gunshots. Gary King, one of the white gang members, later testified: “So many bullets…hit the white Cadillac…it was just like somebody sat it in a field for target practice.” Dickson later termed her sister’s death a “modern-day lynching.”
Future-Mayor Robertson, who was later charged with Allen’s murder, was a police officer at time. After Schaad was shot, he took part in a gathering where he later acknowledged he shouted “white power.” Along with other white officers, he made clear that white youths had the right to and should defend themselves with guns, a right they did not cede to the black community. Ultimately, it took decades to bring anyone to account for Allen’s murder, but in the 2000s, nine white men were convicted on charges related to it, and three black men were convicted of murdering Officer Schaad.
The long gap before achieving even partial justice — Robertson ended up being acquitted — owed to the way that York, like many cities, preferred (and still prefers) to brush under the rug the underlying causes of racial rioting, which controversial trials, including those of men and women in political power, would have brought to the fore.
Uprisings in places like Watts, Detroit and Newark were too big and too well-known to collectively forget. But in hundreds of other white-led communities which experienced revolts, from San Francisco to Cambridge, Md., it was easier to carry on the fiction that they were irrelevant to the current state of race relations or, if commemorated, might jeopardize alleged gains that had been made.
This uprising, like so many others in the 1960s, arose out of the unequal living conditions African Americans were forced to endure alongside an unequal justice system. It also arose out of the fact that political leaders routinely ignored nonviolent pleas to address these issues. As the recent revolt in Ferguson, Mo. demonstrated, these issues haven’t gone away. The challenges facing black Americans who reside in small and midsize communities are as severe today, if not more so, as they were 50 years ago.
After more than a half-century, we must say enough. At the very least, we must accept the urgency of the situation and the drastic need for something akin to the recommendations laid out by the Kerner Commission, which called for something akin to a domestic Marshall Plan and a sustained and comprehensive commitment to improving police-community relations, if not far more.
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LINK ORIGINAL: Washington Post