July 23rd, 1910
Press Reports Murder of Black Taxi Driver in Montgomery
On July 23, 1910, Colored Alabamian, a black magazine, reported the murder of black taxi driver Mitchell Johnson in Montgomery, Alabama. Earlier that month, a white man employed Mr. Johnson to drive him to his home, then refused to pay the fare. Mr. Johnson reported the incident to his employer and had the man arrested. After the passenger posted bond and was released from jail, he found Mr. Johnson and shot him dead. When the man was rearrested, he asserted that he killed Mr. Johnson in self-defense and he was released.
On July 11, 1910, following Mr. Johnson’s death and a string of murders, Montgomery County Judge Armstead Brown instructed a jury to determine a defendant’s innocence based on evidence and not on class or race. He stated, “All charges of homicide should be rigidly investigated. Whether the killing be of some person of standing or a poor unknown negro.”
Colored Alabamian applauded his remarks: “White men who murder Negroes only have to tell the Court they acted in SELF-DEFENSE, to be turned loose, whether the victim was a Negro man or a poor helpless Negro woman. We are therefore very thankful to Judge Brown.”
Despite Judge Brown’s plea for even-handed enforcement of the law, distrust of the criminal justice system among black Montgomery residents grew. Two months after Grover C. Ray, a white man, murdered Ed Rugley, a black man, Colored Alabamian's editorial board warned, “Watch out now for the old theory of SELF-DEFENSE.” In cases where white defendants were charged with killing black people like Mr. Johnson, the black community in Montgomery increasingly came to see the justice system not as a source of protection but as complicit in shielding white men from accountability for violence against African Americans.
July 23rd, 1967
The Detroit Uprising
In 1968, African Americans in New York, Chicago, and other cities revolted after the April 4th assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Within the previous year, grievances related to police brutality and systematic exclusion from economic opportunity had already resulted in major uprisings in places like Newark, Milwaukee, Buffalo, and Boston.
Beginning during World War I and continuing through the end of the 1960s, racial terror lynchings in the South fueled a massive exodus of African Americans from Southern states into urban ghettos in the North and West. In a brutal environment of racial subordination and terror, close to six million black Americans fled the South’s racial caste system between 1910 and 1970. In 1910, Detroit’s population was 1.2 percent black; by 1970, that number had risen to 43.7 percent.
After several years of postwar migration had increased black populations in Northern cities, pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education, and housing resulted in the continuing exclusion of black people from the benefits of economic progress. Police brutality was rampant in black communities and law enforcement was rarely, if ever, held accountable. In the summer of 1967, these issues culminated in a series of uprisings across several major Northern cities.
The largest rebellion of 1967 occurred July 23-27 in Detroit. After police raided an after-hours club, looting and fires broke out, and multiple law enforcement agencies were deployed. On July 26th, police and National Guardsmen raided the Algiers motel looking for an alleged sniper. They found not a single gun on the premises, but instead tortured the black men and white women they found there together and killed three black teenagers, shooting two of them with shotguns at point-blank range. Despite two officers’ confessions, no one was ever convicted for their deaths. By the rebellion’s end, 33 African American and 10 white people had been killed, most at the hands of law enforcement.
Urban rebellions were widely dismissed as senseless “riots,” but many people today recount them as uprisings against oppressive and discriminatory practices that subjected black residents to violence and inequality. “You see, you can only hold a person down for so long. After a while, they’re going to get tired. And that’s what happened,” explained Frank Thomas, who was 23 years old during the Detroit rebellion. “Basically, we wanted to be a part of the city of Detroit instead of being second-class citizens.”