10 Deadliest Riots in U.S. History
The Haymarket Riot kicked off on May 4, 1886, after a bomb thrown from the crowd exploded in front of a squadron of policemen. All in all, 11 people died, making the Haymarket Riot one of the least deadly riots in American history.
You read that correctly. The infamous labor riot at Haymarket Square in Chicago was one of the least deadly riots in American history. But if the famous Haymarket Riot of the late 19th century doesn’t even come close to cracking the Top 10, which riots do, and why are they so much bloodier than the more famous labor clashes?
The answer is this: Race riots have been deadlier, and they have been the bane of America’s social stability since the 13 original states federated. In fact, institutionalized racism has been a horrific burden on the otherwise extraordinary case of the United States as an experiment in self-governance.
Adding to the race riots are clashes between nativist groups and immigrants. Race and immigration easily trump organized labor's struggles when it comes to mob violence in the United States, and without further ado, here are the 10 deadliest riots in American history.
10. Watts, Aug. 11-16, 1965. The spark that ignited six days of rioting in Watts was the way the Los Angeles Police Department handled a suspected drunk-driving arrest in downtown Watts. The arrestee and the policemen got into a scuffle and a crowd formed. Racial segregation and discrimination was common in California, much more so than I think most people realize, and the beatdown of the driver served as a catalyst for six days of burning and looting in Watts. Thirty-four people died and almost 3,500 were arrested.
9. Detroit, June 20-22, 1943. Ah, Detroit. The Motor City. The American midwest’s second-largest city. The butt of late-night jokes everywhere. Detroit’s 1943 riot took place smack dab in the midst of America’s World War II effort, and the three days of rioting was the result of racial tensions between blacks from the South, whites from the South, and immigrants from Europe. The riot was one of three in the United States during the summer of 1943, and by far the bloodiest and costliest of year. Thirty-four people died and about 1,800 were arrested. Detroit’s auto industry was, at the time of the riots, churning out machines for the Allies’ war effort, and while the riots didn’t affect production, the Japanese used the incident as propaganda and called on American blacks to not participate in the war effort against the Axis.
8. New Orleans, July 30, 1866. Some historians and activists claim that the 1866 riot in New Orleans was a massacre instead of a riot, but people from both sides of the story died in this one. The riot ignited when a crowd of black freedmen marching for their liberties against the newly-legislated Black Codes was attacked by a mob of Democrats. The Democratic mob included many policemen from the New Orleans Police Department, and a fair number of former soldiers from the Confederate military. The freedmen marchers had former Union soldiers in their mix, so the animosity was mutual. Nobody knows who shot first, but by the time federal troops had put down the riot, 44 people had died, most of them black. Thanks to the riot, martial law was re-declared and the First Reconstruction Act was passed in 1867 in large part because of the New Orleans riot of 1866.
7. Detroit, July 23-27, 1967. This famous riot was the subject of one of 2017’s best films, and was, like the 1943 riot, caused by racial tensions in the city. The Motor City’s black residents weren’t happy about police treatment, after Detroit Police Department raided an illegal bar and began roughing up patrons. Race riots exploded in other parts of the country during the summer of 1967, too, but the one in Detroit ended with 43 people dead, 2,000 buildings destroyed, and 7,300 people arrested, making it the mother of all riots that summer.
6. Memphis, May 1-3, 1866. Another post-Civil War riot, the Memphis unrest was more violent and more organized than the brawl in New Orleans. Like N’awlins, Memphis was a Southern city long under Union occupation, but unlike the port city, Memphis had a large immigrant population of Irishmen who were in direct economic, political, and social competition with recently freed blacks. The Irish had such a large population in Memphis that they were able to take control of many levers of local government once Union troops banned native whites from holding office (for being Confederates), and the new group on the block was none too kind to the recently freed black population. Forty-eight people lost their lives, but the burning of homes (often with black families still inside of them) and churches, the raping of black women, and the fact that no prosecutions were carried out meant that Memphis would remain a hotbed of white supremacy for another century. (The riot enraged much of the Union, however, and led to a sweeping victory for Republicans later that year. The GOP quickly passed the First Reconstruction Act in 1867.)
5. Los Angeles, April 29-May 4, 1992. The beating of Rodney King, and the subsequent acquittal of the LAPD officers for that beating (which was caught on camera and viewed by millions of people around the world) led to the worst riot in the United States since the late 1960s. You all know the story -- 63 people died, racial tensions between Korean and black communities intensified, and Adam Sandler became famous for mocking George H.W. Bush on Saturday Night Live over his handling of the riots.
4. Manhattan, July 12, 1870 & 1871. I’m a libertarian, and as such I support more liberalized markets in things like labor and immigration. I believe immigrants make this country what it is, and that immigration strengthens our values and our freedom more than anything else save for the constitution itself. That being said, nativist and conservative arguments against immigration sometimes point out that immigrants bring their Old World troubles to their new homes, and there’s a kernel of truth to this (which doesn’t mean immigration should be restricted, of course, but I digress). The nativists of our day might be thinking of the Irish when they bring up this fact, due to the Orange Riots of 1870 and especially 1871 that left almost 70 people dead and resulted from a long-standing beef between Irish Protestants and Catholics. The 1871 parade of Irish Protestants had to be protected by NYC policemen, national guardsmen, and militiamen due to violence in 1870 that left eight dead. The marchers and their police escort of over 5,000 armed men were attacked by a very large Catholic mob. The bloody result had perhaps one silver lining: the fall of Boss Tweed from political power.
3. Tulsa, May 31-June 1, 1921. This riot may or may not have been the most deadly in American history, depending on which records you consult. According to the great state of Oklahoma, 39 people died from the violence. According to Red Cross, more than 300 people died. The riot got started when a white mob attacked businesses and residents in the predominantly African-American Greenwood district. To make matters more interesting, the Tulsa riot was largely ignored by historians and residents of Tulsa for decades, and it was only in 2001 that the State of Oklahoma recognized the complicity of the government of Tulsa in the mob violence. Basically, there was a cover-up at the local level and somehow it managed to go unchallenged for 75 years.
2. Atlanta, Sept. 22-24, 1906. The Atlanta race riot of 1906 made headline news throughout Europe and the Americas for its especially brutal character. Officially, 25 people died, but unofficial estimates from a range of organizations put the death toll as high as 100. Like the Tulsa riot of 1921, the true number of dead will never be known because of local government corruption.
1. Manhattan, July 13-16, 1863. The Draft Riots. This explosion of anger at being conscripted into the Union army quickly turned racist, as immigrants from Ireland began attacking blacks and their property, including an orphanage for black children. The official number of dead is either 119 or 120. The Draft Riots are so-called because the Union army began conscripting citizens for military service, but if a payment of $300 could be made (worth about $9,000 now), then conscription could be avoided. Manhattan’s wealthy could buy their way out of military service, while the city’s poorer immigrant population, mostly from Ireland, could not. The turn from the draft to African-Americans is attributed to resentment and fear on the part of the immigrant community. Manhattan’s black community virtually disappeared after the riot.
The entire year of 1968 deserves a special mention here. While none of the dozen or so major riots that took place in 1968 made it to the list above, taken together as a whole the riots become significant to American history. Many of the riots took place after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, but riots in South Carolina and at the Democratic Convention in Chicago happened outside of this time frame, and for different reasons (though racial tension played a part in these, too).
Red Summer of 1919. The interwar period in the U.S. was not all daffodils and flappers. Racial tensions in 38-40 American cities boiled over in the summer of 1919 and hundreds of people, mostly black, died as a result. It is unknown if the nickname “red summer” is due to the blood that was spilled or the fact that the federal government looked the other way during the riots due to fears of black collaboration with Bolsheviks (who had established power in Russia in 1917).
The silver lining. Riots have gotten progressively less deadly over the years. Life continues to get better and better in the free world, even though it just doesn’t seem like it sometimes, especially when the riots are still largely about race and immigration. As far as history textbooks go, especially in public schools, I remember more ink being spilled on labor movements and their oppression rather than race riots and immigrant-nativist bloodshed. Given that the deadliest riots in American history have all been based on racial tensions or nativist animosity, and given that all of America’s recent riots have been based on racial tensions and nativist animosity, I wonder if a different approach is needed in our nation’s textbooks.