A Brief History
On October 11, 1972, a race riot took place not in a city, but at sea!
From the 1950s on into the 1970s, tensions among American whites and blacks were appallingly high. While we Americans commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s peaceful efforts at integration with a holiday, the March on Washington and “I have a dream” speech are but part of the story of the long and arguably still ongoing effort at promoting racial equality in our country.
By the end of the 1960s, another more violent part of that story came into play. Nationwide race riots followed the murder of MLK and violence (even at schools!) continued into the 1970s. Most of these incidents occurred in American cities, but on October 11, 1972 the unresolved question of whether or not American blacks would achieve racial equality found itself asked off the coast of Vietnam during Operation Linebacker amidst the terrible Vietnam War.
On that night, roughly 100 to 200 African American sailors rioted on the United States Navy aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk injuring at least 47 crew members. The rioters expressed their frustration with various perceived racial slights against them. They grew annoyed with what seemed to be continual assignment of degrading or menial jobs to them rather than to their white comrades or possible unequal doling out of punishments for the same infractions of black sailors versus white sailors. The officers of the carrier successfully prevented further escalation of the situation by not only dissuading the rioters from continuing, but also discouraging white sailors from retaliating. Nevertheless, three crew members were seriously injured and had to be evacuated to hospitals on shore, while nineteen rioters were eventually found guilty by the Navy for their actions. Ultimately, the incident foreshadowed another outbreak of racial unrest on a different carrier (the USS Constellation) that resulted in Congressional hearings to address the matter of race relations in the U.S. Navy. Collectively, the two incidents demonstrate that racial animosity in 1970s America went well beyond the more widely known domestic crises!
Question for students (and subscribers): Were you aware, prior to reading this article, that a race riot had occurred on an aircraft carrier? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information on this particular riot, your best bet is the book Troubled Water: Race, Mutiny, and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk. It is thorough narrative of the events discussed above and has received generally positive reviews. For the U.S. Navy’s official report on what happened, you can also go to their official website.