Remembering James Powell and the Harlem Riots of 1964

An off duty police lieutenant shot and killed a 15-year-old negro boy in Yorkville yesterday when the youngster allegedly threatened him with a knife New York Times, July 17, 1964

The 1964 Harlem Riot was one of a number of race-based protests that took place in several cities across the United States during the 1960s. As elsewhere across the U.S., Blacks in Harlem Blacks reacted to racial discrimination, segregation, police brutality and social injustices that dominated their lives.

Ironically, the Harlem Riot occurred just two weeks after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. The act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, and nationality, was the most sweeping measure ever adopted by the nation to guarantee racial justice. The irony lies in the fact that while the Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate against a U.S. citizen based on race or color, the discriminatory socioeconomic systems and structures long in place in the nation did not change with this new law.

NYCdata: 1964 Harlem Riot

The Harlem uprising began on July 16, 1964 when 15-year-old James Powell was shot and killed by white off-duty police Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan. The Harlem community was infuriated by the murder which it viewed as an unnecessary example of police brutality. Many Harlemites were convinced that Officer Gilligan, a war veteran and experienced police officer, could have found a way to arrest and subdue Powell without using deadly force.

On the evening that Powell was murdered, Senator Barry M. Goldwater, a presidential candidate, gave a speech in San Francisco where he spoke about law and order, an political strategy that Donald Trump has stoically echoed.

“The growing menace in our country tonight, to personal safety, to life, to limb and property, in homes, in churches, on the playgrounds and places of business, particularly in our great cities is the mounting concern — or should be — of every thoughtful citizen in the United States,” Goldwater said.

The first two days following the shooting saw peaceful protesting in Harlem and other areas of New York City. However, on July 18, some of the protesters went to the Harlem Police Station, calling for the resignation or termination of Officer Gilligan. Police officers were on guard outside the building, and as tensions grew, some in the crowd began throwing bricks, bottles, and rocks at the officers who waded into the crowd using their nightsticks. When word of the confrontation spread rioting ensued first in Harlem and then spread into Bedford-Stuyvesant, the black and Puerto Rican section of Brooklyn.

The race riot in the two boroughs of New York City lasted six days. It included breaking windows, looting, vandalism, and setting a variety of local businesses on fire. When the rebellion ended on July 22, one black resident was killed. There were more than 100 injuries, 450 arrests, and around $1 million in property damage.

The Harlem uprising was the beginning of a series of violent confrontations with police in more than a dozen cities throughout the North including Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the New Jersey cities of Jersey City, Paterson, and Elizabeth; as well as Chicago, Illinois, making it the most violent in terms of urban rioting since 1919. These rebellions as well as civil rights protests mainly in the South, helped designate the summer of 1964 as the Long, Hot Summer.

Photography by Dick De Marsico, 1964

It’s 2020. The murder of George Floyd, who was held to ground by a police officer with a knee to his neck, is in many ways similar to that of Powell’s. As Harlem, and other communities around the world mourn the murder of George Floyd with prayers and protests, hashtags, social media posts, or however one chooses to protest, I’m reminded that one is coming to save Black lives. Our bodies will continue to be policed. Black bodies will continued to be feared. There are no laws that can save the Black bodies. No Black president or Black vice president can save us. Jesus isn’t coming to save us. For Black people, we either have to get violent, continue on with futile hope, or accept the fact that America will be America.

For more information on the 1964 Harlem Riot, read Michael Flamm’s Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime.



contributor for USA Today. educated: real life. bylines: XXL, Black Perspectives, Ozy, Washington Post, among several others.

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darryl robertson

contributor for USA Today. educated: real life. bylines: XXL, Black Perspectives, Ozy, Washington Post, among several others.