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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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Riots in Florida

1980

"My child is dead, they beat him to death like a dog."
—Eula McDuffie, murder victim's mother

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Racial problems in Miami simmer for decades and finally explode. A historically black neighborhood, Overtown, has been a vibrant center of African American life and culture. Its close-knit residents are devastated, in the late 1960s, when Miami's urban renewal plan places Overtown in the path of an interstate highway. Residents lack the political muscle to fight the plan. Ultimately, the construction displaces half the neighborhood, a total of 20,000 people, and destroys a community.

Though Miami enjoys an economic boom in the late 1970s, black citizens are not among the fortunate; they are twice as likely to be unemployed. New immigrants from Cuba and Haiti swell the city's population seeking opportunities -- often taking them from African Americans.

In December 1979, police kill an African American Marine Corps veteran and successful salesman, Arthur McDuffie, after a high-speed chase. Though the officers claim McDuffie died from injuries he sustained crashing his motorcycle, a cover-up is soon revealed: in reality, McDuffie was beaten to death. Despite the evidence against the police officers, the trial, which has been moved to a more sympathetic venue in Tampa, clears the officers of all charges. All the jurors are white.

African Americans in Miami, shocked and infuriated by the outcome, begin rioting on May 17, 1980, burning cars and attacking whites. When the dust settles three days later, 17 people are dead and over 1000 have been arrested. President Jimmy Carter visits Miami soon afterward, and asks the community to take action first before the federal government supplies funds to rebuild. It is an election year, and Carter faces a foe, Ronald Reagan, who seeks to shrink the role of the federal government. The frustrated black residents of Miami and McDuffie's family never obtain justice, and their neighborhoods sustain nearly $100 million in riot damage.

Context

Other Events: 1980

Throughout the year, Iranian students hold 66 Americans hostage in the American Embassy in Tehran.

The Mount St. Helens volcano erupts in Washington, killing 22 people.

The Mariel boatlift brings 125,000 Cuban refugees to Miami.

Millions watch to find out "Who shot J.R.?" on the nighttime soap opera "Dallas." Other top shows include "M*A*S*H," "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Diff'rent Strokes."

The Cold War is fought in the arena of sport. The U.S. men's hockey team defeats the Russians for Olympic gold in Lake Placid, New York. The U.S. and other countries boycott the summer games in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Abbie Hoffman emerges from hiding. The former Yippie, who had protested the 1968 Democratic Convention, had jumped bail on a charge of drug possession.

Press

The Tampa Tribune, May 18, 1980

McDuffie Verdict Called 'Slap In Face' To Racial Progress

...Four former Dade County police officers walked out of the Hillsborough County Courthouse Saturday afternoon free men, after a jury found them innocent of the alleged beating death of 33-year-old Arthur McDuffie...

"There is no justice for black people," Raymond Fauntroy, the head of the Miami Southern Christian Leadership Conference said. "It was not a fair trial..."

...The head of the Tampa branch of the NAACP said the outcome of the seven-week trial was a "slap in the face of racial progress in Tampa..."

The Tampa Tribune, May 19, 1980

Blacks Claim 'Whites Only' Justice

Acquittal of four white policemen in the Arthur McDuffie case was the last link in a chain of events that left many blacks angrily charging that justice in Florida is marked "whites only."

"This is a racist state. This is a racist system," said Raymond Fauntroy, Miami Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "There is no justice here for black people."

"It's humanly impossible to accept such imbalance for an indefinite period and not react," said Nita Bryant, coordinator of the NAACP national convention to be held here next month.

"The black community is still treated as non-people -- like animals," said Athalie Range, one of the city's most respected black leaders. "The black community feels it has nowhere to turn in an instance of this kind..."

...Like sticks of kindling, the incidents have stacked up over the last 18 months...

"It's been a plethora of negative incidents," said Garth C. Reeves, publisher of The Miami Times, the city's largest black newspaper. "The McDuffie decision proves that the system does not work for black people..."

The Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1980

Wanted: Black Leadership for the '80s
The 'Invisible People' of Liberty Are Bitter: 'This Ain't the '60s'

Last Monday, barely three weeks after the rioting that put Miami into newspaper headlines around the world, a crowd of several hundred black people gathered outside a community center in the Liberty City ghetto to boo President [Jimmy] Carter and pelt his motorcade with bottles...

...The spark, of course, was a series of setbacks to black faith in the criminal-justice system, culminating in the acquittal of four white policemen for the death of black insurance executive Arthur McDuffie.

For blacks, there was a double meaning to the acquittal. It confirmed traditional fears that equal treatment before the law would not prevail for them. But McDuffie's life had another important symbolic meaning. He was among the conspicuous few who had made it in this community, one of the success stories of the Great Society. Even that could not protect him. The killing of somebody like McDuffie cut through illusions about justice and economic expectations simultaneously...

"...We are dealing with kids 14 to 18 years old with nothing to dream and nothing to lose," said... Patricia Miles...

"...We need new leaders, local leaders," said Kirby Rolle of the Miami Inner City Community Center. "The governor invited the old civil-rights leaders down here because he sees this only as another conflict between blacks and whites. It's not. These people are making the same promises they did 20 years ago. When you promise and promise but don't produce, something has to change."

The Washington Post, July 30, 1980

Riot Without Rhetoric

They are small boys, 11, 12 and 13 years old... they stand on the sidewalks with the older boys, hurling rocks and bottles at every passing white motorist. They cheer when they hit a windshield and glass shatters...

Alex Moore, 13... talks about being on the streets of Liberty City, the site of two bloody riots in two months, about throwing rocks at whites --"crackers" -- as they drove by.

"I hit a cracker cab, then a cracker came down in a van. I hit him, too..."

...His smooth brown face hardens. "When they shoot me," he says, "they better had kill me."

In the slums here, where in some neighborhoods eight of every 10 young black men are out of work, where one teeming apartment complex has been so overrun with trash and filth that everyone calls it "Germ City," they say again and again there is no hope.

No hope. And, as a result now, no fear...

"...We have tried to follow the system, but we ain't getting no feedback," Homer Brennan, 27, a Vietnam veteran who came back from the war to the housing projects and no job, told white Miami leaders at a forum last week. "You sent me over there to shoot Vietnamese, and then they come here and live better than I do..."

"...You trained me to be violent. You programmed me to be violent," he shouted as middle-aged black men and women in the audience applauded. "Seems like the only way I can talk to you is through violence..."

"...It's kind of at the point where white folks are going to have to look at themselves, be honest with themselves, say how racist they are," [Clyde Pettaway, assistant director of the James E. Scott Community Association], said. "If they continue to keep that inborn racism within themselves... we will keep right on until we self-destruct our own country."

Video

Riots in Florida
Duration: 0:53 min
Watch the Video

The clips show the beginnings of a riot in Miami: a man killed during a police chase is shown covered by a sheet. The mayor appeals for calm but is forced to flee the scene. Police crouch under a hail of rocks and bottles. An injured news crew is also shown, along with burning buildings.

Footage provided by BBC MOTION GALLERY.

Select an image to open the gallery.

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