By Charles W. McKinney Jr

About Charles W. McKinney Jr

Charles W. McKinney Jr. is the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of History at Rhodes College. His most recent book (coedited with Aram Goudsouzian) is An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee (2018).


An exploration of the keyword “riot” reveals a phenomenon that grapples with the nexus of race, class, violence, space, power, and resistance. Attempts to define “riot” are often overtaken by efforts to scapegoat people at the center of a given confrontation. Frequently, the dominant question bandied about by popular media after a riot is “why are they destroying their own communities?” This question typifies much of the fuzzy thinking related to defining a riot—­a focus on the reactions of aggrieved communities, rather than the dynamics that provide the backdrop for the disruption itself. An analysis of the term points the way toward a clearer definition, one grounded in historical context and responsive to new theoretical interventions.

Riots in the early twentieth century were defined largely by white-­on-­black violence that occurred in the wake of significant shifts in American society (Abu Lughod 2012). Regrettably, much of the scholarship produced during this …

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