The long, hot summer of 1967 saw race riots in cities across the country. Forty-five people were arrested in the wake of a 4-hour riot in Riviera Beach on July 30. The unrest spilled over into West Palm Beach, where 14 teenagers were arrested on arson charges and for possessing materials to make fire bombs.
From a July 30, 2007, Palm Beach Post story about the riots:
CITY SHARED IN NATION’S CIVIL UNREST
By William Cooper Jr., Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
As an 11-year-old, Malcolm Cunningham Jr. stood on his porch at 201 Avenue H and marveled at the orange glow stretched across the sky.
“The sky was lit up like it was fireworks going off,” Cunningham recalled of that Sunday evening on July 30, 1967. Riviera Beach was burning.
His father, Malcolm Cunningham Sr., the first black elected to the city council, was summoned to Port Road and Old Dixie Highway. An unruly crowd had gathered and was battling police at the intersection.
“He got a call that there was an uprising in the city of Riviera Beach,” his son said.
That orange glow young Cunningham saw was Mullins Lumber Co. going up in flames. By morning, authorities had arrested 45 blacks in connection with the riot. Officials estimated that the fire caused $350,000 in damage.
Riviera Beach earned a footnote in the history of urban America for four hours that summer. Cities across the country, including Detroit and Newark, N.J., were burning at the hands of young blacks, and some whites, who were angry at the establishment.
Growing numbers of youths were tired of the nonviolent approach to civil rights the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was promoting. Instead, the Black Power movement was taking shape.
King’s voice was being drowned out by more militant cries coming from the likes of H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael. Mantras such as “Burn, Baby, Burn” replaced civil rights songs such as We Shall Overcome.
The nation was up to its neck in rebellion: civil rights, the Vietnam War and an emerging drug culture.
President Johnson struggled to keep order. He appealed for peace.
That Sunday, in fact, Johnson asked pastors across the country to preach on peace. He also petitioned parishioners to pray for the same.
Locally, Riviera Beach officials celebrated the dedication of two separate but equal recreation centers that day. The centers, which cost $175,000 each, still are operating.
Wells Recreation Center, 2409 Ave. H, was named for the late Havelock N. “Pappy” Wells, a white former councilman. Tate Recreational Center was named for the late James R. Tate, the first Palm Beach County black killed in the Korean War.
At the dedications, Mayor Max O. Hammer proclaimed Riviera Beach “the city on the move.”
By nightfall, however, Riviera Beach was a city ablaze. An arrest at the infamous Blue Heron Bar brought allegations of police brutality. Bar patrons taunted police and followed the officers outside.
Caught up in the excitement
Marcus Knighton, then 20, was hanging out with friends across the street from the bar at a teen club called the Viking’s Den.
Back then, blacks attended the segregated John F. Kennedy High School in Riviera Beach. The teen hangout was named after the school’s Viking mascot.
“People thought the police had roughed up a guy in the bar,” said Knighton, 60, who now lives in Jupiter. “The people in the bar came outside, and that’s when people started throwing rocks and bottles.”
Knighton and his friends found themselves in the middle of the melee. Police officers arrived and began arresting people at will, he said.
Knighton was arrested, which sparked an argument between his friends and police. He recalled being in the back seat of the police car and watching his friends confronting police.
Stanley Grimsley was one of Knighton’s friends. Grimsley, 59, was arrested for defending Knighton.
“We tried to get them (police) to turn him loose,” said Grimsley, who later served in the Army in Vietnam and still lives in Riviera Beach. “We felt like he didn’t do anything wrong.”
Police, however, ignored their plea. They kept making arrests, according to both men.
With Riviera Beach police outnumbered, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers were called in for support. It took authorities four hours to restore order.
Knighton, who was arrested around 11 p.m., said he was taken to the police station while the riot continued near the bar. Hours later, after the crowd refused to disperse, Knighton was escorted by city officials, including the mayor and councilman
Cunningham to the Florida East Coast Railway tracks and released around1:30 a.m. Monday.
“I could see the crowd from the railroad tracks,” Knighton remembered. “After I got across the tracks, I went straight home.”
Like most segregated southern towns, the black community was defined by the railroad tracks. In Riviera Beach, blacks dared not venture east of Old Dixie Highway.
Meanwhile, more than 40 others remained in jail on $10,000 bail. At the time, Palm Beach County Criminal Court Judge Russell H. McIntosh refused to lower the bail until those charged with inciting a riot and rioting had their backgrounds investigated.
McIntosh appointed Edward Rodgers, a young black attorney who also functioned as a substitute municipal judge, to oversee a five-member bail-reduction committee. Rodgers, who is now a retired circuit judge, said the committee eventually reduced the bails on a case-by-case basis.
Grimsley, for example, was released on $1,500 bond.
While Riviera Beach burned, the unrest spilled over into West Palm Beach. Fourteen teenagers were arrested on arson charges and for possessing materials to make fire bombs.
Gov. Claude Kirk flew into town. He met with local leaders and the National Guard, but the officials refused his offer to impose a curfew.
A community group investigated the riot and blamed the unrest on alleged police brutality, the city’s “slums” and a lack of support from city leaders.
Shining light on problems
Assessing the impact of the Riviera Beach riot is difficult. Many participants are dead, cut down by the dangers of urban life.
The riot brought attention to some of the racial and social problems in Riviera Beach, where blacks struggled to have simple things like sidewalks and street lights, Rodgers said.
“We were still segregated as far as housing was concerned,” Rodgers said. “Everybody knew where the black section was and that was the line of demarcation.”
It would take Riviera Beach blacks another four years to become the majority on the city council.
Today, the five-member council remains majority black, with one white councilman, Jim Jackson.
The city still battles with crime and poverty. But some new middle class communities are sprouting along Congress Avenue and Military Trail.
Singer Island no longer is segregated. There’s been no mass influx of blacks, but influential blacks such as Rodgers and former Mayor Michael Brown call the island home.
In the 1960s, blacks were banned from the very beach the city owns. The public beach is still the subject of controversy with some racial overtones.
When Black Entertainment Television announced it was coming to Riviera Beach to tape its three-day beach party, Spring Bling, this past spring, some whites were up in arms. Singer Island business owners complained that they would lose money because their patrons feared about 3,000 black college students descending upon the city’s beach. Singer Island hotels and condo groups hired sheriff’s deputies to provide extra security.
But Spring Bling went off without a hitch. Some island business owners were surprised that they actually made money.
Longtime black activist the Rev. Herman McCray said the goal always has been to provide blacks with opportunities in Riviera Beach. During the 1960s, the chances to work in a professional environment were limited.
The struggle for equality, which sometimes includes extreme measures, has been fruitful, McCray said.
“It has afforded blacks the chance to showcase their talents in a way that they may not have gotten somewhere else,” McCray said. “We have a black police chief. We have a black fire chief. We have a black city manager. We have a black librarian. We have black city councilmen. We have not come up short on giving blacks opportunities.”