Fifty years ago Wednesday, Plymouth Avenue in Minneapolis went up in flames.
The racial tensions that led to violent demonstrations around the country in the summer of 1967 spread to the city's north side. Young blacks rebelled against an unjust power structure and set fire to storefronts. Hundreds of National Guard troops were deployed to the area.
Among the shrinking number of people who can remember those three nights of unrest is Ron Edwards. Just a 28-year-old black revolutionary back then, he admired what he saw: a fiery rebellion.
"It looked like hell," he said recently. "It looked like the infernal."
There are conflicting stories as to what started the unrest on July 19, 1967. But everyone agrees it was the night of the downtown Minneapolis Aquatennial Torchlight parade. Young African-Americans, fed up with a system they saw as racist, started to destroy shops on the north side. Many of those businesses were owned by Jews who had once lived in the near north side but moved elsewhere after the loosening of anti-Semitic housing practices.
Some of the youth firebombed the businesses and hurled rocks through windows and at the police and firefighters. As the flames spread over several blocks, Edwards saw fear in the eyes of some residents.
"A group of Negro citizens and white citizens — the 'good people' — were standing right up there," he recalled. "They were terrified. Some even put their hands to their faces, like, 'Oh my God!' They were trying to figure out what the hell had happened."
Civil rights activist Josie Johnson was an adviser to the mayor, Art Naftalin. She roamed the streets with Naftalin and bent his ear, urging police restraint.
"It was a very painful evening," she recalled, "because some of our young people had gone into a store on Plymouth Avenue and tried destroying everything they could see."
"It was a period that required, in my judgment, a sense of understanding the community that you were the mayor of," she said. "That's what he did."
African-Americans on the north side suffered from insufficient housing and jobs, she said. Garbage often went uncollected. Johnson remembers feeling conflicted as she tried to process the destruction around her.
"You can imagine being very disappointed that our children had to react in that way," she said, "and to have an understanding that in their judgment, there wasn't anything else to do."
It wasn't the first time racial tensions boiled over on the north side. The summer before, in 1966, also saw looting and arson. Naftalin was sympathetic to the economic and social conditions among the city's African-Americans, and around that time promised scores of new jobs to the youth.
"Not next week, not next month — tomorrow!" he told an approving crowd, captured by KSTP. "We'll make sure we get everybody to work."
But Naftalin, the only Jewish mayor in Minneapolis history, got heat for his position.
Some of that criticism came from Charles Stenvig, a Minneapolis police officer who was elected mayor two years later on a law-and-order platform. Other complaints came from the Jewish community.
Iric Nathanson, who wrote about the 1967 disturbances in his book, "Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century: The Growth of an American City," said some Jewish shopkeepers remained bitter and felt the mayor was too lax in dealing with the vandals.
That part of north Minneapolis had just decades earlier had been the Jewish center of the Upper Midwest. "Some people called it the 'gilded ghetto,'" said Nathanson, whose Jewish grandfather in 1914 built his home a few blocks from Plymouth Avenue.
The Nathanson family lived there until the early 1950s, when, along with many other Jews, they left the north side for new housing opportunities. But some of the merchants maintained their businesses on Plymouth Avenue.
"The shops along Plymouth, where the newer African-American residents were shopping, were Jewish-owned," Nathanson said. "So you had this tension and conflict between the absentee business owners and the new residents."
Those smoldering tensions set the stage for the disturbances in 1967.
But Naftalin's call for police restraint may have headed off the kind of riots seen in Newark and Detroit, Nathanson said.
"If they had come down marching down Plymouth Avenue, cracking heads and dragging people off the streets, I think it could have been even worse," he said. "We could have had some real serious injuries and even some deaths."
What came out of the unrest is a story in itself. The city's top business and political leaders formed the Urban Coalition to address racial inequities. And white residents, who thought of Minneapolis as a utopian, progressive city, gained a deeper consciousness of black hardship.
The Plymouth Avenue disturbances are now seen now as the catalyst.
"That was the spark, '66-'67," said Mahmoud El-Kati. "That was the thing that shook stuff up."
During those years, El-Kati taught African-American history at The Way, a black community center, a time when that perspective was all but ignored in the schools. After the Plymouth Avenue unrest, he found himself teaching those same classes in the suburban living rooms of white families.
"There were white human beings who came out of the closet and supported us," he said.
Now, 50 years later, a lot of old-timers who experienced the Plymouth Avenue disturbances have passed away. The bars, grocery stores and delis that filled the blocks are long gone, replaced by a university research center and a police precinct, among other buildings. But the themes of racial strife and police-community relations still resonate.
El-Kati and others say this piece of history needs to be remembered — as do the inequities and the suffering that fueled it.
The Rev. Rolland Robinson, who was pastor at Calvary Methodist Church in north Minneapolis and one of the founders of The Way, said he worries that Plymouth Avenue's story of struggle and empowerment is fading.
"After the anniversary of this summer," he recently told MPR News, "I will presume you will not call me back, and there will be nothing more that will be said, until another anniversary comes and someone calls to say, 'What happened?' "
Editor's note (July 19, 2017): This story has been revised to add historical information on Jewish businesses in north Minneapolis.
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