Friday, February 22, 2008

Sample 3 - The 1967 Central Park Riots in Tampa

The following is an excerpt from a report on the news coverage of the 1967 Central Park Riots in Tampa, written for a class covering the role of the media during the Civil Rights Movement.

It was a small routine burglary, one rarely covered by reporters and one usually overlooked by the public at large. This simple theft resulted in the shooting death of a fleeing suspect, a shooting that sparked a racial explosion in what was often considered a progressive southern city. A white policeman gunned down an unarmed black teenager who reportedly tried to surrender. Regardless of the circumstances and facts surrounding the event, this was the story which traveled throughout the Central Park community and it touched off three furious nights of looting, arson and violence. While it might have seemed the violence was in direct response to the shooting death alone, it is now believed that the death of the youth was merely the last straw, angering the youth of the black community who felt the authority of the police had oppressed them for far too long.

When analyzing the accounts of the Central Park riots as covered by the Tampa Tribune, and to a lesser extent the Tampa Times, I found that while the coverage was detailed it sometimes cast an insensitive light upon the residents of the Central Park area. The abundance of photos run in the papers were of a forceful, almost oppressive nature, and the few photos of members of the black community cast them in a combative and often bewildered state. Though arguably due to the time period of the riots, references to the black community were sometimes dated and insensitive.

“Negro Rioters Burn, Loot Stores, Hold Hostage”

On June 11, 1967, three African-American youths broke into Tampa Photo Supply, located within the Central Avenue neighborhood, and took assortment of cameras, film and flashbulbs worth nearly $300. While attempting to elude police capture one of the boys, 19-year old Martin Chambers, was shot dead by patrolman James Calvert. The .38 caliber bullet struck Chambers square in the back and killed him almost instantly. Within the hour reports of the shooting spread throughout the Central Avenue Housing project as residents gathered in the streets and near the shooting location to seek immediate answers. Rumors spread that a white police officer had shot a black youth who tried to surrender to police and raised his hands accordingly. Angry crowds began to form within the project, seeking answers for the seemingly heinous act committed within their community. As a special precaution the Special Enforcement Unit of the Tampa Police Department was held on duty until 7:30pm.

As rain began to fall the crowds dispersed and the tension seemed eased for the time being. The Special Enforcement Unit was dismissed as reports from the project indicated that things were returning to normal. However after 10pm, reports of gathering crowds surfaced and additional police units began to muster. Deputy Police Chief Allison Wainright, acting as chief while his superior was on vacation, was continuously advised by persons in the Central Avenue neighborhood not to aggravate the situation by sending in a small police force. Reports of widespread shooting, fires, looting and beatings surfaced, and the police then had little choice but to intervene.

By 11pm, an advance force of twelve Tampa police officers were dispatched to the Jesse Harp gun shop, just a hundred yards from the shooting scene, to contain a crowd that looted the store of guns, ammunition and tear gas. A force of about forty city patrolmen, including the advance unit, gathered in the heart of the disturbance. Shots rang out from the mob and targeted the marching officers.” All persons will at once leave the street. If you do not move we will move you,” blared the sound car accompanying the police unit. “All those who are armed will be shot” (New).

As the streets became relatively clear of rioters, the Tampa Fire Department moved into the neighborhood to quell out of control blazes on Main Street, Third Avenue and Nebraska, and Central Avenue. It was around this time that the first and only casualty of the riots was recorded, when Deputy Sheriff Sgt. Don Williams suffered a heart attack and died soon after (Cox, How). For the next several hours, random sniper activity was reported within the projects. Random fire bombs and fires reduced many local businesses to cinders and reports surfaced of countless passing motorists being dragged from their cars and beaten in the streets. Police and rioters converged upon Central Avenue and a half-mile strip of stores, poolhalls, liquor stores and restaurants. Among many incidents reported by the Tampa Tribune:

- Numerous reports of white motorists being dragged from cars and beaten by gangs of black men.

-A 19-year old white woman reported a young Negro dragged her from her car, pulled her into a parking lot and beat her. (An earlier report claimed she was beaten by 20 men).

-A policeman was hit with a dose of tear gas “originally directed at a Negro who had already been subdued and put under arrest.”

-An Ybor City storekeeper warned by passing black teenagers that they would be back that night with axes, this after they smashed all his store windows.

- A white attendant at a Nebraska Ave. gas station told police three young Negroes entered t the station office, placed a knife against his stomach, took his keys and forced him into the restroom. They then stole $75 from the register (Hendrick).

Florida Governor Claude Kirk, away on vacation, agreed to fly in to assist with the escalating situation. Governor Kirk arrived at 4am Monday June 12, and conferred with Sheriff Malcolm Beard, Deputy Chief Wainright, Tampa Mayor Nick Nuccio and assorted Negro leaders of the Tampa community. Two of these leaders, James Hammond and Robert Gilder of the Tampa NAACP chapter, preached to local youths at the Mount Moriah Baptist Church in the hopes of ending the violence but were unsuccessful. In the course of these meetings it became clear that there were severe disagreements between the young black men involved in the riots and the leaders of the community. The rioters claimed that a major reason for the ongoing violence was the heavy presence of the National Guard and police in the black neighborhoods.

Later that morning State Attorney Paul Antinori convened a special inquiry into the shooting death of Martin Chambers. By Monday afternoon Sheriff Beard had requested that Governor Kirk call the National Guard in on the basis of reports that the violence would likely spread within the community. At 5pm, just three hours after the appeal to Governor Kirk, the National Guard was deployed in trouble areas with fixed bayonets. Sheriff’s deputies carried county issued riot guns, but many of the underequipped officers came armed with riot sticks and personal shotguns.

Governor Kirk appeared on WFLA-TV at 9pm to appeal for a return to normalcy and strongly urged Tampans to stay off the streets and remain in their respective homes, however his appeal fell upon deaf ears. For much of the night, rioters exchanged gunfire with Guardsmen and police stationed in the conflict zone. Between 7:43pm and 11:44pm, the Tampa Fire Department recorded eleven fires connected to the rioting, many started by Molotov cocktails thrown at cars and buildings in the area (Second).

The Martin Chambers shooting inquiry reconvened at 9am Tuesday, June 13. After hearing the testimony of Patrolman Calvert, Antinori visited the scene of the shooting death with police escort and assorted newsmen. Antinori and the police interrogated three young boys who witnessed the shooting. According to witnesses, Calvert shot Chambers after he had stopped running and had his hands up against a chain link fence with his body running forward (Antinori). This corroborated the testimony of Chambers’ brother, Jerome Collins King, who witnessed the shooting. Contradictory testimony surfaced that there was more than one shot fired, though there were no actual witnesses or physical evidence to prove this. Rumors flew through the black community that Chambers was shot as many as four or five times, and cut down in cold blood after surrendering. Tampa Police testified that Chambers was running hard and about to turn a corner when the shot was fired. If he had turned the corner, they argued, he probably would have gained freedom by running past two frame buildings and across Harrison St. to the Central Park Housing Project (Antinori).

Patrolman Calvert testified that he had not previously shot anyone since joining the force two years earlier but had not qualified when he took his last pistol marksmanship test. “I drew my revolver and pointed it at him…approximately at the area of the right shoulder…not specifically aimed…more or less pointed it,” Calvert testified (Cox, Officer). Chambers was “running as hard as he could” and made “no move to surrender.” Under Florida law, officers are required to give only a voice command to a suspect to halt. Once given, the officer may fire at the fleeing suspect. There is no requirement that an officer must fire a warning shot into the air before firing at the suspect (Justice).

Several youths attending the inquiry admitted to being friends with leaders of some rioting factions in the neighborhoods. Antinori asked the youths if they could spread word that the law officials were doing their best to get to the truth, and they indicated that they would indeed try. Tampa NAACP leader Robert Gilder was less than pleased with the rumors spreading throughout the Central Park community, feeling they were a severe detriment to any attempts to keep the peace and reach an accord in the situation between the police and the community. “There’s no good talking about it in the community,” Gilder stated. “Have them bring it (evidence of police misconduct) down here where we can do something about it. If they can’t produce now, they need to shut up.” The inquiry was fully open to members of the press (Cox, Antinori).

By 4pm the inquiry concluded. Throughout the afternoon, city officials held a series of meetings with leaders of the black community to try and reach an accord for the peace. An agreement is reached to try and limit Guard and police presence in the trouble areas in an effort to relax the tension and violence. Deployment of Guardsmen and police were limited by the early evening as a result of these talks. While assorted fire bombs were set off during the night, few isolated incidents occurred within the area, and the police used minimum force in quelling the disturbances. Volunteer patrols of young members of the black community assisted the police in keeping the peace. These volunteers, identified as the “White Hats” for their protective helmets, patrolled the streets and dealt with potential trouble through talk and persuasion.

At 9am on Wednesday, June 14, State Attorney Antinori exonerated James Calvert in the shooting death of Martin Chambers. “Under the facts, circumstances, evidence and law of the State of Florida, the death of Martin Chambers must be ruled justifiable homicide,” the decision stated (Cox, Officer). Since Chambers was a found to be a felon fleeing from apprehension, Calvert’s shot was deemed “reasonably necessary in order to capture him. “At what point did this boy become a felon?” asked Gilder. “The law does not apply to this case” (Gorham). Antinori replied that Chambers became a felon “when he robbed the Tampa Photo Supply Store.” “Those who take it upon themselves to commit burglaries, larcenies and robberies necessarily assume the risk that officers of the law will reach out and seize them. If such occurs, the law requires that they peaceably submit to its authority. If they refuse, they voluntarily assume the additional risk that the law will impose its sanctions to the limit of force until capture and apprehension is accomplished” (Cox, Officer) According to Antinori, that risk included that of shooting. “The law makes no discrimination. If we disregard the law in this case for appeasement, then the law means nothing” (Cox, Officer).

According to police and medical testimony, as well as physical evidence, Chambers could not have been in the surrender position described by several witnesses when he was shot. Despite their anger at the decision, various black leaders spent the day pleading with the restless youth of the community in hopes of curbing any violent retaliation. Many riot leaders agree to join the volunteer youth patrols and stop rioting. The patrol units, shaped into a makeshift paramilitary organization, received their uniforms with white helmets and take up positions in the black Central Avenue project community. Some youths are named captains and lieutenants while given the responsibility of patrolling hot areas in squads to convince the rioters, often friends, to cease the looting and arson. Sheriff Beard kept the National Guard and police out of these areas except when called by the volunteer patrols. The White Hats were credited with dispersing various crowds on the brink of violent behavior. By Thursday morning, the worst appeared to be over. The National Guard was soon demobilized and Sheriff Beard announced that calm had indeed returned to the area.

When addressing the Florida Association of Broadcasters at a convention in Miami Beach, Governor Kirk praised the state’s broadcasters for presenting the truth about the riots, while verbally condemning the work of the Associated Press. Saying that “nothing could be further from the truth”, Governor Kirk took issue with the quotations from the AP report in Miami concerning “a night of Tampa terror” and “rampaging Negroes burned and looted Tampa’s sprawling slums” (Kirk lauds). Governor Kirk was particularly upset at the AP’s claim that “Negroes battled with about 1,000 heavily armed police and National Guards.” According to Governor Kirk, there were 500 National Guardsmen gathered at the armory, but 162 were the most actually deployed. After augmentation by 48 officers from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office plus city police, the force count made no less than 500 men. “The report was untrue. I was there, unarmed,” said Governor Kirk. “Thanks goodness there were radio and television men with me to report this on tape and film to back what I tell you today” (Kirk lauds). Paul Hansel, chief of bureau for the AP in Florida argued that the AP “had several men in Tampa covering the Negro troubles there” (Kirk lauds).

Another point of contention with Governor Kirk was the absence of any mention of the numerous citizens of the black community who avoided violent behavior and strove to ensure peace. “It doesn’t tell about the five Negro preachers who did sentinel duty without terror at my request Monday night. By large everybody in Hillsborough County cooperated.” In the meantime, Governor Kirk went on to declare that there was peace and quiet in Tampa, and that only a few shoes were stolen on the Monday night of the riots. “They (AP) are maligning the good people of Tampa who are cooperating with our efforts to restore peace and improve the lot of all Floridians, Negroes and whites” (Kirk lauds).

Earlier that day, Governor Kirk met with the mother of Martin Chambers, Mrs. Janie B. Chambers, in a gathering of “200 Negroes” at Mitchell Elementary School. “Right must prevail”, she urged the Governor. “You’ve got do to something.” “I agree. Right must prevail, and justice must prevail”, he replied. At this point, someone in the crowd shouted, “There are two sides, not just your side.” According to the Tribune, Governor Kirk “went on and talked for about 40 minutes to the Negroes, who appeared impressed that the governor wasn’t afraid to come to their meeting” (Kirk sees).

During the week, Rep. William C. Cramer, R-Fla, charged that the racial riot in Tampa was caused by a national conspiracy amongst militant “black power” leaders. “All the national leaders are preaching ‘defy the law’, ‘kill the cops’ and they are adding to that this year ‘to hell with the draft’, which is pretty close to treason,” said Cramer (Cramer). After speaking to Sheriff Beard by telephone, Cramer said he would advise the networks to stop giving free television time to people such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael, who served “to preach hatred and incite riots.” Cramer attempted to enact a bill that would make it a federal crime to travel or communicate in interstate commerce with the intention of causing a riot. According to Cramer, Sheriff Beard informed him that the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Black Muslims both had headquarters in the area where the riot broke out. “This is part of a national conspiracy that is going to break loose all over the country if Congress doesn’t do something about it,” he said. “The sheriff agrees with me that if CORE and the Black Muslims had not been there with this constant preachment of hatred of whites, this would not have happened. These people don’t dream these things up. They were told, ‘get guns.’ Where do you get them? In a gun shop” (Cramer).

Cramer also noted that, coincidentally, Stokely Carmichael was arrested that Sunday in Alabama. Carmichael was quoted in saying he “going to get the cops” This was presented again in an attempt to tie the threat to the Tampa riots. “At midnight the whole town broke loose. Carmichael went there with the express purpose of stirring them up.” Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Fla, who represented Tampa, said he would not attempt to say what the real cause of the problem was. “There is no doubt in my mind that people of all races are better off in Tampa than they were 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, as far as opportunity is concerned. More is being done for poor people in the Tampa area than anywhere in Florida or anywhere in the South” (Cramer).

The dilemma that faced Gilder, Hammond and other black leaders of the community was how to appease the restless youth of the black community while also cooperating with impatient law enforcement officials. It was the suggestion that the black youths of the community be allowed to patrol their own neighborhoods that had a profound impact on ending the violence and keeping peace in the projects. A recurring problem both before and during the riots was the severe lack of communication between the black leaders and the youth of the community. Once the channels of communication were opened and the elders’ plea for peace was joined with a willingness to let the youths patrol their own area, the rioters soon calmed down. The black leaders wanted minimal police presence in the hot areas, though this directly conflicted with the philosophy of the law enforcement officers, who felt that a heavy Guard and police presence was necessary to contain the violence and keep it from spreading. The police were vastly unprepared for such a violent outburst, and more importantly, unprepared to act fairly on complaints from the Negro communities. Though little was filmed due to obvious safety concerns, the television news film from the period was eventually spliced without a soundtrack into chronological sequence for use as a Police Department training tool (Bentayou).

“I’ll tell you, the people were mighty tired of having Tampa police shoot down young blacks and having it be ruled justifiable,” said Robert Gilder nearly ten years after the riots (Bentayou). James Hammond agreed, saying there were serious problems with the way white police dealt with young blacks. “They could just do anything they wanted to do. The way they arrested people, the way they handled people, the way they talked to them. “You know, the ‘boy’ syndrome, acting like you’re not even human. But the shootings. Everytime a black got shot by a white policeman, it was just ruled ‘justifiable’ overnight. No investigation, no nothing.” “This wasn’t a race riot, because the white citizens didn’t get involved against the Negro,” said Gilder. “ It was a protest against authority – both white authority and Negro authority (Bentayou).”

As stated by Florida law, a homicide by a police officer is justifiable “when necessarily committed in arresting felons fleeing from justice.” A suspect who feels from an officer and refuses commands to halt invites the use of force necessary for apprehension. However, Chambers was unarmed and in no way attempting to attack Patrolman Calvert. There was no moral justification in apprehension by means of death in the Chambers case. Despite Calvert’s admission that he was not much of a marksman, the officer should have exercised better judgment when drawing his weapon. The use of a firearm may be justified, but is shooting to kill as such? The distance between Calvert and Chambers was a mere 25 feet, more than enough space to allow for a shot that would stop the fleeing suspect while avoiding any fatal injury. “Nothing can be done to change the unfortunate circumstances of the Chambers case, but it seems to us that Mayor Nuccio and Chief of Police Mullins might prevent a recurrence of such trouble by more careful instructions to police,” read a Tribune editorial on June 15, 1967. “The department policy ought to be to use firearms with great restraint in pursuit of petty criminals, whether black or white. If it appears necessary to shoot, then shoot to wound, not to kill” (The Force).

This same editorial, like several others published that week, did not try to blame the black community for the violent outburst outright. Rather, they showed just how naïve much of the city was in believing that such a disaster could happen there. In the aftermath of the riots, it seemed as if there was more remorse for the blow Tampa’s national reputation suffered than for the harm inflicted upon race relations in the city. In the editorial “Justice Will Be Done”, the writer laments how the reputation of Tampa, as well as racial progress, were scorched by the rioting in Negro areas (Justice). The editorial goes on to note that lawlessness cannot be excused, and that the police have the duty to review police instructions on the shooting of fugitives in relatively minor cases. Almost as naïve as the presumption of peace are the questions posed by the editorials in regard to the social reasons behind the riots.

“An objective study of the areas and persons involved in the disorders (are needed). Are there social conditions present which create the tinder for racial fires? Were the rioters led by professional troublemakers? Were idle, out-of-school youths heavily involved? What kind of adults took part in the rock throwing, looting, and assaults? These findings will indicate how large or small the minority of the Negro community involved and whether the problem is one demanding action primarily of a law enforcement, educational or economic nature (Justice).

“We must stop the alienation of our Negro citizens and not only open the door to them but welcome them to the world outside the ghetto,” urged Hillsborough County’s Assistant Director of Neighborhood Service Centers, Jack Espinosa in his editorial “Tampa Riot – Why?” “The ghetto in which we have forced the Negro to live has produced a way of life different than the life the whites live. The older Negro Americans can still live there, but the young, now better educated and to some extent, coming in contact with the outside, cannot remain. When he feels restrained, he revolts. If the white community does not understand this, there isn’t a poverty program in existence that can stem the trouble” (Espinosa).

I believe the Tribune did a good job in documenting the facts of the Chambers shooting and the ensuing riots. Multiple diagrams of the shooting scene and the origins of violence in Central Park were presented to readers, and the Tribune cameras recorded many images of both the violent aftermath of the riots and of the community amidst the rioting. However, nearly all of the photos are of a forceful nature. Numerous pictures of bayonet wielding Guardsmen and hordes of gun toting officers are shown with only a select few capturing the citizens of the community.

While many of the articles go out of their way to avoid noting any particular violence by the black community, pictures with captions such as “Negro Downed During Disturbance” and “Officers Frisk Negro Leaning Against Paddy Wagon” are in striking contrast. To one ignoring the fine print of the articles, one would look upon these pictures and envision Tampa as a war zone, with armed gunmen “polishing up their bayonet techniques” and waiting in anticipation for the next wave of Negro violence. These are the captured images of the scenes that made up the week in Central Avenue, and although they are newsworthy, the arrangement and placement of the photos and the respective articles are insensitive. Photos of four black teenagers, hands bound with a gun-toting officer behind them, without captions or explanations as to why they are being detained are also detrimental to the supposedly “progressive” mentality of Tampa. Of the few pictures shown of NAACP leader Robert Gilder, most showed him in an angry and defiant light. One such photo of Gilder was placed on a page with several pictures of policemen in packs, while another, showing a teenager amidst the turbulent atmosphere, carried the caption “Bare Chested Negro confronted in Riot Area.”

After analyzing the news clippings of the fateful week, I do not believe the Tribune was deliberately attempting to cast the black community in a harsh light. Some of the photos and their respective captions are highly insensitive but the printed accounts of the riots, community and law enforcement efforts, and varying social issues at the heart of the violence were satisfactory and without subjective bias. When reading the references to the citizens as “the Negro” or “their people”, I begrudgingly give the paper the benefit of the doubt and understand that, at that particular time, it was common language. That does not make it particularly sensitive and appropriate, nor do I condone it, but it must be noted it was simply how many members of the black community were referred to in that time. In a highly volatile week of racial strife and violence, I believe the coverage of the Tribune, at worst, was fair.


(1967, June 12). Kirk keeps silent on riot reaction. The Tampa Times, pp. 3-A.

(1967, June 13). Cramer says Tampa riot is part of national conspiracy. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 10-A.

(1967, June 13). Justice will be done. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 4-B.

(1967, June 13). Kirk lauds broadcasters, raps AP. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 1-B.

(1967, June 13). Kirk sees mother of dead youth. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 1-B.

(1967, June 13). New violence flares in city's riot areas. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 1-B.

(1967, June 13). Second night of rioting sweeps Tampa as Kirk calls out guard. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 1-A.

(1967, June 15). Negro volunteer patrols put damper on race incidents. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 1-A.

(1967, June 15). The Force of Law. Tampa Tribune, pp. 6-B.

(1967, June 16). Return of Reason. The Tampa Times

Bentayou, F. (1977, June 11). Decade Passes Since Three Angry Nights of Racial Riots. The Tampa Tribune.

Cox, B. (1967, June 13). Antinori warns rioters, probes Negro's slaying. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 1-A.

Cox, B. (1967, June 13). How it happened: a chronology of Tampa's travail. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 17-A.

Cox, B. (1967, June 14). Negro's slaying detailed at scene. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 1-A.

Cox, B. (1967, June 15). Officer clear in boy's death. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 1-A.

Cribb, H. (1967, June 13). Nuccio promises quick, just action in slaying by police. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 11-A.

Espinosa, J. (1967, July 8). Tampa riot - why?. The Tampa Times.

Gassaway, B. M. (1967, June 13). Tampans, surprised by riot, ask 'can it happen again?' The Tampa Tribune, pp. 11-A.

Gorham, H. (1967, June 15). Negroes urged to stay calm. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 1-A.

Hawes, L. (1994, October 16). For Tampa's blacks, avenue was central. The Tampa

Tribune, pp. 10-B.

Hendrick, C. (1967, June 13). Not-so-pretty vignettes gathered during riots. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 1-B.

Jones, B. (1967, June 13). Anger, fear grip Negro community. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 1-A.

Jordan, E. (1967, June 14). Sunday night racial rioting had at least one Negro hero. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 1-A.

McCarthy, J. (1963, July 22). Negroes ask integration of hotels, movies here. The Tampa Tribune.

Raum, T. (1967, June 21). No race tones in funeral. The Tampa Times.

Redfern, J. (1967, June 12). Riot victim says: 'like animals'. The Tampa Times, pp. 1-A.

Scott, A. (1967, June 14). Tampa Negro community torn in hunt for solution. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 14-A.

Wilson, D. (1978, February 11). Traces of the flames. The Tampa Times, pp. 2-D, 3-D.

Wood, A. (1967, June 12). Negro rioters burn, loot stores, hold hostage. The Tampa Tribune, pp. 1-A.

Zappone, T. (1968, January 10). Trouble lurks in Tampa. The Tampa Times, pp. 1.


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