The subject of the Wilmington riots of 1968 is not popular among many of those who can recall them. The incident led to the longest military occupation of a U.S. city in our American history, embarrassed us before the entire nation, and shaped how many of us perceive the city today, whether we are aware of it or not. We barely speak of the riots, and when we do, we are reminded of why we cannot: Our polar views only divide us further.
So why revisit so unpleasant an episode?
Because the people and communities who were suffering then are suffering still.
As you will read in John Sweeney’s “After the Riots” story,the conditions that led to the rioting persist, and though we may have learned more about their deleterious effects on individuals, neighborhoods and the state, we still haven’t figured out what to do about them—even as some things get worse.
“The sin of the city—no, the sin of the state—has been its neglect of the poorest neighborhoods,” Mayor Mike Purzycki told John. And we have allowed this to happen for well more than the past 50 years, in Wilmington and in depressed areas across the state.
The keys to improvement, as it so often seems, are better education, more economic opportunity and job preparedness. Yet the case is made that the city’s schools—no longer the centers of their neighborhoods—are worse than they were 50 years ago, and that preparing people for a changing workplace and world market is a great thing to do—but if the jobs they prepared for don’t exist here, what can be accomplished?
Some forces that have shaped the past 50 years are beyond our control. Delaware is not going to steer the world economy or direct the advance of technology. Delaware is not going to change individual notions about racism—still a factor, as much as we would like to deny it. But we can certainly do something about housing and public schools. As I’ve said on this page before, it takes public and political will—in this case, the will to ensure the well-being of our poorest—and that is only a start. Beyond commitment to a common ethic and goal, it will require time.
The solutions also require a full understanding of the times. Many of those in a position to create change weren’t around then. They don’t always understand the connection to now. They need to know why the riots happened so we don’t repeat the sins and mistakes of the past. And it’s never too late to try to change the minds of those who are wedded to old ideas.
Wilmington is a great city. With a sense of compassion and some hard work, it could be even greater. Who wants to wait 50 more years?