Heat of Too Many Summers

Even when fear, anger and distrust ravage the soul of a city, there is still goodness

Harlem Riots of 1964: Helmeted New York City police carry away a rioter at West 130th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem on July 19, 1964 | Photo / caption via SDPB)

Fifteen-year-old James Powell, a black kid, was shot to death in Harlem on a hot July day by a white, off-duty police lieutenant. According to witnesses, Powell was unarmed. The lieutenant said he fired three shots when Powell threatened him with a knife. In the six days of rioting that followed, 118 people were injured, 485 were arrested and one person was killed. The officer was cleared by a grand jury and all charges against him were dropped.

This was Harlem in July, 1964. Before that summer was over, racial tensions had erupted in New Jersey, Philadelphia and Chicago. In response, Phil Ochs, a rising New York folk singer and self-described “singing journalist” wrote “In the Heat of the Summer.”

Phil Ochs in his first publicity shot, 1963, New York City
In the heat of the summer
When the pavements were burning
The soul of a city was ravaged in the night
After the city sun was sinkin’
And when the fury was over
shame was replacing the anger
So wrong, so wrong, but it’s gone on so long
And we had to make somebody listen

Half a century later, the event and Ochs’ song are dishearteningly current. Ferguson. Baltimore. Falcon Heights. Baton Rouge. The swamp of poverty and prejudice remains in too many places across the country, as does the despair it breeds. We explore the cosmos and crack the human genome, but still seem incapable of seeing and treating each other as the equally marvelous, flawed creatures we are. We easily communicate with anyone anywhere in the world, but are too often incapable of truly understanding the person next to us.

And yet.

There is still goodness. There remains the belief in a better future — that we are not condemned to endlessly repeating the mistakes of the past. Now perhaps more than ever when fear, anger and distrust seem the most common currency, it would be well to heed the ultimately hopeful last line of Ochs’ song:

We had to make somebody listen

Are we listening?

Jack Palmer is a musician, songwriter, and father of Amanda Palmer. Jack and Amanda’s new collaborative record of cover songs, including Phil Ochs’ “In the Heat of the Summer,” can be streamed/purchased on Bandcamp here.

If you enjoyed reading this, please click the below. This will help to share the story with others.