In August 1967, nearly two weeks after an uprising in Detroit prompted the first deployment of federal troops in an American city since the Civil War, dozens of demonstrators burst into the chamber of the House of Representatives chanting, “Rats cause riots!” Days earlier, Congress had rejected a two-year, $40 million bill to exterminate rats in inner cities across the United States. The protesters sat in the gallery of the hall for twenty minutes, repeating the slogan “We want a rat bill!” at ever higher volumes. The previous attempt at passing the bill had not merely been voted down but had been ridiculed in the process. A Virginia Republican mocked the legislation to howls of laughter from other white representatives, saying, “Mr. Speaker, I think the ‘rat’ smart thing for us to do is to vote down this rat bill, ‘rat’ now.” One of his colleagues mocked it as another “civil ‘rats’ bill.”
No laughing matter for the people who lived in the inner city, rats were the most visceral example of the unequal living conditions forced onto Black people in midcentury America. In the 1960s, African American media regularly reported on rat attacks on the most vulnerable members of Black urban households: children. Loraine McTush, a single African American mother, complained to a Chicago Defender reporter that she stayed up most nights because of rats — the rats crawling in her bed, which made her nervous, and the rats in her children’s beds, which terrified her: “They . . . get into the bunk beds, and so I sit up all night. I am miserable and afraid.” McTush received an eviction notice shortly after her story appeared in the newspaper.