1967 Detroit Riot Remembered
August 31, 2007 11:32 PM   Subscribe

It's been 40 years since the 1967 Detroit riot. The Detroit News remembers. Where we stand, four decades after that fateful summer. Extensive coverage including galleries, video, audio, and articles.
posted by The Deej (35 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Personal note: as a 6 year old boy, I watched the riot from my front porch as it happened in my neighborhood.

I missed the anniversary date by a month for this post. But here it is.
posted by The Deej at 11:36 PM on August 31, 2007


The only first-person account I've read of the Detroit riot was in Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex. It's a fictionalized account, but it's well-written and riveting.

Thanks for an interesting post. It must have been a pretty frightening thing to see a riot from your doorstep as a six year old.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:12 AM on September 1, 2007


Black day in July

In the office of the President
The deed is done the troops are sent
There's really not much choice you see
It looks to us like anarchy
And then the tanks go rolling in
To patch things up as best they can
There is no time to hesitate
The speech is made the dues can wait

Black day in July
Black day in July
The streets of Motor City now are quiet and serene
But the shapes of gutted buildings
Strike terror to the heart
And you say how did it happen
And you say how did it start
Why can't we all be brothers
Why can't we live in peace
But the hands of the have-nots
Keep falling out of reach
The CBC archives have an interview with Gordon Lightfoot about this song. A week before the interview, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and American radio has stopped playing "Black Day in July" for fear it would incite violence.

This song is really the only reason I know anything about these riots.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 1:19 AM on September 1, 2007


NPR-affiliate Michigan Radio also produced "Ashes to Hope", a series of audio documentaries about the riots, providing multiple perspectives of the riots before, during and after. One of the more interesting takes is from the family of a Michigan National Guard member in the Upper Peninsula sent down to Detroit for the riots.

Some excellent stuff here - I've heard about half so far, will be downloading the rest..
posted by ardgedee at 3:05 AM on September 1, 2007


Thank goodness people are finally paying attention to Detroit and the other inner city riots that had more to do with shaping contemporary American life than any other events of the past 60 years -- from Vietnam to Watergate to Iraq. The riots scared the shit out of the country like nothing before or since. They created the hollow-centered cities like Detroit, Newark, Cleveland, and made them the homes of a permanent poor-criminal subculture. They kicked off what (people tend to forget was) a twenty-year crimewave, where rates of inner city murder, rape, robbery skyrocketed, and places like New York's Central Park were all but abandoned to drug dealers and rough kids (thank God for the New York Road Runners Club, which led the revival). The riots chased anyone with money, a legitimate business, or desire for a middle class life out of the cities, and handed them over to criminals.
I've actually read the 60s riots described as "the civil rights riots" -- an astonishing thing, when you consider that no single episode since emanicpation did more damage to the African-American community, family life, safety, prosperity and ability to integrate into American society than the inner city riots of the 1960s.
My theory is that the riots had nothing to do with race. That they were the sponteneous project of a criminal underclass that had enjoyed a kind of easy, protected life in the era of racial segregation, but which was threatened by the prospect of integration, open employment and the challenges of middle-class expectations. Many people welcomed these challenges, but other were willing to burn their cities down rather than accept them.
In short, the riots -- unlike the civil right movement -- were not radical. They were deeply conservative. They effectively froze social conditions in the inner cities for the next 30 years. Ghettos became little socialist villages where a permantly poor underclass generated and re-generated under the protection of "poverty-farming" politicians. Police enjoyed a comfortable "catch and release" relationships with the local criminals. And nothing much has changed.
The rest of the world has moved on, but in the Detroits, Newarks and Clevelands of America, it will always be 1972.
posted by Faze at 6:13 AM on September 1, 2007 [7 favorites]


I saw Grace Lee Boggs interviewed by Bill Moyers last night (transcript here)—she's an amazing woman, more energetic at 92 than I am in my fifties—and she talked about being in Detroit during the riots. Except she didn't like the word "riot": "We in Detroit called it the rebellion."
GRACE LEE BOGGS: We-- and because we understand that there was a righteousness about the young people rising up-- it was a rising up, it was a standing up, by young people.

BILL MOYERS: Against?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Against both the police, which they considered an occupation army, and against what they sensed was- had become their expendability because of high-tech. That what black people had been valued for, for hundreds of years, only for their labor, was now being taken away from them.

BILL MOYERS: And you think that this question of work was at the heart of what happened-- or it was part of what happened in Detroit that summer?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I don't think it's that they were conscious of it, but I thought-- what I saw happen was that young people who recognized that working in the factory was what had allowed their parents to buy a house, to raise a family, to get married, to send their kids to school, that-- that was eroding. They felt that-- no one cares anymore. And what we tried to do is explain that a rebellion is righteous, because it's the protest by a people against injustice, because of unrighteous situation, but it's not enough. You have to go beyond rebellion. And it was amazing, it-- a turning point in my life, because until that time, I had not made a distinction between a rebellion and revolution.
And she goes on to talk about how she came to value Dr. King and his nonviolence, but she never really says anything about how stupid it is to burn down your city in protest against not having a job, which is pretty much the first thing that occurs to me when I read about 1967 Detroit.
posted by languagehat at 6:14 AM on September 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


I was living in Jackson, Michigan in 1967, attending my freshman year of community college. The riots in Detroit were 60 miles away but of great interest to us.

Eventually the rioting spread as far as Jackson, with small incidents downtown and along Francis Street and Milwaukee Avenue.

Three or four of us decided to check out what was happening, climbed into my VW Beetle and headed downtown.

We got about 4 blocks from Michigan Ave. and were pulled over by a police car. There really wasn't much conversation, the quote that sticks in my head is "you boys don't want to go down there."

He was probably right...

We spent our time sitting at home watching TV reports.

Faze: Your comments are interesting, thanks for sharing them.
posted by HuronBob at 6:25 AM on September 1, 2007


My theory is that the riots had nothing to do with race.

I agree with that. My father was a high school student in Detroit at the time of the riots. He told me they were not race riots, they were poverty riots. He and his friends went down to see what was going on and did not feel threatened on account of being white. He claims he saw groups of blacks and whites burning and looting together. Still, I don't know if I understand Faze's comments about the riots being a "criminal underclass" project. Isn't it more straightforward to just say poor people?
posted by BinGregory at 6:51 AM on September 1, 2007


Faze, very interesting comments that gives me much to think about.
posted by ashbury at 7:18 AM on September 1, 2007


It is good to see how Detroit has emerged since that time and is now one of the great and prosperous cities in our nation.
posted by Postroad at 7:22 AM on September 1, 2007


Isn't it just straightforward to just say poor people?

There's no connection between poverty and rioting. 80 percent of the world's population is poor, and rioting is a rare phenonenon.
Poor people are the ones who suffered most from the riots. The cops, criminals and fire departments "won" the riots. Cops got more cars and bigger budgets, criminals won control of their neighborhoods, fire departments expanded exponentially to handle the next decade of arson. (Today, big city fire departments are bloated with idle, lazy firemen, or guys working two or three other jobs at the same time, working out all day, and looking forward to their big fat retirement at 55. All a legacy of the riots.)
The riots changed everything.
posted by Faze at 7:24 AM on September 1, 2007


Faze's comments may be interesting, but they're wrong -- totally at odds with the studied histories of the topic and the recollections of the people who were there. Here's wikipedia's comprehensive article on the causes and effects of the riots.
posted by Tlogmer at 7:44 AM on September 1, 2007


It must have been a pretty frightening thing to see a riot from your doorstep as a six year old.

You know, interestingly, I don't remember it being particularly scary. It was a bad neighborhood, and bad things happened all the time, so it's just "how it was." I do have a few specific memories I have always carried with me.

One is that I wanted to go to the store to get some candy, and my parents wouldn't take me or let my older brother take me. They explained that we are not supposed to leave the house. When I asked why, my mom told me "Because of the snipers." I asked what snipers were, and she replied, "People who shoot other people from the windows of buildings." Me: "Oh. OK." When we were finally allowed to leave the house, I asked about the snipers, and couldn't understand why they were there last week, but not this week. I kept a close eye on all the apartment building windows on every walk to the store after that.

It turned out that the "sniper" reports were a result of hypersensitivity on the part of inexperienced Guardsmen and a frightened public. Echoes of their own gunfire were reported as gunfire from an unseen gunman, and citizens called in sniper reports any time they heard gunfire. In one instance, a building was targeted as the location of a sniper, partly due to a soldier accidentally discharging his weapon as he exited his Jeep. Someone opened fire on the building, and a tank rolled up and sprayed the building with .50 caliber tracer bullets. The building was empty. They concluded that snipers must be firing one shot, then running. (As told in Detroit: City of Race and Class Violence)

Regarding the tanks: I remember tanks rolling down my street, and trucks full of soldiers with weapons drawn. As I recounted the incidents over the years, I started wondering if I actually did see tanks, or if my memory had exaggerated over the years, probably due to many people being incredulous that there were actually tanks rumbling through the streets. Some quick research confirmed, yes, there were tanks. When I first saw the trucks carrying troops, their weapons were, naturally, held with the barrels pointing up. I asked my brother why they were holding them that way. "So they don't accidentally shoot someone," he replied. I just mumbled "Oh right" but I was actually disappointed that they weren't all holding their weapons aimed out at the buildings, looking for bad guys and ready to pick them off at a second's notice. That's the way 6 year old boys think, I guess, after playing "cowboys and Indians" every day.

Last one for now: The corner store a block down got looted. We could see the crowd around the store, running in, and coming out with arms full of loot. My dad, seeing this, said, "I'll be right right back" with a determined look on his face. My mom told him to be careful. A white man, walking into that situation where the looters were black, during a race riot... not smart. I thought for sure my dad was going to go down there and try to protect the store and scare the looters off. I had no idea how he was going to accomplish this with no weapon or any particular fighting skills that I knew of, but he was my hero for even trying such a thing. I watched him walk to the store and disappear into the crowd. After a few minutes he returned, grinning triumphantly. He had helped himself to several cartons of cigarettes.
posted by The Deej at 7:45 AM on September 1, 2007 [6 favorites]


Another Michigander chiming in. The riots are what I remember of "The Summer Of Love."
It took the bloom off that whole hippie thing, and gives some context to the anger of the MC5 and Iggy and The Stooges.
And Detroit has never recovered.
posted by Floydd at 7:53 AM on September 1, 2007


Tlogmer -- the Wikipedia article is establishment horse manure. If Detroit was a "blighted city" before the riots, what is it today. In truth, the Detroit of 1966 was better for both blacks and whites in every possible respect than the Detroit of 2007. African-Americans now hold more elected offices and have more civil serivce jobs -- but a what cost? Take any city that suffered major riots in the 1960s -- beginning with the very first, Los Angeles and the Watts area. Watts in 1964 was a virtual paradise for African-Americans compared to what it became.
The establishment view is that the riots were caused by irrepressible tension caused by "conditions" like poor housing, segregation, and limited job opportunities. Yet, every single one of those conditions was worsened by the riots, and is far worse today than in the 1960s.
The way to understand the riots is to see who was in a position to benefit from the riots -- to my eyes, it was cops, firemen, "poverty-farming" politicians, "no 'counts," and criminals, all of whom squat in the inner cities to this day, enjoying fat happy lives, unmolested by society at large.
posted by Faze at 7:56 AM on September 1, 2007


The establishment view is that the riots were caused by irrepressible tension caused by "conditions" like poor housing, segregation, and limited job opportunities. Yet, every single one of those conditions was worsened by the riots, and is far worse today than in the 1960s.

except that millions of african americans actually now live in decent housing, integrated neighborhoods and have access to good jobs - no, the progress hasn't been as good as it should have been, and yes, the riots didn't help, but for you to say that things are worse isn't true

got statistics to prove your statements?

The way to understand the riots is to see who was in a position to benefit from the riots -- to my eyes, it was cops, firemen, "poverty-farming" politicians, "no 'counts," and criminals,

i await with interest any pictures you can present to us of cops, firemen, and poverty-farming politicians rioting

i suppose next that you'll be telling us that construction crews cause hurricanes and earthquakes ... just as correlation is not causation, neither is benefit causation

all of whom squat in the inner cities to this day, enjoying fat happy lives, unmolested by society at large.

who's living fat, happy lives in the inner city? ... it seems to me that it's the people out in the burbs that are living the fat, happy lives, unmolested by those members of society they don't want to be bothered with as they type out their ignorant screeds about what caused the riots
posted by pyramid termite at 9:07 AM on September 1, 2007


Faze - isn't looking at what happened, and who benefitted, then drawing a conclusion that those who gained caused the events a little too reductionist? I mean If person 'A' leaves $20 on a bench, and person 'B' takes it, 'B' benefits, but it dosen't prove that 'B' caused it.

On a stylistic note, you might want to ditch the phrase 'Poverty-farming politicians' - IMO, the whole theory has the 'Libertarian Ideology' stink about it, but that phrase lofts it over the top.
posted by Orb2069 at 9:20 AM on September 1, 2007


Faze: I'd like to understand what you mean by "poverty-farming politicians".
posted by Termite at 9:22 AM on September 1, 2007


Thanks for the post The Deej, and for your reminiscences. And thanks Faze for the analysis.

Slight derail: while absolutely tons of info - documentaries, the film Heat Wave, newspaper articles - about the Watts riots has crossed my path over the years, I hadn't heard a peep about Detroit. Is this the case in the US as well, with the Watts riots sort of emblematic of the period of unrest at the end of the '60s, and other riots relatively obscure historically (in the same way that the '80s riots in the UK in Brixton and Toxteth overshadow similar unrest elsewhere)?
posted by jack_mo at 9:27 AM on September 1, 2007


We had a "race riot" every year at my high school (Hammond High, Hammond Indiana). It was white/Mexican vs black. It had NOTHING to do with class and EVERYTHING to do with race. The rioters were working-class black and working-class whites and working-class Mexicans. The tiny handful of "rich kids" (all white, all from the far SW part of Hammond) did not "riot." The poor kids fought. They did not all join hands and rail against the ruling economic class.

Detroit was and is the same as Hammond, Gary, East Chicago, and really much of Chicago per se. Race has and had EVERYTHING to do with it. Americans don't affiliate with class and don't think in class terms. If rioting were about "class," you'd have seen poor whites joining in. You didn't.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:55 AM on September 1, 2007


jack_mo, the Detroit riot is not as widely known as Watts even here in the US. I don't really know why. The Detroit riot resulted in more deaths and arrests than Watts. In a display of twisted pride, we Detroiters tend to feel cheated when "our" riot isn't recognized.

Watts was a couple years before the Detroit riot, so maybe it's seen as the fuse for further unrest.

As I found out more about the riot, after the fact, I think it was quite amazing that we escaped any injury or worse. Although the block we lived on what mostly white ("hillbillies") and hispanic, it was in an overwhelmingly black area. The riot started on 12th street, and I lived on 4th. Gangs of looters and rioters passed down my street on the way to downtown to loot the department stores. In those gangs I didn't see any anger. I saw smiles, laughing, and a party atmosphere. Like all riots, whatever the cause, others take action for their own reasons.

The Detroit riot was a result of years of tension between a white police force and a black population. A raid on an illegal club sparked the violence. People took to the streets. Some in protest, some in anger, and some because they thought it would be an easy way to get a new stereo or television.
posted by The Deej at 9:56 AM on September 1, 2007


Great comments, The Deej.

It turned out that the "sniper" reports were a result of hypersensitivity on the part of inexperienced Guardsmen and a frightened public. Echoes of their own gunfire were reported as gunfire from an unseen gunman, and citizens called in sniper reports any time they heard gunfire.

The exact same thing happened in Petrograd during the February Revolution of 1917; you can still read accounts that talk about "gunfire from the roofs" (disproven long ago). I guess it makes for a more exciting story.

I'm pretty sure Faze is talking out of his ass.
posted by languagehat at 10:13 AM on September 1, 2007


As an old codger, I remember the '67 riots. Our family lived in Warren, a suburb of Detroit, but our house was only two and a half blocks north of Eight Mile Road. The Light Guard Armory was located on the Detroit side of Eight Mile opposite our street, and my dad walked us down to the corner because he and my brothers liked to look at the jeeps as they pulled out. I remember seeing the smoke on the horizon looking south. We were standing in front of Model Drugs surveying the scene when a National Guardsman approached (and scared the heck out of me, I was only a first-grader) and asked if we had any official business in the area. When Dad explained that we were just looking around, we were told to return to our home. Apparently the dawn-to-dusk curfew had been effected.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:53 AM on September 1, 2007


Thanks LH, and for your comments as well. The saddest event was during all the sniper hysteria a man lit a cigarette in his apartment. This was interpreted as a spark of gunfire, and the guardsmen opened fire. Four-year-old Tanya Blanding was killed when a .50 caliber bullet went through her chest. Her aunt's arm was nearly severed.

Whatever real threats existed, this kind of trigger-happy reaction could only end in tragedy.
posted by The Deej at 10:59 AM on September 1, 2007


The Wikipedia page has some interesting information as well.
posted by The Deej at 11:35 AM on September 1, 2007


I was about 7 during the riots. We lived in Pontiac, about 25 miles out of the city.
My dad worked at the GM Building downtown, and when it all started to go down, he was at work. When it started to spread to Pontiac (which even now is a big "minority" town) he spent a great deal of time and energy trying to contact my mom and get us out of Pontiac and into the "country". Since he couldn't get in contact, he got home as fast as he could, only to find that Mom had gotten us out to her sisters house.

Faze: Do you live in Detroit? Do you know the culture? Do you understand the underlying corruption that existed, and still exists, in Detroit's government and in the huge, gaping divide that exists between Detroit and the rest of the state of Michigan? I question this.
posted by disclaimer at 11:40 AM on September 1, 2007


except that millions of african americans actually now live in decent housing, integrated neighborhoods and have access to good jobs --

Go to the neighborhoods that were "ground zero" in the riots in any city (can't say about Watts, since I haven't been there lately). You'll see that every one of those neighborhoods -- where they haven't been reduced to vacant lots -- has deteriorated mightily dating from the day of the riot. The horrible "ghetto" that everyone was supposedly rebelling about was actually -- in every city -- a vibrant, vital neighborhood, with stores, families with mothers and fathers, full churches, people who took care of their lawns, etc., compared to what they are now.

Speaking for my own city, the ground zero riot neighborhoods are the most segregated blocks in the city, with a "blacks only" rule enforced by thug, and no police presence by design, cowardice or indifference. Murders on these streets are inching back up to 1960s-70s levels. Progress, development, new building, new businesses are acitively discouraged by poverty-farming elected officials -- and by poverty-farming elected officials, I mean councilpeople who were elected to office soon after the riots, who maintain their neighborhoods as strict socialist compounds, where the main source of income is government checks, lawsuit payouts, and the proceeds of criminal activities, and most of the housing is government subsidized. These neighborhoods are dead. Their schools are a joke. All of this came about as a result of the riots.

Of course, things will change. The old order will pass, and these neighborhoods will revive. But children will still be taught that the riots were a "rebellion," when in fact they were an attempt to put the clock backwards: back to the days of forced illiteracy, segregation, rule by violence.

The civil rights movement had opened up a shining future of possibility for African Americans. The rioters were terrified of freedom and its choices, and tried to obscure the bright dawn in clouds of smoke.

A thousand conservative white racists working for a thousand years couldn't have done more damage to the African American community than that handful of rioting assholes did in a few hot nights.
posted by Faze at 12:24 PM on September 1, 2007


Faze, I may not agree with all of your reasoning or opinions. But we can agree on this: the Detroit riot did no good for those who needed help the most. Indeed, ground zero is vacant lots, and riots scared away the very families and companies that were providing jobs and services to the community.

When I first logged on to maps.google.com, I plugged in my old address and all I saw still standing on my block was the Viking Motel, which was a whorehouse when I lived there. Everything else has been razed. The only sign of new life is Cass Technical High School's new building and football field, and accompanying parking lots nearby. (The address is 2713 4th Street, Detroit 48201 if anyone wants to see the vacant lot where my house used to be. Turn on hybrid mode to see streets and aerial view.)
posted by The Deej at 12:53 PM on September 1, 2007


Also: it's freaky to see Google's arrow pointing at a vacant lot where your house used to be. But the tree where we nailed a backboard for street basketball is still there.
posted by The Deej at 12:55 PM on September 1, 2007


Today, big city fire departments are bloated with idle, lazy firemen

The reason for that is because 4 decades worth of building codes have pretty much put an end to the era of massive, block-destroying fires in American cities, so firefighters who joined the force 25 years ago have a lot less to do now.
posted by deanc at 1:29 PM on September 1, 2007


Americans don't affiliate with class and don't think in class terms.

BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:07 PM on September 1, 2007


Faze, as other people pointed out above, I think many of us agree that the inner cities post-riot are worse off than they were pre-riot. But that doesn't show that the rioters themselves intended to make things worse, or intended for things to turn out the way they have.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:59 PM on September 1, 2007


Of course, things will change. The old order will pass, and these neighborhoods will revive. But children will still be taught that the riots were a "rebellion," when in fact they were an attempt to put the clock backwards: back to the days of forced illiteracy, segregation, rule by violence.

The civil rights movement had opened up a shining future of possibility for African Americans. The rioters were terrified of freedom and its choices, and tried to obscure the bright dawn in clouds of smoke.


I think you might be confused. I hardly think the rioters were "attempting" to strip themselves of rights and opportunity. That the riots ended up harming the urban poor in Detroit and elsewhere I don't think anyone really disputes. But this being the aim of the rioters? That's the craziest fucking thing I've ever heard.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 4:34 PM on September 1, 2007


Go to the neighborhoods that were "ground zero" in the riots in any city (can't say about Watts, since I haven't been there lately). You'll see that every one of those neighborhoods -- where they haven't been reduced to vacant lots -- has deteriorated mightily dating from the day of the riot.

and a lot of the reason for that is because many of the productive, decent, law abiding african americans up and left, too ... in the case of detroit, a lot of them moved to the suburbs - or other michigan cities

the problem here is that you mistake the condition of the neighborhood where the riots took place for the condition of the people who used to live there

the people who stayed behind saw worse than what they had before - but the people who left had better lives

The civil rights movement had opened up a shining future of possibility for African Americans.

a future that in spite of lingering problems, many have realized

The rioters were terrified of freedom and its choices,

bullshit - they were frustrated and angry because the society they lived in wasn't giving them the freedom and the choices white people had - and truth is, i think most of them were just pissed off at the police - and pissed off at the world - and they just reacted ... and a lot of people around them decided they'd join in

it's preposterous to say they were terrified of freedom in a decade in which many would be shot dead for demanding it - and i really don't think any of us need a better explanation than "they were pissed off and had reason to be"

sometimes, it is that simple
posted by pyramid termite at 8:45 PM on September 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Motor City Is Burning
John Lee Hooker

Oh, the motor city's burnin'
It ain't no thing in the world that I can do
Don't ya know
Don't ya know the big D is burnin'?
Ain't no thing in the world that Johnny can do
My home town burnin' down to the ground
Worser than Viet Nam

Well, it started on 12th and Clairmont, this mornin'
I just don't know what it's all about
Well, it started on 12th and Clairmont, this mornin'
I don't know what it's all about
The fire wagon kept comin'
The snipers just wouldn't let 'em put it out

Fire bomb bustin' all around me
An' soldiers was ev'rywhere
Well, fire bomb fallin' all around me
And soldiers standin' ev'rywhere
I could hear the people screaming
Sirens fill the air

I don't know what the trouble is
I can't stay around to find it out
I don't know, I don't know
What the trouble is, this mo'nin'
I just can't stay around to find it out
Takin' my wife an my family
And little Johnny Lee is clearin' out

The motor city's burnin'
Ain't a thing that I can do
Well, the motor city's burnin'
Ain't a thing that I can do

I just hope, people
It'll never happen to you

Yes, yes, I could hear the fireman
FADES-
Said, 'Look, get outta here'
It's too hot.
posted by AJaffe at 3:18 PM on September 2, 2007


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