July 19, 2007 at 9:57 am

Riot or rebellion? Detroiters don't agree

Whites call 'riots' focal point of Detroit's decline, but blacks see 'rebellion' against rooted inequities.

What should we call what happened during those six chaotic days in July 1967 when 43 people died amid gunfire, looting, with whole sections of Detroit in flames?

Many call it a "riot," a term that conjures images of mobs acting spontaneously. Blacks who lived through it call it a "rebellion."

"When I hear the word 'riot' I just get the chills," said Brenda Dixon, 45, of Detroit. "The word 'riot' just seems inhumane, like people acting savagely."

The terms are cognitive shorthand, framing the issues connected with a pivotal time in Detroit's history -- an event that fueled the continuation of white flight and corporate disinvestment, and helped create the most segregated region in the nation.

As Metro Detroiters approach this anniversary, it is clear wounds haven't healed. Some whites lament the destruction that, they say, forced them to leave. Many black Detroiters worry their story has been dismissed.

The chaos began with an early morning police raid on an unlicensed bar at the corner of 12th and Clairmount. Soon, it mushroomed into looting and shooting. When it was over, 43 people had died -- 24 at the hands of police and the National Guard.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Detroit, who was a congressman in 1967, said people want to blame Detroit's ills on the unrest.

"It gets blamed for the disinvestment. It gets blamed for the white flight. It gets blamed for the hard feelings that followed," Conyers said. But he said it's true the violence further wrecked Detroit's economy.

"There was very little interest in companies looking for a place to go to come to Detroit. We are still struggling with that residual even today," he said.

Those who blame the disturbance aren't understanding the conditions that existed for blacks at the time, historians say.

"White people would say the city was integrated but there were places you know you couldn't go," said Ron Scott, 60, who co-founded the Detroit Black Panther Party in 1968.

Thomas Sugrue, a Detroit native and author, said people gloss over the conditions of the time.

"There is a common myth among whites that Detroit was a great city but then the riots happened," said Sugrue, who teaches history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and wrote the acclaimed "Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit."

He said Detroit was a great city for whites but not for blacks who were barred from federal mortgage programs, barred from buying homes in white neighborhoods and toiled in menial jobs as whites got promoted.

It's a reality blacks experienced across the nation, but it sharply contrasted with the myth that life was significantly better in the North. That is why, 40 years ago, the Summer of Love turned out to be a Summer of Rage with disturbances in 128 American cities -- including Newark, N.J.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Durham, N.C.

According to Sugrue's research, between 1953 and 1960 seven plants closed on the east side of Detroit, a black area, resulting in the loss of 71,137 jobs. As a result, dozens of businesses that sold goods and services to these workers shut down. It devastated the community.

In Detroit, African-Americans hoped that conditions would improve with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, but discrimination and police harassment continued, said U.S. Appeals Judge Damon Keith, who chaired the newly created state civil rights commission in 1967.

"People were tired of police brutality, tired of not having jobs so that men could take care of their families," he said.

It's a sentiment shared by many black police officers who served that summer of '67.

At the time, African-Americans made up 7 percent of the police force in a city that was about 30 percent black.

Mack Douglas, 66, served on the police force from 1962 until he retired in 1997. In the '60s he witnessed white officers treating blacks with disregard.

"They would manhandle people, steal their money. I saw this on a regular basis," Douglas said.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said to call the event a rebellion is to glorify it.

"It was a lash-out at the establishment, but in Detroit, (under then-Mayor Jerome Cavanagh), you had a pretty thoughtful, liberal Democratic mayor," he said. "It wasn't like people were suffering under tyrannical rule."

But others say that five years under Cavanagh hadn't yielded enough change, especially with police brutality and harassment.

"What happened here and elsewhere during those summers of the '60s was a reaction toward feeling powerless," said Sue Hamilton-Smith, Wayne County director of Child and Family Services.

Staff Writer Amy Lee contributed to this report. Reach Cindy Rodriguez at (313) 222-2311 or cindy.rodriguez@detnews.com">cindy.rodriguez@detnews.com.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, standing at the corner where the chaos ... (Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News)
U.S. Rep. John Conyers addresses a crowd during the 1967 unrest, which ... (The Detroit News)