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LeeRoy Johnson of Detroit participated in the looting as an 18-year-old opportunist; he stole as much as he could carry. He says nobody in the neighborhood had food because all of the stores had been hit. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

LeeRoy Johnson was 18 when the riot broke out. He stole rings, suits, shoes and anything he could grab.

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LeeRoy Johnson got a car — a forest green Buick Electra 225 with a white convertible top — two weeks before the 1967 Detroit uprising. His estranged father agreed to be a cosigner, only because his son graduated high school and secured a job at Chrysler.

Eighteen at the time, Johnson was just happy he could get to work. He had no idea how instrumental that Buick would become when, for a week, he looted diamond rings, Hi-Fis, liquor and whatever wasn’t already taken in Woodward and Chene stores.

“I got the car so I was mobile,” said Johnson, looking back 50 years. “I could move and steal.”

Johnson retold his story to the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Project last year and The Detroit News this month to provide context behind the motivation many looters had that summer and leave a record for history.

“There’s a lot of people that’s not even here now that were there at that time, and I’m lucky to be one of them that’s still alive,” he said, “so I don’t mind sharing my story.”

For those swiping from the stores during this uprising, he said, “it was an opportunity to gain the things you didn’t have at your house, or the chance to make a few dollars.”

He also saw it as a chance to give to the poor.

In 1967, he lived with his grandmother on Theodore between St. Aubin and Dubois on the near east side. He remembers hanging out in the neighborhood with friends around noon on July 23 when a few girls stopped by with the news.

“They said, ‘They lootin’ on the west side.’ I said, ‘You crazy!’ She said, ‘You don’t believe us? Look!’ And she pointed west, and all you could see was smoke in the air,” Johnson recalled.

They piled in his Deuce and a Quarter and drove down Warren to the west side. Johnson tried to turn on Linwood but was blocked by a mob riled up by a man standing on a marquee yelling, “Kill the white man!” and “Let’s tear up everything!” So they drove up 12th Street instead.

“That’s when we see people just running in the middle of the street and tearing up stuff. So we joined in,” Johnson said. “And we started looting like them.”

Johnson and his buddies hit department stores, stealing underwear, socks and shoes. They did the same on Chene, clustered with clothing stores, bakeries, five-and-dimes and drug stores.

“My grandmother raised me up. I knew right from wrong,” he said. “What I did, I know it wasn’t right. I did feel a little sorry afterward, but I never hurt anybody. The places I went into, all the owners had ran out. I wouldn’t have been a part of nothing if somebody got hurt, and I didn’t do any shooting or burning or any of that.”

One sight he’ll never forget: A man lying in a storefront window.

“He had been shot by the owner for looting in the store,” Johnson said. “I’m quite sure he was dead.”

That was first day. On the second day, Monday, he tried driving to work in Sterling Heights, but police wouldn’t let him pass Eight Mile.

“They prohibited any cars, especially if you was black, from crossing,” he said.

The next day, he went through a backway on Mound. When he got to the plant, the foreman told him to go back home and return when the violence ended.

“So that’s what I did. I went back home, and I went to looting again. Because now I got all this time,” he said.

Johnson and his friends hit Woodward, helping themselves at Meyers Jewelry, where busted window glass sprinkled the floor. Johnson went straight for the rings, taking about 40.

“I had rings that had emeralds and sapphires with the diamonds,” he said. “I ain’t never seen diamonds like that since.”

The police, outnumbered by the looters, didn’t stop him, he said.

“They acted like they was scared to stop people at the time,” Johnson said, “because I run right past the policeman into a department store, and take whatever I want, and run right past him (again outside), and he wouldn’t say a thing.”

Only one time a friend got caught red-handed.

They were looting on Woodward near Charlotte. Johnson had an armful of stuff and shouted, “Let’s go!” His buddy, meanwhile, took his time.

“As I’m running out of the store, the police was running in,” Johnson said. “On this rare occasion, they tried to arrest some people.”

The friend was missing for two weeks.

“Nobody knew where he was at. We come to find out, he was out on Belle Isle on a bus, chained hand and feet,” Johnson said. “The jails were full. There was no place to put him. So they had ‘em on Detroit buses, chained up ... until their court date came, which is basically two weeks later.”

His friend, who died recently, was never charged, Johnson said.

An opportunity to gain

Johnson tried stashing his plunder in his grandmother’s basement. But she “didn’t play,” he said.

“She told me, ‘Boy, if you don’t get this stolen stuff out of my basement…” he trailed off, leaving the threat to the imagination. He took it to a friend’s house instead.

“We had so much stuff,” he said. “We were giving it away to people who were poorer than me. ‘You need some underwear? Socks? Shoes?’ “

He also sold his bounty.

“When the National Guard finally came, shoot, I was sitting on about $700-$800,” he said.

Many whites looted, he added, sharing one example burned in his mind. They hit a store on Chene and were running through an alley when he passed a white woman in her 60s, hunched with an appliance strapped to her back.

“I looked at this sight, and I turned around. I backpedaled just to see again,” he said. “I couldn’t believe what I was watching! She was carrying a refrigerator. A white lady! And she was looting just like it was blacks looting. I mean, it was free for everybody. So it wasn’t a racial thing.”

Johnson admitted he “had a ball” that first week — until the neighborhood ran out of food.

“Bread, your staples, you couldn’t find it anywhere because all the stores had been looted,” he said.

He had a pocketful of money, and nowhere to spend it. Since cars couldn’t pass Eight Mile, no one could reach grocers on the other side.

“People were basically starving in the neighborhoods,” he said.

By the second week, the National Guard arrived and established some semblance of order. The battle-worn soldiers camped at Perrien Park across Northeastern High School, where Johnson had attended.

Despite all he stole, Johnson doesn’t have one thing left from that week.

“(I) gave it away mostly to people I knew, good friends,” he said. “I put a diamond ring on so many people’s fingers they never could afford to buy.”

No regret or shame

Once the dust settled, Johnson worked at Chrysler for nearly two years. He then became an insurance salesman for 22 years, selling insurance to Detroiters for John Hancock.

Now a 68-year-old Roseville resident, “I’ve come a long way from the days of the riot,” he said.

Yet he doesn’t feel any guilt or regret.

“I know what I was doing was wrong, the stealing. But … me being young and foolish, this was an opportunity for me to get suited down. Get me brand new shoes. I had diamonds here,” he said, touching his fingers.

Johnson still shakes his head at the memories.

“I’ve never seen nothing like this,” he said, “and I hope I never do.”

ssteinberg@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

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