‘Don’t even think about leaving the front of this house ...”
As a youngster, my mom spoke those words to my brothers and me as a significant event in Detroit’s history was unfolding and in my opinion, forever changed the direction of this city: Detroit, July 1967. Those words conjure up many memories for those who lived in the city and across the region in those days. For some it was a riot, to others, a rebellion, and to others, a revolution.
No matter what it’s called, it was one of the most significant and lasting events in our city’s history and in my lifetime. And it had a lasting impact on a young, Detroiter — me.
In 1966, our family moved from the Linwood and Davison area to northwest Detroit. My parents, who migrated to the city from the South in 1957, wanted to move to a part of the city where they could raise their three sons in a home with a bigger yard.
As I recall, there were doctors, lawyers, educators, bankers, automotive execs, Motown artists and many others living in NW Detroit. It was truly a great place to live and experience one of the city’s great neighborhoods. But no matter where you lived in 1967, you were not far from what was happening on 12th Street.
In our new neighborhood, it was not uncommon for us to ride our bikes, walk to the many stores along Seven Mile, go to the parks to play baseball or simply walk down to a neighbor’s house on a warm July day. For those few days in July, it stopped.
I didn’t quite understand what my mom was saying with those words until I saw the following: a number of tanks going up a major thoroughfare which I could see from my house; watching the local news as a youngster and seeing vivid pictures of people looting and specifically, taking TVs and other items from stores; viewing pictures on the front pages of the local papers with the National Guardsmen holding rifles; and seeing smoke bellowing skyward in the distance.
Once things settled and months later, the most searing image was my parents driving up 12th Street and seeing scarred remnants of a once-proud neighborhood destroyed.
Those charred buildings remained standing for years. No matter where you lived, it stung and the impact was steadily felt. Not only was a vibrant, local neighborhood destroyed, but the psyche of a city was hurt.
Whether you call it a riot, urban rebellion or revolution, to a youngster, it was certainly one of the most frightening events which had a lasting impact on not just me but, I’m sure many others.
For example, when we moved into northwest Detroit in 1966, it was predominantly a Jewish neighborhood with African-Americans slowly moving in. It truly was becoming a diverse community.
However, post-riot, the makeup of the neighborhood changed dramatically with African-Americans moving and settling in from other parts of the city, while the much talked about “white flight” took off over the next five or so years.
Despite the demographic changes, it remained a close-knit area where life and community were fully realized. It became a haven for family and friends to have cookouts, enjoy each other’s company and, ultimately, became everyone’s “village.” In fact, years after, we never discussed the events of July 1967. And as we’ve scattered over the years, a number of us routinely keep in touch.
Looking back on those fateful July days and nights, and thinking about the future, Detroit’s fabric was changed, but its spirit remained strong. It’s in this spirit, I hope this city does not focus on its past, but continue to dialogue, learn from it and focus on its promising future. Let’s not let July’s events define us, but let’s think about what we can become — again.
Mark S. Lee is president & CEO of he LEE Group, blogger and host, “Small Talk with Mark S. Lee.”