Much of the testimony from eye witnesses and historians over the years about the summer of 1967 in Detroit casts the social unrest as the product of longstanding racial resentment and its impact on the well-being of African-Americans.
That blacks at the time were made to feel inferior — and treated like they were under an apartheid system — with a Detroit Police Department running amok with its notorious S.T.R.E.S.S (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) program, which specifically targeted blacks for enforcement.
The late Ron Scott, former head of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, used to share with me stories of 1967 and why it remained an indelible mark on the conscience of the city and its leaders. Scott always wanted journalists to tell the facts about the unrest and how race was the principal motivating factor.
His argument was that when people are economically alienated and their dignity taken away by unjustifiable and illegal police actions, they feel pushed into a corner. As a result, they are forced to react. Their reaction can sometimes lead to violence, and in Detroit it exploded.
That, in essence, is the story of 1967.
As the city marks the 50th anniversary of that seminal event that led to the loss of lives and the destruction of property and serves as a powerful reminder of the corrosive effects of race and class, we need to ask ourselves the following:
What has changed tangibly in Detroit for the better since 1967?
Have the lives of Detroiters improved significantly?
Have Detroit leaders learned any lessons from that consequential event?
A cursory look at 2017 Detroit will suggest that we are still dealing with some of the challenges that gave rise to that violence.
Lack of economic opportunity is still a present-day reality for many Detroiters. The majority of the city’s children live in poverty and are growing up without opportunities.
Since 1967, Detroit often has elected leaders who went to work for themselves alone, instead of the people who put them in office.
The city’s population decline, public corruption and continued rewarding of mediocrity over meritocracy, as well as a failure of leadership across the board from bureaucrats and elected officials, have been the hallmark of the last 50 years. And, more importantly, the city went into bankruptcy.
In fact, Detroit was listed among the 50 worst cities to live in, according to a report released last month by 24/7 Wall St., a Delaware-based financial and public opinion research company.
“Once the fourth largest city by population and wealthiest by income per capita, Detroit’s economic decline over the past several decades may be the largest of any U.S. city,” the report stated. “The number people living in Detroit fell 19 percent over the past 10 years to just 677,124 today, the second largest population decline of any large city over that period. The typical Detroit household earns just $25,980 a year, less than half the $55,755 national median household income.
“... Crime and overall urban decay have depressed real estate prices in the city to a fraction of their former value. The typical occupied home in Detroit is worth just $42,600, the lowest median home value of any city other than nearby Flint, Michigan.”
This report joins a number of others of late that should give the cheerleaders of Detroit’s comeback narrative pause. They need to look at the fact that the economic boom that is clustered in downtown Detroit is not shared across the city.
More work needs to be done because conditions have not changed much for many Detroiters who are being asked to join in remembering the summer of 1967.
The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.