My view of the 1967 riot was as a kid standing in the driveway of our suburban Wayne County home, looking eastward at the distant clouds of smoke rising above Detroit.
My memory is of the panic that swept the neighborhood, of shotguns being pulled from closets and under beds, loaded and leaned against bedroom walls. Of fevered plans being made for what we would do if “they” came here next to burn down our community.
The riot was the seminal moment in Detroit’s history, the point from which nothing would be the same. But it was also transformational for the suburbs, and for those white Detroiters who would very soon become suburbanites.
For many, it marked a final break with Detroit, a turning away from a place that had been home to generations of their families, the spawning of resentment that would over time grow into hostility and outright hatred of the city and its people.
As a family up from the south, racial animosity was nothing new to us. Our hometown courthouse still had a “colored” drinking fountain, labeled as such. Racism was unhidden and unapologetic. But because it was such a small town, black and white were in everyday contact.
By contrast, Garden City in that era was an all-white, blue-collar community where the sight of a black person was cause for curiosity at best, alarm at worst. We knew little of the Detroit neighborhoods that were on fire, or of the people who lived in them.
But we knew we didn’t want them anywhere near us. The ring suburbs were too close to Detroit for many, so they packed up and pushed farther west, north and east, turning farm land into subdivisions.
They moved even farther away a few years later, when the specter of cross-district busing set off another panic. As they moved, they took with them stores, factories and jobs, snapping all economic and political ties to Detroit and leaving the city ever weaker.
Detroit was quickly moving toward the ignominious distinction it would hold by the 1990s: America’s most segregated metro area. More than 90 percent of its residents were black, and most of the suburban population was white.
An irony of Detroit’s history is that it smugly loaded up buses with freedom riders in the 1960s to roll south to confront segregation down there, leaving behind a city where smoldering racial tensions were unaddressed, often unnoticed, and ultimately would explode.
We watched the looting, the burning and the National Guard tanks on the black-and-white television in our living room. Knowing it was all happening so close by was terrifying for a child.
My dad turned off the TV, and pulled us together. “There are good colored people and bad colored people,” he counseled. “The rioters are the bad ones.”
It was a tortured message from a man struggling to do good, yet very much shaped by his raising. But his instincts were in the right place. He didn’t want us to hate, at least not with a broad brush.
The ’67 riot, or as many African-Americans see it, rebellion, should have been a wake-up call to the horrible consequences of racial hatred. Instead, it was a red, ringing alarm that made us more hateful, more fearful, more separate.
I’ve covered Detroit as a newspaperman for 41 of the 50 years since the riot. It was still fresh when I started, and worry that another uprising could erupt at any time was ever-present.
Over the years, I’ve interviewed countless white, ex-Detroiters whose families left the city after the riots. Nearly always, they talked about how their old neighborhoods “changed”: code for “blacks moved in.”
So many had not been back to the city since, even though they resettled just a few miles away. Once in a while they might drive past their old houses to shake their heads at its fate. But except for an occasional Tigers game, they were done with Detroit once they moved to the suburbs.
And proudly so. “I never go to Detroit” was a bragging statement. And they really didn’t have to. The suburbs became totally autonomous from the city in a way unmatched anywhere else.
In their isolation from Detroit, it became in their minds a sinister place, populated by violent and dangerous people — black people.
Detroit vs. Everybody was much more than a clever T-shirt then. Policymakers not only neglected Detroit, they actively sought to harm the city. A vote for a Detroit-friendly bill was the kiss of death for an outstate or suburban lawmaker.
Detroit was viewed by leaders statewide as a city destroying itself, and devoting resources to save it would be throwing money down a black hole. And they meant that literally.
The riot was not the cause of the racial hostility, but it provided an excuse for acting on it.
At this 50-year commemoration, the debate centers on whether Detroit is better or worse in the half-century since the riot.
I’ll not wade into that; the question is too multi-layered.
But I’ll say this: In my tenure as an observer, I’ve never seen more positive attitudes about Detroit from those whose families once abandoned it than I have over the past few years.
Where once it was de rigueur to hate Detroit, now it is cool to love it. White suburbanites can’t get enough of the city and its hot new venues. They love it so much they’re at risk of pushing black people out.
I suspect the turnaround has a good deal to do with the fact that so many of the children and grandchildren of those kids who stood in their yards looking skyward 50 years ago today have moved into Detroit, and fiercely made it their home.
We could not have imagined such an evolution even 10 years ago. So we are free to imagine a Detroit 10 years hence as the city it might have been had it not been torn apart in 1967.