Rebellion or riot: three books examine Detroit 1967

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

The Detroit disturbances of July 1967 continue to fascinate locals and the nation at large, as evidenced by a rash of new books on the subject.

After 50 years, that violent summer still stands as a cultural hinge point, after which nothing was quite the same.

The anniversary has been given extra punch both by the Black Lives Matter movement, which touches on the very police brutality blamed for the riots, and Detroit’s recent and very public history — the trauma of bankruptcy followed by the unexpected revival of downtown and Midtown, in a city where little else has changed.

Here are three just-released books that contemplate the uprising in an iconic American city that shook the world:

“Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies” — Edited by Joel Stone

(Wayne State University Press — $39.99)

Several years ago, when the Detroit Historical Museum considered how to commemorate the events of 1967, staffers decided they needed to turn to the voice of the people, and collect oral histories from across the spectrum of individuals who lived through that summer.

“We decided we couldn’t tell the story alone,” said Senior Curator Joel Stone. “We needed citizens, community leaders, activists and academics to tell us what was critical, and where the landmines were,” Stone said.

It soon became clear that a book, as well as an exhibition, would emerge from this process, and Stone began collecting writers and thinkers he admired to pen short essays for a multifaceted look at the causes and consequences of a long, hot summer.

Some 20 academics, journalists and experts agreed to contribute, ranging from former Detroit News columnist Tim Kiska to historians DeWitt S. Dykes and Melba J. Boyd.

As a distinguished professor of African-American Studies at Wayne State University, “Melba is wonderfully knowledgeable, and with an opinion,” Stone said, which was important.

“We didn’t want Casper milquetoast opinions,” he said.

Stone was also able to mine commentary from the museum’s oral-history project, including Steven Balkin’s story — a brand-new teacher who landed in the Detroit Public Schools just a month after the rebellion.

“Steven walks in after that summer to teach fifth- and sixth-graders,” Stone said.

“So he had them write what they remembered from July, and got this incredible mélange of opinions from the kids.” Many of those voices are in “Detroit 1967” the book, as well as the Historical Museum’s “Detroit ’67: Perspectives” exhibition, which will be on view through 2018.

Stone said the process of creating the book just underlined the complexity of the issues that led up to the early-morning explosion at 12th and Claremount on Sunday, July 23.

And where does he come down in the debate over what to call the disturbances — riot , rebellion, or something else altogether?

“I think the July events were really just a riot,” Stone said.

“People were pushing back against the police, but there was no organization. I think the revolution came in the evolving relationship between the black and white communities,” he added, “as normal people started to understand there was a problem, and that they needed to talk more.”

“The Detroit Riot of 1967” — Hubert G. Locke

(Wayne State University Press — $24.99)

Reviving a classic work from 1969, Wayne State University Press has just republished Hubert G. Locke’s “The Detroit Riot of 1967.”

Locke’s perspective is an interesting one — he was administrative assistant to Detroit Police Chief Raymond Girardin in the summer of 1967.

Locke, who ended up as the dean of public policy at the University of Washington, had worked three years in the early 1960s on a citizen’s committee founded by United Auto Workers head Walter Reuther looking into issues of inequality and police brutality in Detroit.

It was this expertise that brought Locke to Girardin and Mayor Jerome Cavanagh’s attention, and why he was drafted to serve in the police department.

Organized as a day-by-day account, Locke’s tale begins with the early-morning call he got on July 23 that something dangerous was breaking out on the city’s near-west side.

“I got to 12th and Claremount about 4:30 a.m. Sunday,” Locke said, “and didn’t get home ’till 8 p.m. Tuesday night — just long enough to take a shower and change clothes.”

Locke was not a police officer, but more a scout scoping out the situation and helping with police organization.

He recalls getting two well-respected African-American leaders — Rep. John Conyers and the head of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, Arthur Johnson — out on the street with bullhorns to try to calm the crowds down.

“But that was naïve and useless,” Locke said. “By noon we realized we’d lost any chance of quelling the disturbance.”

That Locke worked with the police, and admired Girardin, never kept him from recognizing heavy-handed policing had laid the seeds for the eruption.

And who, he asks, could be surprised?

“When I entered the department in 1966,” Locke said, “there were 138 black officers out of a department of 4,000 sworn officers.”

“The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Started in Detroit” — Scott Kurashige

(University of California Press, $18.95)

Scott Kurashige spent years in Detroit working with the legendary community activist Grace Lee Boggs on issues of social justice and race relations, while also teaching at the University of Michigan.

Now a professor of American Studies at the University of Washington Bothell, Kurashige has written an ambitious book that connects the Detroit conflagration of 1967 with much of the dysfunction that’s increasingly plagued the U.S.

He sees the events of July 1967 as a turning point nationally.

“When you think about Detroit’s 50-year crisis,” he said, “it really relates to the unresolved contradictions of 1967 — race, policing, and economic dislocation.”

These are the very factors, he argued, “that led to the bankruptcy, the state takeover and the emergency manager.

“In many ways,” Kurashige added, “the bankruptcy becomes a form of resolution that 1967 didn’t provide,” even if it was, as he noted, an unsatisfying resolution for many Detroiters.

Equally important, however, were unseen economic forces undermining the stability and prosperity many Detroiters had once enjoyed.

“Now it’s easy to see,” Kurashige said, “but in 1967, Detroit still seemed to be a prosperous city, at least for some people. But young African-Americans weren’t finding the opportunities that once existed.”

“There was a growing sense, as (autoworker and socialist writer) James Boggs said, that there was an emerging class of outsiders.”

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy