'Summer on Fire' – Peter Werbe publishes debut novel about the 1967 Detroit uprising

Kurt Anthony Krug
Special to The Detroit News

Peter Werbe – who has been a staple in Detroit media for more than 50 years, having hosted “Nightcall” on WRIF-FM from 1971 to 2016 and having contributed countless articles to the counter-culture tabloid called the Fifth Estate – insists he is not the character Paul in his debut novel, “Summer on Fire: A Detroit Novel.”

“Paul is not me,” said Werbe, who lives with Marilyn, his wife of 58 years in Oak Park.

“Summer on Fire” (Black & Red $15.95) is a fictional account of the 1967 Detroit uprising, something Werbe lived through. Werbe and Fifth Estate publisher and founder Harvey Ovshinsky, author of “Scratching the Surface: Adventures in Storytelling” (Wayne State University Press $27.99), will have a virtual conversation about their respective books at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 16 via Facebook. Registration is required for this event, which is sponsored by the Book Beat in Oak Park.

“I’m asked, ‘You’re Paul, right? I didn’t know you did this.’ I never did that. It’s fiction. I made it up," Werbe said. "They look disappointed. It’s a novel, it’s not my memoir. But it’s close enough. Since the main characters are Paul and Michelle, someone said, ‘If you didn’t want people to think it was you and Marilyn, you could’ve thought of characters with names that begin with different letters.’ Paul and Michelle are admirable characters. If people associate us with them… that’s fine.” 

Peter Werbe

The uprising began on July 23, 1967, when Detroit police raided a blind pig – an unlicensed, after-hours bar – on 12th Street, arresting more than 80 Black patrons. This attracted a crowd of onlookers, one of whom threw a bottle at a cop, fanning the flames of the unrest, which lasted five days. The Michigan Army National Guard and Michigan State Police were called in to curb the violence.

Perhaps the most infamous incident during those five days was the Algiers Motel Murders, where three civilians were killed and nine others brutalized by a task force comprised of Detroit police, the MSP and the National Guard on the evenings of July 25-26, 1967.

Werbe, who was “born and raised hell in Detroit,” remembers those five days vividly nearly 52 years later. He and Marilyn lived on 3rd Avenue and Delaware – which they called “3D” – and were four blocks from the Algiers. They went to bed every night to the sound of gunfire and police sirens. They covered the uprising for the Fifth Estate.

“Everything in my life is an accident in the sense of being in the right place at the right time," he said. "I became a rabble-rouser by being one of the rabble being roused by the events of the day. Being involved in the civil rights movement and anti-war movement here in Detroit, I was in a meeting around late 1965. (Ovshinsky) was at this anti-war meeting – ‘I need help with my (news)paper. Can anyone help me?’ And nobody raised their hand. I said, ‘I will.’”

"Summer on Fire: A Detroit Novel" by Peter Werbe

“I may have created the Fifth Estate but once he came on board, Peter saved it,” said Ovshinsky, an award-winning filmmaker. “We started out being ‘Detroit’s New Progressive Bi-Weekly Newspaper,’ but Peter was the driver who helped turn the Fifth Estate into something more forceful and persuasive and – eventually – more vociferous and radical than I ever could have imagined. Or, as I later told Peter, ‘We were like the Beatles, only I was Paul (McCartney) and you were John (Lennon).’”

Writing the chapter about the Algiers incident had a profound impact on Werbe.

“It depressed me so badly. It made me sad and miserable," he said. "I didn’t write for three weeks, thinking, ‘Maybe I don’t want to do this.’” 

However, Werbe gutted it out and finished the book.

“It draws a lot upon newspaper reports. A lot of it is how us as White people related essentially to a Black event," Werbe said. "White people talk about the riots… as something very significant for them. That’s when we said. ‘We gotta move out’ or ‘That was five days of living dangerously.' “Most about what’s written about the riots in novels is from the ‘White gaze’ and the impact it had on us. The most dramatic impact was on the Black community and the disaster that befell it.”

So far, Werbe has been awestruck by the reaction “Summer on Fire” has been getting. When he announced it on his Facebook page, it immediately got more than 300 likes. People who listened to “Nightcall” told him they plan to buy the book.

“How many times do you get praise for a good article you wrote?” he said. “Not many… I really hit a vein because I’m telling our story – our story being the city’s… Even if you weren’t even alive when this happened, this is still occurring. Look at last summer with Black Lives Matter.”

'Summer on Fire'

by Peter Werbe

(Black & Red $15.95)

To register for a livestream event, visit:

(https://www.facebook.com/bookbeat), Werbe’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/peterwerbe67), and Ovshinsky’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/harvey.ovshinsky). For questions or more information, contact the Book Beat at (248) 968-1190 or info@thebookbeat.com.

Visit Werbe at www.peterwerbe.org.