Long after the smoke cleared, the bodies were buried and tank tracks were swept from neighborhood streets, the scars remained visible, dividing Detroit families, neighbors and nearby communities for decades.
Now, 50 years later, it can be asked: Can time heal all wounds or will they simply be forgotten?
The story of July 23, 1967, and the five days following fades on worn newsprint with each day’s passing. But it remains an important one worth retelling.
A dreary Sunday soon became violent following a 3:30 a.m. raid at 9125 12th St. by 10th precinct police at a blind pig popular with the city’s black residents, which was above the Economy Printing Co. While raiding after-hours drinking establishments was routine for police, this raid brought out large crowds because it was in the congested Virginia Park area.
By the time an initial 85 people had been arrested and loaded onto three wagons, a mob of 200 had gathered, throwing rocks, bricks and bottles. A few hours later, a Molotov cocktail went through a shoe store window at 12th and Blaine. Conflict erupted while many Detroiters were getting ready for church.
What would unfold would be termed a “Street of Nightmares” by The Detroit News in its published coverage.
Former Detroit Police Chief Ike McKinnon, businessman Richard Crab, Dr. Michael Rolnick and U.S. Rep. John Conyers recount their memories of the unforgettable summer of 50 years ago.
State Police Director Col. Fredrick E. Davids at the time reported the rioting was caused by “professional instigators” from Detroit and elsewhere. Police initially called the situation tense but “contained,” with the worst of the developing chaos erupting elsewhere, north of West Grand Boulevard.
It appeared by noon that day that calm and order were briefly possible after police tried to seal off 12th, letting rioters loose inside. An all-black firefighting squad also had been assembled in hopes the men would be allowed to tame a growing number of arson fires.
Neither worked. Rocks, bottles and bricks pelted the first responders.
Police then stormed 12th in a tactic they hoped would “snap the spine” of the angry mob. Cops moved through the rioters, who washed back over them in a sea of fury.
Looters grabbed everything from couches, refrigerators to “a side of beef” then torched the emptied stores.
Gov. George Romney asked for thousands of Army troops, National Guardsmen and police to quell the uprising. President Lyndon Johnson ordered troops airlifted to nearby Selfridge Air Force Base for federal response.
“There is reasonable doubt that we can suppress the existing looting, arson and sniping without the assistance of federal troops,” Romney telegraphed Johnson.
As a result, thousands of guardsmen were placed on duty, and the governor urged residents not to report to work if they had jobs downtown. High absenteeism was reported at Metro Detroit’s auto plants, but notably Chrysler Corp. managed to begin its 1968 model production on schedule.
Looters worked their way down Grand River, smashing storefronts. The News reported one of the following nights “was filled with the sounds of tinkling glass and laughter.”
Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and Romney toured some of the hardest-hit areas, with the mayor summarizing: “Destruction is almost total in some areas. It is very disturbing to see the number of people on the street. For want of a better term, they have a carnival spirit.”
For days, Detroiters could hear a wail of sirens, crunching glass under police cruiser tires and the crack of gunfire. Guardsmen opened up their heavy machine guns on apartment buildings with suspected snipers as tanks rolled down blacked-out streets.
Sales of alcohol and gasoline were eventually banned, pushing Detroiters’ resourcefulness in travel and thirst quenching while enduring a 9 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. daily curfew.
Damage estimates rose: first $50 million, then $100 million, then $200 million and more.
Before law and order were restored, death, sniper battles, widespread arson and food shortages would be endured. The poor felt empowered to take from the rich but feared the consequences of destroying their own neighborhood stores.
“You wouldn’t pay attention to us before, now you will be forced to,” an unidentified looter said during the mayhem.
Another man told The News: “Negroes in this country are sick and tired of the treatment we’ve been getting. We’re going to show ‘whitey.’ If things don’t change, we burn the whole damn city down.”
Arsonists nearly did. Firefighters made 1,682 runs during the uprising that ended with its last major fire on 12th Street between Hazelwood and Taylor the following Friday. But far more costly would be the 43 dead, which included a police officer, two firemen, looters and innocent bystanders.
Now 50 years later, the violence, rioting and rebelling still stir visceral emotions from city residents and Metro Detroiters alike.
“Much like the moment when you found out that President Kennedy died or the moment you found out about 9/11, to Detroiters, this is something that they either experienced, or they heard about it from their parents or other people once they moved here,” said Joel Stone, senior curator at the Detroit Historical Society. “And there aren’t a lot of experiences like that in Detroit’s history that everybody remembers.”
Yet because of the ferocity that everyone experienced, Stone said, there were some significant steps taken after the uprising.
“There were all kinds of different things that happened in the white community, black community, and black and white community,” Stone said. “It kind of was a wake-up call for a lot of people.”
Romney and Cavanagh urged the formation of New Detroit — a coalition to review what led to the violence and figure out how to prevent it from happening again.
Grassroots organizations like Focus: HOPE, Operation Get Down and ESVID (East Side Voice of Independent Detroit) created programs for youth and seniors, or offered assistance for the sick and homeless, in the black community.
“These were groups that said, ‘We’re not going to wait for the government or white community to help us out. We’re going to take care of this ourselves,’ ” Stone said.
There were also changes in city churches. In 1967, the Shine of the Black Madonna formed out of another congregation and became a home for many outspoken in the black community. There were also attempts to integrate the city government and workplaces, and auto unions tried to diversify the workforce within car companies.
Yet, after a decade passed, a number of these diversification efforts and new organizations faded, Stone said.
“They either enjoyed some semblance of success, or they enjoyed a moderate bit of success and thought that the task was over with, and people stopped paying attention,” he said. “I think that was probably to our detriment.”
So how is Detroit doing 50 years later?
“That question has a million different answers,” said Jeffrey Horner, a Wayne State University Urban Studies and Planning senior lecturer. “It’s better in some respects and lousier in others.”
On the one hand, there’s less racial segregation in city neighborhoods than in 1967, said Horner, who’s teaching a WSU course “Detroit Rebellion at 50: Retrospect and Prospect.”
“You had all blacks in certain neighborhoods in Detroit and all whites in others. That has changed markedly,” he said. “... There’s a lot more diffusion of people of different racial backgrounds and ethnicities — not just whites and blacks — but people of Arabic and Asian descent. And there’s more acceptance.”
That acceptance, he said, stems from youth growing up in diverse neighborhoods throughout the city and Metro Detroit.
“There’s more going to school with kids from different backgrounds, cultures and religions than there was in 1967,” he said.
While racial tensions may have eased between neighbors, Horner said, there’s still more work to do to improve relations between police and black communities.
“Race relations have gotten better at least on an inner personal basis, (but) certainly not between police departments and poor urban blacks like in Ferguson, Missouri,” he said.
Even in Detroit, the years following 1967 was a time of “increased police brutality,” Horner said, until Mayor Coleman Young — Detroit’s first black mayor — took office in 1974 and worked to integrate the predominantly white police department.
Eventually, mayors and city council members started talking to community leaders about development projects. But others were left out of that conversation.
Stone points to Virginia Park as an example: The city had limited resources and decided to pour those resources in areas that hadn’t been destroyed.
“(In Virginia Park), their neighborhood was devastated, the shops they shopped at were gone, the houses were taken out and many of the people who lived there a long time left,” Stone said. “When you talk to the people who lived there, their response is, ‘Why didn’t anybody come in and fix this? Why didn’t they come in to rebuild our homes? Why didn’t they help the businesses rebuild?’ They kind of abandoned us and left. In part, that’s true.”
Fast-forward to today, and many of the issues that plagued Detroit and instigated the 1967 uprising “are still with us,” Stone said. “Some of them are seriously worse.”
For one, Detroit’s public transportation system is not as good as it was in 1967, Stone said.
“The Detroit Public School system has gone through many changes and is probably not as efficient or effective as it was back then,” he added.
Yet some things have gotten better. Downtown, Midtown and the Woodward corridor have seen “wonderful improvements,” Stone said. Even the residents of Virginia Park rallied together to fix houses, build a shopping center and restore Gordon Park into a green space with pavilions and picnic tables.
“Those are very tough and resilient people that live in that neighborhood, and I think there’s probably some resentment that they didn’t get more attention before this year,” Stone said, “and there’s probably some pride in that they’ve been able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do it themselves, and that’s a neat story right there.”
For its Detroit 67 Project, the Detroit Historical Society collected more than 500 oral histories about the uprising from those who lived through it. Many moved out of the city while the fires were still burning and never came back.
“Then there are people, black and white, who love the city so much that they have stuck around and fought for it for the last 50 years,” Stone said.
Now is a time to “embrace the optimism” that has swept Detroit, he said, which is partly why the Detroit 67 Project came up with the slogan “looking back to move forward.”
“But in that embracing, we can’t forget there are still a lot of the problems that existed 50 years ago that have not been addressed,” Stone said. “We’re not going to break through that glass into nirvana until we address them.”