City commemorates 1967 uprising with historic marker

Kaylee McGhee
The Detroit News

Fifty years later, Carolyn Coldard still remembers the day in 1967 when Detroit began burning. She was 19 when Detroit police officers raided a blind pig she and her sister were at.

“I was startled and shocked,” she said. “But I wasn’t scared. You know how when you’re 19, you just aren’t scared of anything? That was me.”

Coldard, 69, said she didn’t realize the significance of the event at the time, but she was present Sunday when the city commemorated the discord by dedicating a historical marker at the site of the city’s stain on the past.

City officials and residents gathered in Gordon Park on Sunday afternoon to commemorate Detroit’s resilience and commitment to move forward.

“We start out with remembrance because we need to make it a part of our permanent history,” said U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit. “We remember the past to see how far we’ve come, so that we can look forward to what we will continue to accomplish.”

Coldard’s sister, Loretta Holmes, 67, said they were at the blind pig, an illegal after-hours bar, to celebrate the return of soldiers who served in the Vietnam War. She recalls seeing a sledgehammer crash through the door, and the next thing she knew, the police were forcing them into police wagons that would take them to police station.

Police arrested all 85 people found in the blind pig. A crowd began gathering outside, protesting the arrests. More than 3,000 rioters had gathered by the time morning dawned on the restless city. Rocks, glass bottles and other objects were thrown at police officers trying to get control. Unable to settle the crowd, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and Gov. George Romney called in the National Guard. Two days later, federal troops marched down the streets of Detroit.

Some who witnessed the events of 1967 said Detroit has overcome many obstacles since then.

“I’ve seen improvement,” Coldard said. “But I can see we need more improvement. We need better race-relations, even today. We are all apart of the same race — the human race.”

The message at the unveiling was one of hope for the future and pride in how far Detroit has come. U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said that although the events of 1967 were painful, they are worth commemorating.

“How often do you get to say the city of Detroit is coming back?” she asked. “The city of Detroit is alive again. There had to be a resurgence from something in order to say that.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said a commitment to equality and justice has helped Detroit move on from the uprising, and he said it will continue.

Others also reached out to explore Detroit, past and present.

The cast of the new film “Detroit” also spoke at the unveiling and thanked the community for allowing them to tell the city’s story. “Detroit” explores an incident at the Algiers Motel in the city during the uprising that left three young black men dead after a police interrogation.

“I really believe there is hope for Detroit,” said John Boyega, the lead actor in the film. “Hopefully this movie sparks more conversations.”

Earlier in the afternoon, three of the stars who portray Detroit musicians in the movie visited the historic Motown Museum. Leon Thomas III, one of the actors, said being in such a historic place at the heart of Detroit’s memories was inspiring.

“You can’t have a conversation about Detroit without talking about music,” he said. “Being here is amazing because it shows how those who were around were singing their way through oppression. It shows the resilience of this city.”

Actor and singer Algee Smith, a Saginaw native, said working on the set of “Detroit” gave him a history lesson he wasn’t expecting.

“It’s history in action,” he said. “It’s given me a drive to do something that matters with my art.”

Now that block in Gordon Park remains embedded in history, a beacon for those who lived through the events. This once-broken city continues to be an “innovation of promise,” said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, said in a congressional record statement presented at the unveiling.

Coldard said that before the riots, Detroit was a beautiful community.

“Now, I have hope it will be again,” she said.