Metro Detroiters reflect on 1967 in bus tour

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — On Sunday, 50 years to the day the uprising in the city started, three busloads of Metro Detroiters of all ages took a tour to make sense of it all. As a conflict near the end of the tour proved, Detroit is far from settled on what happened that day and who has the right to tell that story.

The tour started from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. From there, buses headed south to Campus Martius Park on Woodward Avenue. Tour guide Jamon Jordan, 46, focused on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, dedicated in 1867 in honor of Michiganians who’d fought for the North in the Civil War.

“You can’t talk about 1967 and start with 1967,” said Jordan, with Black Scroll Network History and Tours.

And you can’t talk about 1967, on the site where the action started, and not expect to hear from the neighborhood, Jordan and the tour group would learn.

It was on the tour’s fourth and final stop, at what would’ve been known at the time of the riot as 12th and Clairmount, that Jordan was approached, mid-speech, by Lamont Causey, 57.

On July 23, 1967, what’s now known as Gordon Park was 9125 12th Street, the site of the ‘blind pig’ establishment that Detroit police would raid, leading to violence that wouldn’t stop for five days. As the “Detroit 67” play took place on stage at Gordon Park, Jordan’s tour went on across the street. The street was renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard in 1976.

Causey crossed the street and interjected himself, angered that a tour group had been charged money to explore history he’d lived so personally, history he said he’d gladly offer “for free,” and does. But a seeming resolution between Causey and Jordan was soon reached.

The tour went on.

But then, a few minutes later, Causey crossed the street again. The Detroit police officers securing the Gordon Park event crossed the street, too, as the conversation between a tour guest and Causey became heated. Causey calmed down and crossed the street again, venting his frustrations to reporters.

“You can’t tell our story, and come up on 12th Street and Clairmount, and I’ve never seen this guy a day in my life,” Causey said. “We need to heal; we don’t need people getting charged for tours.”

Minutes later, an audible groan was heard in the group as Causey approached a third time. But the group wouldn’t know until Causey spoke again that he had softened his heart. On a Sunday distinctly more peaceful than the day being commemorated — but just about as hot — this conflict wouldn’t last.

With an hour to go before an historical marker commemorating the riot would be unveiled at Gordon Park, the two men would shake hands. Causey offered a verbal apology and his well wishes to Jordan and the tour group, which responded with applause. Causey walked back across the street, and the three tour buses headed back to the Wright Museum.

Other stops on the tour explored Detroit’s past as a home of the slave trade, and the demise of black neighborhoods Paradise Valley and Black Bottom in the name of urban renewal. All revealed different aspects of how Detroit got to this point, from when Wayne County Sheriff John Wilson was killed in a slavery-related beef in 1833, to the difficulties black people have historically had finding quality housing and welcoming neighbors in southeast Michigan.

Normally there would’ve been five stops, the tour ran too long to reach the Sacred Heart Major Seminary, where the statute of Jesus was painted black in 1967, a move the seminary itself would endorse years later.

This was the largest 1967 tour Jordan has led of the 10 he’s done, with 120 guests in attendance. On a day when Metro Detroiters packed buses and filled parks in search of healing wounds opened 50 years ago, Jordan offers healing by way of understanding the 130 years years prior to 1967, the roots of dysfunction that were planted before police ever raided that blind pig.

Jonathan Jones, 31, was part of the group, and has long admired Jordan’s work. After the tour, he called the experience “amazing.”

“This one was particularly connecting, because he gave a lot of backstory,” said Jones, who works at the Wright Museum. “Nothing of this nature can start in the moment. It has to have some context to it. This thing was beyond what a riot would be. This spoke to generations of oppression, it spoke to generations of conflict. It goes beyond that spark, that moment.”

“Truth is different perspectives,” said Michele Hembree, who was on the tour. “You and I could be standing right next to each other, and our interpretation of events could be different. The bottom line is that it happened.”

Jordan, the tour guide, cautioned that conditions, in some ways, aren’t much better for black people in Detroit in 2017.

“We have water shutoffs, tax foreclosures — in some cases, water (bills are) causing people to lose their homes. We have development going on in one area of Detroit, and demolition, blight, hopelessness and despair in another part of Detroit. These feelings can help to cause another uprising. If it does happen, I hope people don’t say ‘I didn’t know,’ because that’s what people were saying (in 1967). I see the wick, right now, in the city of Detroit. I’m hoping a flame doesn’t get lit. I hope we do something before that happens.”