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'Collectively, a fuse was blown,' says Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, whose pleas for calm in 1967 were not appreciated by the crowd. 'People just lost it ... and the police overreacted.' Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

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The sound of a ringing phone was heard inside the Dexter Avenue home of U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. around 9 a.m. on July 23, 1967.

The Detroit Democrat’s field representative, Arthur Featherstone, took the call. Conyers, then 38, was needed at the corner of 12th and Clairmount, where a crowd of hundreds had gathered.

“There was an ugly crowd there and would the congressman be kind enough to come?” asked Detroit Deputy Police Chief Hubert Locke to Featherstone.

It was the start of a fateful day for Conyers, who at the time was serving his second term in Congress. And while it’s been 50 years since that summer, Conyers, now 88, says there are some things one can never forget.

The angry faces of the men looking back at him as he stood atop a car on 12th. The rumble of military tanks rolling down the street outside his home on Dexter. The site of police riding around the city in Ford police cruisers in pairs of four.

“And I will never forget the sound of tanks going down Dexter Avenue, which is not that wide of a street to begin with. The sound of the tanks just ... it was exacerbated. The streets were so narrow that the sound kept coming. It looked like it was a military invasion,” said Conyers, the longest-serving current member of the House of Representatives, from his office inside Detroit’s federal courthouse last month.

Seeing the mayhem and destruction around him on 12th, Conyers — with the help of Featherstone and others — climbed atop a parked car, megaphone in hand, shirt-sleeves rolled above his elbows, and faced the rage head on.

‘They listened to him’

Conyers said he was attempting to quell the looting and violence that had erupted.

“I was trying — as a supporter of Dr. (Martin Luther) King and one who worked on nonviolence and community order — I was trying to discourage that,” he said.

It was a critical moment in the 1967 riots captured by photographers: Conyers standing on top of a car surrounded on all sides by a crowd. Images of the congressman talking to a group of mostly black men were published in newspapers in Detroit and around the nation.

Many of the men looked like Conyers, dressed in button-up shirts. Many donned fedoras and other hats of the time, such as a trilby or newsboy. They appeared to be working-class, blue-collar people gathered on the street.

None appeared armed. For a moment, most stood with hands on hips and their heads up, looking at Conyers and listening.

Conyers, who was joined on top of the car by his friend and ally, Arthur Johnson, with the Detroit NAACP, asked the crowd to try to settle their differences, rather than “just being emotionally upset and angry about the whole social circumstances we found ourselves in.”

“I was telling them this was not going to settle anything by getting mad and looting and having arguments with one another,” Conyers said.

They listened but anger remained in their faces.

“They were fed up with the discrimination, segregation and all that goes along with it,” he said. “It was like they just couldn’t take it any longer, and collectively, it was like a fuse was blown. It was a dangerous thing because they didn’t care what happened.”

Just minutes into his talk to the crowd, Conyers’ attempts to implement peace were cut short as tempers flared.

Featherstone, a veteran civil rights activist who was Conyers’ field representative for 50 years, recalled arriving at 12th that morning with Conyers.

“There were 300 to 400 people. They had bricks and bottles, standing there angry and ready to go,” Featherstone said.

“We lifted him up on the car. He had a bullhorn. He had the crowd under control. They listened to him,” Featherstone said.

Until the police came.

Five minutes into his pleas to the crowd, a group of police officers came from around the corner, holding fixed bayonets — no ammo, Featherstone says — all dressed in black.

“The congressman had everything under control. When the police got there, glass was flying all over the place. I said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ Bricks hitting against the car. It was an ugly scene,” Featherstone said.

Featherstone said some public officials appeared to be in shock over the rioting, some openly crying.

“The congressman and I were not crying. We know exactly what was going on. The police were cold-blooded vicious and rotten at the time,” Featherstone said.

Conyers and Featherstone and others left 12th and returned to the house on Dexter. They got a call from Detroit Mayor Jerry Cavanagh to come to the police station at 1300 Beaubien.

As they made the drive, they saw chaos as fire bombs were thrown.

“Detroit was burning. It was horrible. ... Detroit looked like Berlin during the blitzkrieg. Everything was burning,” Featherstone said.

Call from the president

In the following days, Conyers received calls at the house on Dexter from King and Gov. George Romney, Featherstone said. The civil rights leader wanted to know if the situation was under control in Detroit. The governor called to compliment Conyers for going to 12th to talk to the crowd.

Conyers was angry and disgusted by the military-style approach of police that sent residents into a violent frenzy, Featherstone said.

“This was between the police department and community. It was ugly. Police hated young black men, and they hated the police. It boiled over,” Featherstone said.

Asked whether Conyers hesitated to act, climb on the car or speak to the intense crowd, Featherstone said no.

“He had to do it. The riot broke out in the middle of his congressional district. Conyers, he comes in and takes over,” Featherstone said.

Another call came into Conyers that week from President Lyndon Johnson, who was asking for a candid report on the situation in Detroit.

“He called me at home. He wanted to know how things were going. He had already sent in the military. Gov. Romney had sent in the National Guard. The whole Detroit police force was out,” Conyers said.

“I told the president what it was like. That I was all right and that this looked like this was going to be a very explosive situation. I was trying to say to him that we were not going to settle anything sending in police, military, national guard, the whole nine yards of law enforcement.”

Conyers, now the ranking member of the judiciary committee, believes he was never in any personal danger but was frightened at times.

“Yeah, I was. I had to be. This doesn’t happen very often,” he said. “It made a lasting impression on me and still does.

“Today it would be just as disturbing if something like that happened in this time. It’s so dangerous and so unusual. Everybody realized there was so much risk involved.”

Then came the period of blame and accusation, Conyers said. The police, the looters, the lack of jobs for people of color. They all took turns taking the fall, Conyers said.

“No one knew who was at fault or whether this was justifiable,” he said. “There were arguments and divisions even within communities and families.”

Detroit and much of the country have come a long way since that time, Conyers said. When he took congressional office in 1965, Conyers was its seventh African-American member. Today, there are 49 African-American members of Congress.

“People are out front trying to bring peace and justice. It reminds me of what we attributed to Martin Luther King: jobs, justice and peace. That is what this was all about. Full employment? We are still working on it,” he said.

JChambers@detroitnews.com

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