‘Power of prayer’ helped ease pain in Detroit uprising
Bob Bruttell was a 19-year-old student at Sacred Heart Major Seminary when he took to the streets of Detroit in the summer of 1967 to offer prayer and a listening ear to the black community.
Civil disturbances had been going on for days, and Bruttell returned from a mission trip in Mexico to join priests and ministers hoping to calm the noise.
The worst of the violence had ended, but there were still what Bruttell called “hot spots” of looting and fighting at night.
With Bibles in their hands, Bruttell said he and church leaders walked the neighborhoods during the day, stopping at corner stores along Mack and Van Dyke to talk with people.
They encountered small groups of young men standing on the sidewalks chatting, some drinking out of brown paper bags.
“We knew they were the same people who would potentially be on the streets at night (looting),” said Bruttell, now 69. “They would say things that were pretty common like ‘the white man is oppressing us.’ ”
Bruttell, who is white, said the clergy hoped they could deter some of the violent protests by promising to deliver concerns from black residents to city leaders and inviting them to church activities.
The church leaders, who were both black and white, believed they had enough clout in Detroit to connect people with the right resources, Bruttell said.
Some of the Baptist ministers also prayed with the young people.
“I think that I learned something about the power of prayer and the fact that people find prayer a very valuable thing to do in a tense situation,” Bruttell said. “And if you can’t stop a problem, at least you can pray about the problem.”
Though he was still a seminary student — and one of the youngest in the group — Bruttell said he also tried to speak with people during their walks.
“I just said, ‘We are here to help. What is it that you need?’ ” he recalled.
They responded with their demands: jobs, decent housing, an end to police brutality against black people.
Bruttell said he felt that it was his duty as a young Detroiter to help the oppressed. Many of the people looting on the streets were his age.
He agreed that their desire for a higher quality of life was a reason to riot. Violence, Bruttell said, is one way to grab the attention of people in power.
“I think that black people in the city of Detroit had a more-than-justifiable reason to have righteous anger,” said Bruttell, who now lives in Huntington Woods. “The fact that the white community imagined that the situation somehow for black families was similar to the situation for white families was an absurd notion.”
The walks empowered Bruttell to launch his own efforts to help in late 1967.
He started organizing small groups of residents and community leaders to meet weekly and discuss the issues that led to the unrest.
They gathered at the home of Mary Lou Hogan — a friend of Bruttell’s — on Chapoton Street in St. Clair Shores.
Most of the participants were white, Bruttell said, and had little knowledge of the racism black people were experiencing in Detroit.
Bruttell said he enlightened them with what he learned from black activists and invited local reporters to discuss what they witnessed on the streets.
“I thought it was white people’s responsibility to get some education before we started spouting off,” Bruttell said.
“When you aren’t experiencing redlining and blockbusting, when you’re not experiencing the violence of the police ... you are living in two different worlds. It was the first time we were coming to terms with how serious the differences were.”
Many of Hogan’s suburban neighbors condemned her for inviting black people into her home for the meetings, she said.
“We had people calling us (expletive) lovers,” Hogan said.
Hogan said this treatment combined with the discussions at the meetings motivated her family to move to Detroit in 1971.
Hogan no longer wanted to raise her children around racist suburbanites, she said.
“I often say he (Bruttell) kind of changed our life,” Hogan said. “It made us stop and think, what do we do about this? The basic thing was don’t raise our kids in this way.”
Hogan said she believes Bruttell inspired people to be less angry about the rioting because they understood it.
Today, Bruttell owns a construction company and is a history professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. He’s also the chairman of the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.
Anthony Campbell, a longtime friend of Bruttell’s who attended the seminary with him, said it was clear the events of 1967 caused Bruttell to become more passionate about race relations in Detroit.
Campbell said he attended some of the roundtables with Bruttell but was somewhat removed from the civil disobedience because he grew up a farm kid in Romeo.
“I think it was important for somebody to step up,” Campbell said. “It was important for people who had a sense of what was happening and what could happen ... to try and go in the opposite direction in a positive way.”