It was a hot and muggy evening in Detroit on Saturday, July 22, 1967 and I was a small child, having celebrated my birthday only seven days before. Because it was the Summer and I wasn’t yet old enough to attend school, I would spend several weeks with my paternal grandparents. However, this Saturday evening, there was a strange feeling brewing in the air and my grandmother knew this would not be a good night for my mom to drop me off for my stay, and said so.
We always say our elders have a second sense that indicates when something good or bad is about to happen. My grandmother, Mama Lulu, had that feeling. Hours later, she said never could she have imagined what would erupt only two blocks away, in clear view, from her front porch at the corner of Edison and 12th Street. Late Saturday night going into early Sunday morning, one of the many after hours bars was in full effect near Clairmount and 12th. Because these bars were unlicensed and sold alcohol illegally, they were known as blind pigs. Detroit police habitually looked for these bars to raid and arrest those in attendance, as well as shut them down.
This night, Detroit police raided a blind pig, where more than 80 Blacks were celebrating the return of two soldiers from the Vietnam War. With the intention of arresting everyone, some onlookers engaged and one incited the violence by tossing a bottle at a police officer. Five days of violence, losses of lives and destruction of property ensued. I was too small to remember any of this. But my aunt told me I was at my grandparents’ home during some of the rioting. Those who had to go to work carried permission slips from their employers, in the same manner that slaves carried slips to leave their masters’ plantations. Without them, some were beaten or arrested for breaking curfew. My aunt Marleen saw a National Guardsman kicking a man and fellow neighbor before his wife ran outdoors screaming that the man could produce his employer’s note.
The National Guard was called in by Governor George Romney and President Lyndon B. Johnson to calm down the rioting and looting. However, they were as much a part of the problem as the frustrated rioters. With the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions on hand, there were soldiers from North Carolina and Kentucky. Some of these men had no experience dealing with Blacks and according to my aunt, they could be seen and heard calling men “boys” and disrespecting them in the same manner they would in the South.
Often, I would look at the hairline crack in my grandparents’ porch each time I went over to visit, with the reminder that it was the result of a stray bullet shot from the gun of a National Guardsman. Many in the neighborhood said the military did more damage to the property, minds and self-esteem than they ever could do to themselves. In the end, 43 people died – 33 black and 24 of them were killed by law enforcement or military.
As a native Detroiter now living in Los Angeles, what strikes me most is the story that surrounds the cause of the riot. In the trailer for Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming film “Detroit,” we see the activity that took place amounting in deaths at the Algier’s Motel. The riots had been in full effect for two days by then. Tempers were flaring and frustrations were at an all-time high. Like other predominantly Black cities at this time, it was hard to find work. Black Vietnam veterans were returning home to no job, no FHA home loans and no ticker tape parades. Instead, they returned with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Agent Orange and other undiagnosed ailments that were rarely treated.
Like other Urban cities, a few of Detroit’s most prominent Black neighborhoods on what was known as the “North End,” had been obliterated and sacrificed for new expressways. These areas labeled “Paradise Valley” and “Black Bottom” were areas where there were not only a wealth of Black-owned businesses, but Black professionals had set up shop, hospitals along with any other necessary services.
With the removal of these Black businesses, there was the removal of employment and community, in exchange for homelessness and loss of a sense of belonging. Similar to what Blacks face today, there was the “Big Four” or “Tac Squads.” These were Detroit police officers who rode through the Black neighborhoods in groups of four, known for harrassing young Black boys and girls, men and women without cause. With the mounting angst, the demeaning behavior from Detroit’s primarily white police force (95% at the time and prejudiced) was another powder keg.
So, the raiding of another blind pig on that early Sunday morning, July 23, 1967 tipped off the lid of a pot rapidly boiling over. When a struggling group is being held down, there is a strong possibility that the eruption is going to be catastrophic. I believe that some of the looting was the result of an oppressed people seeking a method for survival in the midst of chaos.
As we look back at Detroit 50 years later, many organizations have been preparing platforms to open the lines of communication in hopes of preventing this recurrence. However, the message is not solely in talking. It lies in understanding. There is an essential need for diversity training. Those in law enforcement should live amongst the citizens they serve. Look at Ferguson, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and other areas where civil unrests have occurred due to the deaths of unarmed citizens at the hands of police, with no convictions. We see an ongoing cycle.
Detroit can return from some of its destruction, despite its negative press. However, to overcome the riot that made it one of the worst in the nation’s history, the people who love this city, including me, must look back at its history, beauty, community and potential to forge ahead, never forgetting the past.