Forty years later: Looking back on the 1967 Detroit riot
Not to be celebrated, but to be remembered. And understood.
In July, which is not quite two months from now, it will be the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit riot. Or rebellion. Or uprising. Or we can just refer to it as that time when black folks in Detroit got seriously pissed off and unleashed the rage of ages in a flood of fire and anguish that scarred this city forever. Whatever you want to call it, its effects on Detroit remain the same.
I live about three blocks from where the riot started. There is no marker there. No sign saying “This is where it all began.” Or “This is where it all came to an end.” There is nothing much there at all except for an empty building hunkered down like an orphan on the fringes of the once aristocratic Boston Edison neighborhood. Once home to wealthy white doctors and lawyers, Boston Edison is trying its best these days to keep its head up amidst “For Sale” signs cropping up like dandelions and empty, boarded up homes – some of them mansions – that sit wearily upon unkempt patches of land.
Forty years later, and the aftermath of one of this nation’s most destructive riots ever still haunts this community like a ghost that refuses to cross over to the other side. Some of the buildings that were gutted during the riots are still here, although many more have been torn down. But more than the physical reminders, it is the lingering psychological and sociological damage that is more dangerous than any burned out skeletal building structure could ever be.
I just finished reading one excellent book about Detroit history (“The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit” by Thomas J. Sugrue), and I’m in the middle of reading another (“Whose Detroit? : Politics, Labor and Race in a Modern American City” by Heather Ann Thompson) . Between the two of them, I’m developing a much clearer understanding of how we got to where we are and where the 1967 riot (there was another major race riot in Detroit more than 20 years earlier) fits into all of this. I don’t want to take up too much space digging up this grave, but basically what we’re looking at today is a crisis that was nearly 50 years in the making.
In its industrial heyday, during the 1930s and 1940s, Detroit was the blue collar engine that revved up the rest of America. Black folks flocked here from the South seeking the promise of good-paying jobs and a chance to start a good life. What many of them found instead was a city that could rival Mississippi with its racial hatred and animosity. Discrimination was the law in Detroit just like it was Down South. Black folks who worked in the plants discovered they were relegated to the worst, most dangerous jobs. Jobs with little or no chance for advancement. And they were frequently the last hired and first fired. When trying to find somewhere to live, racially restrictive – and heavily enforced – covenants preventing blacks from living in numerous areas throughout the city meant that most of them were squeezed on top of one another into rat-infested, tumble down residences where the rate of tuberculosis and other diseases was far higher than anywhere else in the city. Although Paradise Valley and Black Bottom were renowned for the remarkable night life and cultural attractions located in those east side neighborhoods, they were also two steps removed from hell to live in on a day-to-day basis for anyone who actually wanted to raise a family.
This is where it was considered “OK” for black folks to live in Detroit.
Those who ventured across the invisible barrier between white and black territory swiftly discovered just how hated they were as entire families of whites would quickly mobilize and rally the troops to smash windows, smash cars, harass children, send threatening letters, and do whatever else needed to be done to get those black folks the hell out of their lilly-white neighborhood and send them back across the tracks to where they belonged. I think the thing that struck me the most about the level of hatred was how well-organized it was. The wives, the husbands, even the young children all had assigned rolls to play in keeping segregation intact, and they played those rolls with blood red determination and efficiency. Furthermore, white folks had block clubs, home improvement associations, neighborhood newsletters, and you name whatever else all operating in lock step with a single-minded purpose to hate black folks and keep them away.
So the summer of 1967 rolls around, and the auto factories have already been de-centralizing and sending some of their operations down south where they don’t have to be bothered with those pesky unions. There went hundreds of jobs. The war was over so there wasn’t as much need for labor. There went a few thousand more jobs. Plus the white men were back from the war so the labor shortage crisis that permitted black to slip through the cracks into decent-paying jobs was no longer a labor shortage crisis. White men were back from the war and they wanted their jobs and they didn’t want to work next to black folks. But it wasn’t that long after the war ended that those remaining jobs began to slowly evaporate. Many of them went down South, but others were rendered obsolete by automation.
Meanwhile, the young black folks weren’t getting the same job opportunities as their parents. All they saw was the opportunities shriveling up. On top of all this, the Detroit cops regularly beat up on black folks like it was a favorite hobby. On that hot summer night in 1967, the black folks had about had it with that hobby, with no jobs, with nowhere to live, with racial discrimination, with all the failed dreams and false promises that equalled Detroit. So they decided to burn those failed hopes to the ground because, after all, who wants to wake up and go to sleep every day surrounded by all the lies you’ve been told?
Today, in 2007, as I read about what happened during the 1950s in Detroit, it’s like reading today’s newspapers in many respects. The decline of the auto industry. No jobs. Disillusioned and angry black youth. People leaving the city. Race and class discrimination. City vs. suburb.
I wonder what the headline will be in 2047…?