Forty years later: Looking back on the 1967 Detroit riot

250px-detroitskyline.jpg 

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…? 

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~ by Keith A. Owens on May 21, 2007.

9 Responses to “Forty years later: Looking back on the 1967 Detroit riot”

  1. […] Read more here… […]

  2. Check out “Arc of justice” by Kevin Boyle,a dicpiction of early Detroit ;Dr Sweet move to the eastside and was met with a raging white mob.Forcing him with friends to take up arms in defense of his home.Your description of events leading to the rebellion are accurate;where do we go from here a start is mass transit hard to hate when you force to ride together

  3. Tootsie,

    I’m one step ahead of you, man. Read that book several months ago, and it was phenomenal. Really painted a picture of what it was like back then, and a ton of great information. There i another book about the Dr. Sweet incident, but I can’t remember the name right now. I’ve got it at home somewhere. When I find it I’ll give you the name of that one too.

    Where do we go from here? I think that’s the question we’re all asking, and I’m not sure I have the answers to that. But I do know that if we don’t tackle the locked-in poverty that’s destroying this city across the board – and if we don’t do something about these schools – then we will never make the progress we need to get Detroit to where we need it to be.

    As always, I appreciate your comments, Tootsie.

  4. […] more about the riots and their aftermath on the Tea Mowens blog, American Experience website, the Detroit News, the 67 riot website by folks at Rutgers University […]

  5. very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
    Idetrorce

  6. […] This writer states it well: 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? Forty years later: Looking back on the 1967 Detroit riot The “D” Spot […]

  7. Hello chers lecteurs quel est votre avis de mon nouveau blog sur l’immobilier?

  8. Apparently, noticing the rapidly rising in unquestionable Power, Progressive agenda, ‘The Answer’ lies in the ‘Fair and Equal’ Re-distribution of wealth, mandated by National Socialism? That proven failure, Keynesian economic system, has resulted in approximately 100,000,000 human lives being ‘composted’ back into the earth, within the last one hundred years.

    Diverse Individualist Mankind has ‘Never’ been Forcibly ‘blended’ into an amalgum. For those areas ‘force blended’, the result is always the same..reduction to the lowest common denominator. The old ‘oil and water’ Foam, eventually seperates back into it’s original compounds. As in oil and water, only a virulent strain of Bacteria, changes the molecular structure into a naturally Useful form of nutrients. Is the same true of the human race? Human history, with it’s periodically violent intervals, suggests it so.

  9. Blacks being a distinct people were supposed to be separate from white people. They were supposed to provide for themselves within the structure and confines of their own ‘group’. They were supposed to build their own towns, cities, political systems. They did not build any of those. No cities, no towns and no political systems developed among the black race b/c they could produce industries and insufficient businesses to employ their own people; or build their own homes/ residential neighborhoods. This is NOT white people’s fault. The American Indians couldn’t do it either i.e. build cities, towns, political systems and create occupations.

    There is no constitutional amendment that requires white people to integrate. They didn’t want to be forced to do it…and it was their right to want to live separately…and want blacks to be a self-reliant people. Blacks desperately wanted (and still do) integration and they deliberately target white people/ communities (google ‘Wealthy Blacks -Where Do They Live’ – it ain’t in black communities). Forced integration is a failure. The political system that white are in right now…requires them to be the black race’s provider in perpetuity, and just sit back and tolerate blacks attacks on their children, women, home invasions, acts of calculated racism…all in an effort to drive white out…out of what they built, own, occupy.

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