The truth about the Detroit 1967 Riot
Today’s Detroit has little to do with 1967
What if riot never happened? City was still headed for slide
July 20, 2007
Some year, July 23 will pass in metro Detroit without reexaminations of the 1967 riot/rebellion/insurrection/civil disturbance.
Some year, the scratchy images of Motown’s version of the Summer of Love — burning buildings, looted stores, sniper fire, “Soul Brother” graffiti, combat-hardened paratroopers and spread-eagled young black men in fedoras and skinny pants — will fade.
Forgetting won’t be easy, though. There are numerous books about the riot, at least one TV documentary and songs by Gordon Lightfoot, John Lee Hooker and the MC5.
The riot also looms large in the consciousness of white suburbanites; conventional wisdom is that July 1967 was the turning point in Detroit’s recent history, the cause of flight to the suburbs, the breeder of all things bad about their once-beloved city, the event that kicked off Detroit’s transformation from the world’s greatest factory town to the struggling, impoverished city of today.
There is one question, though, that the discussion panels rarely take up: What if the events of that July never happened?
What if the police raid on that blind pig at 12th and Clairmount had gone off peacefully and Detroit had escaped the 1960s without a week in which 43 died and 2,509 stores were looted or burned?
The passage of four decades allows some perspective. And there is ample evidence that however dramatic and dreadful, the riot was not the sole turning point for Detroit.
Even without a riot, there is much evidence that Detroit still would be pretty much the city it is today — still yoked to the troubled auto industry, still fighting economic decline, still shrinking, still struggling valiantly to remake itself, still achieving some successes amid the fires, shootings and poverty that are ubiquitous in 21st-Century American cities.
The roots of all those things were in place before the Motor City started burning.
“Many, many white Detroiters think of the riot as having caused the city’s problems. It’s exactly the opposite,” said Kevin Boyle, a history professor and author at Ohio State University who grew up in Detroit. “The riot was a consequence of — a manifestation of — its deep problems.”
Problems went back a long way
At one point in the 1960s, city officials were struggling to get a handle on factory closings, stem the flight of white residents to the burbs and deal with a crime wave. Time magazine reported back then that “blight is creeping like a fungus through many of Detroit’s proud old neighborhoods.”
The mayor blasted the story as slanted and biased.
The year was 1961. The mayor was Louis Miriani. The riot was still six years away.
Some white suburbanites like to poke fun at the way Detroit is run today. But they ignore the facts: Postwar Detroit, run by whites from top to bottom, clearly was foundering long before the first looter busted the first window on 12th Street. And the system that whites had created over the decades was discriminatory and at times brutal for the more than one-third of the city’s residents who were African American in 1967.
“The riot’s roots lay in unemployment, poverty and powerlessness — all caused by an urban system that couldn’t provide people with jobs, opportunity and hope,” Boyle said.
• Suburban flight: U.S. census figures show the white population of Detroit dropped by 23% in the 1950s alone. The number of whites had plummeted by at least 500,000 between 1950 and July 1967. The suburbs were booming: Northland, Eastland, Wonderland, Summit Place, Macomb, Universal, Livonia and Westland malls had opened by 1967. And Warren, by some accounts, was the fastest-growing city in the nation.
• Factory closings: According to a 1961 planning study, Detroit lost about 840 manufacturing plants in the 1950s, chief among them the Packard and Hudson auto companies. During the 1950s, the number of manufacturing jobs in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park dropped by 30%. Unemployment among black men ages 18 to 24 in 1967 was more than 25%.
• Retail loss: In 1961, the city’s Board of Assessors reported to concerned City Council members that about 12% of Detroit’s 40,460 store buildings were vacant.
• Abandoned houses: A 1961 University of Michigan study found that 22% of the dwelling units within 3 miles of downtown were empty.
• Race relations: A true race riot, in which black and white Detroiters engaged in vicious hand-to-hand combat, took place in 1943 — 34 people died in three days. The 1950s were filled with incidents of white mobs attacking black families who had the audacity to move into all-white neighborhoods. Brutality by the virtually all-white police force was one of the black community’s chief complaints in 1967.
All of these reasons are why some refer to the actions of that week in July as a rebellion instead of a riot.
If the riot had not happened, it seems fair to assume that business and resident flight would have continued, and poverty would have increased, just as in other beleaguered Rust Belt cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis and Buffalo that did not experience riots of the magnitude of Detroit’s.
The crisis in Detroit’s lifeblood — manufacturing — is a nationwide phenomenon that has nothing to do with the riot. The automakers’ U.S. market share has been declining for years. It stood at 47.8% from April to June. Would the city’s three automakers be better off in 2007 had 1967 been just another year in Detroit? Unlikely. There is no connection.
Detroit has a unique history. It experienced a sudden surge of growth starting in 1900 that ended with the Depression, picked up again in the 1940s and ended for good in the early 1950s. Then the city began shrinking rapidly.
J.L. Hudson Jr., the 35-year-old president of Detroit’s largest department store in 1967 and a leader in postriot efforts to rebuild the city, told interviewer Sidney Fine in 1984 that the city’s dizzying growth left it ill-prepared for long-term stability.
“The riots were certainly a negative, but not the sole cause of this,” Hudson said.
The death of a dream in Detroit
The riot certainly accelerated white flight and commercial abandonment. So, without a riot, the imbalance in almost everything from bowling alleys, to movie theaters, to shopping malls between city and suburbia in southeast Michigan likely would not be so extreme in 2007.
The violence of July 1967 certainly jacked up the local paranoia level, as well as rumors, handgun ownership and rhetoric.
Would the region’s troubled race relations be better today had the riot not happened? Perhaps. But the riot also led to the founding of New Detroit Inc., Detroit Renaissance and FOCUS: Hope, which all continue to work for racial harmony and development.
The riot clearly delivered a blow to Detroit’s reputation, from which it never has recovered. Detroit in 1967 bragged of itself as a model city when it came to race relations and fighting poverty — two hallmarks of Mayor Jerome Cavanagh’s administration.
Local author B.J. Widick, writing in the Nation magazine in 1967, said one of the greatest casualties of the riot was the “death of the dream that Detroit was different.”
Reynolds Farley, a University of Michigan sociologist, said this week: “For some decades, Detroit has been the most negatively stereotyped major city in the country. Part of that, I suspect, is attributable to the riot and its consequences.”
The riot led to a radicalization of many black activists. And eventually to the election in 1973 of Coleman Young as Detroit’s first black mayor, according to Heather Ann Thompson, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who also grew up in Detroit. She wrote a book about the era, “Whose Detroit?” published in 2001.
Thompson said this week that the riot served as the catalyst for black radicals to battle the white power structure in auto plants, the police department and courts from 1967 to ’73. They won many victories. And that set the stage for Young, a leftist Democrat with a radical background, who took extreme positions — in the minds of many whites — on such issues as race and reforming the police department.
Addressing white flight, Thompson said there is no question “the most precipitous group exodus was in the wake of the political battles that were waged in Detroit after — and because of — the riot, and in the wake of the finale of those battles, the election of Young.”
City-suburban divide continues
Forty years after the 1967 riot, Detroit has made great strides in rebuilding its downtown and riverfront, but many neighborhoods are poorer and shabbier than in 1967. Flight continues, but now many African-American families are moving to the suburbs.
As the region’s economic crisis lingers, many suburbs are experiencing the population loss and commercial abandonment that were the first signs in the 1950s that Detroit was in decline. Once fast-growing Warren lately has been losing a higher percentage of residents than Detroit, and the question of how to handle blight has become one of the city’s major political issues.
Race relations remain complex and problematic, and they pop up in everything from actual assaults, to regional debates about the zoo, to the water system and expanding Cobo Center.
There is no white or black public figure who can be considered an outspoken leader on improving race relations: If you are white and from the suburbs, appearing too sympathetic to Detroit can be career suicide. If you are a black Detroiter, appearing too sympathetic to suburbia can get you branded as an Uncle Tom.
The ongoing integration of suburbia eventually could change the racial dynamic across 8 Mile.
Some year, metro Detroiters might be able to debate issues, like rebuilding the region, without racial rancor. Some year, the riot might seem irrelevant.
Contact BILL McGRAW at 313-223-4781 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.