I went home to Detroit to visit, and saw the movie “Detroit” with my sister Diane. We are both old enough to remember, we were there when it happened 50 years ago. I was living with my dad and she was with mom and my other brother at the time. I was actually home alone when it happened because my dad was out of town that weekend.
The numbers are still staggering; over 2,000 buildings were destroyed, over 7,000 people were arrested, 1,100 injuries and 43 people were killed. The vast majority of damaged buildings were never replaced. I left the city the next year by joining the military. I would come back to visit over the years, but it was never the same.
The riot began with the raid of a illegal bar ( it was called a blink pig) on the west side. Police had conducted other raids without incident, but this time they were surprised with the amount of people that were there. It was six times more than normal. The people there, were throwing a party for two returning veterans who has served in the Vietnam War according the details in the 8-Page Commemorative Section of the Detroit Sunday Free Press; Written by Bill McGraw, Detroit Free Press special writer, and others.
It was hot summer night, and many people were outside witnessing the long process of seeing people carried off in the paddy wagons. Bystanders joked with the bar patrons at first, but the crown grew angry and rowdy as the white cops kept carting off the Black bar patrons.
A couple of people agitated, and someone in the crowd, threw a bottle. A line of police quickly moved toward the crowd, then backed away. That hesitation, and other missteps caused a chain of events that resulted in 5 days of destruction of which the city has never really fully recovered.
From that point on, windows started breaking and people started looting. The police were issued riot gear and loaded shotguns but “told not to shoot the looters”. Even during the first several hours after daylight, the police did not shoot anyone and they only made a few arrest. I always wondered how things got so far out of hand, now I have a good idea why.
Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and Police Commissioner Ray Girardin took a very controversial approach of using restraint, at first. Maybe, they were thinking about the recent (1967) Newark NJ riot in which 26 people were killed. Or maybe they were thinking about the (1943 Detroit two-day race riot) that happened at Belle Isle in which 34 people were killed. Or maybe they didn’t want to appear weak by losing control of a major city. They knew that the Detroit Police force, the Michigan State Police and the Michigan National Guard were also mostly White and most of the residents of Detroit were Black and the outcome would not look good in the news.
The first fire started in a 12th Street shoe store and the fire crew battled it with no harassment at 8:24 a.m. By early afternoon blazes raged out of control up and down 12th Street. At some fire scenes residents helped the firefighters and at other locations the crowd threw rocks and bottles. At one point, the fire department radio dispatcher relayed a command from the fire chief to withdraw from all areas that didn’t have police protection. That’s when things really got hot!
With the temperatures being in the high 80’s and winds in 15 m.p.h.range it whipped the growing flames and and spread the embers around the city. Johnny Lee Hooker, the late blues singer, who lived in Detroit sang ” The Motor City is Burning” and it was. Many of the 34,000+ fans at Tiger Stadium saw the smoke, but were not told the cause of the smoke. The announcer just told the fans to avoid certain streets, when the doubleheader game was over.
There was a media blackout at first because the Mayor and the Governor wanted to gain an upper hand first. When the story finally broke, people in the suburbs moved their cars up into the driveway and grabbed their guns. Police and residents in the suburbs like Grosse Pointe and Dearborn stood ready to defend their borders.
At the Fox Theater (in downtown Detroit) on Sunday, Martha and the Vandellas were the headliner for the “Swing Time Review”. When Martha Reeves got the word she told the audience, and they all left calmly. In my mind, I will always remember the Fox Theater, as “the place for the Motown Review” where all the Motown stars performed in person. To me, the 1967 Detroit Riot was an incident that forever changed the city.
At 2:05 p,m, the police commissioner called for the State Police and at 4:10 the Governor called for the Michigan National guard. But, by 4:30 p.m. firefighters had abandoned a 100 city block area along 12th Street area because they didn’t have police protection. Now Detroit was really out of control. At 9:07 the first sniper fire was reported, then other people started dying.
Governor Romney finally reached out to Vice President Hubert Humphrey Monday morning and by the afternoon, President Lyndon Johnson ordered 4,700 Army Paratroopers into the Detroit area. As a young high school student, it seemed like a bad movie, seeing tanks and Army troops rolling down the streets I rode my bike on.
The US Army troopers diversity, skill, no-nonsense demeanor and strict discipline quickly gained control of the East Side. About 40% of the paratroopers were Vietnam veterans and 25% were African American. At that time the National Guard was know as weekend warriors and were trigger happy back in the day. They got paid to drill, “one weekend” a month, and attended a “two week training” each year. They became “real warriors” during the Gulf War. How did I know? I learned the difference, when I was active duty Army, stationed at Fort Bragg NC. many years later.
As I read the newspaper article about how the Federal Troops gained control of the “East Side” I realized that the streets named ( Kercheval, Van Dyke, Vernor, Chalevoix, East Grand Boulevard and Mack Street) were some of the areas I traveled on with my bike. I was walking distance to Belle Isle Park (but I didn’t know the history of it). My friends James M. , Greg H. and Bugs and I were always on the go. I was discovering the world as I knew it, a few blocks at a time. I didn’t get a car until I got a job on the assembly line later that year.
“Detroit – the movie” centered on incidents at the Algiers Motel on Woodward Ave. By the end of that incident, three young Black men – Carl Cooper, 17; Fred Temple, 18 and Auburey Pollard 19 were dead, and several of their friends, plus two White women from Ohio had been assaulted during a brutal lobby interrogation …. all evidence pointed to an execution and not a shootout with police.
The catastrophe was an economic disaster; 2,509 stores were looted or burned including 611 food markets, 537 cleaners and 285 liquor stores and 27% took place in Black-owned businesses. About 388 families were displaced near the stores and shopping areas when the fire department was instructed not to do anything without police protection. The fire department responded to a total of 3,034 calls. The vast majority of damaged buildings were never rebuilt.
I may come back to settle down, but it won’t be in the city. The downtown area is going through gentrification but I like the open spaces of the suburbs. Will there another riot as bad at the 1967 event? I don’t know. Many things have changed and yet many things remain the same.