Sunday, June 4, 2017

We Hope for Better Things: Detroit 1967

The summer I turned fifteen a neighbor girl and I stood in our street in Royal Oak, MI watching planes and helicopters flying overhead. They were carrying National Guard from Selfridge Airbase to Detroit.

My dad and his worried coworkers at the Chrysler plant in Highland Park left work early. My church was collecting food and blankets to distribute to people whose homes had been burned.

I heard strangers at the grocery store saying, 'kill them all.' Mom came home from coffee klatches with neighbors, fuming after being told "you don't know, you never lived with 'them'."

I was aware that five miles due south the world was very different from the one I lived in. My dad stopped at Woodward and McNichols to pick up his lab's African American janitor so he didn't have to walk from the bus stop to work. Mom visited a hospital roommate at her Detroit home, and returned ashamed of her working class 'wealth'. And, thanks to my teachers at Kimball High School, I understood the issues behind the riot: housing, jobs, poverty, racism, and dreams deferred.

from Detroit 1967, tank in Detroit
1967, the summer of the Detroit riot, began a descent into hell, ending with the following spring's assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Before I turned 16 my childhood version of America had been turned on its head, my faith in humanity challenged. I wrote in my diary, "I expect to see an ark any day now."

We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes. Detroit motto
Reading Detroit 1967 for me was important and often emotionally draining.

The Historical Context

The twenty essays follow the history of African Americans in Detroit, showing the deep roots of Detroit racism.

How many Metro Detroiters know the personages behind our street names--Livernois, Dequindre, Grosbeck, Campau, Cass, John R-- and that these men were slave owners?

Michigan became a 'free state' when it entered the Union in 1837. And yet, The Free Press, started in 1831 with investments by Joseph Campau and John R. Williams, opposed the freeing of the slaves and did not support Lincoln.

Detroit became a crossroads of fugitive slaves, slave catchers, and the Underground Railroad. Fugitive slaves arrived in numbers after the War of 1812. In 1833 there was a riot over runaway slaves. The Underground Railroad helped runaways cross the river to Canada. In 1863,"the bloodiest day that ever dawned upon Detroit," saw a pogrom against African Americans when a white woman falsely reported she was raped by a black man.

European immigrants competed with blacks for jobs and housing, another source for racial tension. And immigrants resented being drafted into the Civil War to fight for black freedom. "If we are got to be killed up for niggers then we will kill every nigger in this town," a rioter proclaimed.

Henry Ford became the largest employer of African Americans in the country, but housing was limited; a wall was even erected. The auto industry whose jobs drew Southern blacks and whites left Detroit for Hazel Park, Dearborn, and Macomb County.

The KKK and Black Legion were active in Detroit in the 1930s. In 1943 there was another Race Riot. "Urban Renewal' destroyed African American neighborhoods. After the 1967 riot the white population fled to the suburbs.

Where the 1967 riot began
The Riot

The 1967 Riot is considered from many vantages, with eye witness memoirs, a time line, commentaries after the event, and viewpoints from a historical perspective. The first-hand accounts of how the riot began were especially revealing. I also appreciated the detailed timeline of events.

I had not known of the controversy over calling the event a riot or a rebellion; it is contended that when white Europeans protested it was called a rebellion, but when African Americans rose up it was labeled a riot.

I was interested in learning about Detroit before we moved here in 1963, how the progressive policies of Jerome Cavanagh and his police commissioners were unable to change grass roots racism, the rebellion against Police Commissioner Hart's attempt to integrate the police cars, and the failure of "top-down reforms."

The later essays address Detroit's death and rebirth. Will all Detroiters be included in the progress?

Learning that I live in "one of the most fractured regions in the country, with more than 150 separate municipalities" that "encourage extreme balkanization" was disturbing. But it is true. In the 1960s I grew up in an all white city, and now 50 years later I live a few miles away in a city with a non-white population of only 11.6%. Oakland County has the highest employment rate and one of the highest median incomes in the country. I live in a bubble.

When I recently blogged about summer 1967 people shared their memories of the riot. Several were returning through Detroit from Canada and saw the fires, or were stopped and checked at the tunnel, worried about getting home. Some recalled tanks going down Woodward. People who worked downtown saw kids carrying things they had stolen or drove by cars on fire. All recalled being afraid the riot would spread out of Detroit and worried about friends living in the city.

Clearly, the summer of the riot was a pivotal event in our lives.

Reading Detroit 1967 helped me to understand the riot from the inside. I am concerned that the conditions that sparked it have not improved.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through Edelweiss in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies
Thomas J. Sugrue, Joel Stone, et. al.
Wayne State University Press @WSUPress
Publication Date: June 5, 2017
$39.99 hard cover
ISBN: 9780814343036, 081434303

For more Detroit history I recommend,

Detroit Historical Museum- Detroit 1967 at

One In A Great City by David Marianis, my review at

Terror in the City of Champions by Tom Stanton, my review at

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