Riot or re­bel­lion? Detroi­ters don’t agree

Whites call ‘ri­ots’ fo­cal point of Detroit’s de­cline, but blacks see ‘re­bel­lion’ against rooted in­equities.

The Detroit News - - FRONT PAGE - By Cindy Ro­dríguez

What should we call what hap­pened dur­ing those six chaotic days in July 1967 when 43 peo­ple died amid gun­fire, loot­ing, with whole sec­tions of Detroit in flames?

Many call it a “riot,” a term that con­jures images of mobs act­ing spon­ta­neously. Blacks who lived through it call it a “re­bel­lion.”

“When I hear the word ‘riot’ I just get the chills,” said Brenda Dixon, 45, of Detroit. “The word ‘riot’ just seems in­hu­mane, like peo­ple act­ing sav­agely.”

The terms are cog­ni­tive short­hand, fram­ing the is­sues con­nected with a piv­otal time in Detroit’s his­tory — an event that fu­eled the con­tin­u­a­tion of white flight and cor­po­rate dis­in­vest­ment, and helped cre­ate the most seg­re­gated re­gion in the na­tion.

As Metro Detroi­ters approach this an­niver­sary, it is clear wounds haven’t healed. Some whites lament the de­struc­tion that, they say, forced them to leave. Many black Detroi­ters worry their story has been dis­missed.

The chaos be­gan with an early morn­ing po­lice raid on an un­li­censed bar at the cor­ner of 12th and Clair­mount. Soon, it mush­roomed into loot­ing and shoot­ing. When it was over, 43 peo­ple had

died — 24 at the hands of po­lice and the Na­tional Guard.

U.S. Rep. John Cony­ers Jr., DDetroit, who was a con­gress­man in 1967, said peo­ple want to blame Detroit’s ills on the un­rest.

“It gets blamed for the dis­in­vest­ment. It gets blamed for the white flight. It gets blamed for the hard feel­ings that fol­lowed,” Cony­ers said. But he said it’s true the vi­o­lence fur­ther wrecked Detroit’s econ­omy.

“There was very lit­tle in­ter­est in com­pa­nies look­ing for a place to go to come to Detroit. We are still strug­gling with that resid­ual even to­day,” he said.

Those who blame the dis­tur­bance aren’t un­der­stand­ing the con­di­tions that ex­isted for blacks at the time, his­to­ri­ans say.

“White peo­ple would say the city was in­te­grated but there were places you know you couldn’t go,” said Ron Scott, 60, who co-founded the Detroit Black Pan­ther Party in 1968.

Thomas Su­grue, a Detroit na­tive and au­thor, said peo­ple gloss over the con­di­tions of the time.

“There is a com­mon myth among whites that Detroit was a great city but then the ri­ots hap­pened,” said Su­grue, who teaches his­tory and so­ci­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and wrote the ac­claimed “Ori­gins of the Ur­ban Cri­sis: Race and In­equal­ity in Post­war Detroit.”

He said Detroit was a great city for whites but not for blacks who were barred from fed­eral mort­gage pro­grams, barred from buy­ing homes in white neigh­bor­hoods and toiled in me­nial jobs as whites got pro­moted.

It’s a re­al­ity blacks ex­pe­ri­enced across the na­tion, but it sharply con­trasted with the myth that life was sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter in the North. That is why, 40 years ago, the Sum­mer of Love turned out to be a Sum­mer of Rage with dis­tur­bances in 128 Amer­i­can cities — in­clud­ing Ne­wark, N.J.; Buf­falo, N.Y.; Mem­phis, Tenn.; and Durham, N.C.

Ac­cord­ing to Su­grue’s re­search, be­tween 1953 and 1960 seven plants closed on the east side of Detroit, a black area, re­sult­ing in the loss of 71,137 jobs. As a re­sult, dozens of busi­nesses that sold goods and ser­vices to th­ese work­ers shut down. It dev­as­tated the com­mu­nity.

In Detroit, African-Amer­i­cans hoped that con­di­tions would im­prove with the pas­sage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, but dis­crim­i­na­tion and po­lice ha­rass­ment con­tin­ued, said U.S. Ap­peals Judge Da­mon Keith, who chaired the newly cre­ated state civil rights com­mis­sion in 1967.

“Peo­ple were tired of po­lice bru­tal­ity, tired of not hav­ing jobs so that men could take care of their fam­i­lies,” he said.

It’s a sen­ti­ment shared by many black po­lice of­fi­cers who served that sum­mer of ’67.

At the time, African-Amer­i­cans made up 7 per­cent of the po­lice force in a city that was about 30 per­cent black.

Mack Douglas, 66, served on the po­lice force from 1962 un­til he re­tired in 1997. In the ’60s he wit­nessed white of­fi­cers treat­ing blacks with dis­re­gard.

“They would man­han­dle peo­ple, steal their money. I saw this on a reg­u­lar ba­sis,” Douglas said.

Oak­land County Ex­ec­u­tive L. Brooks Pat­ter­son said to call the event a re­bel­lion is to glo­rify it.

“It was a lash-out at the es­tab­lish­ment, but in Detroit, (un­der then-Mayor Jerome Ca­vanaugh), you had a pretty thought­ful, lib­eral Demo­cratic mayor,” he said. “It wasn’t like peo­ple were suf­fer­ing un­der tyran­ni­cal rule.”

But oth­ers say that five years un­der Ca­vanaugh hadn’t yielded enough change, es­pe­cially with po­lice bru­tal­ity and ha­rass­ment.

“What hap­pened here and else­where dur­ing those sum­mers of the ’ 60s was a re­ac­tion to­ward feel­ing pow­er­less,” said Sue Hamil­ton-Smith, Wayne County di­rec­tor of Child and Fam­ily Ser­vices. Staff Writer Amy Lee con­trib­uted to this re­port. Reach Cindy Ro­driguez at (313) 222-2311 or cindy.ro­[email protected]­news.com.

Ankur Dho­lakia / The Detroit News U.S. Rep. John Cony­ers, D-Detroit, stand­ing at the cor­ner where the chaos be­gan in 1967, says many want to blame Detroit’s ills on the dis­tur­bance. But, he says, it’s true the city’s econ­omy still feels its ef­fect.

The Detroit News U.S. Rep. John Cony­ers ad­dresses a crowd dur­ing the 1967 un­rest, which claimed 43 lives, 24 at the hands of po­lice and the Guard.

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