Vestiges of the Unheard in the Motor City
“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
In July 1967, the nation was rocked by civil disturbances in northern cities. In Detroit it took the authorities five days to quell the outbreak. There were 43 fatalities, 33 of them Black, and some 7,000 people were arrested. Detroit bears the indelible scars of those days across a landscape of vacant lots, abandoned buildings and the racial divide that remains steadfast 50 years later.
The words describing what happened in Detroit in 1967 reveal one’s perspective: riot, rebellion or insurrection.
News reports attribute the melee to a police raid on an unlicensed bar, referred by the locals as a “blind pig.” That provoked onlookers to pelt the cops with jeers and bottles. But the combustible elements that fueled the fires were laid long before that pre-dawn raid on July 23, 1967, and long before the first bottle was thrown.
A slow burning fuse stretches back to the early years of the Great Migration when Detroit police vigorously enforced the racial codes of de facto segregation by stopping, questioning and sometimes beating any Black person found violating White boundaries.
The humming assembly lines that were Detroit’s pride turned out an unexpected byproduct. It was a toxic brew of racial violence that percolated through the city’s auto plants and boiled over into neighborhoods. The flames were stoked within the Detroit Police Department.
During the war years when Detroit was known as the “arsenal of democracy,” wildcat strikes proliferated by White workers who protested Black workers being put on the line next to them or allowed into a higher classification.
The flames grew hotter as police stood by and watched as armed White mobs attacked Black homeowners moving into previously White neighborhoods. And hotter still in Detroit’s 1943 race riot when Whites attacked Blacks on streetcars, torched Black businesses and homes, even pursued injured victims into the hospital corridors.
No perpetrators were ever held accountable in the ’43 massacre, despite civil rights protests. There were 34 victims, 25 of them Black who died at the hands of the police or National Guard.
Black Detroiters kept agitating for change and the city’s elected leaders continued to ignore their clamor. More than 100,000 Detroiters marched down Woodward Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, for jobs and freedom in 1963, and heard Martin Luther King preview his I Have a Dream speech. They didn’t march merely in solidarity with southern kinfolk, but for their own liberation.
Detroit’s police department continued their brutal tactics, deploying the Big Four, special teams of officers to swoop down, jump out and beat Black citizens for occupying a street corner, looking at them too boldly or talking back.
Fear and distrust of the police was a common denominator in the Black community, when I was growing up. It didn’t matter where you lived, rich or poor, native-born or a newly arrived transplant. You feared the police.
All those protests and demands for fair and equal treatment from the police remained unheard until that slow fuse sparked into flame on July 23, 1967.
My brother and I were too young to fully understand what was happening. Although we were miles from the fires, we could smell the smoke. We knew our parents were worried. They stopped talking whenever we entered the room.
Removed from the flames, we still felt the impact. In the spring of 1967 our family moved to Sherwood Forest in northwest Detroit. We were the fifth Black family in a neighborhood with restrictive covenants that prohibited Blacks and Jews from buying homes. When our elementary school recessed for the summer we were among a dozen Black students.
By the next fall Black students were the majority. Businesses and investments fled along with our White classmates and never returned in significant measure.
Detroit’s vaunted comeback since the 2013 bankruptcy hailed by the national media and the creative class—seems tailored for the White and affluent and limited to a few enclaves downtown and in the city’s midtown. The pedestrian plazas and entertainment venues draw crowds of visitors and garner rave reviews from travel and lifestyle publications. But life seems unchanged for most Detroiters.
One could conclude that the Black residents of Detroit, one of the most segregated cities in America, are still paying for those days of rebellion. The scars are raw and gaping, evident in the stretches of abandoned homes and businesses. The lackluster commercial strips that were once bustling are a screaming reminder.
Detroit’s median household income is just $26,095. The city’s population has been whittled in half as Black flight has soared in recent years. And while the police department’s racial makeup has been transformed, the department remained under a federal consent decree until 2014, spurred by Justice Department findings of excessive force and brutality.
Detroit’s impoverished Black majority is still calling out for justice. They just haven’t been heard.