Detroit '67: University faculty, native Detroiters reflect on the 50th anniversary

A woman stands next to a fallen house in Detroit in July of 1967.

A woman stands next to a fallen house in Detroit in July of 1967. Buy this photo
Robert Sheffield/Daily on June 28, 1967

 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017 - 4:28pm

Erin McBrien remembers Detroit as quiet for most of the summer of 1967. Her father’s position as a police officer required the family live within the city’s confines.

“We were not in the thick of things,” McBrien said. “We were on the outside edges. Of course, we didn’t go down in that area … We were kids. It was quiet in our neighborhood.”

But one week, while her father worked day-long shifts, the rest of the family would spend the hot July days in Grosse Pointe with friends at local parks. But they knew that the streets weren’t as quiet as they once had been.

“We would walk up to Mack and there were National Guard with rifles up on the top of buildings right at the corner of Detroit and Grosse Pointe,” McBrien recalled.

McBrien said aside from her father, her family did not go near 12th and Clairmount streets during the week of July 23, and as a nine year old, she didn't watch much news coverage either.

“We knew something was wrong,” McBrien said. “I don’t think we understood the severity of it.”

When her father came home for a break from work, he slept downstairs, McBrien said, with his gun within an arm's reach and the hose — in case of a fire nearby — just outside the door.

The beginning

Meanwhile, July of 1967 in Ann Arbor, at the University of Michigan, was like any other — students took summer semester classes, enjoyed walks in the Diag in warm sunshine and socialized at coffee shops or popular establishments.

Less than 40 miles away — the distance from State Street in Ann Arbor to 12th Street, now known as Rosa Parks Boulevard, in downtown Detroit — a riot was taking place: the culmination of years of racial tension and inequalities.

Under the rule of then-Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and a primarily white police force, the city was plagued with segregation catalyzed by tensions among different groups in the city.

These tensions came to a head that Sun. July 23, when looting and flames diffused throughout the 12th and Clairmount area — in less than a week, 43 people died, 1,189 were injured and more than 7,200 were arrested as fires ravaged over 2,000 buildings. Residents throughout the city felt fear.

This was a pivotal point in Detroit’s history — a city without which the University, established there 200 years ago, would not exist.

Background

A police raid at an underground bar, known in that time as a blind pig, served as the catalyst for the riots, the spark that lit the fuse of civil unrest.

Looting spread out from the epicenter of the bar after officers arrested about 80 people there in the early morning hours — Black residents said to have been celebrating the return of Vietnam War veterans. This quickly escalated throughout nearby streets, creating panic.

Tues. July 25, 1967 — halfway through the five-day period of contention — the Daily published photos under the headline “Detroit: In the Middle of an Inferno.”

Splashed across the page are images of police patting down residents as business owners assess the damage of the previous days of violence and fires blaze strongly behind troopers holding their weapons. The situation in Detroit was grim.

Relations between police and citizens strained. Controlling the mob that had aggregated over the preceding few days was impossible without reinforcements: supplementing the Detroit Police and Fire Departments were the Michigan State Police, the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department and the Michigan Army National Guard, along with the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.

Allegations of police brutality spread throughout the media as fast as the fires that were started. Fighting between officials and civilians continued until the people were subdued enough for the troopers to retreat. By then — the fifth and final day of the riots — the destruction was irreversible.

University alum Gary Miller, who graduated in 1972 and whose uncle owned a pharmacy at Chene and Kirby streets, not far from what he called “heavy rioting," was 17 years old that summer, watching the streets fill with chaos from inside the pharmacy.

It was one of just two establishments on that block that were not looted, Miller recalled, because there were guards outside the shop. He felt more amazed by the scene than afraid, as he was familiar with the area — one that he called “poly-blocked” due to its different geographic pockets dedicated to varying communities and ethnic groups.

“Stores were being looted left and right, and most of the people on the street, Black and white, were just standing there in shock,” Miller said.

Miller noted a particular detail: just down the block, young kids were looting a shoe store.

“People were climbing up and just pulling off boxes and boxes of shoes,” Miller said. “They’d fall on the ground, and the shoes would separate, and someone would find a size seven but they couldn’t find the matching seven. It was a pile of stuff and glass was being shattered.”

Before the incidents, Miller said the landscape of Detroit was entirely different.

“It was viable; it was vibrant,” he said.

Causes

Misconceptions stemming between Black and white communities for prior years contributed to the uproar, Miller said.

“I think within the Black community, what they saw was white flight, and I think the white community felt they were being pushed out of the city, that there was not a place for them anymore,” he said.

However, according to Miller, the incidents of that summer stemmed from economic issues as well as racial, citing injustices against the Black emerging middle-class that caused more harm than the friction between lower-class Black residents and upper class whites.

“More so than other cities, Detroit had an emerging middle-class within the Black community who felt the stings of racism much more profoundly than the lower-class people would have,” Miller said. “The Detroit middle-class African American community, to a large extent, was people employed in auto plants who were making really good money, who could afford a decent lifestyle.”

Charlie Bright, a recently retired professor in the Residential College with an extensive background in the history of Detroit, agreed that injustices had been occurring for years, not just that summer.

“In the 1950s and ’60s, there was a huge amount of discrimination in the job markets, housing, in schools on the part of the white city against its Black population,” Bright said. “There was a generalized discrimination against the Black population in Detroit in the 1950s, which was reinforced by federal housing policies.”

However, Bright also argued Black employees in the auto industry were doing well and were able to get stable jobs across the city as whites moved to the suburbs.

“We think of Detroit as a place of just massive poverty — destruction, abandonment, a city of distress,” Bright said. “In the 1960s, the auto industry was still booming … (but) they ran into a lot of violence and resistance from the white communities.”

Riot or rebellion?

Because of this resistance, Bright posed a question raised by the 50th anniversary: whether the incidents of the summer of 1967 should be referred to as a riot or a rebellion.   

“Riot focuses on violence, the fires, the five-day events, the looting,” Bright said. “It looks like a disturbance, something out of control, something senseless, mindless. Often from white perspectives, that’s a matter of Blacks being in uprising, and Blacks being uppity and Blacks doing things that are scary and the language becomes one of riot as violence in the ‘Model City.’ ”

Bright said the stark differences between “riot” and “rebellion” have led to misconceptions about the summer of 1967 and the decline of the city.

“Riot has all kinds of connotations that steer you right into racial divides and racial perceptions,” Bright said. “But it’s not a race riot in the common sense of the term. What a lot of people in Detroit called it was a rebellion. Rebellion shifts your focus … to causes.”

Such causes stem from the ’60s, when the city government “pulled out of the line of defense for white supremacy,” Bright said, leading white citizens to call upon the police to contain the Black population in the city.

“Whites saw this as an abandonment of their interest, as a selling of the past to Blacks of the government giving in to demands by Black people that were affecting their neighborhoods,” Bright said. “Whites in Detroit saw this as a betrayal and increasingly looked at the police force as the last line of defense of white supremacy in the city.”

Elizabeth James, program associate in the Department of African American Studies and native Detroiter, was a young girl during the riots. She agreed the term should be rebellion.

“I still feel it’s a rebellion in many ways,” James said. “All we saw was our neighborhood — which was primarily Black — kind of being overrun by a primarily white police force.”

James argued that week was, in fact, organized in a similar manner as a rebellion. She likened it to the Boston Tea Party.

“There was always this kind of understanding that it wasn’t just people doing it like they had no rhyme or reason, it was people really fed up with the way that we were still not equal in America,” she said.

Why the decline?

Because Detroit was treading rough waters prior to the ’60s and experienced housing issues in the early ’70s, Bright does not attribute the city’s decline to the rebellion. Instead, he said he believed the issues already in place and those that came years afterward as police continued to control the Black community caused changes spanning the city.

“Whites were leaving the city from the mid-1950s on in large numbers because housing was available to them, because federal loans were available to them, because the city was crowded,” Bright said. “But the real hemorrhage of populations in the city of Detroit happened in 1973 to 1974, not in 1967.”

The population in Detroit in 1950 was nearly 1.85 million; in 1970, it was 1.5 million. Whites were moving to the suburbs while simultaneously, automotive jobs began to leave the city. Later, a newly elected Black mayor — the city’s first — brought about a number of administrative changes.

Miller, however, said he noticed the once poly-blocked city changed quickly after July 1967.

“The neighborhood never survived the riots — it never came back,” Miller said. “The street just became quite empty after that … It dramatically changed Detroit. Detroit to this day has not recovered from the riots.”

McBrien agreed, and though she did not have the firsthand experience of the looting and rioting that Miller did, she did have a look into what the repercussions were for her father, a white police officer at the time. Noting hostile relations between Detroiters and police, McBrien said from her perspective, there was an overall lack of respect for officials.

“A white officer in a predominantly minority area … they were not viewed well,” McBrien said. “They were not viewed as the helper that they should have been.”

James noted a change within her own family.

“It impacted us in that within that next year, my parents decided to move into the northwest area,” she said.

Fri. July 28, 1967, the Daily published photos of the aftermath — with Detroiters looking for loved ones, buildings destroyed and city officials on edge. The coverage continued Sat. July 29, 1967. The cleanup had begun.

Nothing of that week remains at the intersection of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Clairmount in Detroit; instead, a few homes and abandoned buildings encircle the area, with a small sculpture in Gordon Park and a newly-placed historical marker to denote what once was.

But within the city and at the University, these incidents are not forgotten.

“There’s so much complexity to it all,” James said.

Other experiences

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Courtesy of Alexa St. John

 

“We were really trying to make sense about why my grandmother was so nervous,” James said, reflecting on that week. “It was a really bizarre and kind of surreal situation.”

Both of James’ parents worked in the community and were intent on leaving it. Aside from her father, a mailman, James said her family went to Canada to stay with relatives for the rest of the summer.

James has since studied how inequalities and injustices remain in society, especially after having seen firsthand the effects of the rebellion. She said she believed the anniversary is an opportunity for open dialogue about these issues.

“From that point (of the rebellion) on, I just sensed a real decision by a lot of folks that they were going to take a hand in their own future and that they were going to create organizations and groups that would empower the Black community in a way that it hadn’t been before,” James said. “You could just sense that — even as a little girl I could just see the frustration.”

James said though there may be conflicting accounts of what happened in Detroit 50 years ago, there’s no doubt there is much to learn from these incidents in terms of current social change.

“From being someone who was on the inside, who was there and who remembers how frightened we were of the people who were allegedly coming to protect us, there’s more than one story there,” James said. “For the police that night, it was a terrifying situation, but for the people that were just there to party, it was terrifying to see the police.”

McBrien believes people are still taken aback by the injustices from that summer. 

“It’s obviously taken years and years to get past what happened, but I don’t think a lot of people have, and rightfully so,” McBrien said. “It was a turning point for the city, and unfortunately, a downward spiral.”

Miller agreed.

“It is very hard to say what emotional scars the riots left on the city — they left very profound emotional scars,” he said.

University ties   

Though the 1950s and 1960s were historic periods for civil rights activism in the United States — from Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to John F. Kennedy’s speech introducing the Peace Corps on the steps of the Michigan Union to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 — activists, politicians and civilians were also making history locally in terms of race relations, inequalities and suffering.

However, the incidents in Detroit in 1967 spurred claims that this was one of the more violent attacks in a U.S. city.

“People my age and older who grew up in Detroit have a relationship to Downtown,” Miller said. “People really a year or two younger than me no longer have a relationship to Downtown … People weren’t proud to be from Detroit in the years after the riots.”

As the University celebrates its bicentennial year, Wolverines are reminded that the University — originally coined the University of Michigania — began at Bates and Congress streets downtown, just six miles away from where the rebellion began.

Bright discussed a more recent University-wide resurgence of interest in Detroit, such as in 2001, when he taught a themed semester during the city’s 300th anniversary.

This helped spark interest with faculty who wanted to become more actively involved in research in the city. Bright then helped spearhead the Semester in Detroit program as a way for University students to interact with Detroit.

“Everything we did in Detroit was with collaborators in which we helped their goals and they helped us with our students,” Bright said. “It’s that principle of mutual benefit that is at the core of the kind of relationship that we would like to see the University build with the city of Detroit.”

Angela Dillard, associate dean for undergraduate education, is a native Detroiter herself. Though she was not alive in 1967, her parents lived in Detroit at the time. She has since established a relationship with the city through her roots and academic interests. Dillard reflected on the University's role in teaching about the city. 

“I do think it’s important to acknowledge that there is that connection and there was that connection from the very beginning as a way to as a way to establish a certain level of responsibility that the University should have in terms of the city of Detroit and its residents and what the city needs and the way that the University can be involved," Dillard said. "So I like the narrative a lot between the University and Detroit. I think it’s been a difficult relationship over the years. It’s hard to get that right, because you don’t want to sound paternalistic. You don’t want to have the University position itself as a savior of the city.”

Craig Regester, Semester in Detroit program director, agreed and said there is great significance to University students and faculty working in the city. With the help of Semester in Detroit students, Regester said the University is able to have a reciprocal relationship with Detroit through living, learning and working downtown.

Part of what Regester said he wants to ensure is that the intentions of those engaging in a relationship with the city are positive and beneficial on both ends.

“U of M wouldn’t exist without the city of Detroit,” Regester said. “The University of Michigan fits into a region of which Detroit is the center, not the other way around.”

Students recently worked on a project exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum regarding the summer of 1967 in a way that they felt gave them a legitimate experience without patronizing the city or its occupants.

This includes recent alum Katie Kennedy, a former Semester in Detroit student, who reflected on her work with the museum’s project “looking back to move forward.” Kennedy said engaging with the community with respect, solidarity and justice were key to her experience.

Kennedy interviewed Detroiters about the summer of 1967 and was able to hear perspectives she otherwise wouldn’t have heard.

“She seemed so surprised that we cared,” Kennedy said about one interviewee. “I really think a lot of people, especially Black women, don’t understand the strength and importance of their stories.”

Dillard also expressed similar thoughts.

“What I think the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of ’67 is doing is allowing a lot of people to tell their story,” Dillard said. “I think ‘67 gives us a real opportunity to do really close, careful and deep listening about the history of the city, especially over the last 50 years.”

Kennedy said the narrative regarding Detroit 1967, as she refers to it, is often inaccurate. She emphasized the importance of documenting the firsthand stories of Detroiters so as to have real accounts of history confirming what happened that summer, rather than perpetuating negative imagery.

“What this oral history project did was confirm some of these myths,” Kennedy said.

Anniversary

Ten years after the fact, the Daily revisited Detroit coverage; an article published Sat. July 23, 1977 was called “Learning to Forget.” But Detroiters, and the University community, haven’t learned to forget that summer.

With History Prof. Heather Ann Thompson, a native Detroiter who has taught History 344: The History of Detroit, it’s quite the opposite. 

Thompson’s work has focused not only on the city but also injustices in other areas of society; Thompson was recently awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her book on the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971.  

Moving forward, Thompson noted a necessity to consider the meaning of the 50th anniversary in terms of the city’s rebirth.

“The problem is, because no one has any sense of history, we sit on this really interesting precipice,” Thompson said. “We can go either over, as we did in ’67, or we can do it differently, and the ‘going over’ part is not understanding that you cannot have a city that is prosperous and exciting and inclusive and all of that for only some people. When you have a city that has these incredible disparities of wealth and these incredible disparities of access and opportunity, as we did in 1967 and as we do now, it’s very, very unstable because it means that the majority … are without the things that we are touting as what makes Detroit the best place to live.”

While Detroit’s current development projects are good attractions, Thompson said they aren’t getting to the root of the city’s issues, particularly in terms of schooling, transportation infrastructure and even clean water.

“Right now the entire redevelopment plan of Detroit, I think, is an open question,” Thompson said. “What ’67 shows us is that if we try to have a prosperous city or rebuild a city or tout a city that does not pay attention to what some many inside of it need, we risk frustration and anger and literally, an explosion.”

Thompson said the city has come full circle since the mid-20th century, but that the stability of the city is not centered around an influx of new shops in its center district; instead, the city has to address the issue of inequality and become available for all to enjoy and thrive.

“Is it inevitable that Detroit maybe will erupt again? Nothing is inevitable. We can do it right, if we learn those lessons of history,” Thompson said. “We cannot equate the presence of white people with a stable city. A stable city is based upon equality of opportunity for all of the residents in it.”

Stephen Ward, faculty director for the Semester in Detroit program, echoed Thompson’s sentiments, saying the idea of a “blank slate” in the city and a focus on areas like Midtown, which primarily targets suburbanites, can contribute to problematic misconceptions.

“The name Midtown reflects changes in the last couple of decades and a vision of the city which often uses ideas like seeing Detroit as a blank slate, often uses language such as ‘Detroit is coming back’ or ‘the comeback city.’ And I think all of that is terribly problematic, in that it reflects a certain understanding of history … which looks at Detroit as having once been this great, American city but having this terrible decline in ’67, which is understood to be the major cause of that decline.”

The vision is that Detroit needs to be rebuilt for a certain population Ward said, which in some ways, he has seen the University reinforce and participate in.

“U of M in some ways is culpable in that,” Ward said. “We want to challenge that narrative and vision of the city’s future.”

James herself is uncertain about the city's future.

“I want to believe we can live together but then there’s so much going on right now that makes me really question if we can, and revisiting that era makes me feel that’s what awakened me to want to do more,” James said.