The 1967 Detroit 12th Street riots remembered.

On this date 40 years ago Detroit descended into chaos as a riot broke out on 12th Street. Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry about the riot:

The 12th Street Riot in Detroit began in the early morning hours of Sunday, July 23, 1967. Vice squad officers executed a raid at a blind pig on the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount on the city’s near westside. The confrontation with the patrons there evolved into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in modern U.S. history, lasting five days and far surpassing the 1943 riot the city endured. Before the end, the state and federal governments, under order of then President Lyndon B. Johnson, sent in National Guard and U.S. Army troops and the result was forty-three dead, 467 injured, over 7,200 arrests and more than 2,000 buildings burned down. The scope of the riot was eclipsed in scale only by the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Detroit has never fully recovered from the after-effects of the riot and the negative domestic and international media coverage. The riot was prominently featured in the news media, with live television coverage, extensive newspaper reporting, and an extensive cover stories in Time magazine and Life on August 4, 1967. The Detroit Free Press won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage.

I was born just over a month later on August 25th, 1967 and obviously wasn’t around to experience the event itself yet I was still impacted by the event in subtle ways as I grew up. Over the years I gradually became aware of a general animosity between Detroit and its suburban neighbors that I didn’t fully understand. I grew up in Pontiac and even though it was hardly what most folks think of when they hear the word “suburb” — Pontiac is practically a clone of Detroit on a smaller scale in most respects — that didn’t stop folks in Pontiac from talking about what a hell-hole Detroit was ever since the riots and that opinion was echoed by a lot of folks in just about every other suburb of Detroit. I can recall hearing time and again how the riot was the event that resulted in the ‘white flight’ to the suburbs that left Detroit predominately populated by blacks. That was only kind of true as it turns out that whites had been leaving the city for the suburbs ever since World War II, but the 1967 riot certainly caused the rate of that migration to exponentially increase. Former Detroit mayor Coleman Young wrote on the effect of the riot as follows:

The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit’s losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The riot put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could. The white exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the rebellion, totally twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion—the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty-thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969.

Coleman Young was Detroit’s first black mayor ever and he was quite the polarizing figure himself. He took office in 1974 and stayed there for the next 20 years with a chip on his shoulder and a fondness for swearing that would’ve made him fit right in here at SEB. By the time he left office he was considered by a lot of suburbanites as being part of the reason Detroit never seemed to recover from the riot.

Needless to say with today being the 40th anniversary of the start of the riot there’s been plenty of remembrances on radio and in the newspapers about it by people that lived through it. I’ve probably learned more in the past few days about an event that has subtly influenced my life from the start than I’ve learned in my near-40 years of living in south eastern Michigan. In particular I was struck by an Michigan Radio (NPR) news story by Sarah Hulett in which she talks with her grandfather, who was a cop in Detroit in 1967, about the riot and the fact that she chooses to live in the city today. The sentiments he expresses are quite similar to many of the ones I heard growing up. Click here to listen to her story. That item is part of a larger collection of stories on the 1967 riot called Ashes to Hope that’s worth a listen if you want to learn a little more. Another good collection of stories comes from this Detroit Free Press special and are worth taking a gander at.

As for me, I benefited both from growing up in Pontiac (which as I said was a lot like Detroit in some respects) and from a job with Michigan Bell (now AT&T) that had me working all over Detroit back when I was 19 years old. I got to see the worst and the best of the city while working as a telephone lineman and it sharply changed the perspective I had of the city for the better as growing up surrounded by so much negativity about the city had obviously colored my views. An image of Detroit that too many people still hold not only locally, but across the nation. I admit I have a soft spot for the town in part because I tend to sympathize with the underdog, but also because the stories I’ve heard about how the city used to be made it sound like a great place and makes me hope it might regain some of that former glory the way cities like Chicago have managed to do. Forty years later Detroit is still suffering from the 1967 riot and while it’s recovery has been a long time in coming it appears to be picking up momentum. Though there’s still a long way yet to go.

10 thoughts on “The 1967 Detroit 12th Street riots remembered.

  1. I wish I still had my pictures from when I was visiting my Auntie in Windsor a few years back. All along the Detroit river bank you can still see burned out buildings. I found it quite amazing how in the same view you could see such enormous wealth as the GM towers.

    As a side note, 9 months later, on April 4th 1968, many American radio stations banned the Lightfoot song, “Black Day in July” in fear that it would start race riots.
    ( http://archives.cbc.ca/IDC-1-68-2170-13197-11/on_this_day/arts_entertainment/twt )

  2. I also grew up in the ‘burbs but lived in Detroit as a tiny child, and moved back to the city more than 20 years ago.

    I was little more than a year old when the riots happened; we were living on the Lower (B)East Side.  I’ve seen photographs of the tanks on Mack Ave.

    I love and hate my city.

    It’s beautiful and ugly, old and modern, dying and vibrant, horrible and wonderful, rich and stony broke.

    People here pretty much either want to save your life or take it, and they let you know straightaway which one it is. 

    I remember hearing Motown on the radio when I was two years old, and thinking, “Man! This is really great music, and everyone around the world loves it—and it comes from my city!”
    I’ve never felt such civic pride, not even the times we’ve regained the Murder Capital title, or when ‘bragging’ to foreigners about our having the World’s Largest Garbage Incinerator – er, Trash-To-Energy Facility.

  3. I had read about the Detroit riots a few years back but hadn’t thought much about them since. Thanks for the reminder (and the information)!

  4. I was on Mack Ave on the East side of Detroit during the riots.  I had lived on St Jean St near Mack for some years and my doctor was there.  So even though I had moved out I returned to him for care. 

    A sight I will never forget is the National Guards in jeeps with rifles patrolling the area as I went in for my appointment.

    The hospital I was to go to for Lesley’s birth was just a very few blocks from the fires and looting near the Florence and Dexter location. I would hope every day that that hospital would survive the devastation that was going on all around it. 
    It did and so it turned out all three of my children were born at Brent General Hospital over a 10 year period.

  5. I was seven and my family were vacationing in Canada (Montreal World’s Fair) in 1967. The news cameras were showing cop cars frantically driving down 12th Street. I was told “white undercover cops shot black undercover cops” which is not true. I grew up in Southfield. The Vietnam war (and disproportionate “Brown Menendez Murphy) troops serving there, plus the almost all white police force and overcrowded housing stoked the thing. Now Southfield is mostly Black too. The East Side seems more decimated than the west side. They need gut renovations and affordable apartments like the South Bronx

  6. I was around 12 yrs old at the time of the Detroit riots. As a young white girl that lived in Lily white Fenton, I can remember how my parents and adult relatives whom lived in Flint were nervous about more riots breaking out.
    I still have the Special Edition Detroit newspaper of the riots. It’s getting yellow and brittle.
    btw, back in the 80’s, I helped change the reputation of “Lily White Fenton”.  lol

  7. I was 19 and my girlfriend and I were headed to Kentucky for vacation with a tent in the back of a little white Triumph Spitfire. We both looked about 15 years old at the time. Well, we got off the Interstate for gas and got lost in the burning area. I’ll never forget how scared Sue was. Two black guys stopped us and asked what we were doing there. I explained we were lost and looking for the Interstate. One guy noticed the Quebec liscence plates on the car…. and they told us to turn right and don’t stop till you get on the highway. I think we were very lucky that day….that we were helped by these two nice guys. Never forgot the incident and am still grateful to this day. We could see the smoke for miles after we got on the highway again.

  8. I was born and raised in the Detroit area.  My dad witnessed the ‘67 riots firsthand when he lived in Detroit.  He said he could not go home for three days, it got so bad.

    Interestingly enough, he died 33 years later, on Sunday, July 23, 2000.

  9. I lived in the area of the riots, and worked in them. I was 19 at the time. Remember it very well. It all started when the police raided a “Blind Pig” and didn’t have enough vehicles to take away all the prisoners. It went from there. Very bad time for the city.

  10. Pingback: “12th and Clairmount” upcoming documentary on the 1967 Detroit riots. | Stupid Evil Bastard

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *