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.