Today is the 41st anniversary of the Detroit uprisings, which over the course of five days consumed 43 lives and injured more than a thousand while causing at least $40 million in damage to a city that — as everyone who writes about the violence is painfully obliged to note — has still not recovered from the events of July 1967.
While the riots were sparked by a single event — the arrest of 85 black patrons at an illegal saloon on the city’s west side — the roots of the conflict can be traced to the economic and spatial polarization of Detroit from the 1940s onward. Plumped by wartime defense contracts and postwar economic growth, its massive industrial landscape represented the “Arsenal of Democracy” materialized. The auto industry dominated the regional economy, with facilities like the gargantuan River Rouge plant serving as a synecdoche for the entire city, the aspirations of its dwellers, and for modernity itself.
Drawing streams of labor from the world over, the city also proved to be an important destination for African Americans who, fleeing the grotesque racial conditions of the Jim Crow South, settled in northern and western cities. In Detroit, most of the black migrants took root along the eastern edge of the city, a strip of land that came optimistically to be known as “Paradise Valley.” Others settled in clusters to the west, with smaller black communities emerging in the Eight Mile-Wyoming and Conant Gardens neighborhoods to the North.
Although African American workers and their families benefited to various degrees from the economic opportunities availed by industrial labor and the growth of the union movement from the mid-1930s onward, they faced open discrimination on the shop floor, in the union hall, and along the borders of their neighborhoods, whose racial barricades most white Detroiters were determined to maintain. In countless demonstrations of solidarity, white workers defended their sense of racial entitlement by striking out against the employment of black labor. White homeowners formed community organizations whose broad purposes were indistinguishable from the notorious White Citizens’ Councils of the post-Brown South. Vigilantes enforced the residential color line by smashing windows, burning crosses, and setting trash cans ablaze on the lawns of unwanted neighbors. By redlining entire sections of the city and refusing to develop new sources of low-income housing, financial and municipal officials cooperated — or collaborated — in the transformation of Detroit into perhaps the finest example of industrial apartheid the United States has ever known. Civil rights organizations struggled in vain against these conditions; calls for integration and racial harmony from Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish leaders went unheeded by local congregations, which fled “transitional” neighborhoods as quickly as possible.
By the mid 1960s, Detroit was in a state of pronounced crisis, as rapid demographic and economic transition destabilized the city. For African Americans, conditions were exceptionally bad. The evacuation of the auto industry to the suburbs — where outright racial exclusion substituted for the merely segregated residential patterns of the city — left Detroit’s black communities more impoverished than ever. With black unemployment rates climbing toward 20 percent, local leaders welcomed the new anti-poverty measures enacted by Congress during the Johnson administration. Unfortunately, none of these programs were capable of thwarting the massive structural problems caused by deindustrialization. By focusing on the behavior of the poor — attempting, for example, to transform youth culture rather than address the liquidation of jobs — antipoverty programs in Detroit retained the limited agenda established by social welfare professionals during the 1950s.
As efforts to reverse Detroit’s economic decay came to naught, the city mailed its fists. Among other innovations, the nearly all-white police department established an elite unit known as the “Tac Squad,” which focused its attention on prostitution and illegal bars (“blind pigs”) in the black neighborhood along 12th Street, the eventual epicenter of the ’67 riots. The Tac Squad verbally and physically harassed residents of the community, enacting de facto pass laws by arresting those who were not able to show proper identification. The conduct of the police grew so notorious that blacks surveyed by the Free Press in the spring of 1967 listed police brutality as Detroit’s worst problem.
On the night of July 22, the Tac Squad raided four blind pigs, uneventfully arresting a few dozen patrons. The fifth pig on the squad’s list, the United Community and Civic League, was hosting a party for two servicemen who had just returned from Vietnam. When police entered the club after 3:00 a.m. on July 23, they were surprised to discover more than 80 patrons. By the time the last arrests were completed two hours later, a large crowd had gathered at the intersection of 12th and Clairmount. Fueled by rumor and underlying hostility toward the police, the crowd grew in size and animus over the next few hours, as looting and arson sent the West side careening out of control. Michigan Governor George Romney, decrying “lawlessness and hoodlumism,” dispatched 1500 National Guardsmen to the city and requested further intervention from President Johnson himself.
Two days after the 12th Street neighborhood erupted in violence on July 23, Johnson sent 400 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne as well as 8000 additional Guardsmen to suppress the violence. Coleman Young, a Michigan state senator who would later serve as mayor of Detroit, characterized what followed as a “police riot.” Nearly half of the dead were shot by police, soldiers and guardsmen; most of these were shot in the back, and nearly all were unarmed. Among the latter were 23-year-old Nathaniel Edmonds, who was shot in his backyard by a white man who accused him of looting his store; William Jones, shot by Detroit police officers while looting a liquor store; Julius Lawrence, a 26-year old white man shot by police while he and some friends attempted to steal a car from a junkyard; Roy Banks, a 46-year old deaf man who was mistaken for a sniper; Charles Kemp, 18, shot by police for looting five packs of cigars; and Tanya Blanding, a 4-year old girl shot through the window her apartment by a National Guardsman, who fired when he saw a small flash that turned out to be a relative lighting a cigarette.
The Detroit riots were of course inseparable from the broader patterns of urban distress that marked the entire decade of the 1960s. Along with the Watts uprising of 1965 and the 1967 Newark riots — which took place less than two weeks prior to the violence in Detroit — literally hundreds of disturbances, from Omaha to Jacksonville to Phoenix and beyond, drew attention to the abject failure of “consensus” politics to grapple with the actual racial and economic transformations that were actually taking place in postwar America. As the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders famously simplified the problem, the United States was on the verge of creating “two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” In the years that followed, right wing demagogues as well as liberal advocates of “benign neglect” would provide different forms of cover for the further racial and spatial polarization of cities throughout the country.