Panic in Detroit (and Charlottesville and Ferguson and Wounded Knee…) Part 4
This is the fourth and final installment of my ongoing blog series on the Detroit Riots of 1967 and their impact. It feels quite fitting that I write this in the aftermath of the clashes that occurred between civilians and Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In Part 2 of this series, I spoke about my father’s experience witnessing the start of the ’67 Riots. Looting, beatings, sniping, arson, arrests, murders and widespread unrest went on in the city of my birth for six days.
My father, a short order cook at Big Boy Restaurant, was seventeen years old, newly married and expecting his first child. I’ve always been interested in the history of the Detroit Riots, but I wanted to get an understanding of his experience, his perspective.
On my mother’s side of the family, there were implications as well. My maternal grandfather owned a pawn shop, Al’s Loan near the corner of Gratiot and Chene on Detroit’s east side. He and his brother stayed on lockdown at their shop that week, but elsewhere in the city pawn shops took a big hit. At the start of the ’67 Riots, there were 67 pawn shops operating in the city of Detroit. At the end of the riots, less than a week later, there were only seven remaining. My grandpa was lucky: Al’s Loan went without major incident. His brother-in-law, however, lost his pawn shop to fire that week. But because the Riots were deemed a “Civil Disturbance” (as opposed to a Race Riot), he was able to file a claim with his insurance.
There were about nine months of relative calm in the city of Detroit that followed the July uprising. During that time, priorities began to change for my father. That September, Dad left Big Boy to work for my mother’s uncle in his home improvement business. I was born on December 7th, and Dad turned 18 just four days later. Within weeks, he received his notice from the Selective Service: he was deemed 1A, the highest-likely for draft service.
Dad recalled someone telling him that if you were the sole supporter of a family, you might get out of the draft. So, he wrote a letter to the Selective Service explaining that he was married and had a newborn child. Sure enough, they responded and changed his status to 3A which was below the threshold for service.
In April 1968 Detroit was one of many American cities that rioted in the aftermath of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. This time Michigan Governor George W. Romney wasted no time in calling in the National Guard to quickly quell the violence. There was a small amount of property damage (mainly busted windows, some looting) and one death reported.
That summer, however, Dad remembered “The Tiger’s won the World Series. I wasn’t at the game. I was at Woodward and 6 Mile with Ray Wesley (his longest childhood friend), and there was a traffic jam, after the game, like you wouldn’t believe. Everyone was blowing their horns when the Tigers won that Series. It was one of the greatest World Series ever. It was a 7-game Series. The whole town was celebrating, despite what happened the previous summer.”
The brief era of violence, Detroit’s ‘Days of Rage’ had ended. But Detroit, as we read in the first blog, had a long history of riots and uprisings. The first known riot in Detroit, in fact, occurred in 1833 and, like many of the city’s later riots had racial issues. Black Detroiters fought Wayne County sheriffs over the jailing of two escaped slaves in route to Canada. This disturbance leads to a 9 pm curfew for all black Detroiters.
In 1850, white Detroiters rioted in front of some of the city’s brothels. These brothels catered to black men and the riots resulted in several businesses being firebombed. In 1863, white Detroiters tried to lynch a black man who had been accused of sexually assaulting two white girls. Soldiers fired on the crowd, killing one and the crowd then descended on a black neighborhood. They burned more than two dozen buildings. Later, the girls admitted they had lied about the assault.
In 1941, more than 1,000 white Detroiters gathered to protest a black family moving into the new Sojourner Truth housing project. There were many injuries but no deaths. The following year, as reported in the first installment of this series, there were Race Riots in June of 1943 that began at Belle Isle in the aftermath of the Packard Auto Plant bringing black workers onto the same assembly lines as whites. When tempers had cooled that summer day, 34 people were dead including 25 blacks. 17 of those 25 were killed by police.
And in 1975, a white business owner shot and killed an 18-year old black man. He claimed he caught the youth trying to steal his car. The city of Detroit had elected one of the nation’s first black mayors, the late Coleman Young, and Young walked the streets in ’75, successfully calming black citizens.
What happened in ’67 was deemed a Race Riot by most observers, but ultimately ruled a “Civil Disturbance, ” but I would argue that Detroit ’67 was a Rebellion or Uprising. It was an apartheid situation that leads to the Riots, whether one group of people were being policed and governed by another group of people. No, the entire city of Detroit wasn’t African-American in 1967, but the neighborhood where the Riots began were. Three percent or less than Detroit’s police force, comparably, was black at the time. Detroit was, for many people of color, an occupied city.
Detroit is not the only place that has experienced apartheid-driven Rebellions, of course – not even here in America. The Attica Prison Riots of 1971 and the recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri are examples of protest against the occupation of one form or another.
Here is South Dakota we usually manage to remain out of the fray of civil unrest. There have been protests here since the Inauguration of Donald Trump, but they have all been peaceable. There were the months-long protests at Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation over water rights. We also had Wounded Knee, as well, in 1974. Wounded Knee was not an occupation, but perhaps it’s the closest to a local example of rebellion in our recent history.
But our demographics are changing. In 2011, the percentage of white babies born in South Dakota dropped from 78.1% to 77.0% while the number of Native babies born in the state rose from 16.7% to 17.5%. There is no doubt, as well, that our adult populations in the state are morphing. Rapid City sees a fair amount of diversity, due to Ellsworth Air Force Base and the School of Mines, but I have pointedly observed a dramatic change in just the past dozen years. East River and some of the more agricultural communities have seen much less change in diversity, but it is occurring.
The truth is: I find myself conflicted on the topic of riots and uprisings, particularly at this very moment. I’m listening to the President of the United States talk about how some of the Neo-Nazi’s, white supremacists and KKK members that marched in Charlottesville were “good people” simply protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee Confederate commemorative statue. I see people beaten by batons and maced. I see symbols of hate and division, symbols we thought we had defeated. And I see the crowd of protestors, the men, and women who were targeted by the thug in the Dodge Charger including Heather Heyer who was killed on Saturday. I hear the words of her mother, who told attendees at today’s funeral “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. But guess what, you just magnified her!”
I see the face of Deandre Harris, attacked and beaten by a crowd of Nazi’s on Saturday, bloodied and scarred. I watch the Twitter feed of the Charleston Police Department who have made NO arrests so far in Deandre’s beating despite the names of most of his attackers being shared after investigated by citizen journalists. I hear the silence of those who support Trump in taking a stand, not just against the Nazi’s but their leader’s words. I hear the words “Jew will not replace us” shouted by men wearing innocuous white polo shirts, khaki pants and carrying cheap tiki torches lit against the night while only 40 protesters stood nearby on the UVA campus this past Friday night, ahead of the violence.
I wish there were a peaceable way to give birth to a new America, but that would be a pipe dream. As long as there are men and women who deny the rights of others, that is impractical. As long as there are majority white police departments that patrol the streets of primarily black neighborhoods, that’s not achievable. As long as I hear white, liberal, Democratic friends talk about Native Americans in the most demeaning of terms, that’s not going to happen. As long as we have a federal and state administration that sides with party ahead of people, that is impossible.
The Detroit Riot of 1967 began with a gathering of people for nonpolitical purposes and ended with dozens of people dead, hundreds of businesses and properties destroyed and thousands of lives forever changed. The spark that lit the flame. I am seeing a lot of sparks now in 2017, and I can’t help but wonder which will ignite.