|12th Street, Detroit. Michigan, one week before the 1967 Riot. |
That's Pops' store way down the block on the left: Astor Furniture.
Astor Furniture, on Detroit’s 12th Street, was where my father had a new and used furniture store in 1967. The street is now known as Rosa Parks Boulevard and Pops' store was at the corner of Blaine. My house on the edge of Detroit, near 8 Mile, was less than 10 miles from Pops' store on 12th Street. However, it might have been a million miles away, as different as the two places were. My neighbourhood had no Black people; where Pops had his store, there were no White people. Detroit has long been considered one of the most segregated cities in ‘Merka and this gulf between where we lived and where my father earned his living was the personification of that for me as I grew up.
Gordon Lightfoot tells you all about it:
I used to go down to 12th Street with Pops on the weekends and, as I got older, would often go out on deliveries with the all-Black crew to deliver furniture all around the neighbourhood. Over the years I got to see the inside of many houses and apartments along 12th Street. One of the things that always struck me was how many living rooms had little shrines to both Jesus and President Kennedy. However, that’s not why you’re here. It’s the riot you want to know about.
|Astor Furniture after the worst of the 1967 Detroit Riot.|
Police have made the streets safe for firefighting.
Every summer I went to camp in the wilds of Ortonville, Michigan. At some point every year they'd pack us onto a bus and smuggle us into another country. We would head off to Stratford, Ontario, Canada to see a Shakespearean play written by Shakespeare. I guess so they could tell my parents, "We tried to civilize him" at the end of the camp session. After the play we would grab a late meal in Stratford like the young sophisticates we were pretending to be. It was the only place we could spend any of the money we took with us to camp. The Tuck Shop had crap for sale. Every year the counselors made us promise that no matter what we wouldn’t phone home, or otherwise embarrass them in the Sin City of Stratford, Ontario, while they ditched us.
In 1967, when the play ended, we spread out to various restaurants around town. It was on a newsstand at the restaurant I saw the 1st DETROIT RIOTS headline. On the front of the newspaper was a picture of Pops' store with the riot in progress right in front of it!!! I started running around Stratford looking for a counselor who could give me permission to phone home. Later we learned that the counselors already knew about the riot, but had withheld that information from us so as to not worry us. Word spread quickly among the campers and eventually there were lineups at all the payphones in Stratford.
|There's Astor Furniture again on the right as police make the streets safe for firefighting. |
This picture is © Kenneth Stahl, of The Great Rebellion who has graciously allowed its use.
So, that’s my Detroit riot story; I missed it entirely. I bet my father wishes he could say the same. He lost every stick of furniture in the store, as well as his front windows. However, he was better off than other business owners who were burned out. After Marshall Law was lifted, and civilians were allowed back in the area, he was able to start all over again in the same location. However, it was a total loss for him. Insurance was so prohibitively expensive that he did without it. After the riot he was left to pick up the pieces by himself.
I never worked on 12th Street again.
|This is the building on the corner of Clairmont and 12th Street,|
where police raided a blind pig, triggering the 1967 Riot.
Coincidentally, or maybe not, the blind pig was also a celebration for some returning Vietnam Vets. When police came to bust the joint it got loud. The veterans said, in essence, "Enough is enough. We just got back from Vietnam defending this country and we won't be treated like 2nd class citizens any longer." However, they didn't start the riot. They were the straw that broke the camel's back.
Due to the sheer numbers in the blind pig (reportedly 82) police were forced to call in several paddy wagons. As the arrests proceeded a crowd started to grow. It was a hot night and culturally this neighbourhood kept very different hours than the lily-White block where I lived, with everyone tucked safely into bed by 11 PM. It was always true that Black people were far more visible in their neighbourhood than Whites were in their own. Unemployment was one factor, culture was a bigger factor. During the '50s and '60s when White Home Life™ turned to suburbia, car culture, and backyard barbecues, Black Home Life™ was more street oriented; front porches, street corners, back alleys (which my neighbourhood didn't even have) were all gathering places for friends and family, especially in the days before air conditioning was ubiquitous.
All this to explain why a large crowd gathered almost immediately while police waited for the paddy wagons. However, that doesn't explain the anger that exploded into the '67 Riot. Years of injustice does. The neighbourhood came to view the Detroit Police Department as an Occupying Force and, despite the Civil Rights Act and promises of The Great Society, Blacks were still getting the short end of the stick, and getting it in their own neighbourhoods. The amazing thing to me about the '67 Detroit Riot was how instantaneous it was. It went from zero to Riot in under an hour and took five days to quell.
|One of thousands of pictures of the '67 Detroit Riot I have viewed. I have only found Pops' store in two of them.|
Just as fires cannot erupt in a vacuum, neither do riots. Among the several factors underlying the 1967 Detroit Riot three loomed large: White Flight, Police Brutality and a severe housing shortage. The housing shortage stemmed, in part, from a growing economy. The Big Three were hiring in those days. According to a web site at Rutgers:
Like Newark, Detroit was swept by a wave of white flight. During the 1950s the white population of Detroit declined by 23%. Correspondingly, the percentage of non-whites rose from 16.1% to 29.1%. In sheer numbers the black population of Detroit increased from 303,000 to 487,000 during that decade. (Fine 1989:4) By 1967, the black population of Detroit stood at an estimated 40% of the total population. (National Advisory Committee on Civil Disorders 1968:89-90). As in Newark, some neighborhoods were more affected by white flight than others. This was particularly true for the Twelfth Street neighborhood, where rioting broke out in the summer of 1967. “Whereas virtually no blacks lived there in 1940 (the area was 98.7% white), the area was over one-third (37.2%) non-white in 1950. By 1960, the proportion of blacks to whites had nearly reversed: only 3.8 percent of the areas residents were white. Given that the first blacks did not move to the area until 1947 and 1948, the area underwent a complete racial transition in little more than a decade.” Sugrue 1996:244)
This rapid turnover in population in the neighborhood brought with it the attendant ills of social disorganization, crime and further discrimination. It’s impact in the 12th street area was devastating. According to Sidney Fine, “The transition from white to black on Detroit’s near northwest side occurred at a remarkably rapid rate…In a familiar pattern of neighborhood succession, as blacks moved in after World War II, the Jews moved out. The first black migrants to the area were middle class persons seeking to escape the confines of Paradise Valley. They enjoyed about “five good years” in their new homes until underworld and seedier elements from Hastings Street and Paradise Valley, the poor and indigent from the inner city, and winos and derelicts from skid row flowed into the area. Some of the commercial establishments on Twelfth Street gave way to pool halls, liquor stores, sleazy bars, pawn shops, and second hand businesses. Already suffering from a housing shortage and lack of open space, Twelfth Street became more “densely packed” as apartments were subdivided and six to eight families began to live where two had resided before. The 21,376 persons per square mile in the area in 1960 were almost double the city’s average” (Fine 1989:4) This neighborhood would serve as the epicenter of the 1967 riot.
|When it's all gone just the marker remains.|
Is this the ultimate fate of the E.W.F. Stirrup House?
Rutgers also outlined the issue of Police Brutality, another factor leading up to the riot:
In Detroit, during the 1960s the “Big Four” or “Tac Squad” roamed the streets, searching for bars to raid and prostitutes to arrest. These elite 4 man units frequently stopped youths who were driving or walking through the 12th street neighborhood. They verbally degraded these youths, calling them “boy” and “nigger*”, asking them who they were and where they were going. (Fine 1989:98). Most of the time, black residents were asked to produce identification, and having suffered their requisite share of humiliation, were allowed to proceed on their way. But if one could not produce “proper” identification, this could lead to arrest or worse. In a few notable cases, police stops led to the injury or death of those who were detained. Such excessive use of force was manifested in the 1962 police shooting of a black prostitute named Shirley Scott who, like Lester Long of Newark, was shot in the back while fleeing from the back of a patrol car. Other high profile cases of police brutality in Detroit included the severe beating of another prostitute, Barbara Jackson, in 1964, and the beating of Howard King, a black teenager, for “allegedly disturbing the peace”. (Fine 1989:117) But the main issue in the minds of Detroit’s black residents was police harassment and police brutality, which they identified in a Detroit Free Press Survey as the number one problem they faced in the period leading up to the riot. (Detroit Free Press 1968, Fine 1989, Thomas 1967). According to a Detroit Free Press Survey, residents reported police brutality as the number as the number one problem they faced in the period leading up to the riot. (Detroit Free Press 1968, Fine 1989, Thomas 1967).Detroit was ripe for riot by 1967, especially following the mini-Kercheval riot of the previous year.
Despite the election of a liberal Democratic mayor who appointed African Americans to prominent positions in his administration, and despite Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh’s good working relationship with mainstream civil rights groups, a significant segment of the black community in Detroit felt disenfranchised, frustrated by what they perceived to be the relatively slow pace of racial change and persistent racial inequality. Local militant leaders like the Reverend Albert Cleague spoke of self-determination and separatism for black people, arguing that whites were incapable and or unwilling to share power. The civil rights movement was deemed a failure by these young leaders in the black community. At a black power rally in Detroit in early July 1967, H. Rap Brown foreshadowed the course of future events, stating that if “Motown” didn’t come around, “we are going to burn you down”.
The WikiWackyWoo sums up:
Over the period of five days, forty-three people died, of whom 33 were black and ten white. The other damages were calculated as follows:That, ladies and gentleman, is your Detroit Riot of 1967. After John Lee Hooker reports to us via The Blues, we can get to the good stuff.
- 467 injured: 182 civilians, 167 Detroit police officers, 83 Detroit firefighters, 17 National Guard troops, 16 State Police officers, 3 U.S. Army soldiers.
- 7,231 arrested: 6,528 adults, 703 juveniles; the youngest, 4, the oldest, 82. Half of those arrested had no criminal record.
- 2,509 stores looted or burned, 388 families rendered homeless or displaced and 412 buildings burned or damaged enough to be demolished. Dollar losses from arson and looting ranged from $40 million to $80 million.
* I refuse to soften the ugliest word in the English language by using that awful construct "The N Word." Don't like it? Me neither.
Part Two - The 1943 Detroit Riot
When I start telling people about the 1943 Detroit Riot, they blink. Huh? What? Yet, the '43 riot seems almost as predictable as the '67 Riot. Just as fires cannot erupt in a vacuum, neither do riots. There were several pressures that led to the '43 riot. Again jobs and housing were two of the main flashpoints, but systemic racism was at the bottom of it all.
|Dr. Ossian Sweet, movin' on up?|
Not if the neighbours can help it.
|A sign near the Sojourner|
Truth housing project.
Less than a year later, according to the WikiWackyWoo:
In early June 1943, three weeks before the riot, Packard Motor Car Company promoted three blacks to work next to whites in the assembly lines. This promotion caused 25,000 whites to walk off the job, effectively slowing down the critical war production. It was clear that whites didn't mind that blacks worked in the same plant but refused to work side-by-side with them. During the protest, a voice with a Southern accent shouted in the loudspeaker, "I’d rather see Hitler and Hirohito win than work next to a Nigger"*.
The kindling was already there. Tempers were obviously at a boiling point and the muggy heat of a late June evening didn't help. According to PBS:
Detroit riot began at a popular and integrated amusement park known as Belle Isle. On the muggy summer evening of June 20, 1943, the playground was ablaze with activity. Several incidents occurred that night including multiple fights between teenagers of both races. White teenagers were often aided by sailors who were stationed at the Naval Armory nearby. As people began leaving the island for home, major traffic jams and congestion at the ferry docks spurred more violence. On the bridge which led back to the mainland, a fight erupted between a total of 200 African Americans and white sailors. Soon, a crowd of 5,000 white residents gathered at the mainland entrance to the bridge ready to attack black vacationers wishing to cross. By midnight, a ragged and understaffed police force attempted to retain the situation, but the rioting had already spread too far into the city.
Man being dragged off a
Woodward Avenue streetcar
by an angry White mob.
Two rumors circulated which exacerbated the conflict. At the Forest Club, a nightclub in Paradise Valley which catered to the black population, a man who identified himself as a police sergeant alerted the patrons that "whites" had thrown a black woman and her baby over the Belle Isle bridge. The enraged patrons fled the club to retaliate. They looted and destroyed white-owned stores and indiscriminately attacked anyone with white skin. Similarly, white mobs had been stirred up by a rumor that a black man had raped and murdered a white woman on the bridge. The white mob centered around the downtown Roxy Theater which harbored a number of black movie-goers. As the patrons exited the theater, they found themselves surrounded by gangs who attacked and beat them. As rumors about the incidents in Paradise Valley and the downtown area spread through the night, so did the nature and the extent of the violence. White mobs targeted streetcars transporting black laborers to work, forced the cars to come to a halt, and attacked the passengers inside. They also targeted any cars with black owners, turning them over and setting them on fire.
Car burns on Woodward.
By mid morning, black leaders in the community had asked Mayor Edward J. Jeffries to call in federal troops to quell the fighting. But it was not until late that evening, when white mobs invaded Paradise Valley, that Jeffries took the necessary steps to get outside help. Around midnight, a disturbing silence reigned over the city as a truce between the city's warring factions was kept by U.S. Army troops. More than 6,000 federal troops had been strategically stationed throughout the city. Detroit, under armed occupation, virtually shut down. The streets were deserted, the schools had been closed, and Governor Harry Francis Kelly had closed all places of public amusement. Most of the Paradise Valley community feared to leave their homes. Yet spurts of violence still flared up. As late as Wednesday, white mobs threatened black students leaving their graduation ceremony at Northeastern High School. The graduates had to be escorted home by truckloads of soldiers bearing bayonets.
White mob overturns car in front of White Tower
|An arrest by police|
Black Past gives another perspective:
As the violence escalated, both blacks and whites engaged in violence. Blacks dragged whites out of cars and looted white-owned stores in Paradise Valley while whites overturned and burned black-owned vehicles and attacked African Americans on streetcars along Woodward Avenue and other major streets. The Detroit police did little in the rioting, often siding with the white rioters in the violence.
The violence ended only after President Franklin Roosevelt, at the request of Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries, Jr., ordered 6,000 federal troops into the city. Twenty-five blacks and nine whites were killed in the violence. Of the 25 African Americans who died, 17 were killed by the police. The police claimed that these shootings were justified since the victims were engaged in looting stores on Hastings Street. Of the nine whites who died, none were killed by the police. The city suffered an estimated $2 million in property damages.
An eyewitness to history:
Again, the WikiWackyWoo sums up:
- 34 people were killed, 25 of whom were African Americans in which 17 of them were killed by the police.
- Out of the approximately 600 injured, black people accounted for more than 75 percent and of the roughly 1,800 people who were arrested over the course of the 3 day riots, black people accounted for 85 percent.
Ironically, the 1943 Riot was also one of the catalysts for the city's later decision to tear down Black Bottom and Paradise Valley for its so-called Urban Renewal. This was one of the direct pressures on the 12th Street area described in the section on the 1967 Riot above.
* as above, I refuse to soften the ugliest word in the English language.
Part Three - The 1863 Detroit Riot
Just as fires cannot erupt in a vacuum, neither do riots. The 1863 Detroit Riot -- dubbed at the time "the bloodiest day that ever dawned upon Detroit" -- has to be seen in context. It was during the Civil War, when Detroit was not yet a great city. Motown was little more than a small town, huddled along the river, which was also the international border to Canada. This is why Detroit was a terminus for so many escaped slaves traveling north on the famed Underground Railroad. This had created certain tensions within the separate Black and White communities of Detroit. Escaped slaves could be arrested and returned by bounty hunters. Some Free Blacks were arrested and sent south. Some Whites were sympathetic to the cause of abolition and others were not. Race was a big factor in the 1863 riot, as was the military draft. Many Whites didn't see this as their war and resented being forced to fight for a cause diametrically opposed to what they believed.
|Was it all President Lincoln's fault?|
Once the articles are examined, it becomes clear that the Detroit Free Press was a racist paper, and it printed racist stories in the months preceding the riot. The paper was pushing a racial ideology, one that taught that blacks were inferior and a threat. I will show this by pointing to four types of stories the paper printed in the months before the war: stories that connected blacks to labor problems, blacks to citizenship issues, blacks to the war, and blacks to crime and a general degradation of the moral order. Within all of these categories the paper portrayed blacks as a threat. The readers of the Free Press were mostly lower class white laborers, a class with little power. Even absent the racial rhetoric, issues of labor, of voting, of war, and of crime—especially sexual transgressions such as rape—are at their core about power. By showing how African-Americans were a threat to whites when it came to these issues, the paper was suggesting that the already limited power of the white working class was at risk. Further, each of these categories represent a function that was vital to a man’s main role in life, being the head of his household. In essence, the articles of the Free Press were portraying a threat to its male readers’ power to fulfill their primary functions. The paper was showing a threat to their masculinity.
|Copy of "A Thrilling Narrative..."|
On the 6th of March an organized mob made their way from the jail down Beaubien street. They were yelling like demons, and crying "kill all the d--d niggers."* In the cooper shop, just below Lafayette street, were five men working, namely: ROBERT BENNETTE, JOSHUA BOYD, SOLOMON HOUSTON, LEWIS HOUSTON, MARCUS DALE. These men were busy at work in the shop until the mob made an attack upon the shop. The windows were soon broken and the doors forced open. The men in the cooper shop were determined to resist any that might attempt to come in. The mob discovered this, and did not attempt to come in, but stood off and threw stones and bricks into the windows, a perfect shower. There happened to be one old shot gun in the shop, a couple of discharges from which drove the mob back from the shop. The dwelling house was attached to the shop, in which were three women and four children, namely: Mrs. REYNOLDS, Mrs. BONN and one child, Mrs. DALE and three children.
The Detroit Riot in 1863.
Some ten minutes after the mob had fallen back from the shop, they made a rush upon the house in which were the women and children. The men in the shop seeing this, rushed out of the shop into the house to protect the women and children. The windows of the houses were soon all broken in; stones and bricks came into the house like hail. The women and children were dodging from one room to another to escape the stones. The men frequently stood before the women and children to shield them from the stones. Very soon after the men went from the shop into the house, the shop was set on fire by the mob. There were plenty of shavings in the shop, which facilitated the burning. The flames soon reached the house in which were the women and children. The mob by this time had completely surrounded the building. Mrs. Reynold attempted to go out at the back door but could not get out, for hundreds of stones were flying at that part of the building. Mr. Dale, in shielding his wife, got a blow in the face with a stone, which his wife might have gotten had he not stood before her. Some person outside was heard to say "the women will be protected--no protection for the men." Hearing this, Mr. Dale told the women to go out at the front door. Mrs. Dale seeing the blood running.
|Anti-slavery newspaper of the time.|
However, what was the legacy of the 1863 Detroit Riot? Wikipedia foolishly tried to sum it up with one prosaic sentence:
|Detail from anti-slavery newspaper.|
multitude of others, mostly African-American, mercilessly beaten" has a way of focusing the citizens on Law and Order. As a result of the 1863 Riot a full time police force was constituted. Written into the originating documents incorporating Detroit's 1st police force were the fateful words that guided Detroit ever since. Detroit's first officers were tasked with keeping the Blacks in line, because the 1863 came to be blamed on them. Some things never change.
Is it any wonder why I say riots are in Detroit's DNA, from 1863 to 1943 to 1967?
* as above, again, I refuse to soften the ugliest word in the English language.