Last week the 50th anniversary of the five-day long Detroit Riot passed. Or uprising or rebellion, depending on who you speak with.
I’m going with the first one, riot. It started after midnight on July 23, 1967 in the city’s Virginia Park neighborhood when an illegal bar, known locally as a “blind pig,” was raided by Detroit police officers. After arresting 85 patrons who had gathered to celebrate the return of two soldiers from Vietnam, the cops were confronted by 200 more people who threw rocks and bottles at them. The police left and crowd started smashing windows and looting stores.
Which is why I’m calling it a riot.
It took 17,000 people, a mixture of Detroit and state police officers, federal and national guard troops, and firefighters to quell the riot. Over 2,000 buildings were destroyed and 43 people were killed. Only the 1863 New York City Draft Riot and the 1992 Los Angeles Riot were worse among domestic urban disturbances. Many of the buildings that were laid waste were never rebuilt, and 12th and Clairmount–now Rosa Parks Boulevard and Clairmount–was like most of the rest of Detroit when I visited in 2015, forsaken and quiet.
Sure, there were solid reasons for black Detroiters to be angry 50 Julys ago. Police brutality was rampant in the Motor City, and as had thousands of blacks migrated there from the Deep South for automobile industry jobs, many whites made that northern trek too. And the latter brought their prejudices with them. Yes, many blacks had good-paying jobs with the Big Three but often they were clustered, make that segregated, into the less desirable segments of the assembly line, the sweltering foundries or the fumous paint rooms. After World War II urban renewal and expressway building came to Detroit, as it did in other major cities, but African-American neighborhoods were usually targeted for these “improvements,” which caused blacks to sardonically label these programs “negro removal.”
What the 1871 Chicago Fire was to that city, or the 1906 earthquake was to San Francisco, the ’67 riot was to Detroit. It’s a historical demarcation line. Only Chicago and San Francisco successfully rebuilt and emerged as better and more livable cities afterwards. After 1967 white flight accelerated in Detroit–and thousands of businesses followed. Jobs too. Crime soared. In 1960 Detroit had over 1.6 million residents–now there are fewer than 700,000 Detroiters.
“The riot was the seminal moment in Detroit’s history, the point from which nothing would be the same,” the Detroit News’ Nolen Finley wrote eight days ago.
Riot or rebellion? If it was the last one, I know who lost. Detroit did.
But bankruptcy–and the confession of defeat–like an alcoholic finally admitting addiction–offers Detroit a chance to turn things around. When I stood on the corner of Clairmount and Rosa Parks two summers ago, there was no attestion of the historical significance of the site. But last Sunday a Michigan historical marker, “Detroit July 1967,” was dedicated there.
John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.
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