The following epistle took over a year for me to finish. It was written with anger, remorse, and sadness. Death is always difficult to witness. Whether, a person or a city.
Sunday, July 23, 1967, Detroit, Michigan. The weather was a very warm 86°. What began that day and lasted until the following Thursday would forever change the face of my
beloved city and indeed, the entire country‘s view of it. In particular, it transformed my safe secure neighborhood to a environment of mistrust, bigotry and fear.
I had a ringside seat to the Detroit riots in 1967. The Summer of Love became the Summer of Hate. Gone were the days when I could walk the 7 blocks to the Wanda Drugs to pick up a copy of 16 magazine. Those few days between Sunday, July 23rd and Thursday, July 27 put an end to the security that I had known as a child.
Our northeast side Detroit neighborhood consisted of Whites, Blacks, Jews, Hispanics, Germans, Italians, Russians and Greeks. That was the first time I stopped thinking of them as neighbors and started thinking of them as DIFFERENT. We all had various religions and beliefs, but this seemed to not only amplify the disparity, but also to segregate. I literally felt the community die.
Although the Detroit Free Press won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting, I believe the journalists missed the underlying issues. In actuality, just as many whites participated in the looting and violence as the blacks. However, the media took great pains to present the dissenters only as blacks. The Media’s reasons were insidious. This was my first, certainly not my last, realization of how manipulative and deceptive the media could be.
Many have declared the cause of the riots as tensions between blacks and whites, police brutality, lack of affordable housing, lack of good paying jobs, the list is very long. Whatever the cause or causes, it seemed unavoidable. I witnessed the beginning of the end of my city. Nothing would ever be the same after those days.
There were several documented incidents of police brutality. One example the “Algiers Motel Incident”, which involved 2 white teen-aged girls from Ohio who were staying at the motel with 2 black men. The men and women were tortured and eventually the men were shot (by Detroit Police officers) and their bodies left at the motel.
The local television stations were asked to “tone down” coverage of the violence and especially looting that was going on in the 12th street area. Still, the rumors were rampant and the more it was suppressed, the more fearful citizens became.
My father was an employee of the City of Detroit. He worked in the 12th street area. He was told not to report to work until he was called. This was the first time I remember seeing my father afraid. Although, being a good-ole country boy from Alabama and decorated combat veteran, he did not balk at the idea of defending our home and family.
I watched my father and the man next door, a retired navy seaman, as they prepared for their nightly vigil. They each sat on their own front porches with a shotgun laid across their laps. We had a finished basement and my mother and I were sternly told to stay there overnight.
I watched as one by one the garages of neighbors were burned to the ground. I listen to gunshots and loud voices and screams. I listened in horror as fights broke out between people who had lived side-by-side pretty much in harmony for 20 or more years. Tensions were high.
The mayor of Detroit at that time, Jerome Cavanagh, was at odds with George Romney (Father of Mitt Romney) and was reluctant to ask for and/or accept for federal help. Cavanagh, who prided himself on good race-relations, contacted US Representative John Conyers, who visited the heated area on Monday. Conyers attempted to sway the crowd as he stood on the hood of his car and used a bull horn to plead with the people, his people. He begged them, “This is not the way to go!”. He and his car were pelted with rocks and bottles. He returned to Washington shortly there after.
In retrospect most agree that the police commissioner, Ray Girardin, did an adequate job keeping a lid on the situation. He did have the assistance of National Guard troops. On Monday, Federal troops were dispatched by President Lyndon Johnson. This seemed to escalate the problem regarding race, as most of the National Guard Troops were white and from rural areas.
In the end disturbances were reported in more than two dozen Michigan cities.
- 45 people died in those 5 days
- 10,000 people participated
- 2509 stores looted or burned
- 7231 people arrested
- 40-80 million dollars in damages
Cavanagh's political career was ruined. He did not seek re-election. It is said that he never forgave himself for the destruction the riots wrought.
I also hope against hope that the once great City of Detroit will become a place where each citizen will be happy, safe and proud to be neighbors.