Eyewitness accounts of the riot that changed Detroit forever
First of a two-part story
The “Long Hot Summer of 1967” wasn’t about unusually warm humid weather. It was about the 159 race riots that occurred in the United States 50 years ago.
The 1968 Kerner Commission report submitted to President Lyndon Johnson pointed out that there was no “typical” riot: “The disorders…were unusual, irregular, complex, and unpredictable social processes…and did not erupt as a result of a single ‘triggering’ or ‘precipitating’ incident.”
Nothing was further from the truth over a five-day period in Detroit in late July 1967. U.S. Appeals Court Judge George Edwards warned in the Kerner report that, as early as 1961, the city “was the leading candidate in the United States for a race riot.”
It was at the time considered the nation’s deadliest and most destructive civil disturbance: 43 people died, all but 10 of them Black; 119 persons were shot; 657 persons were injured; over 7,200 arrests were made, mostly of Blacks; and an estimated $75 million ($550 million in 2017 dollars) in damages to homes and White-owned businesses in Black neighborhoods. Only the 1865 New York City riots and the 1992 Los Angeles riots were considered worse than what happened in the Motor City.
In the early morning hours on July 23, 1967, Detroit Police raided an unlicensed weekend club on 12th Street. The police called such nightclubs “blind pigs.” The nearly 100 persons in the club were celebrating the return of two Black GIs from Vietnam. Everyone was arrested — all Blacks.
Outside, a mostly Black crowd grew restless and larger as each minute ticked away waiting for the police wagons to arrive. Over recent months, tensions between Blacks and police had been slowly approaching a boil. On that very warm night, the boiling point was reached.
Fewer than 12 hours later, the once-considered model city became a city on fire.
Three persons recently provided the MSR their first-person perspectives on those five days 50 years ago that changed Detroit forever.
Black smoke in the sky
Retired journalist Luther Keith was 16 years old at the time. He is now executive director of the nonprofit Arise Detroit, a broad-based coalition of local community groups. “It’s about three o’clock in the afternoon and I’m out in the outfield” at his youth baseball game. “I am looking up and see smoke, black smoke in the sky,” he remembers.
Keith finished the game and his coach, a White man, drove him home. “He drives me home down [West Grand] Boulevard towards Lawton. We don’t know what the hell is going on.
“‘Lawton, which he would have turned down and dropped me off at home. I don’t know why but I said, ‘John, let me off here,’ because he lived on the east side. ‘I can walk the rest of the way.’
“But the minute I crossed the Boulevard and started walking down Lawton, [people] were throwing bricks at cars,” said Keith. “I shudder to think what would have happened if he would have turned down that street. All you can see is a White driver. Who knows?”
The award-winning journalist recalls, “That whole week we saw tanks, National Guard, helicopters flying all around the neighborhood. “It was a terrifying time. We didn’t know what was going to happen next.”
Keith said the first official casualty was a little shop owner on Linwood. It was an old Serbian man who lived above his shop. “He was beaten to death by looters. It was a heartbreaking time. And we in Detroit have never really recovered from it.”
Worse than 1943
Detroit-born Herb Boyd, now a history professor in New York, was attending Wayne State University near midtown Detroit. He remembers that even a couple of years before the riot, things were getting tense in the city. He had just started his second year in college.
“The 1967 rebellion gave us a pivot in order to hold the university hostage.” They had concerns about curriculum for Black students. “That was an opportunity for us to make some demands about Black Studies.” Boyd is an award-winning journalist, educator, author and activist. Last month, he released his book Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination (Amistad, 2017).
Boyd had heard comparisons of 1967 Detroit to the June 1943 disturbance: 25 of the 34 dead were Blacks, 75 percent of the 433 injured were Blacks, and there was $2 million in property damages. Although federal and National Guard troops were called in for both outbreaks, the 1943 disturbance, which lasted two days, was largely based on false rumors spread in the city’s Black and White communities. Ultimately, the 1967 riot was blamed on the police raid of the Saturday night party.
Sniper fire surrounded us
Detroit, before July 23, 1967, was my Camelot. My parents, who survived the 1943 disturbance, pretty much shielded their only child from the long-standing racial divide that existed in Detroit, especially police-community relations. My life was relatively simple — school, home, playing with friends, church.
My uncle came home from his weekend overnight job and told my mother while we were getting ready for church that something was jumping off on 12th Street. We returned home that afternoon to cars with honking horns up and down our street, their trunks packed with looted stuff. I also saw the blue sky turn charcoal dark from the burning stores just blocks away.
I had never seen close up tanks, helicopters and armed soldiers other than in the movies and nightly newscasts. But that Sunday night and the following days and nights, I saw all three. Our backyard the next morning was sprinkled with leftover black ashes from Mike’s Market just around the corner. The store never reopened after that.
I am also a war survivor, so to speak. Sniper fire surrounded us on all sides for three successive nights. I survived, but four-year-old Tanya Blanding did not; she lived just four blocks away. A White National Guardsman shot a .50-caliber bullet into her upstairs bedroom, into her chest. She had just flicked on the light switch, but the flash from a burned-out bulb resembled a muzzle flash from her apartment building roof.
The Guardsman never was charged with Blanding’s death
Information from the 1968 Kerner Commission report and other sources were used in this report.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.