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Detroit’s lasting battle scars

Detroit's lasting battle scarsMichigan remembers the riots

Riot, rebellion, anniversary, commemoration; each of these terms could have been used to describe the 1967 Michigan disturbance. It left 43 dead, 7,000 incarcerated, burned or destroyed thousands of businesses and left a lasting scar on the city.

“The problems are still there,” said Joe Darden, MSU professor and author of many books on Detroit. “Time doesn’t seem to take.”

Anyone intimate with the city enough to grow up going to the corner of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues for a Tiger’s game, shouldn’t be surprised a riot occurred. And those who grew up outside city limits shouldn’t have been either. What should’ve been surprising is why it hadn’t erupted earlier. The signs of oppression were everywhere, from the rates of black unemployment, racist housing policies, to a nearly allwhite, brutal Police Department. And especially the frequent ads on major radio stations selling Thunderbird wine with its call and response: “What’s the word? Thunderbird. What’s the price? Thirty-nine twice. Who drinks it? Us colored folks.”

So, on July 23, 1967, when the early Sunday morning police bust of a welcome-home party for two Vietnam veterans at Detroit’s blind pig bar on 12th Street and Clairmont erupted, the match was lit. The shouting and bottle-throwing fray would last five days, until Friday, July 28.

Long after the fires were extinguished, the final casket lowered and the 8,800 federal and state troops were sent home, rubberneckers would snake their way through the streets to see the devastation at first hand.

One of those former “tourists” told me he visited the city to “see if Detroit had burned down.”

Ask someone who is old enough and you’ll find most everyone has a Detroit Riot story from local Lansing bookstore owner Scott Harris, whose third birthday party was cancelled due to the conflict, to Librarian Jim McClean, who saw his first tank and soldiers as an eight-year-old living in the city.

Marlene Mescher of East Lansing, then a thirteen-year-old living in Grosse Pointe Park, recalls walking to the end of her street to see what was going on.

“You could see smoke and flames and it was the scariest thing,” she said.

She also recalls the rumors of rioters who would attack the suburbs, and witnessing a tank on a street in the Pointes, protecting its all-white residents.

Both black and white businesses felt the impact of the riots; they were burned and looted in great numbers. Stan Eichelbaum, an MSU student at the time now living in Fort Lauderdale, remembers that his father, owner of a bagel shop on downtown Woodward Avenue, ran out of his store and forgot to lock the door and close the safe.

When he returned days later, nothing was taken and his deli, popular with Motown artists and sports figures, was intact.

The deli’s location near one of the Motown offices might have saved it. Those offices and recording studios, seen as the heart of the city, were one of the few spots left untouched.

Former Michigan Court of Appeals Judge and Lansing resident William Whitbeck, was a young assistant in then Governor George Romney’s office. He specialized in housing when he was summoned to Detroit to help staff the temporary office of the governor, located at the Beaubien Police Headquarters. He recalls driving into downtown during the height of the events.

“There were no cars on the freeways.

The city looked abandoned,” Whitbeck said.

He would spend several days working the phone with his Detroit contacts trying to get the “real story” of what was going on, unfiltered by the Detroit Police.

He said when the 7,000 members of the National Guard were called up, there was “no cohesion. Just chaos when they hit the streets of Detroit.”

“They were scared to death. Most of them had never been to Detroit,” Whitbeck said.

Whitbeck remembers hearing that four Guardsmen with loaded M-15s stopped a car with four black men. The men were in violation of curfew, but when they said they were on their way to work, they were allowed to drive off.

“A Guardsman accidently left his loaded M-15 in the back seat,” Whitbeck said. “When the four men realized they were driving with an M-15, they had the good sense to turn around and give the gun back.”

Still, that courtesy was one of few during the riots.

Whitbeck said Romney, at first, was reluctant to ask for federal assistance, but by mid-afternoon on Monday, July 24 he could no longer wait; he made the call. President Johnson sent Assistant Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance to Detroit to assess the situation. He initially decided not to deploy troops, but just like Romney, eventually gave in. At 11 p.m. on Monday, he changed his mind and by 1 a.m. on Tuesday, 1,800 members of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Division arrived at Selfridge Air Force Base outside of the city.

“The federal troops were trained, disciplined, and efficient and the east side quickly quieted down,” Whitbeck said.

One quarter of the troops were Vietnam veterans and had extensive experience under fire. As the city was quieting down, politically, things were only getting more heated. Whitbeck said one often overlooked outcome of the riot was that two promising politicians looking for national prominence permanently tarnished their reputations:

Romney and Mayor Jerome Cavanagh.

“American people don’t like chaos,” said Whitbeck.

Just a few years prior to the riot, Cavanagh led a team of Detroit businessmen in pitching the Olympic committee to hold the 1968 Games in Detroit. Although Detroit was selected as the U.S. site, Mexico City was awarded the event.

Even at the time, many felt the pitch for the games was an attempt at masking the city’s problems and decadeslong infection with racism.

Lansing radio producer Doug Warren produced a 16-segment, twohour, 36-minute radio show for the 40th anniversary of the Detroit Riot which begins with Mayor Cavanagh intoning the advantages of Detroit to the Olympic Committee.

Darden, who is now writing a book about Detroit after bankruptcy, said that not much has changed since 1967.

“Who is getting the benefits of Detroit coming back? Detroit is owned by white people. It’s coming back for whom?” he said. “We have to carry the struggle on, but it can only be successful when more, free white people, those who have been freed of racism, join the conflict.”

He does acknowledge some improvements however. For instance, the Detroit Police during the riot was 93 percent white and acted like an occupying army. Currently, it is much more diverse.

Still, Warren notes many lasting problems in the city, like when white police officers kill blacks.

“Police officers still get off. We can’t get justice in those situations,” Darden said.

Fifty years later, the effects of the riot are firmly imprinted in the city.


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