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12th Street riot


12th Street riot

The 1967 Detroit riot, also known as the 12th Street riot, was a violent public disorder that turned into a civil disturbance in Detroit, Michigan. It began on a Saturday night in the early-morning hours of July 23, 1967. The precipitating event was a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar then known as a blind pig, on the corner of 12th (today Rosa Parks Boulevard) and Clairmount streets on the city's Near West Side. Police confrontations with patrons and observers on the street evolved into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in United States history, lasting five days and surpassing the violence and property destruction of Detroit's 1943 race riot.

To help end the disturbance, Governor George W. Romney ordered the Michigan National Guard into Detroit, and President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in Army troops. The result was 43 dead, 1189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. The scale of the riot was surpassed only by the New York City Draft Riots, which took place during the U.S. Civil War,[1] and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The riot was prominently featured in the news media, with live television coverage, extensive newspaper reporting, and extensive stories in Time and Life magazines. The Detroit Free Press won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage.


The crimes reported to police included looting, arson, and sniping and took place in many different areas of Detroit: on the west side of Woodward Avenue, extending from the 12th Street neighborhood to Grand River Avenue and as far south as Michigan Avenue and Trumbull, near Tiger Stadium. East of Woodward, the area around East Grand Boulevard, which goes east/west then north/south to Belle Isle, was involved. However, the entire city was affected between Sunday, July 23, and Thursday, July 27.

The city enacted a citywide curfew, prohibited sales of alcohol and firearms, and business activity downtown was informally curtailed in recognition of the serious civil unrest engulfing sections of the city. While some whites participated in the rioting, it was widely perceived as a race riot by African Americans.[2]

Sunday, July 23

In the early hours of Sunday (3:45 a.m.), July 23, 1967, Detroit police officers raided the unlicensed weekend drinking club in the office of the United Community League for Civic Action above the printing shop on 12th Street.[3] They expected a few revelers inside, but instead found a party of 82 black people celebrating the return of two local GIs from the Vietnam War. The police decided to detain everyone present. While they were arranging for the transportation, a sizable crowd of onlookers gathered on a street.[4] Later, a doorman Walter Scott III, whose father was running the raided blind pig, in a memoir took responsibility for starting the riot by inciting the crowd and throwing a bottle at the officer.[5]

After the last police car pelted with stones left, the black mob began looting an adjacent clothing store. Shortly after, full-scale looting began throughout the neighborhood, but only at 7 am the police were able to make their first arrest due to the large number of looters. State police, Wayne County sheriffs, and the Michigan National Guard were alerted, but because it was Sunday, it took hours for the Police Commissioner Ray Girardin to assemble an adequate manpower. Meanwhile, 12th Street was described as having a "carnival atmosphere" as police merely watched because of their inadequate numbers and wrong belief that the rioting would soon expire. The scarce white passer-by were not attacked, and to the east, on Chene Street, the pillaging mob was reported as having a mixed composition.[6] The pastor of Grace Episcopal Church along 12th Street reported that he saw a "gleefulness in throwing stuff and getting stuff out of buildings"[7] The police conducted several sweeps along 12th Street, which proved ineffective because of the unexpectedly large numbers of people outside. The first major fire broke mid-afternoon in a grocery store on a corner of 12th Street and Atkinson.[8] The mob prevented the firefighters from extinguishing it and soon more smoke filled the skyline.

The local news media initially avoided reporting on the disturbance as not to inspire copy-cat violence, but the rioting started to expand to other parts of the city, with looting of retail and grocery stores being carried out beyond the initial locations. By Sunday afternoon, news had spread, and people attending events like a Fox Theater Motown revue and Detroit Tigers baseball game were alerted to avoid certain areas of the city. Motown's Martha Reeves was on stage at the Fox, singing "Jimmy Mack," and was assigned to ask people to leave quietly, as there was trouble outside. After the game, Tigers left-fielder Willie Horton, a black Detroit resident who had grown up not far from the 12th Street, drove to the riot area and stood on a car in the middle of the crowd while still in his baseball uniform. Despite Horton's impassioned pleas, he could not calm the mob.[9]

Monday, July 24

Michigan State Police were called into Detroit to assist an overwhelmed Detroit police force. As the violence spread, the police began to make numerous arrests to clear rioters off the streets and detainees were housed in makeshift jails. Beginning Monday, people were detained without being brought to Recorder's Court for arraignment. Some gave false names, making the process of identifying those arrested difficult because of the need to take and check fingerprints. Windsor Police were asked to help check fingerprints.[10]

Police began to take pictures of looters arrested, the arresting officer, and the stolen goods, to speed up the process and postpone the paperwork. More than eighty percent of those arrested were African American, and about twelve percent were women. Michigan National Guard troopers were not authorized to arrest people, so State Troopers and Detroit Police made all arrests, including sweeping up many people who were simply watching the looting.[11]

Michigan Governor George Romney and President Lyndon B. Johnson initially disagreed about the legality of sending in Federal troops. Johnson said he could not send Federal troops in without Romney's declaring a "state of insurrection", to meet compliance with the Insurrection Act.

As the historian Sidney Fine details in Violence in the Model City, partisan political issues complicated decisions, as is common in crisis. George Romney was expected to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, and President Johnson, a Democrat, did not want to commit troops solely on Romney's direction.[12] Added to this was Mayor Jerome Cavanagh's own political and personal clash with Romney. Cavanagh, a young Irish Catholic Democrat who had cultivated harmonious relations with black leaders, both inside and outside the city, was initially reluctant to ask Romney, a Republican, for assistance.[13]

The violence escalated throughout Monday, resulting in some 483 fires, 231 incidents reported per hour, and 1800 arrests. Looting and arson were widespread. Black-owned businesses were not spared. One of the first stores looted in Detroit was Hardy's drug store, owned by blacks and known for filling prescriptions on credit. Detroit's leading black-owned clothing store was burned, as was one of the city's best-loved black restaurants. In the wake of the riots, a black merchant said, "you were going to get looted no matter what color you were."[15] Rioters shot at firefighters who were attempting to fight the fires. During the riots, 2,498 rifles and 38 handguns were stolen from local stores. It was obvious that the Detroit and Michigan forces were unable to restore order.

On Monday, U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan), who was against Federal troop deployment, attempted to ease tensions by driving along 12th Street with a loudspeaker asking people to return to their homes.[16] Reportedly, Conyers stood on the hood of the car and shouted through a bullhorn, "We're with you! But, please! This is not the way to do things! Please go back to your homes!" But the crowd refused to listen. Conyers' car was pelted with rocks and bottles.[17]

Tuesday, July 25

Shortly before midnight on Monday, July 24, President Johnson authorized use of Federal troops in compliance with the Insurrection Act of 1807, which authorizes the President to call in armed forces to fight an insurrection in any state against the government.[18] This gave Detroit the distinction of being the only domestic American city to have been occupied by Federal troops three times. The 82nd Airborne had earlier been positioned at nearby Selfridge Air Force Base in suburban Macomb County, along with National Guard troops who were federalized at that time. Starting at 1:30 on Tuesday, July 25, some 8,000 National Guardsmen were deployed to quell the disorder. Later their number would be augmented with 4,700 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne, and 360 Michigan State Police.

Chaos continued; the police were overworked and tired. Detroit Police were found to have committed many acts of abuse against both blacks and whites who were in their custody.[19]

Although only 26 of the over 7,000 arrests involved snipers, and not one person accused of sniping was successfully prosecuted, the fear of snipers precipitated many police searches. The "searching for weapons" caused many homes and vehicles to be scrutinized. Curfew violations were also common sparks to police brutality. The Detroit Police's 10th Precinct routinely abused prisoners; as mug shots later proved, many injuries came after booking. Women were stripped and fondled while officers took pictures. An infamous discarded Polaroid was plucked from the garbage and ended up on Mayor Cavanagh's desk. White landlords from New York visiting their building were arrested after a sniper call and beaten so horribly that "their testicles were still black and blue two weeks after the incident."[20]

The most documented event of police brutality was the Algiers Motel Incident. Three African-American men were found dead in a manor house-turned-motel at Woodward and Virginia Park known for prostitution. Two white, teenaged cosmetology school dropouts recently arrived from Columbus, Ohio, were staying in the motel with local African-American men when the police and National Guard responded to a call of shots being fired. Evidence presented later suggested that three Detroit Police officers called out all occupants of the motel to the main lobby, searched them for weapons, threatened to kill them, and threw knives at their feet in a "game" before searching the rooms for weapons. They shot the men later in two of the rooms and their bodies were discovered later. A police confession to the shooting was later covered up. The journalist John Hersey published a book about the case, The Algiers Motel Incident, in 1968.

July 26–27

Some analysts believed that violence escalated with the deployment of troops, although they brought rioting under control within 48 hours. Most of the Michigan National Guard were white, while many of the Army troops were black. As a result, the National Guard troops faced more hostility when deployed to the inner city. The National Guard and the Army troops engaged in firefights with locals, resulting in deaths to both locals and the troops. Of the 12 people shot and killed by troops, only one was by a Federal soldier; the Army troops were ordered not to load their weapons except under the direct order of an officer. The Cyrus Vance report made afterward criticized the actions of the National Guard troops, who shot and killed eleven people.[21]

Tanks[22] and machine guns[23] were used in the effort to keep the peace. Film footage and photos that were viewed internationally showed a city on fire, with tanks and combat troops in firefights in the streets.

By Thursday, July 27, sufficient order had returned to the city that officers withdrew ammunition from the National Guardsmen stationed in the riot area and ordered them to sheath their bayonets. Troop withdrawal began on Friday, July 28, the day of the last major fire in the riot. The Army troops were completely withdrawn by Saturday, July 29.

The Detroit riot was a catalyst to violence elsewhere. The state deployed National Guardsmen or state police in five other cities: Pontiac, Flint, Saginaw, Grand Rapids, and Toledo, Ohio. Disturbances were reported in more than two dozen cities.

In Detroit, an estimated 10,000 people participated in the riots, with an estimated 100,000 gathering to watch. Thirty-six hours later, 43 were dead, 33 of whom were black and 10 white. More than 7,200 people were arrested, most of them black. Mayor Jerome Cavanagh lamented upon surveying the damage, "Today we stand amidst the ashes of our hopes. We hoped against hope that what we had been doing was enough to prevent a riot. It was not enough."[24]


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:


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.

Of those arrested, 64% were accused of looting and 14% were charged with curfew violations.[25]

Economic damage

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.[26]


List of deceased
Name Race Age Date Comment
Willie Hunter Black 26 July 23, 1967 Found in the basement of Brown's Drug Store; believed to have died when the store burned down.
Prince Williams Black 32 July 23, 1967 Also found asphyxiated in the basement of Brown's Drug Store.
Sheren George White 23 July 24, 1967 Shot while in the car driven by her husband (Ross) as they tried to flee from a group of black youths beating a white man.
Clifton Pryor White 23 July 24, 1967 Mistaken for a sniper while trying to keep sparks from a neighboring fire off the roof of his apartment building; shot by a National Guardsman.
Herman Ector Black 30 July 24, 1967 Shot by a security guard while attempting to intervene between the guard and a group of rioters.
Fred Williams Black 49 July 24, 1967 Electrocuted when he stepped on a downed power line.
Daniel Jennings Black 36 July 24, 1967 Broke into Stanley's Patent Medicine and Package Store; shot by the owner Stanley Meszezenski.
Robert Beal Black 49 July 24, 1967 Shot by a Detroit police officer at a burned-out auto parts store.
Joseph Chandler Black 34 July 24, 1967 Shot by Detroit police while engaged in looting at the Food Time Market.
Herman Canty Black 46 July 24, 1967 Observed loading merchandise from the rear door of the Bi-Lo Supermarket. Police fired several rounds at the truck until it stopped, and they found Canty dead inside.
Alfred Peachlum Black 35 July 24, 1967 As A&P supermarket was being looted, Peachlum was inside with a shiny object in his hand. Police opened fire. The object turned out to be a piece of meat wrapped in shiny paper.
Alphonso Smith Black 35 July 24, 1967 The police version was that Smith and four other men were cornered while looting the Standard Food Market. Other sources state that an officer fired through a window.
Nathaniel Edmonds Black 23 July 24, 1967 Richard Shugar, a 24-year-old white male, accused Edmonds of breaking into his store, and shot him in the chest with a shotgun. Shugar was convicted of second-degree murder.
Charles Kemp Black 35 July 24, 1967 Took five packs of cigars and was observed removing a cash register from Borgi's Market. He ran, police officers gave chase, and fired at him.
Richard Sims Black 35 July 24, 1967 Shot after he attempted to break into the Hobby Bar.
John Leroy Black 30 July 24, 1967 A passenger in a vehicle upon which National Guard and police opened fire. Police stated that the vehicle was trying to break through a roadblock.
Julius Dorsey Black 55 July 25, 1967 Worked as a security guard; shot by a National Guardsman who was pursuing suspected looters.
Carl Smith White 30 July 25, 1967 A firefighter; shot by a black male while attempting to organize firefighter units to fight several fires at Mack and St. Jean.
Emanuel Cosby Black 26 July 25, 1967 Broke into N&T Market; police arrived just as he was making his escape. Cosby ran and was shot while running away with his loot.
Henry Denson Black 27 July 25, 1967 Passenger in a car with two other black males; they encountered a roadblock erected by National Guardsmen; guardsmen shot at vehicle for trying to break the roadblock.
Jerome Olshove White 27 July 25, 1967 The only policeman killed in the riot. Olshove was shot in a scuffle with looters outside an A&P supermarket.
William Jones Black 28 July 25, 1967 Broke into a liquor store, was caught and attempted escape. Police ordered him to halt, but he continued to run and they shot him.
Ronald Evans Black 24 July 25, 1967 Shot with William Jones in liquor store looting.
Frank Tanner Black 19 July 25, 1967 Broke into a store with his friends and was shot while trying to escape a National Guardsman.
Arthur Johnson Black 36 July 25, 1967 Shot inside looted pawn shop.
Perry Williams Black 36 July 25, 1967 Shot with Johnson inside pawn shop.
Jack Sydnor Black 38 July 25, 1967 Fired shots out of the window of his third-floor apartment. Shot police officer Roger Poike when the police arrived to investigate. Was killed by police.
Tanya Blanding Black 4 July 26, 1967 Died as a result of gunfire from a National Guard tank stationed in front of her house. Guardsmen stated that they were responding to sniper fire from the second floor.
William N Dalton Black 19 July 26, 1967 Police report stated that he was an arsonist and was attempting to flee from the police.
Helen Hall White 51 July 26, 1967 Hall, a native of Illinois, was visiting Detroit on business. She was shot by a sniper while staying at the Harlan House Motel.
Larry Post White 26 July 26, 1967 Post was a Sergeant in the National Guard. After an exchange of gunfire between National Guardsmen and a car containing three men, Post was found with a gunshot wound to the stomach.
Aubrey Pollard Black 19 July 26, 1967 Killed after a group of policemen and National Guardsmen stormed the Algiers Motel in search of snipers.
Carl Cooper Black 17 July 26, 1967 Killed with Pollard at the Algiers Motel.
Fred Temple Black 18 July 26, 1967 Killed in the Algiers Motel.
George Tolbert Black 20 July 26, 1967 Killed as he ran past a National Guard checkpoint at Dunedin and LaSalle Streets, when a bullet fired by a Guardsman hit him.
Julius Lawrence Lust White 26 July 26, 1967 Lust was shot while trying to steal a car part at a junkyard on the outskirts of the city. Police mistook his wrench for a gun. Although this occurred during the riots, it was an unrelated incident.
Albert Robinson Black 38 July 26, 1967 The police report stated the guardsmen came under fire from snipers and returned fire. At the end of the exchange, Robinson was dead.
Krikor "George" Messerlian White 68 July 27, 1967 A 68 year-old Armenian immigrant; beaten to death by a group of black youths.
Roy Banks Black 46 July 27, 1967 Banks was a deaf-mute walking to a bus stop to go to work; he was shot by Guardsmen who mistook him for an escaping looter.
Ernest Roquemore Black 19 July 28, 1967 Shot in the back by an Army paratrooper and declared dead on arrival at Detroit General Hospital. The soldier had been aiming at another youth who was unharmed.[27]
John Ashby White 26 August 4, 1967 A Detroit firefighter; electrocuted by a high-tension wire that had fallen while he was trying to put out a fire started by rioters.

Social conditions

Detroit was regarded by many in the United States as a leader in race relations during the early 1960s. The election of Mayor Jerome Cavanagh in 1961 brought reform to the police department, led by new Detroit Police Commissioner George Edwards. Organized labor, led by UAW President Walter Reuther, planned major redevelopment for inner-city slums.[28] The New York Times editorialized that Detroit had "more going for it than any other major city in the North."[29]

In the early 20th century, when blacks moved to Detroit in the Great Migration, the city had a rapidly increasing population and not enough housing. Blacks were strongly discriminated against in housing and jobs, as they competed generally for lower scale work with rural white southern migrants, as well as immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Some of the patterns of racial and ethnic segregation (which was also based in the differing religions of the Americans and Europeans), persisted after other social discrimination had eased by the mid-20th century.

By the 1960s, blacks had advanced into many better union and professional jobs. The city had a large and prosperous black middle class; higher-than-normal wages for unskilled black workers because of the auto industry; two black congressmen (half of the black Congressmen at the time); three black judges; two black members on the Detroit Board of Education; a housing commission that was forty percent black; and twelve blacks representing Detroit in the Michigan legislature.[30] Nicholas Hood, the sole black member of the nine-member Detroit Common Council, praised the Cavanagh administration for its willingness to listen to concerns of the inner city. Weeks prior to the riot, Mayor Cavanagh had said that residents did not "need to throw a brick to communicate with City Hall."[31]

Detroit had acquired millions in federal funds through President Johnson's Great Society programs and invested them almost exclusively into the inner city, where poverty and social problems were concentrated. The Washington Post claimed Detroit's inner-city schools were undergoing "the country's leading and most forceful reforms in education." Housing conditions were not viewed as worse than those of other Northern cities. In 1965, the American Institute of Architects gave Detroit an award for urban redevelopment. The city had mature black neighborhoods such as Conant Gardens. In the early 20th century, waves of new immigrants and migrants had generally settled in areas founded on an ethnic base. As Paul Wrobel writes in Our Way: Family, Parish, and Neighborhood in a Polish-American Community, ethnic communities in Detroit like Poletown, Chaldeantown, Corktown, Mexicantown, and Greektown are ubiquitous.[32] In May 1967, the federal administration ranked housing for blacks in Detroit above that of Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago, and Cleveland.

The Department of Justice's Office of Law Enforcement Assistance designated Detroit as the "model for police-community relations".[33] Fortune, Newsweek, Christian Science Monitor, Look, Harper’s, U.S. News and World Report, and The Wall Street Journal all published positive articles on the city; Mayor Cavanagh was so highly regarded nationally that he was elected to head the Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities. He had been re-elected in 1965 with 69% of the votes. Although Cavanagh alienated many when he ran a failed attempt to earn the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate in 1966, the city was proud of defusing a possible riot situation on Kercheval Street in 1966. Officials believed that police were capable of handling potential riot situations.

According to Violence in the Model City by University of Michigan's Sidney Fine, many African-American residents were dissatisfied with social conditions in Detroit before July 23, 1967 and believed that progress was too slow. After the riot, the Kerner Commission reported that their survey of blacks in Detroit found that none were "happy" about conditions in the city prior to the event. The areas of discrimination identified by Fine were: policing, housing, employment, spatial segregation within the city, mistreatment by merchants, shortage of recreational facilities, poor quality of public education, access to medical services, and "the way the war on poverty operated in Detroit."[34]


The Detroit Police Department is administered directly by the Mayor. Prior to the riot, Mayor Cavanagh's appointees George Edwards and Ray Girardin worked for reform. Edwards tried to recruit and promote blacks, but he refused to establish a civilian police review board, as asked for by African Americans. In trying to discipline police officers guilty of brutality, he turned the police department's rank-and-file against him; many whites were angered by perceiving his policies as "too soft on crime".[35] The Community Relations Division of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission undertook a study in 1965 of the police, published in 1968. It claimed the "police system" was at fault for racism. The police system was blamed for recruiting "bigots" and reinforcing bigotry through the department's "value system". A survey conducted by President Johnson's Kerner Commission found that prior to the riot, 45% of police working in black neighborhoods were "extremely anti-Negro" and an additional 34% were "prejudiced".[36]

In 1967, 93% of the force was still European American, although 30% of the city residents were African American.[37][38] Incidents of police brutality caused African Americans to feel at risk. They resented the practice of many police in talking down to them: addressing men as "boys" and women as "honey" and "baby". Police made street searches of groups of young men and single women complained of being called prostitutes for simply walking on the street.[39] The police frequently arrested people who did not have proper identification. The local press reported several questionable shootings and beatings of blacks by officers in the years before 1967.[40] After the riot, a Detroit Free Press survey showed that residents reported police brutality as the number one problem they faced in the period leading up to the riot.[41]

African Americans complained that the police did not respond to their calls as quickly as to those of white citizens. They believed that the police profited from vice and other crime taking place in black neighborhoods, and press accusations of corruption and connections to organized crime weakened their trust in the police. According to Sidney Fine, "the biggest complaint about vice in the ghetto was prostitution." The black community leadership thought the police did not do enough to curb white johns from exploiting local women.[42] In the weeks leading up to the riot, police had started to work to curb prostitution along Twelfth Street. On July 1, a prostitute was killed, and rumors spread that the police had shot her. The police said that she was murdered by local pimps.[43] Detroit police used Big 4 or Tac Squads, each made up of four police officers, to patrol Detroit neighborhoods, and such squads were used to combat soliciting.

African-American residents felt police raids of after-hours drinking clubs were racially biased actions. Since the 1920s, such clubs had become important parts of Detroit's social life for African Americans; although they started with Prohibition, they continued because of discrimination against African Americans in service at many Detroit bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues.[44]


In the postwar period, the city had lost nearly 150,000 jobs to the suburbs. Factors were a combination of changes in technology, increased automation, consolidation of the auto industry, taxation policies, the need for different kinds of manufacturing space, and the construction of the highway system that eased transportation. Major companies like Packard, Hudson, and Studebaker, as well as hundreds of smaller companies, went out of business. In the 1950s, the unemployment rate hovered near 10 percent. Between 1946 and 1956, GM spent $3.4 billion on new plants, Ford $2.5 billion, and Chrysler $700 million, opening a total of 25 auto plants, all in Detroit's suburbs. As a result, workers who could do so, left Detroit for jobs in the suburbs. Other middle-class residents left the city for newer housing, in a pattern repeated nationwide. In the 1960s, the city lost about 10,000 residents per year to the suburbs. Detroit's population fell by 179,000 between 1950 and 1960, and by another 156,000 residents by 1970, which affected all its retail businesses and city services.[45]

By the time of the riot, unemployment among black men was more than double that among white men in Detroit. In the 1950s, 15.9 percent of blacks were unemployed, but only 6 percent of whites were unemployed; this was partially due to the union seniority system of the factories. Except for Ford, which hired a significant number of blacks for their factories, the other automakers did not hire blacks until World War II resulted in a labor shortage. With lower seniority, blacks were the first to be laid off in job cutbacks after the war. Moreover, African Americans were ghettoized into the "most arduous, dangerous and unhealthy jobs".[46] When the auto industry boomed again in the early 1960s, only Chrysler produced vehicles in the city of Detroit. The blacks they hired got "the worst and most dangerous jobs: the foundry and the body shop."[47]

A prosperous black educated class had developed in traditional professions such as social work, ministry, medicine, and nursing. Many other blacks working outside manufacturing were relegated to service industries as waiters, porters, or janitors. Many African-American women were limited to work in domestic service.[48] Certain business sectors were known to discriminate against hiring blacks, even at entry-level positions. It took picketing by Arthur Johnson and the Detroit chapter of the NAACP before First Federal Bank hired their first black tellers and clerks.[49] One of the biggest changes after the riot was the lowering of entry-level job requirements by automakers and retailers. A Michigan Bell employment supervisor commented in 1968 that "for years businesses tried to screen people out. Now we are trying to find reasons to screen them in."[50]

Housing and neighborhoods

Detroit had high home-ownership rates, but affordable housing was an issue. Several urban renewal projects after World War II, intended to improve housing, dramatically changed neighborhood boundaries and ethnic composition. Detroit undertook a series of urban renewal projects that affected African Americans especially, who had occupied some of the oldest housing. Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were on Detroit's near lower east side, south of Gratiot. By discrimination, including then lawful deed restrictions, or by choice, from 1910 through the 1950s, these were the first places where many African Americans new to Detroit settled, as they did not have the money for newer housing. The city began planning for the massive Gratiot Redevelopment Project as early as 1946. It was planned eventually to cover a 129-acre (52 ha) site on the lower east side that included Hastings Street — the epicenter of Paradise Valley.

Detroit was considered a world leader in urban renewal. The city's goals were to: "arrest the exodus of business from the central city, to convert slum property to better housing, and to enlarge the city's tax base."[51]

Bolstered by successive federal legislation, including the 1941, 1949, 1950, 1954 versions of the Housing Act and its amendments through the 1960s, the city acquired funds to develop the Detroit Medical Center complex, Lafayette Park, Central Business District Project One, and the Chrysler Freeway, by appropriating land and "clearing slums". Money was included for replacement housing in the legislation, but the goal of urban renewal was to physically reshape the city; its social effects on neighborhoods was not well understood.[52] As older neighborhoods were demolished, African Americans and people of every color from Detroit's skid row, moved to areas north of Black Bottom along Grand Boulevard, but especially to the westside of Woodward, along Grand Boulevard and ultimately the 12th Street neighborhood. As Ze'ev Chafets wrote in Devil's Night and Other True Tales of Detroit (1990s), the area around 12th Street rapidly changed from a community of ethnic Jews to a predominantly black community in the 1950s, an example of ethnic succession.[53] Jewish residents had moved to the suburbs for newer housing but they often retained business or property interests in their old community; thus, many of the blacks who moved to the 12th Street area rented from absentee landlords and shopped in businesses run by suburbanites. Crime rates rose in the 12th Street area.[54]

By 1967, the neighborhood around 12th Street had a population density that was twice the city average.[55] After the riot, respondents to a Detroit Free Press poll listed poor housing as the second most important issue leading up to the riot, behind police brutality.[41]


Detroit Public Schools suffered from underfunding and racial discrimination before the riots. Underfunding was a function of a decreasing tax base as the population shrank while the numbers of students rose. From 1962 to 1966, enrollment grew from 283,811 to 294,653, but the loss of tax base made less funding available.[56] At the same time, middle-class families were leaving the district, and the number of low-scoring and economically disadvantaged students, mostly black, were increasing. In 1966-67, the funding per pupil in Detroit was $193 compared to $225 per pupil in the suburbs. Exacerbating this inequity were the challenges in educating disadvantaged students. The Detroit Board of Education estimated it cost twice as much to educate a "ghetto child properly as to educate a suburban child."[57] According to Michigan law in 1967, class sizes could not exceed thirty-five students, but in inner city schools they did, sometimes swelling to forty students per teacher. To have the same teacher/student ratio as the rest of the state, Detroit would have to hire 1,650 more teachers for the 1966-67 school year.[58]

In 1959, the Detroit School Board passed a bylaw banning discrimination in all school operations and activities. From 1962 to 1966, black organizations continued to work to improve the quality of education of black students. Issues included class size, school boundaries, and how white teachers treated black students. The Citizens Advisory Committee on Equal Educational Opportunities reported a pattern of discrimination in the assignment of teachers and principals in Detroit schools. It also found "grave discrimination" in employment, and in training opportunities in apprenticeship programs. It was dissatisfied with the rate of desegregation in attendance boundaries. The school board accepted the recommendations made by the committee, but faced increasing community pressure. The NAACP demanded affirmative action hiring of school personnel and increased desegregation through an "open schools" policy. Foreshadowing the break between black civil rights groups and black nationalists after the riot, a community group led by Rev. Albert Cleage, Group of Advanced Leadership (GOAL), emphasized changes in textbooks and classroom curriculum as opposed to integration. Cleage wanted black teachers to teach black students in black studies, as opposed to integrated classrooms where all students were held to the same academic standards.[59]

In April and May 1966, a student protest at Detroit Northern High School made headlines throughout the city. Northern was 98% African American and had substandard academic testing scores. A student newspaper article, censored by the administration, claimed teachers and the principal "taught down" to blacks and used social promotion to graduate kids without educating them. Students walked out and set up a temporary "Freedom School" in a neighborhood church, which was staffed by many volunteer Wayne State University faculty. By May sympathy strikes were planned at Eastern, and Rev. Albert Cleage had taken up the cause. When the school board voted to remove the principal and vice principal, as well as the single police officer assigned to Northern, whites regarded the board's actions as capitulation to "threats" and were outraged the "students were running the school". City residents voted against a school-tax increase.[60]

Under the Cavanagh administration, the school board created a Community Relations Division at the deputy superintendent level. Arthur L. Johnson, the former head of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, was hired in 1966 to advance community involvement in schools, and improve "intergroup relations and affirmative action."[61] Black dominated schools in the city continued to be overcrowded as well as underfunded.[62]

Retail stores and services

Customer surveys published by the Detroit Free Press indicated that blacks were disproportionately unhappy with the way store owners treated them compared to whites. In stores serving black neighborhoods, owners engaged in "sharp and unethical credit practices" and were "discourteous if not abusive to their customers."[63] The NAACP, Trade Union Leadership Council (TULC), and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) all took up this issue with the Cavanagh administration before the riot. In 1968, the Archdiocese of Detroit published one of the largest shopper surveys in American history. It found that the inner-city shopper paid 20% more for food and groceries than the suburbanite. Some of the differences were due to economies of scale in larger suburban stores, as well as ease in transportation and delivery of goods.[64]


Blacks and whites in Detroit viewed the events of July 1967 in very different ways. Part of the process of comprehending the damage was to survey the attitudes and beliefs of people in Detroit. Sidney Fine's chapter "The Polarized Community" cites many of the academic and Detroit Free Press financed public opinion surveys conducted in the wake of the riot. Although Black Nationalism was thought to have been given a boost by the civil strife, as membership in Albert Cleage's church grew substantially and the New Detroit committee sought to include black leadership like Norvell Harrington and Frank Ditto, it was whites who were much more likely to support separation.[65]

One percent of Detroit blacks favored "total separation" between the races in 1968, whereas 17% of Detroit whites did. African-Americans supported "integration" by 88%, while only 24% of whites supported integration. Residents of the 12th Street area differed significantly from African-Americans in the rest of the city however. For example, 22% of 12th Street blacks thought they should "get along without whites entirely".[65] Nevertheless, the Detroit Free Press survey of Black Detroiters in 1968 showed that the highest approval rating for people was given to conventional politicians like Charles Diggs (27%) and John Conyers (22%) compared to Albert Cleage (4%).[66]

One of the criticisms of the New Detroit committee, an organization founded by Henry Ford II, J.L. Hudson, and Max Fisher while the embers were still cooling, was that it gave credibility to radical black organizations in a misguided attempt to listen to the concerns of the "inner-city Negro" and "the rioters". Moderate black leadership like Arthur L. Johnson were weakened and intimidated by the new credibility the riot gave to black radicals, some of which favored "a black republic carved out of five southern states" and supported "breaking into gun shops to seize weapons."[67] The Kerner Commission deputy director of field operations in Detroit reported that the most militant organizers in the 12th Street area did not consider it immoral to kill whites.[67]

Adding to the criticism of the New Detroit committee in both the moderate black and white communities was the cynical belief that the wealthy, white industrial leadership were giving voice and money to radical black groups as a sort of "riot insurance". The fear that "the next riot" would not be localized to inner city African-American neighborhood but would include the white suburbs was common in the black middle class and white communities. White groups like "Breakthrough" started by city employee Donald Lobsinger, a Parks and Recreation Department employee, wanted to arm whites and keep them in the city because if Detroit "became black" there would be "guerrilla warfare in the suburbs".[68]

Detroit Councilman Mel Ravitz said the riot divided not only the races- since it "deepened the fears of many whites and raised the militancy of many blacks"[68] - but it opened up wide cleavages in the black and white communities as well. Moderate liberals of each race were faced with new political groups that voiced extremist solutions and fueled fears about future violence. Compared to the rosy newspaper stories before July 1967, the London Free Press reported in 1968 that Detroit was a "sick city where fear, rumor, race prejudice and gun-buying have stretched black and white nerves to the verge of snapping".[68] Yet ultimately, if the riot is interpreted as a rebellion, or a way for black grievances to be heard and addressed, it was partly successful.[69]

The black community in Detroit received much more attention from federal and state governments after 1967, and although the New Detroit committee ultimately shed its black membership and transformed into the mainstream Detroit Renaissance group, money did flow into black-owned enterprises after the riot. However, the most significant black politician to take power in the shift from a white majority city to a black majority city, Coleman Young, Detroit's first black mayor, wrote in 1994:

The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit's losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The riot put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could. The white exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the riot, totally twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion—the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty-thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969.[70]

According to economist Thomas Sowell:[71]

Before the ghetto riot of 1967, Detroit's black population had the highest rate of home-ownership of any black urban population in the country, and their unemployment rate was just 3.4 percent. It was not despair that fueled the riot. It was the riot which marked the beginning of the decline of Detroit to its current state of despair. Detroit's population today is only half of what it once was, and its most productive people have been the ones who fled.

Nationally, the riot confirmed for the military and the Johnson administration that military occupation of American cities would be necessary. In particular the riot confirmed the role of the Army Operations Center as the agent to anticipate and combat domestic guerrilla warfare.[72]

In popular culture

At least three songs directly refer to the 1967 riot. The most prominent was "Black Day in July", written and sung by Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot for his album Did She Mention My Name? (and later covered by The Tragically Hip); as well a later version of the song "The Motor City is Burning" by John Lee Hooker (later covered by the MC5), a song that specifically mentions the intersection of 12th and Clairmount, and "Detroit '67" by Sam Roberts, which concludes with a call for riot police to attend to "trouble down on 12th Street".

Middlesex, a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides has a detailed retelling of, and makes some social commentary on the riot.

Joyce Carol Oates's 1969, National Book Award-winning novel, them, concludes with the Detroit riot.

The riot was also depicted in the film Across the Universe.

The December 7, 2010 episode of Detroit 1-8-7 on ABC aired archive footage and photos of Detroit during the 1967 riots. The episode's primary storyline depicted a 2010 discovery of a black male body and a white female body in a fallout shelter constructed under a building burned down during the riots. In actuality, there were 2 individuals who lost their lives, listed above, in a basement of a building that was burned down.[73]

A 2008 EP release by Detroit producer and DJ Moodyman was entitled 'Det.riot '67' and released on his imprint KDJ. The release featured a track called 'Det.riot' that sampled radio recordings from news reels talking about the riot.[74]

David Bowie: Panic in Detroit 1973 (Trident Studios, London December 9, 1972–January 24, 1973/ RCA records.)

The band Detroit Rebellion released the EP 'The Detroit Rebellion of '67' on 11 June 2013. The refrain of the title song includes the line, "Some, they call it a riot," underscoring the differing opinions of the nature of the events.

See also


Further reading

  • Stahl, Kenneth. The Great Rebellion: A Socioeconomic Analysis of the 1967 Detroit Riot. ISBN 9780979915703.

External links

Photo collections and essays depicting the events of July 1967 are available from several websites listed below:

  • The Civil Unrest of 1967 Blog post with links to resources held at the Walter Reuther Library. Includes related archival collections, an oral history, and 134 images with captions.
  • interactive timeline for Detroit's 1967 riots.
  • July 1967 Detroit Riot web page from PBS' Eyes on the Prize documentary.
  • Wayne State University's Virtual Motor City Collection.
  • Rutgers University website provides video clips from Detroiters who experienced the riots.
  • Report of Federal Activities During the Detroit Riots by Cyrus R. Vance on President Lyndon Johnson's website.
  • Detroit riot 1967 Detroit before, during and after the riots.
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