Sunday, July 23, 1967. Detroit police officers raided an unlicensed bar in the offices of the United Community League for Civic Action. They found 82 black people celebrating the return of two soldiers from Vietnam and decided to arrest all 82. A crowd of people gathered on the street, largely outnumbering the police officers. The officers left, fearing for their safety, and people began looting a nearby clothing store. The looting spread through the neighbourhood and into other neighbourhoods.
State police were called in to assist and eventually Governor George Romney sent in the National Guard. The rioting went on for five days and only ended when President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the army. Forty-three people died and 2,000 buildings burned.
The best-known song about the riot was Black Day in July by Canada’s Gordon Lighhtfoot. It contains lines such as:
Black day in July
Motor City’s burning and the flames are running wild
And you say how did it happen and you say how did it start
Why can’t we all be brothers, why can’t we live in peace
Why indeed? It helps to know a little of Detroit’s history. Huge auto assembly plants made Detroit into a booming city, drawing people from all over, many from the US South, both black and white. Anti-black feelings ran high. In 1943 the Packard Motor Company placed three black workers on its assembly line and all 25,000 white workers walked out. Three weeks later race riots broke out that lasted three days and left 43 dead.
White residential neighbourhoods made it known that they intended to remain white. If a black family moved in, they faced intimidation, threats, pickets, smashed windows and attempts to burn their house. In 1956 the mayor of Dearborn, a Detroit suburb, boasted that his city was more segregated than Alabama. Schools were completely segregated.
By 1967 black people made up 30% of the population of Detroit, but the police force was 93% white. Many police officers had strong anti-black feelings. A survey showed that the black population of Detroit felt that police brutality was their number one problem.
The Michigan National Guard was almost entirely made up of young white men from rural areas. They were sent into an urban centre that was unlike anything in their experience, to face a mob of black people that was terrifying to them. They were armed with lethal weapons. Nothing good could come from that combination. The army units that were sent in were integrated, disciplined and able to communicate with the rioters. They were the ones who brought the riot under control.
The riots accelerated the movement of white people to the suburbs. The population of the city, once 1,850,000, shrank to 700,000. Some auto assembly plants closed due to mergers and loss of market share to imports. Downtown stores closed. There are thousands of empty houses, plus empty apartment buildings and at least two huge auto assembly plants that have been empty for years. In 2013 the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy.
Detroit city is now over 80% black, the suburbs probably close to 80% white. Prejudice and segregation are less blatant but have not altogether disappeared. There are hopeful signs that Detroit may be reviving, but it is not likely it will ever be the city it once was.
Beware. Prejudice is like a boomerang, it can come back at you and destroy everything you thought you were trying to protect.