This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Detroit Riots. In an earlier blogpost, I had touched on this tragic event and its overall impact on the city. I talked about how those few days scarred Detroit, reducing the once-bustling metropolis into the “no tax-base, white-flight, murder-capital of the Coleman Young administration”.
For this blogspot, I think it would be apt to delve into race relations, pertaining to the 1967 riots. Today, Detroit boasts a population of seven hundred thousand residents, 82.7% of whom are Black. One hundred years ago, the Black population in Detroit comprised of a mere 3% of the city’s demographics. The 20th century witnessed a great migration of Blacks relocating to the northern cities to escape the cruelty and injustice of Jim Crow in the American South, where their ancestors had been enslaved decades previous. Detroit was a particularly attractive destination, as it was home to the newly-emerging automobile industry.
The prospects of job opportunities iat Henry Ford’s factories had also appealed to newly-arrived immigrants, who were undergoing intense inspections by customs officials on Ellis Island. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire had prompted pogroms against ethnic minorities in the Middle-East. Armenians, Assyrians (Chaldeans), Syrian/Lebanese Christians, the Druze, and Asia Minor Greeks all suffered from persecutions at the hands of their Turkish Muslim neighbors. They looked to America as a oasis of hope and to Detroit as a vehicle of economic mobility. From the 1910’s, these newly-arrived immigrants made Detroit their home. Some were employed in the automobile factories. Others established their own businesses such as grocery stores and delis. They quickly learned the English language, adopted American habits and assimilated into the White population while retaining their respective cultures.
Compared to their Mediterranean counterparts, Black migrants in Detroit faced more dire challenges despite being native English speakers. They quickly learned that, like many northern cities, Detroit was not the promised land envisioned by their cherished spirituals. As dark-skinned newcomers to a White-dominated city, Black Americans faced redlining and housing discrimination. They were deprived of equal pay. And they had to put up with police harassment. In fact, before the carnage during the summer of 1967, tensions between the Black and White populations had escalated into riots. The Belle Isle riot in 1943 is one of several of such events.
Black residents were relegated to a district in Detroit’s near east side, which coincidentally was known as “Black Bottom”, named for its rich bottomland soil. Although the Black residents of this district painfully endured the economic stagnation of the Great Depression, by the 1940’s, Black Bottom became a hub for Black-owned businesses and night clubs. In fact, Black Bottom produced singers like Della Reese, and athletes like Joe Lewis and Smokey Robinson.
Unfortunately, by the late 1950’s, those Black-owned businesses were forced to close, thanks to the Federal Highway Act of 1956. By the early 1960’s, most of Black Bottom was demolished by the city’s urban renewal project. The district was gentrified as a upscale residential development known as Lafayette Park. Meanwhile, most of Black Bottom’s residents were relocated to dilapidated housing projects.
The Detroit Police Department was dominated by White officers. It’s fair to say that they did not harbor progressive attitudes pertaining to racial equality. Numerous elderly Black residents have recalled how it was common for police officers to grab Black male teenagers and beat them in broad daylight. Some were even killed and their families were deprived of justice. Black parties and social gatherings were unjustifiably raided by the police. These circumstances led to the exacerbation of the hostility which Black residents harbored towards their city’s police department.
Suspicion towards law enforcement is practically a staple of the American Black experience. Police officers are trained to enforce the law or, in other words, maintained the status quo. For the majority of this nation’s history, the status quo had always been unsympathetic towards Black Americans. In the antebellum South, the police brought runaway Black slaves back to their masters. During the Jim Crow era, the police enforced racial segregation and other discriminatory acts. The police were pawns for the White establishment, infringing on the rights and dignities of Black citizens.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex, vividly covers the 1967 riots through the eyes of the young protagonist, Calliope. In the midst of the riots, Calliope’s father, Milton, is found in his bar, barricaded behind the cash register and holding a revolver as violence continues to brew through the window. The front door of the bar opens and his Black neighbor, Morrison, walks in.
Surprised that Milton has remained in the area in the midst of the carnage, Morrison exclaims “You crazy! Ain’t safe for no White people down here!”. Milton counters that he is protecting his property. Morrison figures that since Milton is present, he could buy some cigarettes from the bar owner.
Flabbergasted that Morrison was willing to dodge sniper fires for a pack of cigerettes, Milton nevertheless concedes to the business transaction. As Morrison leaves the bar, Milton, irritated and petrified by the ongoing violence, shouts through the door, “What’s the matter with you people!”
Morrison sharply replies, “The matter with us is you!”
“The matter with us is you”. That single sentence summarizes the pent-up frustration American Blacks hold against the White establishment, represented by law enforcement.
“The matter with us is you”. When those group of Black men on 12th street were celebrating the return of two local soldiers from Vietnam, they probably weren’t keen on seeing a score of White police officers interrupting their revelry.
“The matter with us is you”. The presence of those police officers was perceived as just another example of the White establishment flexing its muscles to strike fear in the Black community.
“The matter with us is you”. Fiery young Black men couldn’t take it anymore. They came of age listening to the impassioned speeches of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. They were emboldened by Black Power and Black Pride. They weren’t going to be passive and subservient in the shadows of the White man.
No, they were going to fight back.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that the first brick was thrown by a 19-year-old. In fact, that teenager was the son of the party’s organizer.
It took one brick to trigger an explosive war.
Since that fateful week, the city was never the same. The White residents no longer saw Detroit as their beloved home. The wealthy WASPs escaped to the Grosse Pointes, overlooking the Detroit River. The Greeks relocated to St. Clair Shores and Lincoln Park. Many Levantine Christians settled in Livonia. While a few Chaldeans remained in their beloved “Chaldeantown” on the northwest side of the city, most opted for Stealing Heights and Bloomfield Hills. The majority of the Irish, Italians, Poles and other former White residents poured themselves into the every town in the outskirts of the Motor City, depriving Detroit of its ethnic diversity. Southeast Michigan has since become appallingly segregated.
In the last fifty years, tremendous strides have been made in the quest for racial equality. The Fair Housing Act has legally prevented Blacks from redlining and other forms of housing discrimination. Legislative measures have passed to ensure equal pay for all races. In additions, local governments have progressed in holding police officers accountable. Not to mention we managed to elect a Black president, despite all the racist propaganda!
However, in post-Obama America, suspicion of the police within the Black community remains as high as ever. Driving-while-Black is still an inconvenient reality. Stop-and-frisk is also a common occurrence that disproportionately affects Black Americans. In the courtroom, Black offenders are sentenced to harsh punishment compared to their White counterparts while offending police officer often get a mere slap-on-the-wrist. The American Black population has come a long way since the brutality of transatlantic slave trade. However, implicit biases within law enforcement agencies and the judicial system continue to put them at a disadvantage in the eyes of the law. Therefore, the Black American’s fear and suspicion of the police isn’t going away anytime soon.