Lessons from the Detroit July 1967 Rebellion and Prospects for Social Transformation
City remains mired in social crises stemming from decades of extreme exploitation and national oppression
By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
July 23, 2017 marked the beginning of the 50th anniversary of the Detroit Rebellion of 1967 which at the time represented the largest of such an occurrence since the conclusion of the Civil War.
Officially 43 people died in rebellion-related incidents in the days from July 23–31. Of those who lost their lives there were 33 African Americans and 10 whites. Scores of others were wounded by gunfire, injured in beatings and mishaps.
During the course of the period of July 23–31, approximately 7,200 people were detained by the police and Michigan National Guard. Most of the people who were arrested did not face prosecution due to the sheer volume of cases and the lack of evidence in regard to specific crimes allegedly committed.
Property damage estimates ranged from $40million to $500million. Most of the property which was damaged or destroyed belonged to white business people operating within the African American community.
There were African American owned businesses and occupied homes damaged and destroyed as well, most of which were inadvertent. In the cases where people were rendered homeless from arson and other forms of property damage it was in connection with attacks on other white-owned more lucrative establishments.
A report issued by the offices of the-then Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh revealed that over the period of nine days (July 23–31), one police officer, two firemen and one guardsman, all of whom were white, died in the rebellion. The remaining 39 people who lost their lives were civilians, 32 of whom were African Americans and 7 whites. (See 12th Street collection at the Reuther Library, Wayne State University, in Detroit)
These same statistics released by Mayor Cavanaugh’s office indicates there were 143 injuries among police officers, firemen and guardsmen. In addition, 181 civilians were injured, for a total of 324 people.
Damage done to properties included 1,682 buildings impacted by 727 arson attacks. There were 211 building totally destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Another 114 buildings required major repair and renovation. In addition to the buildings impacted by arson attacks, some 770 businesses were broken into and looted.
Of the 7, 200 or more arrests, 6,528 were adults and 703 juveniles. 5,747 of the people detained were African Americans and 781 whites.
As it related to the overall assessments of property damage, the Cavanaugh office report says: “There is no reliable estimate of property damage resulting from the riot (rebellion). State Insurance Commissioner Dykhouse has estimated that losses in the riot (rebellion) areas alone were $144million, of which $84million was insured and $60million was uninsured. Others including magazine and newspaper writers have estimated total loss as a result of the riot (rebellion) may run as high as $500million for the entire city, counting lost sales and wages.”
This same document goes on to provide figures for costs in relationship to City of Detroit governmental operations as $3.1 million. This was for extra personnel expenses in overtime for police, fire and other civil servants. $1.7 million in costs was incurred as a result of damages to city property and additional operating expenses. Altogether the City of Detroit estimated that $7.2 million in its revenues were lost during the rebellion.
The major questions surrounding how the rebellion was portrayed by the corporate media, the present city administration and the civilian population remains a source of debate and contention. Referring to the rebellion as a “riot” is a gross distortion of what actually transpired in Detroit and the other 163 municipalities where unrest occurred during 1967.
Rising Militancy and the African American Struggle
When the national wave of unrest erupted in the summer months of that year it greatly expanded a pattern which had evolved since the unrest in Birmingham, Alabama in the spring of 1963. Although the demonstrations which occurred in Birmingham aimed at ending legalized segregation in public accommodations have been reported as being nonviolent in orientation and scope, there were limits to the tolerance of blatant state repression in that industrialized southern city.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the co-founder and then President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) entered Birmingham in early 1963 utilizing the urban area as a test case in a campaign to end 20th century Jim Crow. Soon enough Dr. King was arrested along with other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
Facing fear, hostility and even indifference by many church leaders in both the African American and white communities of Birmingham, SCLC staff members recruited youth to continue the mass demonstrations in the streets. Attacks on African American youth by police who utilized clubs, police dogs and water hoses, prompted a fightback among more radicalized young people and workers.
This author noted in an article published in February 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham campaign and other mass efforts of the same year which erupted in cities across the South as well as the North, that: “Several thousand people, mainly children were arrested by the police and jailed. Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth were all arrested and beaten by the racist police. The struggle would come to a head on May 5, when thousands of mostly youth marched through the African American community to the downtown area. Police chief Bull Connor ordered fire hoses turned on the people. In response to the repression on May 5, the first significant urban rebellion of the 1960s occurred. James Forman, executive secretary of SNCC, described the events that day saying that ‘The police had cordoned off the intersections leading to downtown and started shooting water on people. Bricks and rocks started flying back at the police and the firemen.’ (The Making of Black Revolutionaries, 1972, p. 315) Forman went on to point out that ‘For over forty-five minutes, there was a chase in and out of alleys and streets. Other Black people joined in the fight against the police. The ‘riots’ that day in Birmingham received wide public attention — they were a prelude to Harlem ’64, Watts ’65, Newark and Detroit ’67.’”
By characterizing the series of rebellions which took place during the years of 1963 through 1970 as “riots” criminalizes the struggles of the African American people against racism, economic exploitation and national oppression. Internationally, oppressed peoples have rebelled and resisted the imposition of racialized and exploitative social conditions. In many cases revolutionary movements were organized which engaged in mass demonstrations, boycotts, general strikes as well as armed attacks on the controlling economic institutions and repressive state structures.
Alternative political dispensations were formed throughout Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Europe in the period after the conclusion of World War II. The African American liberation struggles inside the geographical confines of the United States were part and parcel of this global movement against capitalism, colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism.
Slavery, Emigration and the Rise of Racial Capitalism
Detroit has been a center of racial unrest going back at least to the Blackburn Rebellion of 1833 when Africans and their allies liberated a couple who were seeking freedom from enslavement in Kentucky. By 1863, another racial disturbance occurred during the period leading up to the period of the draft by the Union military forces in the Civil War.
Utilizing charges of sexual assault against a Black business owner in the city, the white immigrant residents engaged in property destruction, arson and murder directed solely against the African community in 1863. The Michigan National Guard was deployed to end the outbreak which left two people dead, one African and one European, where significant loss of commercial and residential property was suffered by Black people.
The city had been a major depot in the anti-slavery movement known as the Underground Railroad. Thousands of Africans escaped slavery by traveling to Michigan and across the Detroit River to Canada. By the 1850s, Ontario and Detroit were hubs for the abolitionist struggle spawning independent Black newspapers, religious institutions, mutual societies and small enterprises.
Prior to the rise of industrial production in the automotive and steel sectors in the early decades of the 20th century, during the 1800s Detroit became known for its innovative developments in the areas of steam engine shipbuilding, copper mining and lumber. A former French territory beginning in 1701, the area was later taken over by the British and eventually the Americans. The Native population was displaced while European immigrants and a small number of enslaved Africans were brought in to facilitate the integration of the territory into the broader U.S.
With the founding of the automotive assembly line by Henry Ford I in the first decade of the 20th century, the demand for cheap labor accelerated. In order to stave off the burgeoning desire to organize workers by labor unions, Ford Motor Company became the first in the industry to recruit African Americans largely from the rural sections of the South.
In the period leading up to World War I, Ford began to advertise in the African American press for Black labor in 1913. Over just a ten year span, 1910–1920, the number of African Americans migrating to Detroit rose rapidly.
The migration created a host of new social problems primarily of which was the question of housing and public accommodation. Racial tension grew after the end of WWI. In several cities throughout the U.S. race riots erupted including Washington, D.C. and Chicago. Detroit may have escaped a major disturbance in 1919, however, in the subsequent years of the 1920s there was a proliferation of racist incidents which sought to keep the African American people in a subservient class-caste position.
Membership in the Ku Klux Klan grew exponentially in the 1920s. By 1925, Charles Bowles, an attorney who had graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1908, ran for mayor in a special election resulting from the resignation of Frank Ellsworth Doremus. Bowles was supported by the Ku Klux Klan and came in third in the primary elections leaving him out of the runoff.
Nonetheless, Bowles ran as a write-in candidate and would have won the election if 15,000 ballots had not been disqualified. Bowles made another unsuccessful attempt at winning election to the mayor’s office in 1926. In the meantime he secured a judgeship on the bench of the Detroit Recorder’s Court.
Later in 1929, Bowles resigned from Recorder’s Court and ran in the mayoral race for the third time winning in the primary against John C. Lodge and in the final election defeating John W. Smith. Bowles had run his campaign on a purported anti-crime platform.
Nonetheless, shortly after taking office he fired Police Commissioner Harold Emmons in the wake of a series of raids and was soon accused by various leading forces in Detroit of tolerating lawlessness. Only six months into his tenure as mayor, Bowles was the subject of a well-organized recall campaign. He was forced from office in 1930 becoming the only mayor to date to have been recalled.
The fact that Bowles could win such considerable electoral backing as open advocate of Klan policy spoke volumes about the nature of race relations in the city. As African Americans streamed into Detroit during the 1920s, tensions escalated to a fever pitch.
The Black community organized to fight for better housing, jobs and overall access to the city’s municipal services. Their success would inflame the racist elements in the white community who in many cases were being manipulated by the ruling interests within industry and finance.
Dr. Ossian Sweet in 1925 moved into a home in a previously all-white neighborhood on the east side of Detroit. His home was soon confronted by a racist mob demanding that he immediately move out of the area. The physician defended his home and one of the assailants was killed in a gun battle.
There were two trials in the prosecution and Sweet was acquitted by an all-white jury in the second proceeding. Attorney Charles Darrow served as defense counsel making compelling arguments on behalf of Sweet.
In subsequent years, the migration of African Americans continued. The Great Depression extending from 1929 to the beginnings of World War II severely impacted the city of Detroit which was dominated by the auto industry. Ford, the leader in car production, after 1929 laid off nearly 70 percent of its workforce. 80 percent of the overall automotive production was halted leaving hundreds of thousands of people in destitute conditions throughout the region.
Unemployment was rife while African Americans maintained their patterns of relocation from the South to the industrial North. By 1932, many within the city of Detroit and its environs were practically dying from starvation.
Concomitantly, there was a rise in resistance to the travails of the economic collapse. The Communist Party began to organize large rallies surrounding May Day and other occasions making demands for hunger relief, public service jobs and a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. Ford along with the other automotive companies vigorously blocked the organization and recognition of labor unions.
To illustrate the horrendous social conditions in the city, the Communists along with their allies within burgeoning United Automobile Workers (UAW), called for a Hunger March from the city into Dearborn where the Ford Rouge plant was located. A list of 14 demands was to be presented to the ruling class interests specifically designed to feed, house, cloth and employ the displaced workers.
One account of the Hunger March said of the day that: “On the morning of 7 March 1932, approximately 3000 people, former and current Ford workers as well as other unemployed members of the community, met together at the edge of Detroit. The marchers planned to walk to Dearborn, Michigan, to the Ford River Rouge Complex, the main Ford factory that housed the company’s employment office. One of the march leaders, Albert Goetz, gave a speech to the protesters, emphasizing the need for peaceful resistance and orderly behavior during the march.” (http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/unemployed-detroit-auto-workers-conduct-hunger-march-protest-ford-motor-companys-policies-un)
However, the captains of industry, their security forces along with local police had other orders to carry out of that faithful day. This same above-mentioned report went on to chronicle the events which occurred soon after the Hunger March began.
It says: “Upon entering Dearborn, however, the protesters encountered city police. The Dearborn police launched tear gas against the marchers, some of whom began throwing stones and dirt clods at the police in response. The police temporarily retreated, and the marchers continued toward the Ford factory. When they arrived at the factory, Dearborn police, the Dearborn fire department, Detroit police, Michigan state police, and Ford Motor Company’s private security force blocked the marchers from proceeding further. The Fire Department attacked the protesters with cold water from their fire hoses, and the protesters continued to throw stones. The police and Ford security began to shoot at the crowds of marchers, killing four marchers and injuring over sixty more. Goetz and the other leaders called off the demonstration and police arrested almost fifty marchers.”
This event later known as the Ford Massacre resulted in a huge outcry against police brutality against the workers and unemployed. Five days later on March 12 in a funeral procession in honor of the martyred all of whom were members of the Young Communist League (YCL), an estimated 60,000 people marched along Woodward Avenue to Woodmere Cemetery where they sang the International hymn of the world socialist movement. Curtis Williams, an African American, was wounded on March 7 and died three months later from his injuries. As a result of the institution racism even in death, Williams could not be buried at Woodmere Cemetery.
These developments did not lead to any immediate change in the conditions of workers particularly African Americans in Detroit. It would nevertheless provide an insight into the violent character of exploitation and oppression prevalent in the city at the time. The automotive bosses engaged in fierce reprisals against Communist labor organizers through the banning of socialist literature and activity within the plants.
The first recognition of the UAW came in the aftermath of the Flint sit-down strike of 1937 against General Motors. Ford would not accept the UAW as a bargaining partner until 1941 on the eve of the entry of the U.S. into World War II after much unrest within the plants.
Although the Communist Party and other left formations sought to build alliances between African American and European-American communities, there were other currents which agitated for exclusionary and race-based discriminatory politics. Racist elements some of whom were members and sympathizers with the Klan and the Black Legion, another bigoted organization which was funded by the industrial owners, sought to keep African Americans out of certain job categories as well as neighborhoods which were dominated by whites.
Racism and the Housing Question: From the 1930s to the 1960s
This strategy of dividing African American and white workers through racist demagogy had enduring success. A series of events in 1942–43 would draw national and international attention to Detroit.
As the migration of African Americans increased during the 1930s, the community was largely confined to several geographic areas of the city. The majority of Blacks lived in the lower east side areas popularly known as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.
Overcrowding within areas surrounding John R, Brush, Beaubien, St. Antoine and Hastings running north and south and expanding further east along Lafayette and Larned, resulted in conditions worsening for many residents. Housing stock was becoming more substandard lacking in some cases indoor running water and toilet facilities prompted the demand by the exclusively white city administration for demolition and relocation. However, the question became removal to where in light of the polarized racial atmosphere which was the norm throughout Detroit.
During the first term of the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal programs were established in order to meet the growing discontent of millions of poor and jobless people in the U.S. Drawing from the demands advocated by the Communist Party and progressive elements among the African American people, public works initiatives were established leading to the construction the federal courthouse and post office in the city.
By September 1935 ground was broken on the first public housing project in the city known as the Brewster Homes. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended the event which began construction on the government-funded development. Many African Americans opposed having their homes razed to make way for the concentrated housing complex. However, during the time there was no effective political vehicle in existence to halt the program.
The first 941 units of the Brewster Projects opened in 1938. The complex was located between Hastings and Beaubien Streets and bounded by Wilkins and Mack Avenue in the heart of the African American community. Additional structures were erected in the early 1940s and by 1951 another complex called the Frederick Douglass Homes consisted of high-rise apartments.
At its peak, the Brewster-Douglass Projects was home to several thousand largely African American families. In the initial phase of the project there were conditions for admission to the units. Nuclear families with steady employment at a certain level of income were required to move into the area.
Nonetheless, this development was still not enough to meet the rapidly growing demand for housing among African Americans moving into the city. When the U.S. intervened in World War II on December 7, 1941, the industrial manufacturing base of the city was being converted to military production. Despite the draft, the migration of people into Detroit seeking employment in the war machine created an even greater crisis in the need for adequate housing.
The federal government responded with the building of wartime housing for African Americans further to the north on the east side. Known as the Sojourner Truth Homes, the units were designed to meet the dynamic situation created by the War. Racist sentiment surfaced in regard to this housing development where European Americans opposed the relocation of Blacks into the previously all-white area.
One source summarized the social atmosphere at the time saying: “In 1941 the federal government and the Detroit Housing Commission approved construction of the 200-unit Sojourner Truth Housing Project to house Black defense workers during World War II. White residents living near the project’s location at Nevada and Fenelon Streets protested to change the occupancy to white only, and federal authorities promised to build housing for Black workers elsewhere. After failing to secure an alternative site, these Black workers fought for the right to move into Sojourner Truth, but not without incident. Continued demonstrations, violent clashes, and hundreds of arrests prompted Mayor Edward Jeffries to mobilize the Michigan National Guard to move the first Black families into the Sojourner Truth Housing Project.” (http://projects.lib.wayne.edu/12thstreetdetroit/exhibits/show/beforeunrest/sojourner_truth)
The Sojourner Truth incident laid the basis for the outbreak of full-blown racial warfare during June 1943. Tensions led to clashes on the afternoon of Sunday June 23 on Belle Isle, a large public park area located on the east side of Detroit. Later in the evening an apparent false rumor spread throughout the African American community that a child had been thrown into the river by a white sailor from the bridge leading to and exiting Belle Isle.
The same source cited above in regard to the 1942 Sojourner Truth Homes incident, said of the events which took place the following year that: “On June 20, 1943 fighting broke out between white and Black youth on Detroit’s Belle Isle, igniting three days of violence, looting, and arson. Mayor Edward Jeffries and Governor Harry Kelly requested federal intervention when the police could not quell the spreading riots. By the time President Franklin Roosevelt sent more than 6,000 U.S. Army troops to restore peace, nearly 700 people had been injured and 34 people were killed (25 Black and 9 white), and property damage totaled approximately $2 million. The brutal nature of the injuries and deaths in those three days revealed a well of hatred that went much deeper than city officials were prepared to publicly acknowledge. A lack of honest action, combined with questionable investigations that placed blame squarely at the feet of Black Detroiters, further incited their growing sense of injustice.” (http://projects.lib.wayne.edu/12thstreetdetroit/exhibits/show/beforeunrest/1943_raceriot)
On the near west side of Detroit there was also a burgeoning African American presence. During the years of World War II Orsel and Minnie McGhee were targeted for removal from a home they had initially rented and sought to purchase located in the West Grand Boulevard and Grand River neighborhood at 4246 Seebaldt Street. The white neighborhood association organized to force the McGhees to leave the area. They recruited one white family, the Sipes, to file litigation in Recorder’s Court seeking McGhee’s eviction.
One website chronicling aspects of the history of Detroit recounts that: “When the McGhee v. Sipes litigation reached the Supreme Court in Washington, the judges had two other restrictive covenant cases to decide. The lead case was Shelley v. Kramer concerning restrictive covenants in St. Louis. The Supreme Court merged the Seebaldt Street litigation with that from St. Louis since the instant matter was the same. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1922 that restrictive covenants were legal but in their 1948 decision in Shelley v. Kramer, the Supreme Court decided that while there was no federal prohibition against including restrictive covenants in property deeds, no state or federal court could enforce them. Civil rights activists viewed this as a great victory since restrictive covenants could no longer be used to keep Jews or Blacks out of a neighborhood. However, developers continued to insert them into property deeds until the 1960s. In theory the Shelley v. Kramer decision was a major blow to Jim Crow practices in residential segregation but the actual segregation of Blacks from whites in neighborhoods did not start to decline until well after 1970, presumably due in part to the Open Housing Law that Congress passed in 1968.” (http://detroit1701.org/McGheeHome.html#.WXmeJ4TyvIU)
After the conclusion of the War plans were drafted to raze large sections of the African American community on the east side. The Detroit Plan of 1947 and the Master Plan of 1951 was based upon notions of “slum removal” and “urban revitalization.”
The election of Mayor Albert Cobo in 1949 was reflective of the increasing decentralization of industrial production from inside the city of Detroit and its suburban enclaves of Highland Park and Hamtramack to areas further into the suburbs. Cobo campaigned on a promise to white residents and business interests to contain the geographic expansion of African Americans into previously all-white communities through the systematic effort aimed at relocation of lower-income working people and the refusal to either refurbish or build affordable housing.
A series of measures beginning in 1951 were tantamount to “ethnic cleansing.” The Gratiot Park neighborhood was targeted first in an ostensible effort to reconstruct the lower east side with improved housing stock providing encouragement for nearby downtown business development.
These relocation efforts were actually incentivized by policies emanating from the Post World War II federal government administrations of Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Municipalities controlled by white mayors and city councils provided resources for the construction of expressways which fostered flight from the urban areas into the expanding suburbs.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, known also as the National Interstate and Defense Highway Act, was enacted by the Eisenhower administration serving to speed up the process of suburbanization. Investment in public transportation was discouraged due to lack of funding from Washington and with specific reference to Detroit, by the automotive industry itself which sought greater dependency on car usage for obvious reasons of enhanced profitability.
Soon enough by the late 1950s, plans were underway for a further breaking up and forced removal of the large population of African Americans living west of Hastings Street. The area known as Paradise Valley was a center for Black businesses, churches, social organizations and rising urban political power.
In 1961, the final orders to vacate the Hasting Street corridor were issued paving the way for the construction of the Chrysler and Fisher freeways running right through the heart of the African American community. Although many of the residents in the Paradise Valley district were poor and lived in overcrowded substandard housing due to systematic racial discrimination in housing policy, there were no provisions made for the residents, religious institutions and small businesses to establish themselves in other areas of the city.
Through suburbanization, the abandonment of industrial enterprises to areas far removed from the central city, resistance by middle-class, upper middle-class and working class white neighborhoods to welcome African American residents, the population of Detroit began its long precipitous decline. The city’s population had reached its highest level in 1950 with approximately 1.85 million people. Over the next decade there was a decline of nearly 200,000 residents in the city. During the course of the period leading up to the 1967 rebellion, further white flight was well underway. By 1970 the city was occupied by 1.5 million dropping by 300,000 in just two decades.
As a result of housing discrimination many of those African Americans forced to relocate moved into Virginia Park District on the west side. This section had been the center of the Jewish American community which previously resided in the areas known as Paradise Valley and Black Bottom from the 1880s through the 1930s.
Over a period of one decade from 1947–1957, the Virginia Park District and its surrounding environs were predominately populated by African Americans. The relocation to this area came at a tremendous price for the more marginalized strata of the community. Although some appreciated the expansion of access to housing, many were restricted to rental properties such as two-family, four-family flats and apartments.
Along the 12th Street corridor in the 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s, apartments were broken up into smaller units to accommodate the influx of African Americans. The nature of industrial production which was changing rapidly during this period translated into fewer stable jobs available to Black people. Despite the levels of economic expansion in the U.S. in the early and middle years of the 1960s, many African Americans remained trapped in lower-income job categories subjected to periodic recessions in the 1950s and early 1960s.
These economic changes which marginalized African American working and middle class households paralleled the intensifying militancy of the masses which won Civil Rights legislation, Federal and Supreme Court rulings purportedly widening opportunities through the legal overturning of segregation within the labor market, education, municipal services and housing. Legal reforms nevertheless did not keep apace of the rising expectations of large segments of the African American people. Moreover, the passage of laws and court rulings in favor of Civil Rights did not immediately tear down the walls of institutional racism and economic exploitation.
Just two years after the bulk of forced removals from the Black Bottom (Gratiot Park) and Paradise Valley areas, Detroit would be the scene of the largest mass demonstration in U.S. history for Civil and Human Rights on June 23, 1963. Underlying the success of the Detroit Walk to Freedom was the discontent emanating from the forced removals, the ongoing institutional discrimination in education, employment and housing.
Leading figures in the city at the time including Rev. C. L. Franklin of New Bethel Baptist Church, educator and real estate salesman James Del Rio, Rev. Albert Cleage, among others, invited SCLC leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Detroit to lead the demonstration down Woodward Avenue. Hundreds of thousands participated in the trek south on the city’s main thoroughfare from Warren Avenue to Cobo Hall on the riverfront. Dr. King would deliver an early iteration of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Detroit two months prior to the March on Washington held on August 28. In fact the Detroit Walk to Freedom would lay the groundwork for the March on Washington taking place amidst widespread protests against segregation throughout the South in the spring and summer months of 1963.
Even with these laudable efforts by the African American community, racism and police brutality persisted. Alternative voices of a more radical nature would come to the fore by the latter months of 1963. Events rapidly developed during 1964–66 inside the city of Detroit, around the U.S. and internationally which would create the social conditions for the eruption of the Great Rebellion of July 1967.
Section II — July 23, 1967: The Explosion and Its Political Impact
Rebellions had erupted in numerous cities around the U.S. in the previous four years leading up to the summer of 1967. Detroit had avoided large-scale unrest in early August 1966 on the east side in what became known as the “Kercheval Incident.”
Seven African American youth had gathered in the area of Kercheval and Parkview when they were approached by the police. Some of the youth dispersed while others refused. The scuffle which ensued attracted crowds onto the streets.
Detroit police immediately deployed Tactical Mobile Units (TMU) to the Kercheval area sealing off a one-mile radius in order to control movement in and out of the neighborhood. Some windows were broken, projectiles thrown at police as well as some Molotov cocktails. However, the momentum of events did not spur unrest in other sections of the east side and law-enforcement agents bolstered by local religious and community leaders were sent into the community to calm the situation.
The Kercheval neighborhood around Pennsylvania had already been under surveillance by law-enforcement in Detroit for quite some time. An organization known as the Adult Community Movement for Equality (ACME) had been active in doing outreach including political education, the tutoring of youth and activity surrounding employment discrimination and housing since 1964. ACME later spawned the creation of the Afro-American Youth Movement (AAYM) by early 1966. The activities of ACME-AAYM were connected with the previous efforts of the Northern Student Movement (NSM), a Civil Rights organization which provided support and served a similar purpose as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the South.
As a result of the containment of the Kercheval mini-rebellion of August 1966, Mayor Cavanaugh and his staff believed that the city had developed a formula to prevent large-scale violent unrest. The Johnson administration’s Model Cities Program created in 1966 targeted Detroit as an important base for its Great Society vision. Plans for the assistance and rehabilitation of neighborhoods populated by over 130,000 people were slated to take place on the Model City initiative.
Cavanaugh had appointed African Americans as aides in his administration who established links with community organizations. Despite these efforts conditions did not improve in any significant manner.
It Cannot Happen Here
Although the Cavanaugh administration, its allies and many others in Detroit strongly believed that the city was “rebellion-proof”, others were as equally convinced that the nation’s fifth largest municipality had the potential for a social explosion. Three racial incidents in June and July of 1967 served to enflame tensions within the African American community.
Carado Bailey, an African American who was married to a European American woman, moved into a home in suburban Warren in June 1967. The family was targeted by a white mob on June 12 when 100 people marched around the lawn throwing missiles and smoke bombs into the home demanding that the family move out of the neighborhood. Community leaders believed that Warren police officers who cordoned off the area had encouraged the whites.
Several weeks later on July 1, Vivian Williams, an African American woman, was shot to death by a white police officer at the corner of 12th Street and Hazelwood. Police Commissioner Ray Girardin issued a statement claiming that Williams was a sex worker and was murdered by either a client or a pimp.
Many neighborhood people rejected this version of events. Some believed that Williams had been accosted by the policeman on June 29 in an arrest attempt. She resisted the attempted detention and was said to have cut the officer with a knife. In retaliation, the community narrative claimed, the policeman returned and gunned down Williams.
This homicide was reminiscent of the fate of another African American woman Cynthia Scott who was fatally shot three times by a white police officer in July 1963 just weeks after the Detroit Walk to Freedom down Woodward Avenue. In response to the failure of the law-enforcement to arrest and prosecute her assailant Theodor Spicher, the African American community rose up in protest staging a march on police headquarters at 1300 Beaubien.
An account of the events surrounding the murder of Scott said: “Theodore Spicher was a policeman who Blacks thought was exceptionally cruel to their race. In July, 1963; he claimed that he saw Cynthia Scott — a commercial sex worker well known in the black community with the street name of Saint Cynthia — walking along John R. with money in her hand. Spicher stopped Scott and attempted to arrest her, assuming that she had rolled a client and taken money from his wallet. Officer Spicher contended that not only did Cynthia Scott resist arrest, but that she started slashing him with a knife and then tried to flee. Officer Spicher shot Cynthia Scott twice in the back as she ran away. The shots slowed her but when Officer Spicher approached her, he claimed that she once again tried to slash him so he issued a fatal shot to her stomach. Detroit’s Civil Rights leaders made this killing into a major issue. Many Blacks assumed that Officer Spicher was shaking down Cynthia Scott who resisted turning her hard-earned money over to the police. They believed that Spicher and Scott argued, and then as Scott walked away, Spicher shot her in the back. Civil rights leaders demanded an investigation, but whites wondered why Detroit’s African Americans would be so concerned about the shooting death of a Black prostitute. Indeed, some in the white community derisively described her as Saint Cynthia. The prosecutor quickly exonerated Officer Spicher and called the killing justified…. [T]he prosecutor’s decision about the appropriateness of Officer Spicher’s killing Cynthia Scott stood. The killing of Scott symbolized to Blacks how the police treated the city’s African Americans.” (http://www.detroit1701.org/River%20Rouge%20Park.html)
The suppression and distortion surrounding yet another racial incident in the weeks leading up to the rebellion unfolded in Rouge Park in late June. Daniel Thomas and his wife Louise lived on West Euclid between 14th and 12th Streets just one month prior to the rebellion. They went out with another couple to Rouge Park located on the northwest side. In 1967, the Rouge Park area was all-white with largely working class and some middle class homeowners.
This park was located near a neighborhood which had been notorious for gang activity during the 1950s. The Warrendale Gang maintained a reputation for violent activity extending into the early 1970s well after its demise. That night the Thomas’ partied with their other friends in the section of the park near a structure known as the white house. Playing music and drinking beer they danced and enjoyed themselves on this hot summer night.
As the night went on the other couple was ready to leave. The Thomas’ drove them home and later returned to the same Rouge Park area. This time they were met by a hostile crowd of white youth that shouted racial slurs demanding that African Americans get out of the park going as far as to threaten to rape Louise Thomas.
The couple quickly moved to their vehicle in an effort to get away from the park. However, the car would not start and Danny told Louise that someone had tampered with the wires under the hood.
Attempting to seek refuge in the white house, the attendant, who is reported to have been African American, told them no one was allowed in the facility at that time. Eventually, Louise Thomas begged the racist mob to leave them alone. Danny attempted to walk toward them to persuade the racist mob to not attack. After assaulting Thomas the mob chased him and shot this African American man to death. Louise screamed for help for considerable time before the police arrived.
Police later arrested Michael W. Palchlopek and five other white men in connection with the murder. Palchlopek was acquitted of the crime 17 months later. The other five whites were never charged as prosecutors claimed that Louise Thomas failed to identify them in a police lineup. Louise, who was pregnant at the time, had a miscarriage due to the trauma of watching her husband beaten and shot to death.
A Detroit Free Press article on June 26 reported on the killing of Thomas. However, no mention of its racially-motivated character was acknowledged. Later the Michigan Chronicle conveyed the details of the mob violence and the racial insults hurled at the African American couple.
Once again the African American community was outraged. These developments were occurring with the backdrop of urban rebellions breaking out in numerous cities every day in June and July of 1967.
On July 12, Newark, New Jersey, located near New York City, erupted in response to the arrest of an African American taxicab driver. For five days the city was wracked with arson and property damage. A white police officer was killed and scores of Blacks were beaten, injured and killed by targeted gunfire by Newark police, New Jersey State Troopers and National Guard soldiers who fired into public housing complexes and commercial streets. Other cities in New Jersey also had rebellions such as Plainfield where a white policeman was stomped to death by angry African Americans.
Consequently, only a spark was needed to ignite a rebellion in Detroit. While the Cavanaugh administration basked in favorable national publicity and hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds from Washington, African American communities in many areas of the city were suffering from high rates of joblessness, gross economic exploitation, no effective existing political representation, police brutality, substandard overcrowded housing and inferior educational facilities. In 1965, Cavanaugh served as president of both the National Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities. Detroit had earlier in 1963 made an unsuccessful bid to host the 1968 Olympics.
Large numbers of African Americans began to move into the Virginia Park district in the early 1950s when Detroit Plan of 1947 and the Master Plan of 1951 began to be implemented. Thousands of people were in search of housing in an atmosphere of rampant discrimination and rising labor displacement due to industrial restructuring. From 1947 to 1963, the city of Detroit lost 134,000 manufacturing related jobs. In most cases African Americans were the last hired and first fired. They were confined to the menial and unsafe categories of employment.
Many small business owners who had survived and thrived in the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods on the lower east side were unable to secure an economic base in neighborhoods on the west side. Along 12th, 14th, Linwood and Dexter Avenues, some African Americans did operate businesses. However, there remained a dominate sector of Jewish and other white-owned businesses and absentee landlords who exploited the growing African American residents.
By and large the housing stock was far superior in the Virginia Park district than what had prevailed on the lower east side in the 1950s. Many of the residential streets on the east and west sides of 12th were well maintained by incoming African American families who were working and middle class. LaSalle Blvd. was characterized by large homes with stately architecture and wide lawns. The Boston-Edison District just north of Virginia Park featured homes that were constructed by the industrial and commercial magnets of the earlier decades of the 20th century.
Henry Ford I had built his mansion on Edison and Second in 1908 and lived there until 1915. Other wealthy families such as the Kresges, Fishers and Dodges had homes along Boston Blvd., Chicago Blvd. and Longfellow Street during the earlier decades of the 20th century.
Contrastingly, just a few blocks away on 12th, 14th and Linwood, sections of housing and commercial establishments fell into disarray. Municipal services were neglected during the years of the administration of Mayor Albert Cobo (1950–1957), Louis Miriani (1957–1962) as well as Cavanaugh who took office in 1962. Cavanaugh, an Irish Democratic Party liberal was often projected in the mode of President John F. Kennedy. African Americans supported Cavanaugh’s election after the anger generated by the administrations of Cobo and Miriani in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Many of the apartment units in the Virginia Park district were split up into spaces that were 50 to 25 percent smaller. Jewish American residents began to move out of the area in mass in the 1950s relocating in neighborhoods further into the northwest side, Southfield and Oak Park.
Nonetheless, many of the Jewish and other European American business people maintained their establishments along 12th Street. The perception of their presence during the 1960s was one of exploitation and indifference to the concerns of the African American community now an overwhelming majority in the area.
A report submitted by the Mayor’s Committee for Community Renewal in the aftermath of the rebellion on August 14, 1967 to Richard Strichartz from Harld J. Bellamy, under the subject heading of “Social Profile of the 12th Street Area”, was quite revealing. This report begins by noting that: “The social data, which is presented below, for the 12th Street area does not fully reflect the nature of the area or the factors that have contributed to its present composition.”
This analysis continues saying: The renewal of Detroit’s Skid Row area, previous to the enactment of legislative and social controls concerned with the relocation of both individual and businesses, has greatly affected the 12th Street area. There has been a steady relocation into the area of those displayed by renewal activity. This type of indigent population usually results in an area characterized by unemployment, sub-standard housing, high density of both people and dwelling units, high mobility, welfare and high crime rates.”
Acknowledging the problems associated with the failure of the City of Detroit to properly plan for this massive dislocation, the report notes: “The influx of people moving into the 12th Street area where a housing shortage already exists has caused an apparent overcrowding of dwelling units. This is further complicated by the fact that the area is also situated in a section of the city where open space and recreational space is almost non-existent. Police records indicate that there has been a sharp increase in crime and vice in the 12th Street area over the past few years. This is evidenced by extremely high night crime and prostitution violations.”
In 1967 there were approximately 1, 640,000 people living in Detroit where 35 percent were African Americans. A study conducted by the Greenleigh Associates for the Mayor’s Committee for Community Renewal in 1964 indicated that difficulties for residents were already apparent and events over the following three years aggravated the social conditions. The report from the Mayor’s Committee for Community Renewal admitted in its conclusion that the data collected by Greenleigh Associates were extrapolations and could not capture the full picture of the situation in the 12th Street area.
A paragraph in this report stresses: “In addition, the conditions described are extremely conservative because the blight surveys for this area did not indicate a poor rating. This was largely due to the fact that multiple structures were difficult to rate and therefore these areas do not rate poorly.”
The unemployment rate in Metropolitan Detroit according to the Mayor’s Committee for Community Renewal report at the time of the rebellion was 4.5 percent in 1967. Nevertheless, among African Americans the rate of joblessness was 11.7 percent as contrasted with the white community at 5.7 percent.
Unemployment among African American youth in the inner city neighborhoods was calculated at 18.8 percent in comparison to 12 percent for whites living in the same area. 80 percent of the caseloads for people receiving assistance from social services agencies in Wayne County were located inside the city of Detroit.
Police Raid the United Community League for Civic Action
9125 12th Street where the rebellion erupted was a two-story commercial building located between Clairmount and Atkinson. The facility bore a sign which said “Economy Printing” on the outside. The establishment was the headquarters of the United Community League for Civic Action (UCLCA) housed on the second floor.
UCLCA was run by Walter Scott II a former industrial worker displaced in the early restructuring of the 1950s. Scott was repudiated to have been involved in the illegal lottery (numbers) business and hosted social events in the second floor area of the building. UCLCA sought to improve and reverse the deteriorating conditions along 12th Street and its environs. Members in the organization were designated as representatives of various wards throughout the neighborhood.
In the early morning hours of Sunday July 23, the location was the scene of a party hosted to celebrate the return of two military veterans fresh from serving a tour of duty in Vietnam. Alcohol was being served at the location which was prohibited after 2:00am. A Black police officer attempted several times to gain entry and was denied. Eventually he walked in with a crowd of women from the 12th Street area and bought a bottle of beer from the operators of the after-hours club popularly known as a “blind pig.”
Soon enough at around 3:45am police arrived at the location to carry out a raid. When the law-enforcement agents knocked down the door and climbed the stairs to the second floor they were amazed that 83 people were occupying the second floor. The police announced their presence and placed everyone under arrest. Reports vary on whether there was resistance to the raid since such operations by the police were routing in Detroit at the time.
Police Sgt. Arthur Howison, who later wrote a report on the raid, called for additional transport vehicles to accommodate the arrested. Howison decided to carry the detainees out the front door onto 12th Street because the back door was made of steel and padlocked.
Having to wait for the additional patrol wagons delayed the transport of the patrons to the 10th precinct located on Livernois and Elmhurst. While the arresting process dragged on for an hour, hundreds of people gathered outside the building across the street on 12th. As the crowd grew larger, people began to shout at the police. As the last transport vehicle left the 12th and Clairmount area, missiles were tossed at a police vehicle breaking its rear window.
Within minutes of the police departure the situation at the intersection grew increasing agitated as groups of youth began to break into stores along 12th Street. By dawn thousands of people were converging on the street where they broke windows and began to take merchandise from the stores. Police units were deployed back to the area but were far outnumbered by the burgeoning crowds.
The first arson attacks began at around 6:00am on 12th and Blaine. City administration officials unprepared to conduct a substantial show of force as was done on Kercheval the previous year, sought to cordon off the area hoping that the unrest would dissipate. However, just the opposite took place. Property damage grew at a fever pitch and people openly confronted the police pelting them with stones and other missiles. News of the unrest was suppressed initially by the corporate media seeking not to attract attention to the area.
Community members let others outside the immediate 12th Street area know about what was going on through telephone calls which attracted even more people into the commercial strip between Clairmount and West Grand Blvd. By midday the rebellion began to spread into the Linwood corridor just three blocks west of 12th Street.
By early afternoon organized groups of youth began to firebomb stores along 12th Street and similar events unfolded on Linwood. Mayor Cavanaugh sought to quell the unrest by sending in African American political functionaries to plead with people to leave the streets and go home.
U.S. Congressman John Conyers, Jr. and Assistant Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Arthur Johnson drove into the center of the rebellion on 12th Street by midday on Sunday July 23 climbing on top of a vehicle and pleading with the crowd to leave the area. They were shouted down and a bottle landed close to where they were standing. Both men quickly fled 12th Street and the thousands of people continued to defy the police.
By early afternoon Mayor Cavanaugh appealed to the then Republican Governor George Romney to deploy the Michigan National Guard and State Police units to the affected areas of the city. National Guard troops attempted to sweep Linwood and 12th Street as the evening approached. By this time fires were raging through several blocks on both commercial strips. The rebellion was expanding throughout large swaths of the city from the west side to the east side.
Gov. Romney, a former chief executive of American Motors Corporation, came into Detroit and toured the hardest hit sections of the city concluding that the situation was getting beyond the capacity of the local and state authorities, including the National Guard, to control. He would send a telegram to President Lyndon Johnson asking for the assistance of federal troops to put down the rebellion.
Johnson was reluctant initially to send in troops from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions of the U.S. Army. The situation was complicated by the fact that Romney had declared he was attempting to win the nomination for the Republican Party as its candidate for President in 1968. Johnson would send his aide Cyrus Vance to Detroit to survey the situation to determine if federal troops were needed. By late afternoon on Monday July 24 a decision had been made and soldiers were flown into Selfridge Air Base awaiting orders to enter the city.
In the meantime thousands of National Guardsmen, State Police and Local law-enforcement patrolled the city. Firefighters attempting to put out the hundreds of fires were attacked by residents with missiles and sniper fire.
The first deaths in the rebellion occurred during the evening hours of July 23. As the days passed, brutal reprisals by police officers and guardsmen resulted in the deaths of scores of residents, who in many cases were not guilty of any crime. Mass arrests for looting and arson took place. However, there was nowhere near the necessary space to house the detainees.
Many were kept on buses for days and in makeshift facilities on Belle Isle. Gross abuse and brutality by police and guardsmen became common in the detention facilities and on the streets. National Guard men shot out street lights ostensibly to eliminate easy targeting by snipers.
Merchants still operating in the impacted neighborhoods inflated prices of staple goods such as bread and milk. Shortages inside these communities created conditions of food and material deficits where humanitarian agencies and churches set up aid distribution centers. As a result of fire and other forms of property damage several hundred people were left homeless in need of temporary shelter.
Business activity in many sectors was disrupted as property damage and arson spread throughout various sections of the city. Security concerns after the first day of the rebellion shifted to the role of the law-enforcement agents and the National Guard. Paranoia over snipers and arsonists created a sense of panic principally among the security forces who engaged in random and targeted acts of shootings and beatings of community residents.
One European American woman, Helen Hall, 51, visiting the city on business in the New Center area was struck by a hail of National Guard fire while merely peering out of a Harlan House Motel room window overlooking the John C. Lodge expressway near West Grand Blvd. Four-year-old Tania Blanding was being held by her father in an apartment unit located on 12th Street and Blaine. Guardsmen operating in a panic mode opened fire on the building killing the young girl saying a flash inside the building from the lighting of a cigarette was mistaken for sniper fire.
Perhaps the most egregious act of racist murderous violence against the people took place at the African American owned Algiers Motel on Woodward Avenue and Virginia Park. The establishment was a Black owned business located on the major thoroughfare dividing the east from the west sides of the city.
Several youth had taken up residence in the annex of the Algiers Motel on Virginia Park which was a spacious house next to the main building sitting directly on Woodward. On the fourth day of the rebellion, during the early morning hours of July 26, several African American teenagers were gathered in the annex along with two teenage white women.
Eyewitness reports from survivors of the what became known as the Algiers Motel Incident, labelled as such by writer John Hersey who published a book on the events the following spring in 1968, indicated that one of the youth, 17-year-old Carl Cooper, was in possession of a starter pistol and had fired it off in an apparent act of levity towards the other patrons. Just the day before, some of the police implicated in the deadly events of July 26, had raided the Algiers to purportedly investigate stolen goods being sold out of the annex. Inhabitants of the building later conveyed that both Carl Cooper and Aubrey Pollard were robbed and beaten by the police prior to the massacre which occurred hours later.
The shots from the harmless device may have possibly been heard by someone outside the facility leading to a police radio call saying there were snipers firing weapons from the annex of the motel. Detroit police, state police and guardsmen stormed the building on Virginia Park. In the initial onslaught 17-year-old Carl Cooper was shot dead.
After entering the annex, the African American youth and two white women were lined up in the hallway and violently interrogated about the presence of weapons in the building. They denied there were any weapons in the annex and none were ever found. Even the starter pistol was never presented as evidence by the police.
Hersey’s book based on the accounts of those present in the Algiers annex said that the youth were viciously beaten by several white police officers and an African American private security guard. Several of the young people were taken into private rooms individually for questioning while police fired bullets into the floor and walls to intimidate others still being held in the hallway area.
Police officer Ronald August was reported to have severely attacked 19-year-old Aubrey Pollard to point of breaking a part of his shotgun. Pollard was then taken into a private room and shot-to-death. August was the only police officer of the three whom were later indicted to admit under oath that he had killed Pollard claiming it was justifiable because the youth had grabbed for his shotgun.
After the interrogations and beatings, those being held in the hallway were ordered to leave the annex and not speak about what had occurred. 18-year-old Fred Temple asked the police could he retrieve his shoes from one of the rooms. Apparently in the course walking into the room he saw the body of Pollard therefore making him a potential witness against the police. Temple was later found dead with the two other African American youth, Carl Cooper and Aubrey Pollard, who were left in the annex as the police exited the building. State police and guardsmen recognizing the severity of the situation had left the annex much earlier.
Police claimed that the three youth were snipers killed in a gun battle with the security forces. This story quickly crumbled as independent investigations by community leaders prompted a series of articles in the local Detroit Free Press and the Michigan Chronicle.
Leading community activists, progressive lawyers, family members of the victims and their friends met together in the weeks following the Algiers Motel massacre. Eyewitnesses were placed in hiding in order to protect them from retaliatory actions by the police.
The massacre at the Algiers Motel was symptomatic of the security situation in Detroit after July 23. A largely white police and National Guard force engaged in random and targeted killings on a routine basis. Many people who died from July 23–30, the authorities claimed were looters, arsonists or snipers.
Other incidents of repressive state-sanctioned violence against the people of the city included the deaths of the following:
— Frank Tanner, 19, was shot by police as he was reportedly fleeing a pharmacy on corner of East Grand Blvd. and Helen. Police claimed he was taking items from the establishment.
— Arthur Johnson and Perry Williams, ages unknown, were both shot to death by police as they were said by these law-enforcement agents to have been looting a pawn shop at 1401 Holbrook.
— Manuel Cosbey was looting at a store according to police when he was gunned down by them on Tuesday July 25 at 4441 E. Nevada on the city’s east side.
— Julius Dorsey, 55, was a private security guard on duty protecting a store from being targeted when he was shot by the police. Prosecutors said Dorsey was accidentally killed in a hail of police bullets.
— Henry Denson was in a car on Mack Avenue on the east side when he was mortally wounded by a bullet fired by a National Guardsman. City officials alleged the car he was riding in attempted to rundown police and guardsmen operating a checkpoint near East Grand Boulevard. Denson, whose co-workers he was riding with, denied the police account, saying he had halted the vehicle.
— Ronald Evans and William Jones were shot and killed by Detroit Police at Bob’s Market at 4100 Pennsylvania on the east side. The police claimed they were taking property out of the business.
— Willie McDaniels, 23, was killed at the Domestic Outfitting Store on Gratiot and Canton on the east side. Police alleged he was shot to death in an exchange of fire between police and snipers.
— Helen Hall, 51, a white woman from Connecticut, was in Detroit on assignment related to her employment. A Detroit Free Press investigation concluded by September 1967 that the woman was killed by a bullet from a police or guardsman and not a sniper as was falsely reported earlier. She was looking at the movement of National Guard troops in the area of John C. Lodge and West Grand Blvd. on the fourth-floor of the Harlan House Motel when she was struck by the gunfire.
— Tonia Blanding, 4, was shot in an apartment building located at the corner of 12th and Euclid several blocks away from where the rebellion started. National Guardsmen had fired into the building saying they were being targeted by snipers. Later a story surfaced that she was being held by her father when someone in the apartment lit a cigarette. The flash from the match or lighter may have prompted the guardsmen to fire into the building. After the building was searched by the police and guardsmen no weapons were found. Blanding was the youngest person to be killed that fateful week.
— William Dalton, 19, was killed by police with a shotgun blast. Police claimed he was an arsonist.
By Tuesday July 25, the African American community in Detroit was an armed camp occupied by 9,000 National Guardsman, 4,700 troops from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, Michigan State Police units along with over 4,000 local law-enforcement agents. A curfew from 9:00pm to 5:30am had been imposed in the evening hours of Sunday July 23 since it became quite evident that after twelve hours the police and incoming guard regiments were not able to suppress the rebellion.
Romney on Sunday evening July 23 banned the sale of alcoholic beverages and gasoline in large containers. Journalists asked the governor during a press conference held after less than twenty-four hours into the rebellion whether he would use his authority to declare Marshall Law in Detroit. The governor was quite circumspect in his response to the question suggesting that it was a matter of semantics.
With extensive property damage throughout vast swaths of the city and the occupation of the African American community by approximately 18,000 security forces from the local and state police along with guardsmen and army personnel, crowds of people seizing commercial property diminished greatly. Arson attacks and gunfire continued at significant levels through Thursday July 27.
Mayor Cavanaugh temporarily lifted the curfew for the evening of the 27th. However, thousands of people flooded into the 12th street area where the rebellion began to survey the damage. Traffic jams quickly developed and the curfew was re-imposed for several more days.
A phased withdrawal of army units and guardsmen began over the weekend of July 28–30. All guard units had been pulled from Detroit by August 4. Other cities with substantial African American populations throughout the state of Michigan erupted as well during this period including Pontiac where two people were killed.
When the rebellion subsided in Detroit, President Johnson announced the impaneling of a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. The findings of the panel was not surprising to the African American community that the police, corporate media, the economic conditions under which Blacks lived was the underlying factors involved in the urban rebellions. The society was moving into a more polarized conjuncture: one Black and oppressed and the other white, privileged and dominant.
Section III — After the Rebellion and Prospects for Social Transformation: August 1967-April 1968
One of the long-held myths about the social impact of the Detroit Rebellion was that nothing tangible or positive came out of the week of unrest. This is not only a subjective distortion it also contains within it the notion that the popular struggles of the working and oppressed peoples in the U.S. and possibly even throughout the world, is futile. Of course the ruling class interests which continue to dominate Detroit five decades later have their own views on the rebellion.
By repeatedly referring to the rebellion as a “riot” not only criminalizes the mass sentiments of the people, such a connotation attempts to divorce the events in Detroit from the overall political atmosphere prevailing among African Americans in the late 1960s. The aftermath of the rebellion in Detroit was marked by enormous efforts to channel the militancy of the period into an organizational framework.
Mass interests in various forms of organizations flourished during and after the summer of 1967. Already in Detroit there were militant groups which evolved from the earlier years in the decade.
After the smoke cleared and the army personnel and National Guard troops began to be withdrawn, the corporate community led by Ford Motor Co., J.L. Hudson, Jr., Max Fisher, Chrysler Motors, General Motors, Walter Reuther, president of the UAW and several others along with Mayor Cavanaugh, announced the formation of the New Detroit Committee (NDC) on August 1. The committee included the industrial and retail magnates, religious figures, community and Civil Rights leaders in the city some of whom like the automotive barons had recognition beyond Detroit. Of the thirty-nine members of the leadership committee of NDC, 10 were African American. The organization began with 100 staff members 15 of whom were Black.
Hudson who owned the-then premiere retail firm in the metropolitan area, Hudson’s Department Store, indicated that NDC wanted to win the involvement of those considered more militant within the African American community. Despite the proclamations by Cleage and other leading Nationalists in Detroit, the corporate interests continued to pursue their participation in these efforts purportedly designed to ease racial tensions and reconstruct Detroit based on a model which would be satisfactory to both the white and African American communities.
The vision of the NDC coincided with the setting up of hiring centers by automotive companies to provide immediate jobs to African Americans in the inner-city areas of Detroit along 12th street and its environs. As the weeks went by plans to pass a Fair Housing Ordinance for the City of Detroit proceeded with utmost speed.
During the period prior to July 1967 housing discrimination was rampant in the city. African Americans remained largely confined to neighborhoods in the more southern sections of the eastside, the near west side and in the southwest. Although African Americans had in large numbers succeeded in purchasing their own homes, many people still were unable to acquire the necessary credit ratings to qualify for conventional mortgages.
Hundreds of thousands of people were trapped in rental properties which in most cases were owned by whites not living in the same communities. A significant portion of the housing stock around the 12th street neighborhood, further south and west, were in a state of decline prior to July 1967. This holds true as well for the commercial districts along 12th, 14th, Linwood, Dexter and the southern areas of Grand River.
An article published in the Detroit News on February 26, 1967 presented a perspective on the deteriorating conditions on 12th Street. The report discusses the worsening state of housing which was available to a sizable number of working class and poor people, the increase in criminal activity including the commercial sex trade and the apparent indifference of the Cavanaugh administration to remedy the situation.
Clyde Cleveland, who several years later won election to the City Council, at the time of the publishing of the Detroit News article, was Chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Detroit. He was employed in the Total Action Against Poverty Center located on 14th and Clairmount, just one block west of where the rebellion would begin five months later.
Cleveland emphasized the overcrowding in the Virginia Park community saying that apartment buildings at one time were investment properties. He said that was no longer the situation since no reinvestment in the maintenance was being done by the owners.
Robert L. Potts was rector at the Grace Episcopal Church located on 12th and Virginia Park. Potts was quoted in this same Detroit News article conveying that there were many people in the district seeking the refurbishment and reconstruction of the neighborhood. The Virginia Park Rehabilitation Project had been awarded a $525,000 grant from the federal government and the City of Detroit for the purpose of conducting a survey on the desirability of improving the community.
Potts said the Virginia Park Rehabilitation Citizen’s Committee, of which he was Chairman, wanted strict monitoring of code violations for rental properties, refurbishment of the housing stock, regular garbage collection, the construction of a recreation center which was non-existent outside area schools and churches lacking adequate space and personnel to accommodate the burgeoning needs of the neighborhood. The Citizen’s Committee was attempting to build a working alliance among the various groups within the Virginia Park community.
Although the Virginia Park Rehabilitation Citizen’s Committee largely represented African American homeowners in the neighborhood, CORE was organizing tenant councils to hold landlords and city housing inspectors accountable to the residents. Potts told the newspaper that: “We want to build an attitude, a kind of approach to neighborhood living and a strong contact with city government.”
Self Determination and the Transferal of Power
In a somewhat contrasting vein after the conclusion of the rebellion, the Black Nationalists and Left Radical forces in the African American community met at the City County Building Auditorium on Woodward Avenue downtown on August 9 to repudiate the formation of the NDC and its racial composition. At this meeting, Rev. Albert Cleage, Pastor of the Central United Church of Christ located on Linwood and Hogarth in the center of the rebellion area, along with Attorney Milton Henry, a leader in the Group on Advanced Leadership (GOAL), the Afro-American Broadcasting Corporation and the Malcolm X Society, articulated a vision aimed at self-determination. Henry, Cleage and others had brought Malcolm X to Detroit on three different occasions during the period of late November 1963 and early 1965, just prior to his assassination. These African American Nationalists sought to create a viable coalition outside the domination of the moderate Civil Rights leadership and the Cavanaugh administration.
Henry and Cleage rejected a proposal to demand of the NDC that its membership be 50 percent African American. Instead those convened at the City County Building formed another all-African American alliance called the City-wide Citizen’s Action Committee (CCAC). Cleage called for a transferal of power from the Cavanaugh administration and the business interests to African Americans.
Later both the Federation for Self-Determination (FSD) chaired by Cleage and the Malcolm X Society led by the Milton and Richard Henry put forward their own proposals for the reconstruction of the African American community of Detroit. The plans sought greater autonomy outside the control of the city administration although they differed on the degree of support from the federal government.
The Black Nationalists of the Malcolm X Society demanded 12,000 new housing units, the founding of a school, civic center, cultural arts center, a commercial plaza, an industrial park, etc. These institutions would be owned and administered based on a cooperative model. This project would be funded by residents purchasing shares valued at $2 each with secondary investments coming from the federal government.
Cleage’s plan through the FSD was also cooperative in its approach to ownership and administration. In an article published by him in the August 26, 1967 issue of the Michigan Chronicle emphasized the “development of co-op retail stores, co-op buying clubs, co-op light manufacturing, co-op education.” The funding for this project would be provided by governmental and corporate interests ceding control over resources coming into the city.
NDC apparently rejected the transfer of power demand by the FSD. Nonetheless, NDC offered a $100,000 grant to FSD with certain stipulations for usage of the funds. There were prohibitions on the utilization of the money for explicitly political purposes. Consequently, the grant was designed to stifle any genuine efforts aimed at the political empowerment of African Americans independent of the influence of the corporate-dominated NDC.
After discussions internally, the FSD sent a telegram to Joseph L. Hudson, Jr. on January 5, 1968 saying: “The Federation for Self Determination has voted to withdraw its proposal from the New Detroit Committee. It is severing all relations with the New Detroit Committee as of this date. As stated in the New Detroit Committee meeting January 4, 1968 The Federation refuses to accept money with strings attached.” This cable was signed by Rev. Albert B. Cleage of the FSD. (Found in the J.L. Hudson Papers at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.)
In its desperate attempt to win over the Detroit Black Nationalists, Henry Ford II, the heir to the family automotive empire, visited the Central United Church of Christ pastored by Cleage in December 1967 for talks with FSD leaders. Ford viewed the pacification of the African American community as a precursor to the short-term profitability of the automotive industry.
Although the FSD turned down funding from NDC in the months following the July 1967 rebellion, it was not enough to keep the organization from dissolving during the following months in 1968. Disagreements over the role of Cleage and others created tensions beyond the coalition’s capacity to maintain its existence.
The Detroit People’s Tribunal
There was of course the desire to seek justice for the many civilians killed in the rebellion by the police and National Guard. The massacre at the Algiers Motel on July 26 had been a major issue still lingering beyond the property destruction, arson and sniping.
The survivors of the deadly police and National Guard raid wanted to tell their stories about the actual events which transpired. Consequently, the parents of Carl Cooper and Aubrey Pollard contacted longtime Civil Rights activist and SNCC member Dorothy Dewberry to develop a strategy to expose the truth and to seek justice within the criminal justice system. Dewberry’s family had known the mother of Cooper and therefore had the capacity to secure the cooperation of the survivors.
These eyewitnesses including Lee Forsythe, James Sorter, Roderick Davis, Cleveland Larry Reid and Michael Clark were justifiably concerned about possible retaliation by the police. Detroit activist Dan Aldridge of SNCC counselled the youth and their families during a period when they were being constantly harassed by law-enforcement.
On August 30, just one month after the conclusion of the rebellion, a People’s Tribunal was convened to hold a mock murder trial of the three white Detroit police officers Robert Paille, David Senak and Ronald August and the African American security guard, Melvin Dismuke, charged with assault. The Tribunal took place at the Central United Church of Christ on Linwood and Hogarth, in the heart of the rebellion area. This event was attended by thousands of people who could not all fit into the spacious church and therefore stood outside on the streets showing their support to the families of Cooper, Pollard and Temple along with those youth who survived the raid.
A description of the event noted that: “Originally scheduled to be held at Dexter Theater, the theater backed out. Cleage later claimed that it was held in his church because there were fears that the police would attack any other place. The Church’s executive board made a public statement attesting to their reasons for holding it there: ‘we love our church and the building in which we worship. But even if granting permission for the People’s Tribunal to be held here means the destruction of the building, as churches have been destroyed in Birmingham and all over the South, we still have no choice.’” (https://rosaparksbiography.org/bio/the-peoples-tribunal-on-the-algiers-motel-killings/)
This same account of the Tribunal says: “The church was packed to the rafters with over 2000 people, with others trying to get in. Journalists from France and Sweden covered the event. Attorney Milton R. Henry served as one of the two prosecutors; Solomon A. Plapkin, a white attorney, and Central Church member Russell L. Brown, Jr., acted as defense counsel. Kenneth V. Cockrel, Sr., a recent Wayne State University law school graduate and future co-founder of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW), was the judge and moderator. The stenographer was Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, who would later serve as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). They called witnesses. Because the police sought to intimidate the witnesses, organizers tried to keep them hidden until they testified.
Among the people selected to be jurors were African American novelist John O. Killens, bookstore owner Edward Vaughn and Rosa Parks. Dan Aldridge had asked Parks to serve as juror because of her reputation in the community as a person of integrity, and she had agreed, saying that if she could be helpful she would come. Mrs. Parks’ willingness to take part in the Tribunal took great fortitude since she knew the family of Carl Cooper. The jury found the officers guilty of murder. The Detroit Bar Association considered disbarring the lawyers who participated in the trial. Cleage would write in the Michigan Chronicle: ‘It is hard to believe …that a group of ordinary white men could so hate ordinary Black men.’ In 1970, three officers and a guard faced federal civil rights charges but all were acquitted.”
After publicity was generated about the obvious murderous spree that occurred in those early morning hours of July 26, three white police officers were suspended by the city and the Wayne County Prosecutor filed charges against them and Dismuke. Claiming that it was impossible to win a fair trial in Detroit due to what their defense lawyer said was adverse publicity, the trial was held outside the city in Mason, Michigan and other areas. None of those charged in the deaths and beatings of Cooper, Pollard and Temple as well as the others who were in the annex of the motel, were ever convicted in a court of law.
Housing Reforms and the Imperatives of Community Empowerment
One legislative measure which came out of the rebellion was the passage of a City of Detroit Fair Housing ordinance in late 1967. NDC supported the passage of the law which predated the more comprehensive and dubious federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 which was passed by the U.S. Congress in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
A telegram dated November 20, 1967 sent to Common Council member Mel Ravitz said: “We the undersigned unanimously support the enactment of a City of Detroit Fair Housing Ordinance.” The cable listed the following members of NDC: “John W. Armstrong, President Darin and Armstrong, Inc.; Mrs. Lena Bivens, Archdiocesan Opportunity Program; Paul Borman, President Borman Food Stores, Inc.; Mrs. Gerald Bright, Administrative Vice President League of Women Voters of Detroit; The Hon. Ed Carey, President Detroit Common Council; The Very Rev. Malcolm Carron, S.J., President University of Detroit; Walker L. Cisler, Chairman The Detroit Edison Company; William M. Day, President Michigan Bell Telephone Co.; Dr. Norman Drachler, Superintendent Detroit Public Schools; Max M. Fisher, Chairman United Foundation; Henry Ford II, Chairman Ford Motor.”
Nonetheless, the endorsement of this measure by the NDC did not necessarily pave the way for a rapid resolution of the housing crisis. African Americans began to expand into previously all-white neighborhoods in greater numbers and were frequently met with violent resistance from European American homeowners.
Many did not want to necessarily move into communities further north on both the west and eastside of Detroit. African Americans lived in some selected suburban cities such as Inkster, which was another engineered municipality reinforcing segregation from neighboring Dearborn, where Mayor Orville Hubbard ran his campaigns as many Detroit administrations had before, to keep African Americans out.
African Americans from various political inclinations from moderate to radical wanted to remain in Detroit and therefore sought its reconstruction based upon the interests of the people who lived there. This was also the outlook of the residents of Virginia Park where the rebellion began.
A postal worker, insurance agent and community activist, Herschel Richey, wrote in his book entitled “Miracle on Twelfth Street (Rosa Parks Boulevard)” about the decades-long efforts to bring investments into Virginia. Richey reviews in the first chapter the formation of the Virginia Park Rehabilitation Citizen’s Committee (VPRCC) which was mentioned in the events chronicled above leading up to the rebellion. This organization was mentioned in the Detroit News article from February 26, 1967 providing a voice from the community related to the worsening situation in the 12th Street area.
Richey recounts this period from his own perspective as a homeowner saying that 12th Street: “In the fifties and early sixties had become a mecca of commercial activity catering to a progressively growing African American population. However, perceptibly, it was rapidly changing into the street that became the focal point from which the community was fast deriving its image…. An area that was cluttered with more than a hundred overcrowded apartment buildings that had possibly tripled their inhabitant population by transforming potential twenty unit buildings into possibly fifty or sixty unit habitations. During the evening and night hours, the street seemed to be transformed into a river of transgression which was proliferated by over twenty-five bars or night clubs and liquor stores in an area of twelve or fourteen blocks extending from West Grand Boulevard to Clairmount Street.” (pp. 13–14)
This same author continued emphasizing: “As a result of the overcrowding and the increased crime beginning to pervade the adjacent residential areas, block clubs and civic organizations in the area began to protest to the city fathers asking for some kind of relief from the apparently troubling, disturbing and growing problems. The City of Detroit, ultimately, decided to implement physical improvements in the area. Being made aware of this effort on the part of the city, several local groups initiated a meeting in 1966 to discuss the proposed plans. Prominent among these groups were the West Grand Boulevard-Clairmount Improvement Association, the Twelfth Street Civic League and others which formed a coordinating committee that became a nucleus for the development of a plan of action to progressively rehabilitate the physical aspects of the area.”
These efforts would indeed take many long years to reach fruition. After going through a host of “developers”, it would take another decade-and-a-half to open a mini-mall and construct new housing on 12th street under a formula where the Virginia Park Community organization would have ownership. In the immediate aftermath of the rebellion, the Cavanaugh administration, Governor Romney and the Johnson administration implemented no effective plan for revitalization.
African American Small Business People Intervene
Another organization which surfaced during the weeks and months after the rebellion was the Inner City Business Improvement Forum (ICBIF) consisting of African American entrepreneurs and professionals. The objective of the group was to seek opportunities for the creation and expansion of existing businesses owned by African Americans.
Dr. Karl Gregory, an economics professor at Wayne State University in Detroit at the time of the rebellion and later at Oakland University outside the city, recounted his role in the CCAC, FSD and the ICBIF in an interview with the Detroit Historical Society nearly five decades later. Gregory was the son of a small business owner who operated a dry cleaners and tailor shop on 12th Street. His father’s establishment had been broken into and looted during the rebellion and later damaged by one of the dozens of arson attacks which began during the first day of the unrest on July 23.
Gregory says that the ICBIF grew out of a group brought together by the-then U.S. Congressman Charles Diggs, Jr. in response to the rebellion: “In summary, the two major organizations were CCAC (which was political, focused on community cohesion, voice of the community) and ICBIF (focused on inner city economic development, housing, business formation and economic opportunity including job creation). Both organizations came into being and developed agendas that were put into operation. ICBIF then developed a governing body, raised money from the Ford Foundation, from New Detroit (when it was organized, that was later). ICBIF was chaired initially by Revered Charles Morton, a Morehouse College man. Graduates of Morehouse, a prime historical college for Black men in Atlanta, played a big role in our community. Lawrence Doss, the unpaid President, was relocated from outside of Detroit, was not a Morehouse man but also played a major leadership role. He was formerly a top administrator in Detroit for the IRS. The IRS began a data center in the city and he came to head it and brought with him Walter Douglas as the Deputy Administrator; (as) African Americans, both were talented administrators and became very active in ICBIF and lent professional management.”
Detroit Erupts Again in the Aftermath of the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Just eight months after the July 1967 rebellion, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the President of the SCLC, visited the Detroit area to build support for his upcoming Poor People’s Campaign aimed at mobilizing marginalized people from the nationally oppressed groups and whites suffering from joblessness and near starvation. King would speak at the Grosse Pointe High School on March 14 to over two thousand people on the topic of the “Other America.”
The right-wing neo-Nazi group known as Breakthrough, set up a picket line surrounding the school. They attempted to discourage people from attending the lecture sponsored by the wealthy suburb’s Human Relations Council. The Grosse Pointes were a de facto segregated series of suburbs which vigorously kept African Americans from crossing over a nearby borderline with the east side of Detroit.
After the program began, Breakthrough members on several occasions disrupted King’s address calling him a communist and a traitor to the U.S. King finished his address and was not harmed during the event.
The following day King would deliver his last Lent sermon at Central United Methodist Church located on Woodward Avenue and East Adams in downtown Detroit. The SCLC leader had been an annual guest speaker at the church during Lent season since the 1950s.
Three weeks later King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee while lending support to an African American sanitation workers strike aimed at winning recognition as a bargaining unit represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). After King was shot and later died in a Memphis hospital, mass demonstrations and rebellions would erupt throughout the U.S. Violent unrest spread to approximately 125 cities with Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Maryland and Chicago, Illinois being the most destructive.
Detroit, having been the location of the largest urban rebellion in U.S. history in July 1967, was also the scene of unrest on April 5, 1968. Thousands gathered along 12th after 1:00pm and began to damage property and set fires. The city administration and government in Lansing called in thousands of state police and National Guardsmen. A curfew was imposed for the second time in eight months. At least two police officers were wounded when African American youth opened fire on them one mile from the 12th Street area. There were 38 arson attacks in the city in response to the assassination.
On that same day, thousands of African American high school students walked out and demonstrated in the streets. Clashes broke out between African American and white students at Cooley High School on the northwest side. The Black students converged later that afternoon at Wayne State University just one block west of Woodward Avenue.
At Southwestern High School and Hunter Junior High, classes were dismissed due to student unrest. Police cars and buses were stoned in the area around Southwestern. In addition, windows were smashed along Fort Street by angry youth.
The Republic of New Afrika Demands an Independent State
The Malcolm X Society led by Richard and Milton Henry saw the necessity of organizing a national organization to address the new situation stemming from the rebellions across the U.S. during 1967 which had shaken the foundations of the white-dominated ruling class. By early 1968, plans were underway to form a Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika with the objective of establishing an independent Black nation in five southern states: Louisiana, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Those interested in the formation of this interim body met in Detroit at the 20 Grand located on Warren and 14th Street in the final days of March 1968. Reports indicate that some 500 people were in attendance at the founding of the RNA.
A Declaration of Independence was signed by 100 of the delegates and a cabinet of ministers selected. Robert F. Williams, a fugitive from the U.S., who had been driven out of the country in 1961 after waging a years-long battle with white racist police and vigilantes in Monroe, North Carolina, was appointed as president in-exile. Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X was selected as second vice-president. Milton Henry, (then known as Gaidi Obadele), was named as first vice-president. Williams, who had fled the U.S. in 1961 to take refuge in Cuba and later the People’s Republic of China, returned to the U.S. in late 1969 and resigned from the RNA over philosophical differences with its mission.
A year later on March 29, 1969, the RNA held its first anniversary conference at the New Bethel Baptist Church located on Linwood at Philadelphia, also at the center of the rebellion which had erupted in July 1967. Nearly six years before in the weeks following the June 1963 Walk to Freedom, an ideological and political struggle erupted within the Detroit Council for Human Rights (DCHR) which organized the massive Civil Rights demonstration. The intense disagreements pitted Franklin against the Henry brothers and Cleage. These differences surfaced after a march on the Detroit police headquarters at 1300 Beaubien downtown in July 1963. This demonstration was in response to the police killing of Cynthia Scott which went unpunished by the authorities. However, by 1969 these divisions had been healed and Franklin would allow the RNA, headed in part by the Henry brothers, Gaidi and Imari Obadele, to utilize the church for their gathering.
Outside New Bethel Church as the meeting was concluding after 11:00pm, two white police officers were shot, one fatally. The officers were fired on after they sought to approach several armed guards performing a security detail for the leadership of the RNA.
Within a matter of minutes, dozens of police officers from the 10th precinct descended on the church shooting out windows, riddling the pews with bullets, dragging out and arresting the remaining 142 people still inside the building. Some of the participants in the RNA event were shot by police bullets while others were severely beaten.
Franklin, along with Recorder’s Court Judge George Crockett, Jr. and State Representative James Del Rio, went to the police lockups where the detainees were held. Crockett set up court in the police station demanding that the law-enforcement agents present evidence against the 142 people being held. The judge soon released almost all of the prisoners saying their Forth Amendment rights of protection against illegal search and seizure had been violated.
Crockett would come under fire by the Detroit News, local television and radio stations for his role in the release of the people in attendance at the RNA meeting. The Detroit Police Officer’s Association (DPOA) launched an unsuccessful campaign to recall Crockett.
The African American community in Detroit rallied to the defense of Crockett and the RNA defendants. Dan Aldridge, who had played a critical role in exposing the atrocities committed at the Algiers Motel in July 1967, led a Black United Front (BUF) which brought together a broad spectrum of organizations. After three attempts to prosecute individual participants in the shootings of the police officers, no one was ever convicted.
The Inner City Voice, DRUM and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers
Another left-wing revolutionary oriented organizational development in the wake of the rebellion was the founding of the Inner City Voice (ICV) newspaper. Its editor, John Watson, although in his early 20s, had years of political experience as a Civil Rights activists and student of Marxist-Leninist theory. Other activists associated with the newspaper included Cassandra Smith, General Baker, Luke Tripp and Mike Hamlin.
An editorial in the first edition of the paper published in September 1967 stated the following: “In the July Rebellion we administered a beating to the behind of the white power structure, but apparently our message didn’t get over … We are still working too hard, getting paid too little, living in bad housing, sending our kids to substandard schools, paying too much for groceries, and treated like dogs by the police. We still don’t own anything and don’t control anything … In other words, we are still being systematically exploited by the system and still have the responsibility to break the back of that system. Only a people who are strong, unified, armed, and know the enemy can carry on the struggles which lay ahead of us. Think about it brother, things ain’t hardly getting better. The Revolution must continue.”
Articles in this issue dealt with the conditions at Detroit Receiving Hospital; the plight of migrant African American workers in Berrien County, Michigan located in the southwest region of the state; a detailed report from the Black Congress associated with the National Conference for a New Politics held in Chicago over the Labor Day weekend in 1967; the visit of SNCC Chairman H. Rap Brown to Detroit in late August when he spoke from atop the Dexter Theater, among other topics.
Leading activists associated with the ICV would later be instrumental in the formation of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) which took responsibility for the wildcat strike that hit this Chrysler production facility located in Hamtramack, a municipal enclave surrounded by the city of Detroit. DRUM prompted the formation of other revolutionary union movements at the Eldon Avenue plant, Ford Motor Company facilities and at Detroit Receiving.
DRUM leader Mike Hamlin served as an adviser to the Black Student Voice (BSV), a newsletter which circulated in several high schools and junior high schools designed to mobilize African American students against institutional racism and repressive policies enacted by Detroit Public Schools administrators, the School Board and law-enforcement personnel deployed to prevent youth from organizing. Later the BSV was able to bring together a number of activists from various schools to form the Black Student United Front (BSUF).
By the summer of 1968 at Wayne State University, John Watson, a leader in the Revolutionary Union Movement, was appointed as editor of the campus newspaper the South End. The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) had led a wildcat strike in May 1968 at this important Chrysler plant.
The name of the WSU campus publication had been changed from the Daily Collegiate to the South End at the beginning of the 1967–68 school years under the editorship of Art Johnson, who turned the paper into a communications outlet for the Left forces throughout the city in the aftermath of the rebellion.
Many of the groupings working under the rubric of the Revolutionary Union Movements, the ICV, the South End and the BSUF consolidated in April 1969 to form the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW). The League, as it was popularly known, brought former SNCC Executive Secretary and International Affairs Director James Forman to Detroit to join the organization in the midst of the convening of the National Black Economic Development Conference (NBEDC) which took place at WSU during April 26–29, 1969.
It was at the NBEDC in Detroit that Forman would initially read the Black Manifesto, the first modern document linking the demand for reparations from the white-dominated Christian and Jewish religious institutions to the struggle for African American self-determination, national liberation and socialism. The Manifesto demanded an initial payment of $500 million from the churches and synagogues in order to fund an African American university, skills bank, a communications network and a publishing house.
Although only a small fraction of the funds were ever turned over to Forman and the League, the resources contributed to the purchasing of printing equipment utilized to publish a book in 1970 entitled “The Political Thought of James Forman.” Hamlin would write the introduction to the book which was a collection of lectures and essays by Forman, a major theoretician of the African American liberation movement of the period.
The League would undergo two major splits in the first half of 1971 signaling its demise. The Black Workers Congress (BWC), formed months prior to the surfacing of the internal problems within the LRBW, went on to hold conferences, issue publications and participate in a mass struggle to abolish the Detroit police decoy unit STRESS (Stop the Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets) between 1971–73, during a time where approximately 30 people were gunned down by this special operations law-enforcement unit established under the administration of Mayor Roman Gribbs and police chief John Nichols. The BWC eventually dissolved in 1974 amid internal problems.
State Senator Coleman A. Young in the runoff elections against Nichols in the fall of 1973, defeated the police chief to become the first African American mayor of the city which still had at the time well over one million residents. Young’s initial executive order was the abolition of STRESS. He would enact a sweeping affirmative action program to bring African Americans and women in great numbers into the civil service and the police.
However, at the time of the election of Young, huge problems came to the fore within the U.S. and international economies. By 1975, a major restructuring of the world capitalist system led to an even more severe decline in industrial jobs in the Detroit area. In 1976, Young laid off nearly a thousand city police officers in order to maintain other municipal services. A corporate-media campaign of hysteria surrounding a spike in criminal activity compelled Young to rehire police and civil servants.
Section IV — Conclusion: Five Decades of Economic Challenges and the Need for Socialist Construction
Developments in the city of Detroit since 1975 have been represented by continuous assaults on the status and well-being of the African American community and working people as a whole. Successive waves of economic crises spawning job losses, the lowering of real wages and the abolition of hundreds of thousands of industrial, service and public sector jobs have left the city with deep scares.
During the summer of 1975 another mini-rebellion erupted along Livernois Avenue on the near northwest side. However, with the intervention of the administration of Young, the unrest was quelled through the indictment of a white bar owner who had shot to death an African American youth accused of burglarizing his vehicle parked outside on the commercial strip.
Renewed rounds of plant closings between the late 1980s and 2009, the continuing white flight to the suburbs, the targeting of homeowners with predatory loan schemes which defrauded people out of their property, would create the conditions for a rapidly declining social situation in Detroit. The Great Recession beginning in 2007–2008 devastated the city’s housing stock turning Detroit from being a majority home owning municipality for African Americans and working class people, to one of majority renters. Tens of thousands of homes were lost through mortgage foreclosures while the city, state and federal governments refused to enact policy measures by the declaration of a state of emergency and the imposition of a moratorium on job losses and home seizures by the banks.
The Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shut-offs was formed in the spring of 2008. This organization waged public campaigns, demonstrated against the leading financial interests such as the Bank of America, Chase, Bank of New York Mellon, etc., calling for the bailing out of the people and not the banks.
The following year in 2009, drastic cuts in public transportation, educational and municipal services were initiated in Detroit. A People’s Summit and Tent City was erected in Grand Circus Park downtown during June 2009 as a protest action against the ruling class National Summit held at the Renaissance Center, the headquarters General Motors. Moratorium NOW! Coalition brought people in from across the country and staged daily rallies in the park along with two significant demonstrations at GM World Headquarters against plant closings and lay-offs.
This was the period of restructuring and bankruptcy for the automotive industrial giants of Chrysler and GM. The process served as a template for the forced bankruptcy of the City of Detroit some four years later.
In 2012, the State of Michigan under Governor Rick Snyder would convince a five out of nine majority within the Detroit City Council to vote in favor of a Financial Stability Agreement (FSA) under the guise that this would prevent the appointment of an emergency manager. The FSA would escalate a program of austerity eroding further the authority of the legislative municipal body in subservience to the right-wing pro-corporate regime in Lansing.
Nonetheless, by early 2013, an emergency manager was appointed by Snyder. Several months later the EM would file for bankruptcy in federal court in downtown Detroit. The Moratorium NOW! Coalition would intervene in the EM process and bankruptcy proceedings both within the federal court as well as outside in the streets. The organization filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to acquire thousands of files documenting the disastrous impact of the predatory municipal loans and interest rate swaps which ensnarled the city in an unsustainable economic quagmire. These documents were scanned into digitized formats in early 2013 and posted on the organization’s website as a special entry. (See www.Detroitdebtmoratorium.org)
This is first time in U.S. history that a community-based organization mounted a protracted struggle not only against the activities of the banks in the area of mortgage foreclosures, it extended this effort to expose the role of predatory municipal financing by the multi-national lending institutions impacting the City of Detroit which precipitated the economic crisis. These actions by Moratorium NOW! Coalition and its allies drove down by $200million a scheme engineered by Barclays Bank to turn over yet another $285million to a host of financial institutions in order to terminate an interest rate swap deal that was purely a gift to the same financial institutions responsible for driving the municipality into economic ruin.
As a negotiating tactic, the EM Kevyn Orr, appointed by Governor Snyder, recommended an 86 percent cut to retirees monthly pension payments. Progressive layers of the municipal employees mobilized under the Stop the Theft of Our Pensions Committee (STOPC). Although a largely rigged process of economic coercion and manipulation resulted in the passage of a so-called “Plan of Adjustment” by a majority of retirees, the actual reductions in pensions were far less severe as desired by the ruling class.
At the height of the struggle against the bankruptcy, the EM ordered the termination of water services for thousands of Detroit households in 2014. Moratorium NOW! Coalition organized weekly demonstrations called “Freedom Fridays” outside the offices of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) during May, June and July of the same year. The largest demonstration against water shut-offs and the bankruptcy was held on July 18.
The annual Net Roots Conference took place in Detroit during this period at Cobo Center downtown attracting thousands to the city. Representatives of National Nurses United (NNU), the largest healthcare labor union in the U.S. encompassing 180,000 members, contacted Moratorium NOW! Coalition to see how their union could assist with the efforts in opposition to the bankruptcy and the massive termination of water services. NNU was scheduled to send in leading officials to the Net Roots Conference and were open to collaboration with local activists.
Moratorium NOW! Coalition proposed that the delegates to Net Roots be lobbied to shut down the conference on Friday July 18 and come out into the streets downtown and join the weekly demonstration. Through a process of consultation, the Moratorium NOW! Coalition proposal was accepted by the conveners of the event. Altogether some 5,000 people, both local activists and conference delegates, marched through downtown prompting the DWSD at the urging of federal bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to impose a temporary halt to the terminations of water services. This provided the opportunity for thousands of households to make arrangements to pay their over-inflated arrears in water bills.
Nonetheless, the water shut-offs continued afterwards due to the fact that the payment plans were unsustainable. Detroit is still the most impoverished major municipality in the U.S.
With specific reference to the foreclosure crisis, the bank-imposed housing crisis drove down actual property values throughout Detroit. Over assessed property taxes led to another monumental crisis in 2015. Tens of thousands of homes were slated for seizure by the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office and the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DBLA).
Moratorium NOW! Coalition waged a citywide campaign to demand the halt to these unjust foreclosures. A host of community organizations met with the-then interim Wayne Country Treasurer Eric Sabree who rejected the concept of a moratorium on tax foreclosures citing the possible inability to sell bonds to investors.
However, the deadlines for foreclosures were extended and payment plans were structured in a way to mitigate the crisis. However, such measures only forestall home losses. Again the question of poverty stemming from the decades-long economic decline in Detroit and Wayne County was at the source of the problem.
By documenting the role of the banks in the Detroit crisis, Moratorium NOW! Coalition asserted the need for socialist reconstruction in order to rebuild the city as well as other municipalities across the U.S. The nationally oppressed and the working class must unite with other potential allies to overturn the capitalist system of production and social relations.
African Americans still constitute an overwhelming majority in the city even though a white suburbanite mayor was installed in 2013, the first in 40 years. Mike Duggan’s role is to facilitate the removal of more African Americans, Latinos and working poor households from Detroit utilizing the same rationale of blight removal to create the appearance of a white-dominated city.
The only real solution to the crisis of the cities lies in the unity of the nationally oppressed and working class in an effort to shut down the most egregious forms of repression and exploitation. A broad-based socialist movement imbued with justice and strong organizational leadership can cripple finance capital’s domination of a city by the formation of a revolutionary alliance aimed at reversing the economic decline.