Anniversary of 1967 Detroit riots brings race back to the fore

Detroit, like the rest of the country, is having a moment about race. Whether or not it wants to.

This summer will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit riots, or rebellion — though frankly, I don’t think the issue of racism ever truly recedes far from the fore around here. Not in a city whose history is defined by racial oppression, segregation, struggle and violence.

The story of what happened over those five days during a hot July has left a huge imprint on Detroit, both physically and psychologically. And now the anniversary is being commemorated on film — both with a feature-length documentary, “12th and Clairmount,” and via a Hollywood dramatization titled simply “Detroit,” whose trailer was just released in advance of the film’s Aug. 4 release. 

While its Hollywood pedigree might raise eyebrows, “Detroit” is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who won an Oscar for “The Hurt Locker.” It also focuses on the incident at the Algiers Motel, where three young black men were fatally shot, and nine others brutally beaten, by police and National Guardsmen.

“12th and Clairmount” is a different sort of film, a documentary made mostly of donated home movie footage that depicts normal, everyday life for both black and white residents that contrasts starkly with the scenes of chaos on the streets going on at the same time.

Nowadays it’s difficult to fathom both what happened in 1967 and what the city must’ve been like then, for those of us who aren’t old enough to remember. The signs of the riot’s legacy are everywhere in the city’s abandonment and emptiness, its desperately poor black ghettos.

But the city is also different now. Much less crowded, certainly, and probably less racially charged. The police force today is heavily integrated, and city government has been heavily black going back to the days of Coleman A. Young in the ‘70s.

But opportunity remains starkly uneven, and there are concerns that Detroit’s revitalization is leaving black people behind.

Perspective on the past

A couple weeks ago I was in Ann Arbor and happened upon a panel discussion discussing the riots.

Sheila Cockrel, a former Detroit City Councilwoman and longtime community organizer, contrasted the rebellion of July 1967 with the race riot of 1943, which left 34 dead. She said the rebellion had three primary causes: policy brutality against black people, lack of job opportunities and housing discrimination.

Cockrel said the police department’s controversial STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) unit proved that police brutality did not end with the rebellion.

“STRESS was the payback for the Detroit Police Department losing the streets,” she said.

Another panelist, Angela Dillard, associate dean for undergraduate education at University of Michigan and an author who has written about Detroit and civil rights, noted the differing perspectives on what happened. While the riot is often cited as a major contributor to white flight, Dillard said many black residents cheered when white people left the city.

Nowadays, the city is seeing businesses move in and add jobs, but with 85 percent of the jobs held by non-Detroiters, noted Stephen Henderson, the editorial page editor for the Detroit Free Press.

Henderson talked about his nonprofit project to build a literary center and fix up abandoned homes on his childhood block on the city’s west side.

‘I think that’s the legacy of ’67 that we have to fix Detroit one house, one block at a time,” he said.

Photo via theconnoisseurlife

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