Thought Leadership Center
Of all the Blacks killed by the Detroit Police and National Guard, only one man, Jack Sydnor, 38, was killed in a direct exchange of gun fire, after he shot Officer Roger Poike from a third floor window. This suggest that for the dozens of ongoing sniper attacks, the insurgents demonstrated a high level of skill and determination not to have been killed in the firefights. It would not be surprising if many of the sniper teams and individuals were Black Vietnam Veterans. How ironic that would be, considering the after hours party at the "blind pig" raided by the Detroit Police the morning of July 23 was to welcome back two Vietnam Vets returning from the war.
Often underreported are the casualties inflicted by the insurgency on the state, but it lies at the heart of the rising's insurrectionary character. One Detroit Police Officer and one National Guardsman was killed, along with 2 City of Detroit Firemen. Compared to the 1992 Los Angeles riot, called the 2nd worst riot in U.S. history, not a single law enforcement officer or National Guardsman was killed.
Among the combined force of the Detroit Police, Michigan State Police, National Guard and U.S. Armed Forces, over 478 people were injured. Thus, 26% of the 1,889 people harmed during the rising, were forces of the state. One other point should be made regarding the violence during the revolt. In that five-day period, there was not one report of a "Black-on-Black" murder in the city-a rather astonishing accomplishment considering a "lawless mob" often controlled the streets.
Making the argument that Detroit 67 was an urban insurrection--the only one of its kind in American history--is to go against the grain. However, the statistics harnessed here demonstrate the insurgent character of the rising as much as its scale. Ironically, the attempt to obliterate its revolutionary character is encapsulated in the standard "by the numbers" analysis of the Detroit rising.
That narrative of the Detroit 67' proceeds as follows; 43 people died, over 1800 people were injured, 7000 people were arrested and over 2,000 buildings with an estimated property loss of $40 million were destroyed. The Detroit "riot" was the third worst riot in American history, after the New York City "Draft Riot" of 1863 (121 killed), and the 1992 Los Angeles "Rodney King Riots (60 killed)." These analyses define Detroit as essentially depoliticized riot, simply measured by the number of people killed.
By comparison, the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 was largely a revolt by working-class Irishmen against laws passed by Congress drafting them into the Civil War. Irishmen, were incensed they would lose their jobs to Blacks in the city, while fighting a war to end slavery. They didn't want to do either. Their revolt against the draft, turned immediately into a murderous racial rampage against the local Black population. Ultimately, Lincoln was forced to dispatch troops that fought at Gettysburg to restore order. Detroit was in no respect a "race riot.
As for the Los Angeles revolt, it was America's first multi-racial rising. The anger at the acquittal of Los Angeles police in the Rodney King beating unleashed a furor across the city. A third of those killed and half of those arrested were Latino. There was significant Korean participation, and a lot of whites leveraged the moment to do some looting and vandalism of their own. More people were killed by store owners defending their properties, than by law enforcement.
Los Angeles was never a head on struggle against the Cathedral (government and law enforcement). The outrage at American justice was much more focused on looting and property destruction. Black, Korean and Hispanic businesses took heavy losses. In Detroit, many Black businessmen painted the words "Soul Brother" on their storefronts and avoided the fury of the rising. The historic Motown Records building, located at ground zero of the revolt, was never touched. In Los Angeles, the Cathedral did not so much attempt to crush the Los Angeles riot, as contain it and let it gradually "burn out."
On this 50th Anniversary of Detroit 67, hundreds of newspaper articles have been written, a major picture (Detroit) was released in July, and panel discussion's convened on national television. This revisiting is a profound statement about the importance of locating the insurrection in its proper historical space. What we have typically come to know as insurrections have conspicuous dynamic leaders, organization, a defined political agenda and in most cases an organized armed force.
Detroit 67' had none of these set pieces. Yet, the impulse to take on the armed might of the state, to defend territory taken from the police, to form sniper teams, to set up ambush operations, the attack hard targets and armed fortresses of state power all emerged in real time from a spontaneous revolt. The absence of conspicuous leaders and political agendas doesn't make Detroit less of an insurrection, but more so. Imagine the carnage on both sides if Detroit 67' was organized under a leadership group. Just as important, it was treated as a most serious insurrection by the White House to the Pentagon.
Perhaps, Governor Romney summed up the long shadow that Detroit 67' cast across the nation best when he said "Unless we take the proper course, this nation in the years ahead could be plunged into civil guerrilla warfare.”
For those seeking to locate Detroit 67' on America's historical arc, it most closely rivals two watershed events. Neither insurrection was an urban rising, but their political intent an implications were quite similar; Shay's Rebellion in 1786-87 in Massachusetts that provoked a newly formed nation to draft a federal constitution, and Nat Turner's Rebellion in Virginia in 1831, that placed the nation on an accelerated path to the Civil War.
To visit the corner of 12th Street an Clairmount today where Detroit 67 began, is to underscore the effort to entomb the historic rising. In fact, there is no 12th Street today, it has been renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard, after the quiet, dignified woman whose act of civil defiance in Montgomery, kicked off the bus boycott that spread the civil rights movement across the south.
12th Street was in 1967 a bustling commercial strip. By day, shoes stores, beauty shops, pharmacies, bakeries, hardware stores, photo studios and optometrists shops bristled, By late night, purveyors of after hours joints, street hustling and small time gambling and even some prostitution plied their arts. That's all gone. Some of the sturdy brick housing still remains and there is a small park called Gordon Park. That's where a small service was held this year commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Detroit 67.
The service was led by U.S. House of Representative John Conyers,. He came to that very spot on July 23, 1967 and tried to pursuade Blacks to drop their rocks an bottles and go home to let him and other Black leaders handle the situation. The people urged him to leave, then peppered his entourage with rocks and bottles. the dedication installed an ugly, cheap historical marker at the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount. The commission decided that no name would be given to characterize the events. They lied.
In a cowardly attempt to avoid calling the event a riot or rebellion they titled the marker "Detroit July 1967." The first sentence reads "In July 1967, the civil unrest that had been spreading across the United States reached Detroit." Later, the marker states "Detroit's civil unrest that began on 12th Street lasted four days until July 27." So there you have it, Detroit 67 was "Civil Unrest." It's but one more example of what happens when history is "lies agreed upon by scholars." After all, when it comes to Detroit 67, few dare call it insurrection
On July 28, National Public Radio published an article titled "Detroit 67' There's Still a Debate Over What to Call It." Uprising, Civil Disturbance, Riot, Rebellion and Social Unrest. The five days of tumult in Detroit have been called many things, but few have dared to call it what it was; insurrection.
Fifty years later, the specter of Detroit's uprising continues to haunt the ruling powers who crushed it. Since then, they've tried to close the book on this signature event by defining its place in history. On the 50th Anniversary of the rising, they tried again.
Long ago, Detroit's Black community rejected the insulting attempt to label its revolt a lawless riot. Over time, "rebellion" emerged as a more acceptable alternative, imparting a level of political justification for violence directed against an unjust state of affairs. But even this term of art fell far short of capturing the totality of the moment.
That's because what happened those five historic days in July was more than a rebellion (an act of violent resistance against authority). Something extraordinary went down in Detroit that set it apart from the other 200 Black upheavals that rocked America's cities in the 1960's.
That "something different" was how a spontaneous revolt quickly passed over into "armed insurrection." The violent resistance to police brutality that exploded on 12th Street on the morning of July 23, had escalated into a conscious armed offensive against government forces by nightfall. First with rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails, then guns and rifles, the insurgents drove the Detroit Police and Michigan State Police from its "liberated zones." On the first day of the rising alone, the Detroit Fire Department attempted to respond to 259 alarms, some while taking incoming sniper fire.
What can't be lost sight of is that within the initial chaos, looting and burning of buildings, there was a state of open warfare. Once it was clear that the revolt was spreading across the city on the first day, the insurgents harbored no illusions about the lengths the Detroit Police Department would go to end the revolt. Decisions were already being made by the insurgents about taking the fight to the state.They were right.
On July 24, less than 24 hours after the 12th Street raid, Governor George Romney (Mitt Romney's father) had already deployed the National Guard. At a 3:01 a.m. news conference Romney warned that "fleeing felons are subject to being shot at." That statement was interpreted by the National Guard and the Detroit Police that they had the green light to "shoot to kill" whoever they deemed a felon. When Romney made his statement there were no reports of Blacks being killed by the Detroit Police. By the end of the day on July 24, nine (9) Blacks were killed by the DPD.
In response to the unprecedented level of the uprising, on July 25, President Lyndon Johnson went on national television after midnight saying "Law and order have broken down in Detroit, Michigan." Flanked by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Johnson signed the
"Insurrection Act of 1807." The act authorized the use of U.S. "armed forces to fight an insurrection in any state against the government." An "open line" was activated between the Pentagon and Detroit. Smashing the insurrection moved to the Situation Room of the Defense Department. Detroit became America's first city since the Civil War declared to be in a "state of insurrection." U.S. armed forces were garrisoned on its soil to quell the uprising.
None Dare Call it Insurrection!
Turner's Confessions No. 1
"I was there, in Detroit 50 years ago...that Sunday morning when it all started..."
July 23, 1967 - Sunday mornings meant one thing; church. That Sunday, unlike others, I was glad to go because we had just gotten a new car--a long shiny Buick Electra 225 with power windows and a drop top. The People of a Darker Hue called it a "Duce and a Quarter", a euphemism for a black man's Cadillac. For blacks who moved up and out, there were always two reasons to return to the old neighborhood, church and the beauty or barbershop.
From our mostly white and Jewish middle- class neighborhood on the Northwest side, littered with synagogues and Catholic schools, it was a fifteen minute drive to Metropolitan Baptist. We were a few blocks from the church when my mother spotted one of the deacons running towards our car waiving his hands in the air. I remember him stepping down off the curb, a balding sixtyish man in a dark suit, wiping sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief. My mother rolled down the window and asked why he was so far from the church. "Ms. Bannister," he said "you can't get to church this morning. The Negroes are burning down everything."
Bewildered, but not convinced by his response, my mother, ever the curious school teacher asked what was going on. The deacon, looking slightly exasperated politely said "I don't know Ms. Brooks, but it started early this morning, and it ain't stopped. They're even shooting at the firemen trying to put out the fires.
My mother thanked the deacon and told him to be safe. He turned and hustled back down the street looking for other churchgoers. My mother pointed our new car northward and we headed home. It was 10:30 in the morning.
Little did we know that what was first called the "Detroit Race Riot " had started at 3:30 that morning, after the police raided a “blind pig” (an unlicensed, after-hours bar). Ironically, the second floor haunt was located next to an office suite rented by the civil rights group The United Community League for Civic Action. Outside the office building at the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount, as police officers began arresting the late-night party goers, hundreds of angry residents of the area called Virginia Park began gathered in the streets.
By 5:00 a.m. as the police were hauling off the last group arrested at the raid, bottles were flying and storefront window's smashed. By 8:00 a.m., three thousand people had massed on 12th Street. Looting had started and reinforcements from other precincts were called in. By the time Gov. George Romney (Mitt Romney's father) was called, the first fires were reported. From that point on, there was no turning back.
In 67, our Congressman was the young John Conyers, one the few Blacks in Congress in D.C. In 2017, he's still there. I met him in 1965. He came to my elementary school and invited me to speak at an assembly about the Vietnam War. It was the first of many rants I would give over the years.
July 23, 1967 - 9:30 a.m. - Congressman John Conyers tries to cool out the crowd on 12th Street. They listened, they jeered and finally they threw rocks and bottles at his entourage.
Over a five-day period from July 23-July 27, Detroit's Black community was confronted by a combined occupying force of 20,106 government troops (8,128 Michigan National Guardsman 46th Infantry Division, 2,137 Michigan Air National Guard, 4,782 U.S. Army Troops from the elite units of the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Divisions, 277 U.S. Army Command and Support, 4,782 U.S. Reservists deployed to Chandler Park and the Michigan State Fair and 360 Michigan State Police. This combined force augmented 5,000 Detroit Police Officers. The city was transformed in a full spectrum war zone.
Not intimidated, the insurgency dialed up its attacks despite overwhelming force. As the street violence spread, 2,498 rifles and 38 handguns are reported stolen from local stores. Over the next two days the insurgents create a record unmatched by any other urban revolt of sustained armed assaults on police stations, National Guard and U.S. Army special forces units.
On July 24 the Detroit Police 7th Precinct at Mack and Gratiot came under heavy sniper fire. In the center city area, 40 National Guardsmen were pinned down for hours under extreme sniper fire at Henry Ford Hospital. The 5th Police Precinct was besieged overnight until the National Guard arrived the morning on July 25. On the same day a police patrol wagon transporting machine guns came under attack by sniper fire at Hazelwood and Lawton. Again, on July 26, heavy exchanges of gunfire were reported between snipers and National Guard at Lycaste and Charlevoix and Fairview and Goethe on Detroit's east side.
The battlefield casualties of the insurrection were high. Forty-three people were killed, 33 were Black and 10 white. According to reports filed, 16 Blacks were killed by Detroit Police Officers. The three people killed at the Algiers Motel, by DPD was a summary execution. Eight blacks were killed by the National Guard, including a four-year old girl. One black man was killed by a U.S. Army Airborne paratrooper. U.S. Army troops were supposedly under orders from the White House not to use live ammunition unless authorized by their commanding officers. The majority of Blacks killed were unarmed looters.
To understand how different Detroit's rising was from every other American revolt, its useful to compare it to the 1992 Rodney King "Riots" in Los Angeles. A total of 60 people died in that rebellion, 17 more than died in Detroit. Of those 60 deaths, 35 of them died from gunfire. However, only 10 people were killed by gunfire from law enforcement officers and the California National Guards compared to 27 in Detroit. This fact statistically underscores the nature of the deadly street warfare in Detroit.
July, 23 Early Sunday Afternoon - On 12th Street, the community is out in full force
July 25, 1967 - President Lyndon Johnson announces he's invoking the "Insurrection Act of 1807" to deploy elite units of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Units to Detroit. He is flanked by Dept. of Defense Sec. McNamara & FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
About 9:30 that Sunday morning, Conyers came down to 12th Street to try and calm things down. With bullhorn in hand he urged the disenchanted to return to their homes, and let the system work to correct police abuses. He was greeted by jeers and asked to leave. Those request were accompanied by rocks and bottles.
That Sunday afternoon after returning home, we began to see pictures of the rising. I sat mesmerized, watching the grainy black and white film clips of people smashing windows and breaking in stores, others with full shopping carts with televisions and radios. I remember my mother shaking her head, it was all so surreal. The "rioters" looked like they were having fun.
My father was a Special Education teacher. Every summer he took some of his students camping in the wilds of Kensington Park about 30 miles from the city. Hearing the news he rushed back home. Later that evening, from our front yard, we could see smoke billowing against the sky to our south.
The rising had reached Fenkyl and Livernois, just a mile from our home. We didn't know it then, but that's as close as it would come. That night Mayor Cavanagh slapped a curfew on the city. I remember my father cursing because the sale of gas was suspended. Luckily, we had gone grocery shopping that Friday, because reports starting coming in about sniper fire all over the city. Some stores refused to open, others were overrun and the shelves were bare.
Still we didn't realize how serious things were until President Johnson announced the Army was coming to Detroit. On my block some of the older brother's talked about the how some serious killing was getting ready to jump off. Roger, then a precocious 16 year- old said "That's not just the Army, that's the 82'nd Airborne. You what they call them? Death from the sky," he said in a tone of lethal finality." They're the ones killing all those people in Nam." We respected Roger. His level of cool was such that he didn't have to say Vietnam, just "Nam."
I asked if these "Airborne dudes" were as bad as the Big Four. Anyone who was Black and had an ounce of street smarts in Detroit knew about the Big Four. They were four very large plain clothed white men, who rode in large black unmarked 4-door Dodge Fury's. They didn't say much, they really didn't even arrest people; no room to put them in their cars. Their specialty was beating Black men down to a pulp down. They were they were legend. Even the toughest brothers wanted no parts of the Big Four. Roger said the 82nd would eat the Big Four for lunch. That's when I knew that whatever was going on a couple miles from our safe haven in Northwest Detroit, was going to be a deadly serious affair.
Over the next few days, the looting and burning slowed down but the killing went on. When it was all the next Sunday, my father took me and my sisters for a ride through the war zone. Whole streets and sections of the city were burned out looking like Dresden.
Just like on TV, hastily painted "Soul Brother" impressions on storefronts were everywhere. Many of the black-owned businesses survived the burnings, others did not. Along the streets, I remembered how slowly Black people moved, staring at the ruins of charred homes and businesses, almost in a state of bewilderment at what had happened. Two years later, many of the mom and pop grocery stores were being rebuilt, but all the Jewish owners were gone, replaced almost overnight by the burgeoning Arab communities springing up all around Detroit.
We asked our father if he could drive down Grand Boulevard to see if the Motown Records office was still there. To our relief it was still standing. Motown was the beating heart of Black Detroit and Black America in the mid-sixties. But the music that came of Motown in the months that followed would not be the same. The Temptations and Supreme songs "Stop in the Nam of Love" and "My Girl" would be replaced "War" and "Ball of Confusion."
My mother wanted to see the statue of Jesus Christ, whose face, hands and feet had been painted Black during the rebellion. To our astonishment there was Jesus on the front lawn of the Sacred Heart Seminary, his outstretched jet Black hands beckoning sinners to his bosom. Two months later some whites, whitewashed the statue, but the Archdiocese directed that masses verdict be upheld. It was repainted Black.
As the hot summer of 67 was fading to fall we returned to school in September. I do not recall in all my years since, witnessing a bureaucracy respond so fast to the social fury of the moment. We had two new classes never offered before. Contemporary Affairs , was a class with no textbook. Students and teachers could bring books and newspaper clippings to discuss in class group sessions. That fall, as a 7th grader, I also had my very first Black History class at Hampton Jr. High. My sister's high school was one of the first in the country to walk out over the Vietnam War.
In 1968, I headed the Hampton Jr. High mock election campaign to elect Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver for President. We edged out the Democratic Party nominee Hubert H. Humphrey by three votes.
For me, Detroit 67 had changed everything. Like the sixties it was a transformative event in a transformative time.