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How the 1967 riots reshaped Detroit, and the rebuilding that still needs to be done

July 21, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
In the summer of 1967, the simmering unrest in cities across America exploded. In Detroit, tensions between the police and the African-American community reached their limit, unleashing five days of full-out violence -- riots or a rebellion, depending on whom you ask. Fifty years later, special correspondent Soledad O'Brien reports on what sparked it all and the scars that remain today.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tonight, we begin a look back, over the next few weeks, at the unrest that hit cities across America in the summer of 1967.

Detroit particularly captured the nation’s attention.

Fifty years later, special correspondent Soledad O’Brien reports on what sparked it all and the scars that remain today.

MAN: On July 23, 1967, Detroit was hit by a riot.

LORETTA HOLMES: Everything broke loose.

MAN: Forty-three dead, thousands injured, and the city in flames.

WOMAN: All we could hear is fire engines and police sirens.

JAMES CRAIG: I guess, when I’m being politically correct, I will say unrest. It’s a riot. It’s a straight-out riot.

MAN: It was just pure rage.

WOMAN: Detroit had been what some people thought was a model city, a place where blacks and whites had found a way to get along.

MAN: There was a lot of enmity and anger between the young black guys and the young white police officers. I think we locked up about 7,000 people total.

WOMAN: A lot of people hollering and screaming and saying, why do you keep messing with us and not go to your neighborhoods?

WOMAN: There were more than 2,500 buildings that were destroyed, looted or burned to the ground, over 1,200 injured.

MAN: A rebellion.

WOMAN: Insurrection.

MAN: The white community was calling it a riot.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Detroit 1967, a riot or rebellion? To this day, they still debate what it was.

DAN MCKANE, Retired Detroit Police Department Tactical Mobile Unit: A lot of the smoke was on 12th Street, which is what it was called then.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: The disturbances began on 12th Street, since renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard. They started spontaneously after a routine police raid on an illegal bar or what locals called a blind pig.

Dan McKane was a young street cop in Detroit’s tactical mobile unit.

DAN MCKANE: Each precinct had a vice crew, and they would arrest the proprietors, and then probably write tickets to the rest of the guys.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: How would you have described the Detroit Police Department back in 1967?

DAN MCKANE: Well, it was majority white male.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Tensions between the police and the African-American community appeared to have reached their limit.

LORETTA HOLMES: It came to a boil. People were just tired of being hassled. They was tired of them coming into their neighborhoods.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Loretta Holmes was in that blind pig that night, to welcome back soldiers coming home from Vietnam. Suddenly, police burst in.

LORETTA HOLMES: And then I saw a sledgehammer come through the door. Next thing we know, the police were in there. They took us downstairs. About four — I would say three or four paddy wagons parked.

And oh, my God, it was a million people out there. It’s like somebody got on the bullhorn and said, come to 12th and Clairmount.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: The angry crowd outside exploded into five days of full-out violence. “LIFE” magazine captured 15-year-old Frank Robinson playing in the rubble that was left of 12th Street.

FRANK ROBINSON, Eyewitness: They threw a couple bricks through windows, and the police didn’t come. People saw an opportunity.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: And the opportunity was to do what?

FRANK ROBINSON: To loot. It may have turned into a racial situation later, but from the beginning, it was just people seeing an opportunity to loot.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Detroit’s violent unrest was the largest in the U.S. in about 100 years. Violence had also erupted earlier in Newark and Los Angeles.

Quickly, President Lyndon Johnson named a commission to explore the causes. Named for its chair, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, the Kerner Commission’s only surviving member is former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris.

FRED HARRIS, Former Oklahoma Senator: What we said was, we can describe with particularity the conditions that exist in the places where these riots occur, almost criminally inferior schools, no jobs, housing really terrible, and we have to get at these kinds of basic problems.

And that’s certainly true again.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: What was the biggest finding of the Kerner Commission report?

FRED HARRIS: Our nation is moving towards two societies, one white, one black, separate and unequal.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: The report was rejected by the president. None of its recommendations were ever adopted.

SHEILA COCKREL, Former City Council member, Detroit: The fact that it never went anywhere, that it really didn’t drive the level of policy and drive the level of people dealing with race, is a testament to how deep-seated and how tough it is to not only have the conversations, but to make the change that would be required.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Sheila Cockrel, who served on the Detroit City Council for 15 years, says white flight already plaguing Detroit escalated rapidly after the unrest.

Other forces were at play. The auto industry was hit by an oil crisis and foreign competition. There were two decades of government corruption. In 2008 the global financial crash hit Detroit particularly hard.

And, then, in 2013, Detroit became the largest municipality ever to file for bankruptcy. Today, Detroit police are adamant that they are trying to repair their relationship with the public. They have trained police officers in all 12 precincts to build stronger community ties.

Officer Donald Parker.

How do you build trust in a neighborhood?

OFFICER DONALD PARKER, Detroit Police Department: Building now is us filtering into the community, saying hi to Ms. Jones, and saying, hey, we’re here, we’re here, we’re touchable, we’re reachable, to let them know not to be afraid of us.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: The composition of the force has also changed. In 1967, it was 5 percent African-American. Today, it is about 65 percent African-American, including the chief, James Craig.

JAMES CRAIG, Chief, Detroit Police Department: Well, what happened 50 years ago, I can’t say would never happen in Detroit, because there’s still issues.

We have one of the highest poverty rates, and while we have an above-average relationship with the community, there’s the issue of opportunities. And while that’s getting better and while the city has made a major turnaround, there’s still this belief that, while the turnaround is happening in certain parts of the city, it’s not in others.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: A sign of the work remaining to be done: Detroit’s poverty rate is double what it was in 1967. The city struggles with segregation, inadequate housing and has the lowest school test scores and graduation rates in the nation.

Anika Goss-Foster is with Future City Detroit, which imagines modern-day uses for blighted properties. Goss-Foster’s focus is the next 50 years.

ANIKA GOSS-FOSTER, Executive Director, Detroit Future City: We call them dinosaurs, where there are old monster plants that are now sitting vacant in the middle of residential neighborhoods.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: The old Packard plant, a dinosaur, abandoned since the 1990s, is being developed into the shops and galleries in hopes of reviving the neighborhood.

ANIKA GOSS-FOSTER: Things aren’t happening the way as quickly as they want it to happen. And they certainly aren’t happening at a rate where it should happen. But if you really pushed, there are a lot of good things happening all over the city. There are parks that are being taken care of that have never been taken care of bore. The city is completely lit. People are much more involved in their neighborhoods than they have ever been.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Entrepreneurs and business leaders have transformed 7.2 miles of downtown into a booming neighborhood that has attracted tourists, tech start-ups and new businesses.

But the boom hasn’t yet trickled down into the neighborhoods that Goss-Foster is trying to develop.

ANIKA GOSS-FOSTER: I think that there are a lot of black people that would say they do feel left out. I wouldn’t say that they feel ignored. I think they feel like, when is it my turn?

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Right, to get investment.

ANIKA GOSS-FOSTER: To get the same kind of attention and investment.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Neglect felt firsthand by Loretta Holmes.

LORETTA HOLMES: We don’t have anything. There’s nothing there anymore.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: So, what happened to the neighborhoods?

LORETTA HOLMES: People moved out. People moved out. They left. They walked away. No one kept the property up.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Loretta Holmes stayed behind.

LORETTA HOLMES: We were in Central. We were totally a community. We were a community. This is what we did. We took care of each other.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: She mentors students at her alma mater, Detroit’s Central High.

LORETTA HOLMES: We give scholarships. We go ahead and we will buy the jerseys for the football team. Kids that doesn’t have a coat, we do it undercover, because we don’t want the other kids to know.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Her investment in kids is what gives her hope for a better future for Detroit.

Is the city of Detroit better off today than it was?


SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: In the ’60s?

LORETTA HOLMES: No. No. No, because it’s …

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Better off than five years ago?

LORETTA HOLMES: Than five years ago? Yes, because now I can see the change. I really can.

SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Change that, for a city with a history of racial conflict and struggle, is long overdue.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Soledad O’Brien in Detroit.