TOPICS > Arts > 50 Years Later

Artists reflect pain and consequences of Detroit riots

July 28, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Fifty years since Detroit devolved into a five-day period of violence and unrest between the National Guard and the city’s black citizens, known as the 1967 riots, some of the city's leading cultural institutions are asking questions and using art to look back and consider the resonance today. Jeffrey Brown offers a look at the many ways museums, artists and scholars are weighing in.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: a look at how artists captured Detroit’s turbulent history in the civil rights era.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of major civil unrest in the Motor City, and a unique series of exhibitions are chronicling that moment.

Jeffrey Brown went to Michigan to see them.

JEFFREY BROWN: A fiery red sky, people trapped in a burning city, charred remains from the 1967 Detroit riots, a painting by Yvonne Parks Catchings in an exhibition titled Say It Loud: Art, History, Rebellion, at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History.

Striking images of confrontation, and consequences, in works by national and local artists from the 1960s on.

Curator Patrina Chatman:

PATRINA CHATMAN, Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History: You see the emotions of the artists, describing history from their perspective. I see the politics. I see the social concerns that people had in it. I see their pain.

I see and I feel their pain, and I think other people will feel it as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: July, 1967, five days of violence, fear and destruction in a major American city that would leave 43 dead, some 7,200 arrested, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

Fifty years later, some of the city’s leading cultural institutions are asking questions: Was it a riot? A rebellion? Even a revolution?

And using art to look back and ahead. At the Detroit Historical Museum, which, for the record, has been a funder of the NewsHour and which spearheaded the citywide effort, old TVs play news footage.

A replica of a National Guard tank has been turned into an audiovisual experience, with oral histories told by Detroiters.

The Detroit Institute of Art weighs in with an exhibition titled Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement with works by individuals, including leading figures such as Romare Bearden and Sam Gilliam, and so-called collectives formed in the 1960s and after by artists seeking a greater voice in society.

VALERIE MERCER, The Detroit Institute of Arts: The civil rights movement and the black power movement emboldened a lot of the African-American artists.

Most of the mainstream art museums didn’t provide many opportunities to African-American artists during the ’60s and ’70s. They were also very uncomfortable dealing with racial, social and political issues, so they avoided that work. Now things are changing, fortunately.

JEFFREY BROWN: Several local artists attended the opening, including Allie McGhee, who told me of his encounters with the National Guard 50 years ago.

ALLIE MCGHEE, Artist: I had people drive up because I was out past curfew, and have a young man who’s like 17 or 18 scared to death, stick a bayonet in your ribcage. You don’t forget stuff like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: For this exhibition, McGhee contributed a painting from 1968 titled Black Attack, and a later abstract work titled Apartheid.

Since then, his art has gone well beyond such subjects. It just took him a while to get past what he’d witnessed.

ALLIE MCGHEE: It wasn’t something you could walk away from. And for me, it sort of like was a dominant subject matter for maybe 15 or 20 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: You couldn’t get it out of your head or your mind or your work?

ALLIE MCGHEE: No, you can’t. Yes, the subtleties of it kept recurring. I had to work that out of my painting experience.

It’s not good to be angry. It lowers the intellectual level. You don’t accomplish a lot. You’re blinded by it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rita Dickerson’s painting commemorates the terror and killings of three black men at the Algiers Hotel, one of the most harrowing episodes of those July days.

But she also adds the names of young black men and women killed in police shootings more recently. Dickerson grew up on Detroit’s East Side.

RITA DICKERSON, Artist: We had two bakeries. We had a hardware store, two pharmacies. Everything was there within one block, and we could walk every place.

And during the riot, all that burned down. And 50 years later, it has not returned. It’s still desolate. And it breaks my heart, breaks my heart.

JEFFREY BROWN: In so many of Detroit’s neighborhoods, on so many blocks, the abandoned homes and empty lots remain.

But there are signs of life in Detroit today. The youngest artist in the exhibition, 29-year-old Mario Moore, is literally a product of the museum. His parents met here.

MARIO MOORE, Artist: So, it’s my grandmother holding images of her living sons, right, and the sense of protection, like, these are mine, you can’t have them, right?

JEFFREY BROWN: His grandmother, Helen Moore, is a longtime Detroit activist, and the subject of Mario’s work here. It addresses violence and how it’s portrayed.

MARIO MOORE: As soon as you turn on the news, what tends to happen is they show the mourning black mother, right, the mother that’s crying about the recent death of her son, her husband, her daughter.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s the narrative, the story.

MARIO MOORE: That’s the narrative you get. And I feel like it was something that began out of a way to kind of find compassion for the other, right?

But once that gets used over and over and over and over again, it loses its value. Nobody really cares anymore. And, for me, the women in my family have a very different perspective. I feel like they’re very protective, they’re very powerful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Different perspectives on Detroit’s past and future, through exhibitions around the city over the coming months.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Detroit.

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