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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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Riots in Detroit

July 1967

"This is a racial incident... it represents one simple thing: black people want control of black communities."
—Rev. Albert Cleage, Detroit religious leader

Related Links:

  • Get an update on the Kerner commission's report after 30 years.
  • Learn about an earlier race riot in Detroit, after which U.S. Army troops occupied the city.
  • Explore John Gardner's efforts to tackle urban problems.
  • Find out about Detroit's radical black Christian minister, Albert Cleage.

The Watts riot of 1965 will become the best-remembered urban black uprising of the Sixties, but summer 1967 brings an explosion of tensions around the country. For five days in July, Detroit, Michigan descends into chaos. An economic boom has created jobs, and urban renewal projects have built new infrastructure, but blacks have been left behind. New expressways destroy black neighborhoods, and economic opportunities are scarce for black residents. The 95% white police force, notorious for brutal and arbitrary treatment of black citizens, raids an illegal after hours club and draws an angry, frustrated crowd that quickly turns hostile.

As Sunday July 23rd dawns, the growing crowd is looting and burning the city. Twelve hours into the frenzy, Governor George Romney calls in the Michigan National Guard; unprepared troops make mistakes like shooting out the street lights. Nearly 4000 people will be arrested in the first two days, and over 7000 by the third. Most are young and black. Police and guardsmen shoot at will, with some later insisting that all of their victims were armed.

Romney asks President Lyndon Johnson for federal help and by Monday afternoon 4700 U.S. Army paratroopers have arrived, under orders not to use live ammunition. A combined 17,000 law enforcement troops suppress the riot. After five days of anarchy, more than 40 people are dead, hundreds are injured, and damage estimates hit $50 million.

President Johnson appoints a commission to investigate the riot's causes. When the Kerner Commission report is published in March 1968, it describes America as two societies, black and white, separate and unequal, and recommends new government programs to break down racial barriers and increase opportunity. However, faced with the growing costs of the Vietnam War, Johnson does not act.

Context

Other Events: Early 1967

The American Football League and the National Football League merge; the Green Bay Packers win the first Super Bowl.

Elvis Presley marries Priscilla Beaulieu in Las Vegas.

In the Six-Day War, Israel attacks Egypt in response to a blockade of the Straits of Tiran. Other Arab states join Egypt in the conflict; in just a few days, Israel has occupied the Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank and Golan Heights.

As the war in Vietnam escalates, boxing champion Muhammad Ali refuses to join the U.S. military. He loses his title and is charged with the crime of refusing induction.

NASA's mission and methods are carefully scrutinized following a deadly fire in the Apollo 1 capsule.

The Beatles release what will become one of the top-selling albums of all time, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

Press

The Detroit News, July 28, 1967

Editorial: Despite Black Revolutionaries -- Let's Not Get Tough

As Detroit staggered back to its feet, still clearing its streets of snipers, TV news viewers everywhere saw black nationalist leader H. Rap Brown stage his stark crazy histrionics...

..."This is a revolution," [Brown said.] "They gonna have to kill 22 million of us. We gonna burn America down."..

...As deep as American Negroes' resentments may run over racial injustice, the Rap Browns, the Stokely Carmichaels and all the lesser-known black revolutionists do not speak for one in 10,000 Negroes.

They do not speak for the scruffy youths in the street mob, the me-first looters or the casual arsonists, none of whom cares about their revolutionary "big picture." They do not speak for even the most determined of Negro civil rights leaders who urgently seek an end to injustice through legal and political process or for the millions of ordinary Negro citizens on whose behalf that struggle is waged.

But they do speak, unhappily, for enough bitter and warped people in each of the nation's large cities to mount the kind of guerrilla war Detroit has witnessed...

...The tragedy of it all is not the one Rap Brown predicts; the black racists will not burn down America...

...[But] they will have goaded and frightened white America into repressive attitudes and measures which put race relations back where they were 70 years ago -- or worse...

The Detroit News, July 28, 1967

Letters to the Editor

A DP's View

I am a Polish DP [displaced person]. I didn't know anything about race problems until I came here in 1949. But I know something about democracy.

Believe me, all you rioters, the bloody fights are not the way to gain anything.

I know what slavery is because I went through it under the Hitler regime.

I know Negroes have legitimate gripes about discrimination. I am also discriminated against because I am a Polish DP.

What of it? I fight back as best I can legally. I am still walking around and keep my head high.

So can Negroes if they don't let their emotions get the better of them...

Helen Cisek

Blames the News

Well it's happened here at last. The poor down-trodden Negro has seen fit to get that TV he wanted by burning down the building, and you know why? It's guys like you with your crybaby editorials telling him how he has been mistreated that gave him a pat on the back.

James Turner
Roseville, Michigan

The Washington Post, July 28, 1967

Letters to the Editor: Riots in the Cities

The slum Negro has no reason for hope. His people have been trapped in the poverty cycle for 200 years. The gap between Negro and white income has been increasing. The war on poverty is a token effort, both in terms of money and, more importantly, in terms of the concern and energy of Americans.

This is the reason for riots. They appear to be the only way to awaken a complacent America, and they express the frustration that has built up for many years. And, despite the horror, riots are a sign of health, a sign that years of humiliating poverty and discrimination have not destroyed the spirit of a people.

Paul Osterman
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Discovering the precise causes of the Newark and Detroit riots is almost as difficult as working out a solution and a preventive program...

...Instead of reverting to repression, our leaders in Congress must face up to the evils of poverty and pent-up despair...

Christopher B. Cohen
Chicago, Illinois

...Law and order must be established. The police must be respected, not jeered at by the insolent. If it is necessary to shoot looters or snipers to restore law and order then they must be shot.

Arden Wagner
Annandale, Virginia

The New York Times, July 30, 1967

Editorial: The Responsibility: White and Black

This has been America's summer of confrontation. In dozens of communities the inchoate but powerful forces of Negro revolt have lashed out against the established order on a scale and with a fury that are unprecedented. The words of the noted Negro scholar, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, were prophetic when he wrote decades ago: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line -- the relation of the darker to the lighter races of man..."

...On both sides of the color line preachers of hate and sowers of suspicion have been strengthened.

This historic crisis can be overcome only if the men and women of goodwill -- the great majority among both whites and Negroes -- realize their responsibilities and try to meet them, despite all provocations.

White Americans, of course, must share the greater burden of responsibility. They are the majority group and they control most of the levers of political, economic and social power in this country. Moreover, it is white men's sins of omission and commission that are at the root of much of this summer's turmoil...

The New York Times, August 5, 1967

Letter to the Editor

White Responsibility

Your July 30 editorial "The Responsibility: White and Black" brims over with clichés of conventional wisdom. I submit first that the responsibility is that of white America, not of white and black. The full burden belongs to white America.

Past generations of Negro Americans have had faith in the promise of America. Now it is past time for America to deliver...

Ruth-Arlene Howe
Roxbury, Massachusetts
July 30, 1967

No Study Needed

What purpose is served by appointing a commission to study the "cause" of the Detroit and other riots?

Simple mathematics answers the problem. It took the French underprivileged 145 years to trot out the guillotine and Madam Defarge.

It took Russian peasants 217 years to destroy those who oppressed them. Then fell the Romanoffs and all that had their favor. The Negro has bided his time 343 years in the United States of America. Commission to study the causes, indeed.

S. Osborn Ball
Provincetown, Massachusetts
July 31, 1967

The Chicago Tribune, August 5, 1967

Letter to the Editor: Paying for Detroit's 'Mistakes'

I protest. Detroit's Mayor Cavanagh wants his city declared a major disaster area, thereby making federal loan funds available to restore Detroit. In other words, he wants money collected from all Americans to help pay for damages, which early and consistent use of force on his part could have minimized.

But why, should non-Detroiters pay for his timidity? The voters of Detroit selected him. Let them pay for his mistakes. Then maybe next time they will vote for someone who cares more about public safety.

Kenneth A. Cory
Portage, Michigan, July 30

Music

Burn, Baby, Burn
Songwriter: Jimmy Collier
Performed by: Jimmy Collier and Rev. F. D. Kirkpatrick
Listen to the Music

As the movement turned away from its nonviolent routes, its music likewise changed character.

This song's performers, SCLC organizers Jimmy Collier and Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, believed economic empowerment was as vital to progress as voting rights. "Equality for African-Americans also needed to include economic equality. As long as blacks were on the lowest rung economically things would not change. There was a lot of anger," Collier remembered.

Collier wrote "Burn, Baby, Burn" after the Watts riots of 1965 as a way to understand the mindset of the rioters. "I was searching for ways to express what these fellows in Watts were trying to say by burning the town down." The phrase "Burn, Baby, Burn" became a popular urban slogan, especially during the riots that followed the death of Dr. Martin Luther King.

The Detroit riot provided more evidence of this anger and frustration. The city was home to Motown Records, the African American label that was spawning dozens of major hits at the time. Following the riot, the celebratory "Dancing in the Street," a Motown single from 1964, took on ironic, anarchic overtones. Motown artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder wrote and produced music that spoke directly to the contemporary social climate.

For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.

Video

Riots in Detroit
Duration: 4:44 min
Watch the Video

This newsreel footage shows destruction in both Detroit and Los Angeles.

Clips show a burning Detroit as the riot there is described, followed by images of burning buildings, soldiers, looters, and looted establishments. President Johnson decries the rioting while destroyed buildings are shown.

The next clips show the destructiveness of the Los Angeles Watts riots, with footage of burning and burnt-out buildings, soldiers, police officers, and helicopters.

Footage courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration, Special Media Archives Services Division, College Park, MD.

Select an image to open the gallery.

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