Kenneth T. Walsh at USNews last week wrote a vivid summary of the sweltering summer of 1967, one of many accounts that have been published this month on the 50th anniversary of the most tragic urban uprising in 20th-century America:
The riot began on July 23. It was so severe and the consequences so far-reaching that it is remembered in the community as the Detroit Rebellion of 1967, and it is one of the largest civil disturbances in U.S. history. A new movie about the rioting and police brutality, “Detroit,” will be released in August, focusing national attention again on the horrible events of those five violent days.
When all was said and done, 43 people died, 33 of them black, and 342 were injured. More than 7,000 were arrested; 1,700 stores were looted, and nearly 1,400 buildings were burned, according to the History Channel and the New York Times. About 5,000 people were left homeless. In retrospect, the causes of the eruption had been clear for a long time.
“By the summer of 1967, the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Virginia Park was ready to explode,” the History Channel reported. “Some 60,000 poor people were crammed into the neighborhood’s 460 acres, living in squalor in divided and sub-divided apartments. The Detroit Police Department, which had only about 50 African-Americans at the time, was viewed as a white occupying army. The only other whites seen in the neighborhood commuted from the suburbs to run their stores on 12th Street.”
The urban catastrophe began with a police action that residents felt went too far. At 3:35 a.m. Sunday, July 23, cops raided an unlicensed bar and nightclub at the corner of 12th and Clairmount. The streets were full of people trying to stay cool in the stifling heat. A party was going on at the club to celebrate the return of two black servicemen from Vietnam, and tempers flared when police roughed up some patrons who were being arrested. These tactics were common and deeply resented in the area.
As the police hauled revelers to the local precinct for booking, the crowd of African-Americans swelled and the antagonism between the white cops and the local residents escalated. There were rumors that the police were using excessive force inside the precinct and had severely beaten one of the women who was arrested. Someone threw a brick or a bottle through the rear window of a police car, and there was an explosion of burglaries, break-ins and fires.
The cops were vastly outnumbered and, since it was very early in the morning, few officers were on duty to quell the uprising. Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, hoping to ease tensions, ordered police not to shoot looters, but his restraint actually increased the break-ins and thefts, authorities said. Many hours later, the Michigan State Police and the National Guard arrived, but by then the rioting was out of hand and spreading. Local residents used their own weapons to shoot at police and other law enforcement officers, and snipers hindered fire fighters attempting to extinguish the many blazes around Detroit.
The first half of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit visualizes this chain of events with nightmarish clarity. A search for news photos captured in the midst of the chaos has yielded a trove of stark images that fairly throb with deadly tension.