Language of the Unheard

In the summer of 1967 in Detroit, Michigan, a “blind-pig” raid took place and this raid turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Due to this raid, racial tension, and the overall treatment of African Americans in the area, a riot that is still ranked as one of the worst in American history broke out. The riot lasted from July 23rd to July 27th. It was so important at the time that it was nationwide news.

It’s important to remember how recent this was, this was just in 1967. People, especially those in the northern United States, like to think of the north always being the “good guys” and that somehow all the racial tension only existed in the South, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Jim Crow laws and racism were more de jure in the South, but Michigan still had its struggle. This Detroit race riot claimed the lives of 43 people. Thousands of others were arrested or injured. This was paired along with the Federal National Guard coming into Detroit to join the Detroit Police Department, Michigan State Police, and the Michigan National Guard. There were tanks in the streets, buildings burning, bullets flying both ways, cars on fire, and tension that is hard to even describe.

In the PBS video we watched for class, “Eyes on the Prize: Two Societies (1965-1968)”, a Detroit-native man describes how before the race riot police would racially profile African Americans, especially men. The police would, at seemingly random times, come up to African American men asking for identification, where they are going, and search their person and often be very rough in doing this. This reminded me of “stop and frisk” which was happening in New York City not too long ago and was found to be used on people of color far more than those who are white, which was a big red flag because they would actually get charged with a crime at about the same rate. Stop and frisk had very little, if any, effect on crime and only hurt the relationship between the police and the community. The constant use of this harassment-like tactic is part of the problem that built up the racial tension, and community-police tension to the point of a massive, several day riot.

Severity varies by location and time, but for a lot of American history African Americans have been abused, disadvantaged, underprivileged, violated, and therefore oppressed. I do not think any sensible person thinks rioting and looting is helping, but I also think it is important to see the struggle and oppression that was ignored or worsened before the headlines telling of riots came. Martin Luther King Jr. once said “…riots are socially destructive and self-defeating” but he went on in the same speech to tell about the struggle behind it by saying “…riots do not develop out of thin air, certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots… a riot is the language of the unheard.” This was Detroit acting out in a bad way, but it was also Detroit being heard by using the language of the unheard.

In my Michigan History class we just covered this exact topic, so in order to use my full knowledge and resources while still doing more research and work, I used some of my sources that I used in that class along with new sources from this class.


-Detroit Historical Society. Uprising of 1967. n.d. Webpage. 2017. .
Eye on the Prize: Two Societies 1965-1968. By Shelia Curran Bernard and Steve Fayer. Dirs. Shelia Curran Bernard and Samuel Polland D. PBS. PBS, 1990. Video. 2017. .

-IMAGE: Felt, Robert. “Color photo showing the view along 12th Street in the aftermath of the riot that began in the early morning of July 23, 1967. The photo shows a man walking down sidewalk, several pedestrians, an army transport truck with National Guardsmen, and cars lined.” Vers. 2009.084.001. 23 July 1967. Photograph. 1 December 2017. .

-Grimm, Joe. Michigan Voices: Our State’s History in the Words of the People Who Lived It. Ed. Joe Grimm. Detroit: Detroit Free Press; Wayne State University Press, 1987. Book. 2017. 1967 Detroit Riots. 2017. Webpage article. 1 December 2017. .

-Meredith, Robyn. 5 Days in 1967 Still Shake Detroit. 23 July 1997. Webpage article. 1 December 2017. .

-Motor City Radio Flashbacks. DETROIT, JULY 23, 1967: THE WEEK THAT WAS. ‘HOT 100’. 25 July 2017. Webpage. November 2017. .

-Rubenstein A, Bruce and Lawrence Ziewacz E. Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State. 5th. Wiley Blackwell, 2014. Book. 2017.

-The Other America. By Martin Luther King Jr. Perf. Martin Luther King Jr. Standford University, Stanford, CA. 14 April 1967. Speech. 2017. . (African-American Odyssey, online)

13 thoughts on “Language of the Unheard

  1. I feel this piece about the Detroit Riot of 1967 is well written. “Riots are the language of the unheard.” What else could they do after their complaints went unheard? There is only so much marching one can do if the message is still not getting across to the ones who need to be paying attention.

    Stop and frisk is a demeaning tactic. There is no place for it in a civilized society. I believe it is another form of police brutality, and that racial profiling is just another form of racial discrimination disguised as a lawful act.

    1. This was a well written piece about the Detroit Riot. The death and destruction that occurred over a five day period is unimaginable to me. I was shocked by the comment made by President Johnson when instructing the National Guard to be unarmed. He also ignored the Kerner Commission recommendations. It appears that we have not learned from the past and continue to make the same mistakes even now that were made back in 1967.

    2. It is really hard to come up with a solution for the racial discrimination in today’s world. I think that African Americans fought so hard to be recognized as citizens and I’m sure that if they were granted that reorganization they would have been great citizens. Now I think that with them being separated into communities with little resources and they were practically set up for failure. Now, blacks make up the unemployment rate, uneducated population and the jail system. I think this is all a result to the inequalities that they faced.

  2. I really like the way that you identify the riots as “the language of the unheard.” That is a great way to look at it, and looking at the events and daily struggles of African Americans leading up to the riots, we can surely understand why they felt this way. Just the final event in itself that tipped off the Detroit Riots showed how unforgiving the system was for black citizens. Normally men coming home from war would be a thing to support, celebrate, and be thankful for, but instead police officers took this opportunity to make a mass amount of arrests.

    1. Thank you. As I said in the blog post, I got that from Martin Luther King Jr., I really recommend listening to his speech called “The Other America”. It’s an inspirational and powerful speech that he gave around this time period.

  3. As a fan of flowery prose, your phrase “the language of the unheard” struck a chord with me, it’s eloquent and extremely apt all at once. Too often society pushes people to the wayside, forgets about them or even worse – flat out ignores them. I feel like the Detroit Riots were in essence the boiling point of decades upon decades of systemic abuse. From the racial profiling via stop and frisk tactics to a number of various other unsavory practices, it was only a matter of time before the African American community got fed up and struck back.

    1. The stop and frisk tactics were truly a constitutional violation in the very least. I cannot imagine feeling so powerless and victimized by the ones who say they serve and protect. It was such a painfully clear way to see the vast difference in rights afforded to white citizens versus black citizens.

  4. I too agree with the others; this is well written and the message resurrects a sense of injustice that has occurred for no apparent reason other then differences of skin tone. As a daughter of a Vietnam Vet; what is so sad is that the African-American men that were drafted and forced to fight in the Vietnam War were not allowed the same rights in any setting as any other white citizen. Dr. King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam” states truth in the facts of inequality and moves you to think about such racial barriers. To fight for American freedom but not to be given the Right to drink from any water fountain, pick any seat on a bus, vote, shop, interact, and so on is disgusting. The riot was a representation of man kind being pushed to the brink of collapse, and really what else could any of them have done to make America understand, that White America had gone too far!

    1. My grandfather is also a Vietnam veteran in the Navy and he said there were very few African – American men on the ship with him, while they were able to do the same jobs as a white man I can only imagine the ridicule the most likely received.

    2. Thank you, Carla. I’m glad to see you reference a different Martin Luther King Jr. speech, I often listen to his speeches because they are all absolutely incredible. It amazes me how much meaning he put behind words. But yeah, I agree with you about the African-American veterans returning home to still be second-class citizens, very sad and disgraceful.

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