Racial tensions and arguments have long plagued America. And while it may seem appropriate to say that the worst of the racism is behind us, we can also say that it is still not completely over.
The Civil Rights Movement was led by African Americans as well as several white abolitionists, in an attempt to quash the inequality that many African Americans faced in the early and late 1900’s. Although when we think of the origin of racism, we may automatically turn our minds to the South, it is important to know that racial tensions were high in the entire country. And that includes the state of Michigan. This was never more obvious than during the summer of 1967.
In the midst of what seemed to be an economically-booming Detroit, racial tensions were running high. Martin Luther King Jr. and many other Civil Rights activists were holding many nonviolent protests and marches that seemed to be getting the African community nowhere in their search for equality. Although white people seemed to have had success in business, finding jobs and industry, the same could not be said for blacks. Recently built infrastructure due to a city-renewal project had made white businesses more accessible to the slums, and additionally made white workers more easily obtained, as a result, the black community began to falter, while the rest of Detroit was growing.
During this turbulent time the police force had been seen as the mecca of white power in Detroit. The police had been known to abuse blacks with no provocation, as well as terrorize the African community. The police consisted of mostly white men, and black officers only made up about 5% of the entire police force of Detroit. The black community had seen enough of the abuse, and all this came to a head on July 23rd, 1967.
On this day, onlookers watched as police arrested people coming out of a “blind pig”, or an illegal after-hours club. Bottles and stones began to rain down on the officers, and before anyone knew what was happening, the night had turned into day and thousands of people had stormed the streets. Looting, arson and violence spread across Detroit. No longer than 12 hours after the riot had started, the National Guard had to be called in to help.
The riot only became worse, soon the rioters had begun to burn down businesses, and the sight of white soldiers and police only helped perpetuate the fright of the black community. Although it can be said that the white soldiers and police had also felt the same fear, rioters sat in nearby buildings, sniping and shooting at the police officers and National Guardsmen. Many years of unfair treatment had turned into all-out battles in the once calm city streets of Detroit. Fires burned building after building as over 100 blocks of the city were being ravaged by the rioters. It seemed that Detroit was at war.
Eventually, after five days of civil unrest, the riot had ended. Over 43 people were killed, and over 300 injured. 75% of those who were killed were black. The total damage to Detroit was estimated to be over 50 million dollars.
It is not too hard to blame an overall sense of prejudice in Detroit as the main cause of the riot of 1967. The police were greatly abusing their power at the time. We can certainly say that the riots were caused by the black community, but the real question is: were they justified?
On one hand we can argue that violence is never justified. Martin Luther King Jr. never intended for the Civil Rights movement to become violent, however it did. We can always make argument that violence can never be justified.
I, on the other hand, believe that under extreme circumstances, violence can be a very powerful tool for change. After years of abuse and unfair treatment, the black community fought back against their oppressors, they fought to have laws changed after years of peaceful protest got them nowhere. If we look to nature, we can see that any animal trapped in a corner will fight for its survival and well-being, and a human being, being an animal, will do the same. I would never advocate violence against other people. But sometimes violence can have one of the biggest impacts on a society. One of the quotes I think that best sums this up is “those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable.” I can see this is exactly how the black community felt at the time.
It is important that we look at what happened in the past and apply it to the world as we know it today. Sure, the state we live in may not be as divided as it once was, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still some division in the darkest corners of our state and our country. And until we can deal with these issues that divide us, we cannot say for certain that something like this will never happen again.
“1967 Detroit Riots.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2017, www.history.com/topics/1967-detroit-riots.
Grimm, Joe. Michigan Voices: Our State’s History in the Words of the People Who Lived It. Detroit Free Press, 1987.