The 12th Street Riot


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.

 

Sources:

“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.

11 thoughts on “The 12th Street Riot

    1. Hopefully we are not too far off from having a more tolerant country. We have certainly made great leaps and strides in the area of civil rights, it is only a matter of time before racism is just another thing left in the past.

    2. Yes I agree wholeheartedly, race is used way to much in our country as blame for many horrible actions. If everyone could just see that our outside appearance has nothing to do with our actions and we should all be able to get along and have a harmonious country.

  1. I also agree that racism is not over. I still see it every day today. Not toward me, but toward others. I know people would like to say they are not, but I still see so many xenophobic people. Change can be scary, and to see something that is different that what you are familiar with can be scary. But how we as a people react is what makes us who we are. To be intolerant of others, is just setting us up for a repeat of history if we are not careful.
    I find it crazy that the city renewal project was supposed to eliminate the slums, but it only added to it. As much talk that was made to make things better for all residence of Detroit, and the only improvements that were significant were to the white communities. It was just one more straw to add to the camels back.

    1. I’m not sure that any project will eliminate slums, but it should surely improve the living conditions at least. Not only was there talk to make things better for Detroit, but there is some reference that Mayor Cavanagh “had obtained for his city more than $42 million in federal antipoverty funds. Of this sum, $10 million was used for special training and placement programs for the unskilled and illiterate, $4 million for medical clinics, and $3 million for summer Head Start and recreational programs for children.” (Rubenstein, p. 282) Although not all problems will go away with any amount of money, it takes more than that. People need to work together. If that doesn’t happen, things continue on as they have been. In this case, it continued to be difficult for the black community. This unfortunately added ‘fuel to the fire.’

      1. Mayor Cavanagh obtained more than $42 million in federal antipoverty funds. Because of this money, Detroit seemed to be handling its problems so efficiently that the director of the Congress of Racial Equality, Floyd McKissick, excluded Detroit from a list of twelves cities he thought likely to experience racial unrest in 1967 (page 282 Rubenstein). If only McKissick had been right…

  2. Although it doesn’t surprise me that much I can’t believe that only 5% of the police force was made up of black men back in the late 1900’s. No wonder the police force got away with abusing and tormenting the black population, most of the police force was made up of white men. To me it seems like the police force were using their powers for bad instead of good.

    1. It is very surprising and saddening that such a small portion of the police force was made up of black men. It seems that any position of power they tried to keep away from blacks so that they could not have a say in what happened. Although, because of those decisions it let up to events like this which ended up injuring and taking many lives.

  3. It is very sad to see that America still is divided after all of those years. The nation that once was divided, still is. However, we have improved our unity throughout the years. Racism has plagued our nation, and still is present today.

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