“Bill, maybe you shouldn’t go to work today…” As a 14-year-old living in suburban Detroit, I remember my mother asking my father not to go downtown that hot July day in 1967. My mom, my sister and brother and me – we were all scared. Dad, he wasn’t going to be told what to do in HIS city.
Seeing the often-violent protests our nation is enduring right now reminds some of the national unrest of 1968. That’s the year Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination sparked race riots, all amid the political upheaval over the War in Vietnam (remember the Democratic National Convention in Chicago?). But for me, the contrast and comparison to George Floyd’s death and the national and local reaction – revives my personal memories of Detroit’s race riots of 1967, also known as the 12th Street Riots.
We knew that area well. My mother and father grew up in the inner city of Detroit. My sister and I were born there at the tail end of what was Detroit’s ethnic, auto plant worker neighborhoods. Our family moved to the suburbs in 1959. But my dad continued to work downtown, selling cars at Jefferson Chevrolet…just blocks from 12th Street. My grandmothers – Mary and Peg, still lived in the city. Mary came out and stayed with us. Peg defiantly remained in her home to care for Uncle Charley.
The ’67 riot started after a police raid on an after-hours “Blind Pig”, a welcome home celebration for two Vietnam War veterans. But deeper causes highlighted the frustration and anger by African-Americans over poverty, racism, lack of educational and economic opportunity – and a regular occurrence of racial profiling and police brutality by the Detroit Police Department. Of course, there were no cell phones to take video of a police knee on a black man’s neck back then. No 24-hour news cycles to show the devastating upheaval (Detroit’s local TV news did give us near round-the-clock coverage, images burned into my brain that looked frighteningly similar to what we’ve seen in the past week).
Are the violent George Floyd death protests fueled by militant, anarchist groups with their own political and social agendas? Historians say the Detroit 12th Street Riots of “67 helped spark the national Black Power movement.
The 5-day uprising became one of the most deadly, destructive riots in American history. 43 dead, 1,189 injured, 7,200 arrests, more than 2,000 buildings burned. One big difference, the violent George Floyd protests are happening in the downtown business areas, the 12th Street Riot stayed in the African American neighborhood where the clash began. The thought of a President sending federal troops into the fray? Michigan Governor George Romney (Mitt’s father) called out the National Guard. President Lyndon Baines Johnson sent the U.S. Army and the 101st Airborne into Detroit.
The “67 riot did start under an oppressive blanket of late July heat, but not in the throws of a global pandemic, where many sheltered city people are clamoring to get outside.
I have to say I’m extremely proud of the peaceful protests taking place in my adopted Huntington community (32 years here) and proud of the peaceful gatherings protesting injustice going on throughout the Tri-state and West Virginia.
It sometimes stuns me that we all haven’t learned fairness and equality from the unrest during the racially and politically turbulent late 1960’s.
Civil disobedience is an American cornerstone, but it needs to be civil and non-violent. I’m sure there are more than a few mothers and 14-year-old’s right now across America that in the past several days have said, “Bill, (or whomever) maybe you shouldn’t go to work today?” I understand how they feel.