Why rebellion broke out in Detroit 50 years ago

By Abayomi Azikiwe
August 3, 2017

Listening to Marvin Gaye, a Vietnam veteran returning to Detroit sing; ‘What’s Happening Brother.’ The song talks about conditions that precipitated the rebellion.

Listening to Marvin Gaye, a Vietnam veteran returning to Detroit sing; ‘What’s Happening Brother.’ The song talks about conditions that precipitated the rebellion.




Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye










Excerpts from an article published in Ghana News this July about the Detroit rebellion that erupted on July 23, 1967, at the United Community League for Civic Action on 12th Street and Clairmount.

Rebellions had erupted in numerous cities around the U.S. in the previous four years leading up to the summer of 1967. Detroit had avoided large-scale unrest in early August 1966 on the eastside. However, three racial incidents in June and July of 1967 served to enflame tensions within the African-American community, [including two attacks by racist white mobs and] an African-American woman shot to death by a white police officer.

Once again the African-American community was outraged. These developments were occurring with the backdrop of urban rebellions breaking out in numerous cities every day in June and July of 1967, including on July 12, when Newark, N.J., erupted in response to the arrest of an African-American taxicab driver. For five days the city was wracked with arson and property damage. Scores of Blacks were beaten, injured and killed from targeted gunfire by Newark police, New Jersey State Troopers and National Guard soldiers who fired into public housing complexes and commercial streets. Consequently, only a spark was needed to ignite a rebellion in Detroit.

From 1947 to 1963, the city of Detroit lost 134,000 manufacturing-related jobs. In most cases African Americans were the last hired and first fired. They were confined to the menial and unsafe categories of employment.

Henry Ford I had built his mansion on Edison and Second in 1908 and lived there until 1915. Other wealthy families such as the Kresges, Fishers and Dodges had homes along Boston Boulevard, Chicago Boulevard and Longfellow Street during the earlier decades of the 20th century.

Contrastingly, just a few blocks away on 12th, 14th and Linwood, sections of housing and commercial establishments fell into disarray. Municipal services were neglected.

Many of the apartment units in the Virginia Park district were split up into spaces that were 50 percent to 25 percent smaller.

In 1967 there were approximately 1,640,000 people living in Detroit, where 35 percent were African Americans, whose rate of joblessness was 11.7 percent as contrasted with the white community at 5.7 percent.

Police raid sparks uprising

At 9125 12th Street, where the rebellion erupted, was a two-story commercial building located between Clairmount and Atkinson. In the early morning hours of Sunday, July 23, the location was the scene of a party hosted to celebrate the return of two military veterans fresh from serving a tour of duty in Vietnam. Alcohol was being served, which was prohibited after 2 a.m.

Soon enough at around 3:45 a.m. police arrived to carry out a raid. When the law enforcement agents knocked down the door and climbed the stairs to the second floor, they were amazed that 83 people were occupying the second floor. The police announced their presence and placed everyone under arrest.

While the arresting process dragged on for an hour, hundreds of people gathered outside the building across the street on 12th. As the crowd grew larger, people began to shout at the police. As the last transport vehicle left the 12th and Clairmount area, missiles were tossed at a police vehicle, breaking the rear window.

Within minutes of the police departure the situation at the intersection grew increasingly agitated as groups of youth began to break into stores along 12th Street. By dawn thousands of people were converging on the street where they broke windows and began to take merchandise from the stores.

By midday the rebellion began to spread into the Linwood corridor just three blocks west of 12th Street. By early afternoon organized groups of youth began to firebomb stores along 12th Street and similar events unfolded on Linwood.

U.S. Congressman John Conyers Jr. and Assistant Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Arthur Johnson drove into the center of the rebellion on 12th Street by midday on Sunday, July 23, climbing on top of a vehicle and pleading with the crowd to leave the area. They were shouted down and the thousands of people continued to defy the police.

Governor calls out National Guard, asks for U.S. Army

By early afternoon Mayor Cavanaugh appealed to Republican Governor George Romney to deploy the Michigan National Guard and State Police units to the affected areas of the city. National Guard troops attempted to sweep Linwood and 12th Street as the evening approached. By this time fires were raging through several blocks on both commercial strips. The rebellion was expanding throughout large swaths of the city from the westside to the eastside.

Gov. George Romney, a former chief executive of American Motors Corporation, came to Detroit and toured the hardest hit sections of the city, concluding that the situation was getting beyond the capacity of local and state authorities, including the National Guard, to control. He sent a telegram to President Lyndon Johnson asking for the assistance of federal troops to put down the rebellion.

Johnson was reluctant initially to send in troops from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions of the U.S. Army. By late afternoon on Monday, July 24, soldiers were flown into Selfridge Air Base awaiting orders to enter the city.

In the meantime thousands of National Guardsmen, State Police and local law enforcement patrolled the city. Firefighters attempting to put out hundreds of fires were attacked by residents with missiles and sniper fire.

The first deaths in the rebellion occurred during the evening hours of July 23. As the days passed, brutal reprisals by police officers and guardsmen resulted in the deaths of scores of residents, who in many cases were not guilty of any crime. Mass arrests for looting and arson took place. Many were kept on buses for days and in makeshift facilities on Belle Isle. Gross abuse and brutality by police and guardsmen became common in the detention facilities and on the streets.

Merchants still operating in the impacted neighborhoods inflated prices of staple goods such as bread and milk. Shortages in these communities created conditions of food and material deficits, so humanitarian agencies and churches set up aid distribution centers. As a result of fire and other forms of property damage, several hundred people were left homeless and in need of temporary shelter.

One European-American woman, Helen Hall, 51, visiting the city on business in the New Center area was struck by a hail of National Guard fire while merely peering out of a Harlan House Motel window overlooking the John C. Lodge Freeway near West Grand Boulevard. Four-year-old Tanya Blanding was being held by her father in an apartment unit on 12th Street and Blaine. Guardsmen operating in panic mode opened fire on the building, killing the young girl; they said a flash inside the building from lighting a cigarette was mistaken for sniper fire.

‘Algiers Motel Incident’

Perhaps the most egregious act of racist, murderous violence against the people took place at the African-American-owned Algiers Motel on Woodward Avenue and Virginia Park. The establishment was a Black-owned business on the major thoroughfare dividing the east from the west sides of the city.

Several youth had taken up residence in the annex of the Algiers Motel on Virginia Park, which was a spacious house next to the main building sitting directly on Woodward. On the fourth day of the rebellion, during the early morning hours of July 26, several African-American teenagers were gathered in the annex along with two teenage white women.

Eyewitness reports came from survivors of what became known as the “Algiers Motel Incident,” labelled as such by writer John Hersey, who published a book on the events the following spring in 1968.

Shots from a harmless device [a starter pistol] may have possibly been heard by someone outside the facility, leading to a police radio call saying there were snipers firing weapons from the annex of the motel. Detroit police, state police and guardsmen stormed the building on Virginia Park.

[By the end of the incident,] 17-year-old Carl Cooper was shot dead, 19-year-old Aubrey Pollard and 18-year-old Fred Temple were found dead [killed by the cops].

Leading community activists, progressive lawyers, family members of the victims and their friends met together in the weeks following the Algiers Motel massacre. Eyewitnesses were placed in hiding in order to protect them from retaliatory actions by the police.

The massacre at the Algiers Motel was symptomatic of the security situation in Detroit after July 23. A largely white police and National Guard force engaged in random and targeted killings on a routine basis. Many people who died from July 23 to 30, the authorities claimed, were looters, arsonists or snipers.

By Tuesday, July 25, the African-American community in Detroit was an armed camp occupied by 9,000 National Guardsman, 4,700 troops from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, Michigan State Police units, along with over 4,000 local law enforcement agents.

A phased withdrawal of army units and guardsmen began over the weekend of July 28-30. All guard units had been pulled from Detroit by Aug. 4.

When the rebellion subsided in Detroit, President Johnson announced the impaneling of a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. The findings of the panel were not surprising to the African-American community: that the police, corporate media and the economic conditions under which Blacks lived were the underlying factors involved in the urban rebellions. The society was moving into a more polarized conjuncture: one Black and oppressed and the other white, privileged and dominant.