A new exhibition at the Detroit Historical Museum charts the complicated course of life in the city before and after July 1967.
Metro Detroiters fall into two camps based on the phrase they use to refer to the events that transpired in Detroit during the summer of 1967. Many, including most past and contemporary national media sources, call it a “riot,” invoking images of looting and violence. Others, including a large section of locals, call it a “rebellion,” referencing the social and political unrest that had been brewing long before the those nights in July.
The new exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum chooses neither side of the linguistic divide. Instead, curators of the show “Detroit ’67, Perspectives” scoured the historical record to compile a combination of primary sources and present-day retellings. The approach underscores their attempts to put as many viewpoints as possible on the same plane and provoke conversations among viewers.
This July marks 50 years since the events that culminated in the destruction of many neighborhoods and businesses and the deaths of dozens of Detroiters. The 1967 discontent mirrored urban disturbances across the country, though its 43 casualties made it the deadliest urban uprising of the late sixties (compared to 34 casualties in the 1965 Watts Rebellion and 26 deaths in Newark’s uprising in 1967).
In Detroit, the skirmish began in the early hours of Sunday, July 23rd, when police raided a ‘blind pig,’ an unlicensed, after-hours bar on 12th street (now Rosa Parks Boulevard) and arrested 82 people attending a party for returned veterans. After police left, people started invading an adjacent clothing store, which sparked looting throughout the neighborhood. Police were called in but remained relatively inactive, believing the disorder would end quickly. The first fire was started that afternoon and the violence quickly moved to surrounding neighborhoods.
As violence spread, 300 Michigan State Police were called in. When the violence intensified throughout Monday and 16 people were killed, then-Governor George Romney ordered Michigan Army National Guard into the area, and President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. There were some 483 fires and over 7,000 arrests in total over the course of five days. White-, black-, and immigrant-owned stores and restaurants were burned in these fires, and many of them were never rebuilt.
Looking backward, looking forward
As the exhibit examines the past, it also participates in a series of multi-year programming called Looking Back to Move Forward. In partnership with the Boggs Center, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Wayne State University, and others, the programming contends with the city’s complicated race relations through film screenings, bus tours, a speaker series, and more, at sites across the city—from the disturbance’s memorial sites to St. Paul’s Church. In an online oral and written archive, Detroiters contextualize the events and their effect on the present-day city.
Detroit’s changing demographics make these conversations timely. After decades of white population decline, between 2010 and 2015 the number of white residents increased from 88,700 to 102,400; in 2015, white residents comprised 15 percent of the population. As the city gets whiter, its residents must grapple with the structural conditions that caused the city’s demographic changes leading up to the summer of 1967, and whether Detroit’s current economic growth continues to exacerbate the racial divides that predated this disturbance.
In order to contextualize and balance these narratives, the show also compiles maps, photos, and videos to chronicle the social and political strife in Detroit that preceded the five days of unrest. The curators point to a variety of factors that contributed to inequities—among them, the Great Migration, de facto segregation, violence in public housing in the ‘40s, the move of industrial jobs to other regions of the country, urban planning that alienated black Americans, police brutality, and general inequality in Detroit’s wealth distribution.
According to the exhibit, the Detroit Plan was one instigator that furthered inequality by clearing out important neighborhoods in the black community in the name of urban renewal. Unveiled in 1946 by Mayor Edward J. Jeffries Jr., the plan removed residents, without a public relocation program, from a part of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom—now Lafayette Park and part of Hastings Street—and razed these neighborhoods to make room for new development and part of an expressway system that facilitated many white families’ migration to the suburbs. Though Detroit’s cultural narratives point to 1967 as a defining moment in the racial makeup of the city, white flight had been in process well before the summer began.
“For the first time, some honest dialogue began to take place.”
“Perspectives” opens by presenting the way different news outlets narrated the events as they unfolded in real time—the suburban Grosse Pointe News sits next to the Detroit Free Press and the Jewish Daily. Despite slightly differing opinions, the representations are largely consistent. “The voices telling the story [in 1967] weren’t all of the voices that should have been involved. They were mostly middle-aged white voices,” says Joel Stone, head curator of the Detroit Historical Museum.
The Detroit Historical Museum’s curators did not easily arrive at how to portray the violence. According to Stone, the exhibit directors even debated which senses would be engaged in the exhibit, including whether or not they would evoke the smell of smoke. (They decided against it.) “There were not many artifacts available: The only things left were the guns, police batons,” says Stone. “We didn’t want to make it ugly and salacious.”
Some rooms feature cutouts of text and archival news footage. Others try to more dramatically recreate scenes with projections of individuals crossing 3D recreations of façades of burning businesses and cardboard cutouts of large tanks.
The exhibit also focuses on specific moments, like the Algiers Motel incident. The altercation took place a couple nights into the disturbance, on the 25th, at the black-owned motel on Woodward Avenue near the Virginia Park district where the confrontations began. A task force comprised of law-enforcement officials from the Detroit Police Department, State Troopers, and Guardsmen entered the motel to investigate after shots were heard in the motel’s vicinity. Upon entering, the task force killed three black men and beat nine others. They failed to report the deaths to the Detroit Police Homicide Bureau and later gave conflicting testimonies of the events. The three officers who were responsible for the deaths were put on trial and all were found not guilty of homicide.
Although then-Mayor Jerome Cavanagh was elected with support from a large contingent of the black community, his reaction to the civil disturbance of 1967 was deemed insufficient by many Detroiters, and he was unable to gain back his popularity over the course of his tenure. In a video from the archive created by the Detroit Historical Museum for “Perspectives,” Walter Douglas, a longtime activist and former vice-president of the racial equity non-profit New Detroit, cites the uprising’s aftermath as a catalyst. “For the first time, some honest dialogue began to take place,” he says.
Even while some disagree on the outcomes, there were notable changes in the city’s administration. Many black Detroiters began to assume positions of power in local government and some important changes were made to policy, like the passage of the Michigan Fair Housing Act in 1968, to combat residential segregation. By 1974, Detroit had its first black mayor (Coleman Young), a black police chief (William Hart), its first black superintendent (Dr. Arthur Jefferson), a black-majority city council, and a more diverse police force. The summer negatively impacted the local economy and many Detroit businesses never returned, but the events brought racial issues to the fore and city’s administration began to contend with the systematic inequality that had disadvantaged black Detroiters for decades.
By centering Detroiters’ varied reflections on the event, the exhibition gives voice to nuance that is often lost in looking back at the tumult of summer ’67. Stone paraphrases the words of Bob Burley, CEO of the Historical Society: “Parachute journalists come in and tell our story. Now we need to take control of our story and tell it ourselves.”
“Detroit ‘67: Perspectives” is on view through 2019.