Five chaotic days left 43 people dead, hundreds injured, and thousands arrested. Here’s what led to the breaking point.
When most people see the movie “Detroit,” it’ll likely be their first encounter with the events of July 1967, when a routine bust of an after-hours drinking establishment led to five days of protests, looting, and clashes with the police. Forty-three people died, hundreds were injured and thousands were arrested.
At the time, I was six years old and living in an all-white inner suburb of Detroit, though my recollections of the five violent days are spotty: fragments of news footage documenting the destruction, a dusk curfew (past the time I had to be home anyway) and a friend telling me that there would be a police officer on every corner of our neighborhood.
Like other six-year-olds (and probably many adults) in my neighborhood, I didn’t really know what was going on, or how it might end. The same can likely be said about the elected officials charged with maintaining order.
For many years thereafter, these events were known colloquially as “the riots.” Among many whites, conventional wisdom had it that the police raid provided an opening for black criminals in Detroit’s crowded 12th Street district to run amok, leaving death and senseless destruction in their wake.
It was only years later, as a graduate student in urban planning, that I was able to learn about the tensions—police brutality, inadequate housing and poor job prospects—that had been simmering in Detroit’s black neighborhoods for decades.
Enforcing a racial order
Between 1910 and 1920, Detroit’s black population grew from 5,700 to nearly 41,000 people as the automobile industry flourished and low-skill, high-wage factory jobs became plentiful. Between 1940 and 1960, the black population grew from 149,000 to 482,000 people—about 30 percent of the city’s population.
While Detroit grew geographically to accommodate newcomers, most blacks were confined to four districts in the city until about 1960. Venturing into other neighborhoods came at a considerable risk.
As historians Joe Darden and Richard Thomas detail in their 2015 book “Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts, and Efforts to Bridge the Racial Divide,” the Detroit police essentially functioned as enforcers of segregation—“the first line of white defense against the invading ‘black hordes’ that, if not checked, would overwhelm surrounding white neighborhoods.” In other words, if Detroit’s black residents protested or were in the wrong place at the wrong time, the reaction of the police could be swift and brutal.
For example, during Detroit’s 1943 riots, the police killed 17 blacks and no whites, even though white rioters vastly outnumbered their black counterparts. In some cases, the police stood by as white mobs beat blacks.
Relegated to segregated neighborhoods, Detroit’s black residents would encounter housing shortages and substandard housing opportunities.
At the tail end of the Great Depression, private developers began building new housing units in Detroit, but strictly marketed them to whites. In 1941, one such development was approved adjacent to the historically black Eight Mile and Wyoming neighborhoods. It came with a caveat: The construction of a wall was the only way the Federal Housing Administration would approve loan guarantees to banks writing FHA-insured mortgages to white homeowners (who would be “protected”). Blacks seeking housing—already profoundly limited in their options—were literally walled off from accessing new housing in an adjacent neighborhood.
Like their relationship with the police, the housing situation in Detroit’s black communities would only deteriorate. In 1942, Life magazine published a feature story titled “Detroit is Dynamite.” The housing conditions depicted—people living in shacks, trailers and tents—were so destitute that Life’s publisher limited the story’s distribution to North America, presumably so the Axis powers couldn’t use it as anti-American propaganda.
The meanest, dirtiest jobs
What was behind the racial animus aimed at blacks, from the hostility of the police to the restrictive housing measures?
It’s difficult to fully disentangle the sources, but one major conflict arose on crowded factory floors during World War II.
Historically, blacks fortunate enough to be hired for automotive factory work were given what Detroit historian Thomas Sugrue characterized as the “meanest and dirtiest jobs.” But management would strategically elevate black workers to higher positions if it suited their needs. For example, in 1943, the Packard Motor Company hoped to heighten racial tensions among its mostly white workers in order to sow dissent within the union. After being integrated with black workers on shop floors, 25,000 white workers participated in a wildcat walkout. This event was commonly referred to as a “hate strike.”
“I’d rather see Hitler and Hirohito win than have to work next to a nigger,” one striker announced over a loudspeaker.
Apprenticeship programs in trade unions often excluded blacks. This dynamic was especially pernicious because most apprentices would go on to have long, high-paying careers. The Detroit Urban League reported that in 1966, there were 41 black apprentices in all skilled trade unions out of a total of 2,363 apprentices, a rate of 1.7 percent.
And though blacks fared well in municipal positions—filling 36 percent of city jobs in 1946, roughly commensurate to the percentage of blacks living in Detroit—many of these positions were the lowest-paying: janitor, groundskeeper, sanitation worker.
Other industries were even less receptive to hiring blacks. Because retailers didn’t want their white customers to have to interact with black clerks and salespeople, any black hires were relegated to backroom work.
No easy fix
Given the extremely limited opportunities for blacks in housing and employment—and with very little political voice in city government—civil unrest boiled over on a hot July weekend in 1967. At the time, it was the most deadly civil uprising of the 20th century.
But it was only one of dozens of other civil insurrections in other cities during the mid-1960s, including Los Angeles, Newark, Cleveland and Chicago (and not all were driven by grievances in the black community).
While Detroit was still smoldering, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Illinois Governor Otto Kerner to chair the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder. Their report implicated local police forces as a primary source of civil unrest, along with unemployment and limited housing opportunities.
The Kerner Commission also cited inferior educational opportunities for inner-city blacks, a symptom of highly segregated public schools. Even though the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education invalidated codified racial segregation, many large urban school districts were able to implement policies that maintained segregated schools.
Partially in response to the Kerner Commission’s findings, courts began to order large urban districts to integrate their schools with mandatory busing plans that would shuttle white students into schools in black neighborhoods and vice versa. In metropolitan Detroit, U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Roth’s busing plan involved 85 suburban districts and Detroit proper.
My suburban Oak Park neighborhood in the Berkley School District was one of the 85 included, and while my memories of the riots are hazy, I distinctly remember the response of many of my friends and their parents to Judge Roth’s plan: resistance. There was chatter of moving away if the busing plan were implemented, and as it wound through appeals courts, a cottage industry of yellow wooden placards, carved in the shape of a school bus, sprung up like dandelions on the front lawns of my neighborhood, with the words “No Busing” written in large black letters.
Nonetheless, the Berkley School District, to its credit, sent my class on a field trip to Detroit’s Greenfield Park Elementary School. When we arrived, the majority black student population feted our class and a few from other suburban school districts with a warm welcome. There were live choir and musical performances, along with classroom visits. Their daily routines and lessons seemed no different from our own.
But in 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Judge Roth’s busing order. While intra-district busing was still allowed, inter-district wasn’t, and my classmates and I ended up staying put.
Would school busing plans have ultimately solved racial disparities? In the end, they didn’t address the biggest problem of all: segregated neighborhoods and suburbs. Busing, where implemented, worked as intended during the regular school day, but did little to integrate segregated residential communities.
Busing addressed the symptom, but not the problem: systemic racism that had hardened over the course of decades, creating segregated enclaves in cities across the country that persist today.