charlesb at cncl.ci.detroit.mi.us
Mon Nov 12 16:52:15 MST 2007
A photographer (right) captures a white mob assaulting an African American man during the Detroit “race riot,” June 22, 1943.
Rare testimonies and reports on the ’67 Detroit Rebellion
Introduced and edited by Paul Lee
PROFILE OF THE REBELLION
This week, The Michigan Citizen begins publishing an extended series of rare, never-before-published interviews and reports from 1967 and 1968 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Detroit Rebellion, which erupted on July 23, 1967.
They are drawn from the voluminous records — most rarely used, some only recently available — of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, which President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed on July 29, 1967. This 11-member investigative body was popularly called the Kerner Commission after its chairman, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, Jr.
It was created when the flames of the most destructive and costly urban uprising in U. S. history — surpassed only by the 1992 disorders in Los Angeles — were dying down and popular resentment over the armed and deadly occupation by the police, National Guard and U. S. Army, coupled with the abuse of thousands of innocent Detroiters by the prosecutor and courts, was heating up.
These events would forever change the social, economic and political landscape of Detroit.
President Johnson promised the commissioners that they would “be free” to follow the truth wherever it led and charged them to answer three questions: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?”
Below we begin publishing the original text of the commission’s generally fair answer to the first two questions, which later appeared in the “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders” (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, March 1, 1968, also published by Bantam Books).
The only changes we have made are to add subheadings and silently correct obvious misspellings. Historical corrections or additions are enclosed in [square braces].
Ironically, as we shall see in future installments, the president refused to accept, or even consider, the conclusions and recommendations of his commission, which held that the “most fundamental” cause of the urban disorders that were engulfing the nation in annual “long, hot summers” was the “racial attitude and behavior of white Americans toward Black Americans,” or Negroes, as they were also called.This profile of the Detroit uprising will be followed by often vivid, detailed interviews with a remarkably diverse cross-section of local officials, observers and participants, as well as reports by the commission’s mostly keen field investigators.
We urge you to share this series with your family, friends, co-workers and acquaintances. A festival of rare films and a community discussion on the ’67 Rebellion will complement it. It will be announced in future issues.
The Kerner Report:Profiles of Disorder
On Saturday evening, July 22, the Detroit Police Department raided five blind pigs. The blind pigs had their origin in the days before World War II, when they had served as private social clubs for affluent Negroes who, because of discrimination, had been unable to gain entrance to public night spots. Gradually, as public facilities opened their doors to Negroes, the character of the blind pigs had changed, and they had become illegal drinking and gambling spots.
The fifth blind pig on the list, the United Community and Civic League at the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount, had been raided twice before. Once 10 persons had been picked up; another time, 28. A Detroit Vice Squad officer had tried but had been unable to gain entrance to the blind pig shortly after ten o’clock Saturday night. When, on his second attempt, he was successful, it was 3:45 A.M. Sunday morning.
The Tactical Mobile Unit, the Police Department’s Crowd Control Squad, had been dismissed at 3:00 A.M. Since Sunday morning is, traditionally, the least troublesome time for police departments all over the United States, there were only 193 officers patrolling the streets. Of these, 44 were in the 10th Precinct where the blind pig was located.
Instead of the expected two dozen patrons, the blind pig — in which a party for several servicemen, two of whom had been stationed in Vietnam, was being held — contained 82. Some expressed resentment at the police intrusion. Before additional patrol wagons could be called to transport all the persons from the scene, an hour had elapsed. The weather was warm — during that day the temperature was to rise to 86 degrees — and humid. Despite the hour, numerous persons were still on the streets. Within a short period a crowd of approximately 200 persons had gathered.
The leading candidate
In November of 1965, George Edwards, Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and Commissioner of the Detroit Police Department from 1961 to 1963, had written in the Michigan Law Review:
“It is clear that in 1965 no one will make excuses for any city’s inability to foresee the possibility of racial trouble... Although local police forces generally regard themselves as public servants with the responsibility of maintaining law and order, they tend to minimize this attitude when they are patrolling areas that are heavily populated with Negro citizens. There they tend to view each person on the streets as a potential criminal or enemy, and all too often that attitude is reciprocated. Indeed, hostility between the Negro communities in our large cities and the police departments, is the major problem in law enforcement in this decade. It has been a major cause of all recent race riots.”
At the time of the 1943 riot, Judge Edwards told Commission investigators, there was “open warfare between the Detroit Negroes and the Detroit Police Department.” As late as 1961, he thought that “Detroit was the leading candidate in the United States for a race riot.”
There was a long history of conflict between the police department and citizens. Detroit’s 1943 race riot, in which 34 persons died, was the bloodiest in the United States in a span of four decades. During the labor wars of the 1930’s union members had come to view the Detroit Police Department as a strike-breaking force.
Judge Edwards and his successor, Commissioner Ray Girardin, attempted to restructure the image of the department. A Citizens Complaint Bureau was set up to facilitate the filing of complaints by citizens against officers. Indications are, however, that in practice it worked little better than less enlightened and more cumbersome procedures in other cities.
On 12th Street, with its high incidence of vice and crime, the issue of police brutality was a recurrent theme. A month earlier the killing of a prostitute had been determined by police investigators to be the work of a pimp. According to rumors in the community the crime had been committed by a Vice Squad officer.
Approximately at the same time the killing of a 27-year old Negro Army veteran, Danny Thomas, by a gang of white youths, had inflamed the community. Coverage by the city’s major newspapers, which played down the story in hope that the murder would not become a cause for increased tensions, backfired. A sensationalized banner story in the Michigan Chronicle, the city’s Negro newspaper, began: “As James Meredith marched again Sunday to prove a Negro could walk in Mississippi without fear, a young woman who saw her husband killed by a white gang, shouting: ‘Niggers keep out of Rouge Park,’ lost her baby.
“Relatives were upset that the full story of the murder was not being told, apparently in an effort to prevent the incident from sparking a riot.”
Some Negroes believed that the treatment of the story by the major newspapers was further evidence of the double standard: Playing up crimes by Negroes, playing down crimes committed against Negroes.
Although police arrested and charged one suspect with murder, Negroes questioned why the entire gang was not held. What, they asked, would have been the result if a white man had been killed by a gang of Negroes? What if Negroes had made the kind of advances toward a white woman that the white men were rumored to have made toward Mrs. Thomas?
The Thomas family had lived only four or five blocks from the scene of the blind pig raid. A few minutes after 5:00 A.M., shortly after the last of those arrested had been hauled away, a police cruiser had its rear window smashed by an empty bottle. Shortly thereafter a litter basket was thrown through the window of a store. Rumors of excess force used by the police during the raid were circulated. A youth, whom police nicknamed “Mr. Greensleeves” because of the green shirt he was wearing, was shouting: “We’re going to have a riot!” and exhorting the crowd to vandalism.
At 5:20 A.M. Commissioner Ray Girardin was notified. He immediately called Mayor Jerome Cavanagh. Seventeen officers from other areas were ordered into the 10th Precinct. By 6:00 A.M. police department strength had grown to 369 men. Of these, however, only 43 were committed to the immediate riot area. By that time the number of persons on 12th Street was growing into the thousands, and widespread window-smashing and looting had begun.
Although a block to either side of 12th Street were fine middle class districts, along 12th Street itself overcrowded apartment houses created a density of more than 21,000 persons per square mile, almost double the city average. Only 18 percent of the residents were homeowners. Twenty-five percent of the housing was considered so substandard as to require clearance, and another 19 percent had major deficiencies. The crime rate was almost double that of the city as a whole. A Detroit police officer told Commission investigators that prostitution was so widespread that officers arrested prostitutes only when their soliciting became blatant.
The proportion of broken families was more than twice that in the rest of the city. The movement of people when the slums of “Black Bottom” had been cleared for urban renewal had changed 12th Street from an integrated community into an almost totally black one, in which only a number of the merchants remained white.
Too little, too late
By 7:50 A.M., when a 17-man police commando unit attempted to make the first sweep, there were an estimated 3,000 persons on 12th Street. They offered no resistance. As the squad moved down the street, they gave way to one side, and then flowed back behind it.
The manager of a shoe store had watched for two hours as the store was being looted, vainly awaiting, according to him, the arrival of the police. At 8:25 A.M. someone in the crowd yelled “The cops are coming!” and flames blossomed from the interior of the store. It was the first fire of the riot. Firemen who responded were not harassed. The flames were extinguished.
By mid-morning 1,122 men, approximately a fourth of the strength of the police department, had reported for duty. Of these, 540 were in the riot area, which still had not expanded beyond six blocks. One hundred and eight officers were being used in an attempt to establish a cordon. There was, however, no interference with looters, and police were refraining from the use of force.
According to witnesses, police at some roadblocks made little effort to stop people from going in and out of the area. A good deal of bantering took place between police officers and the populace, some of whom were still dressed in their pajamas. There seemed, to some observers, at this point to be an atmosphere of apathy: the police did not appear to care what was happening, and many of the older and more stable residents, who had seen the street deteriorate from a prosperous commercial thoroughfare to one ridden by vice, remained aloof.
Commissioner Girardin believed: “If we had started shooting in there … not one of our policemen would have come out alive. I am convinced it would have turned into a race riot in the conventional sense.”
(Continued next issue)
We would like to thank Allen Fischer of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, Austin, Tex., for his unstinting assistance, without which this series would not have been possible, and Mary J. Wallace at the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University, Detroit, for most of the photos. — PL.
Bulk orders of this series others can be obtained at The Michigan Citizen office for educators, community groups and others. Call (313) 963-8282.
Copyright © 2007 by Paul Lee
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