Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the Detroit “riot,” as everyone called it then, or “rebellion” as many prefer now.
And my recollections of the event are as fresh as if it had happened yesterday.
I had just started my community newspaper company, then Observer Newspapers, Inc., in 1966, the year before.
My apartment in Livonia had a balcony facing east, toward Detroit. I had gone to bed exhausted around midnight.
In the wee hours of the morning my phone rang and somebody ‒ I forget who ‒ said, "Get out on your balcony and look toward Detroit!"
There were little spots of red in the distance and some smoke rising, and suddenly I realized those were fires. It was the mark of an event which lasted five days and became one of the most destructive urban upheavals in U.S. history.
Today, we’re still living with the consequences.
Nobody expected it to start the way it did – and some thought with the relatively high rate of homeownership and automotive-based wages, a riot was unlikely to happen in Detroit at all. But that all changed with a routine police raid on an unlicensed, after-hours blind pig on Clairmount and 12th Street (now known as Rosa Parks Boulevard) at 3:45 a.m. Sunday, July 23, 1967.
There were far more people in the illegal drinking joint than the police expected, and this led to far more arrests than expected. It took police more than an hour to load people into paddy wagons. As they did, an angry crowd gathered. Rocks were thrown; looting began ‒ and soon all hell broke loose.
Eventually, Gov. George Romney called out the Michigan National Guard, which in many cases made the problem worse. A dangerous game of chicken began between Romney and President Lyndon Johnson. Neither wanted to look weak.
Romney delayed asking for highly trained professional U.S. Army troops, and Johnson waited precious hours before sending them. The soldiers weren’t finally deployed till Tuesday, when they helped to restore calm in many neighborhoods.
But the damage by that time was horrific. Forty-three dead, 657 injured, 7,231 arrested and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. In today’s dollars, the property damage may have been close to half a billion dollars.
But the longer-term consequences were just beginning. Detroit was over one-third black when the violence started. But the events of July 1967 accelerated white flight.
In a few years, a majority of Detroit’s population would be black and, by 2010, the city had lost more than 90 percent of its white population since Detroit’s economic peak in the early 1950s – taking jobs and capital with them.
But all I knew early on was that something very grim was going on in Detroit. At that time, all my newspapers were typeset and printed at the Polish Daily News plant on Canfield Avenue in Detroit, not far from where the violence seemed to be.
The publishing sequence was that our copy – news stories and ads – was delivered to the plant on Fridays and Saturdays, in those pre-computer days.
Typesetting happened Sundays and Mondays. We'd turn up at the plant first thing Monday morning to put the paper out, overseeing final corrections and monitoring the press run.
But I could see disaster in the making. At that time, my newspapers were all weeklies, distributed on Wednesdays. An entire edition of my newspapers was trapped in the rickety old wooden Polish Daily News plant located right in the middle of what was turning into a serious conflict.
To lose an entire edition would be horrible: A week's worth of advertising lost … we were pretty much a start-up company back then, and losing that much revenue would have raised real questions about the company's survival.
My mission was clear. I had to put together a crew to go into the middle of a burning city to put out the paper.
I made a bunch of phone calls to my department heads, and by Monday morning I had a pretty good plan in mind when I walked into a room full of excited but scared newspaper people.
Much of that stuff was obviously scare-mongering even then, but when I looked east, I could not help seeing plumes of smoke in the air and hear the “thrum” of helicopters.
I planned to assemble a crew to go into Detroit to put the papers out, and then truck the bundles out from the city to the suburbs for distribution. I asked for volunteers.
Something like 20 hands went up. I made a note of their names, told them to put on old clothes and pack some food for lunch and supper, as we might be down there a long time.
I then went back to my apartment and did two things. I called Lloyd’s of London and took out life insurance policies for $1 million on each volunteer. And I took out the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum I’d taken to Alaska a few years before, plus a box of shells.
Those I put in my briefcase.
Then I went back to the office.
By that time, there were three or four pickups and a couple of old cars assembled out in front, and we set off for Detroit in a caravan. At first, we didn't see much going on, but the nearer we got to Canfield the worse things looked. There were little clumps of police on every corner, plus a few squads of guardsmen going by, fully locked and loaded.
We were stopped a couple of times. "What in hell are you people doing down here? Don't you know there's a riot going on?" the cops said. Yes, we did, and we explained we were newspaper people (and therefore crazy) who had to get to our printing plant to put out our next edition.
"Well, it's your neck, buster," they said.
We got to the plant to find ‒ thank God! ‒ a work crew prepared to put the paper out. Never was copy so quickly proofed and corrected. Never was copy so quickly typeset, and never did the old tubular press run quite as fast to crank out the 60,000 copies we needed to distribute the next day.
But it was touch and go. As I looked out from the loading dock, a wood house across the street went up in flames. A few minutes later, a dozen young guys trotted by, one carrying a television set. "Want to buy a color TV, cheap?"
No, we didn't, but we tried to be civil about it, and they went on. As we loaded bundles of papers into our trucks, I went back into the plant with a fistful of $20 bills to thank all the guys who had stayed at work to help us.
We headed west toward Livonia, and by the time we reached the office I began to literally shake in relief. We’d done it – and the rest of our publication schedule went off without a hitch. By that time, general panic had arisen in the suburbs, so we immediately set up a rumor control center in our newsroom.
From there, we answered questions by phone and provided up-to-date reports to local radio stations.
Looked at from the vantage point of today, all the rumors and fear for safety outside of Detroit seem quite disproportionate. But at that time, the suburbs were nearly all white and racial feelings ran high.
Detroit was at that time, and remains today, among the most segregated metro areas in the entire country. Only in the late 1980's did black families start moving to the suburbs in any numbers. And racism in the suburbs was casual and ubiquitous. A black family that moved into Redford Township had a cross burned on the front lawn shortly after moving in, and Livingston County was the headquarters for the Michigan Klavern of the Ku Klux Klan.
I decided I had to say something about all this, so for the next edition I prepared a special front page article for all my newspapers. In reverse type (i.e. white letters on a black background) the headline read, "Reflections on Violence", a quote I remembered from reading an early 20th-Century political theorist, Georges Sorel.
Under that headline, I wrote a column that attributed the violence in Detroit to persistent and savage discrimination in housing, joblessness, a nearly all-white police force and a sense of desperation among the black citizens of Detroit.
A day after the column, I got an anonymous phone call. "You nigger lover! You better watch out the next time you start your car."
"Well, dammit," I reflected. “That's what comes with the territory if you're going to be a serious newspaper publisher."
Most people thought I was committing economic suicide. Perhaps I was risking some revenue. But our business grew and prospered, and I've never regretted running the piece.
And it's only been in recent years – particularly with the election of Mike Duggan as Detroit’s mayor – that the sense of desperation that led to the '67 violence and looting has gradually been replaced by the stirrings of hope that Michigan's largest city might be throwing off the ghastly memories of the past and starting a new period of hope and progress.
But the memories of that civil disturbance remain deeply engraved on my heart as a cautionary tale of how things can go south so quickly and with such terrible consequences.
Sinclair Lewis was right. You never want to assume that the worst couldn’t happen here.