Bad government caused Detroit’s decline. Don’t blame the riot. (Slideshow)

Detroit Riots

Scenes from Detroit's 1967 riots underscore how much was lost before and after the violence. (SLIDESHOW: Click the arrows or swipe to see historic images from 1967, courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library and Detroit Free Press)

Unrest that began early Sunday morning had already consumed the city by the following Tuesday. 

Fear of snipers in high windows had police on edge. 

The loss of densely packed commercial districts in primarily African-American neighborhoods is one legacy of the 1967 events.

Economy Printing, visible at the end on the left-hand side of 12th Street in this photo, was the epicenter of the riot.

A soldier looked skyward as fire and chaos reign. 

Crowds spilled off sidewalks on 12th Street. 

John Mogk

John Mogk is professor of law at Wayne State University. He is a scholar of urban issues and has advised the state, Wayne County and City of Detroit on numerous urban development initiatives.

Conventional wisdom says the 1967 riots were the primary cause of Detroit's decline. Deeper study shows this to be untrue. Flawed government policies were.

Long-term grievances of the city’s poor African-American community -- police abuse, slum housing, unemployment and poor schools -- were disregarded, until residents rebelled at these intolerable conditions and shocked the conscience of Detroit and the nation. The riot caused tragic loss of life and property in the some neighborhoods, but most of the city was untouched.

It is widely agreed that Detroit's decline resulted from the exodus of jobs and the white middle class. As the city peaked in population in the mid-1950's, older manufacturing plants reached the end of their usefulness, and the city made no plans to accommodate modern replacements. Auto manufacturers looked to the suburbs. Water and sewerage services there were inadequate, but in 1956 Detroit officials made a business decision to extend thousands of miles of water and sewer lines beyond 8 Mile Road, eventually building a 1,000-square-mile metropolitan system, helping to drain Detroit's jobs and tax base for decades to come.

Then, the federal government acted. The interstate highway program tore through Detroit and, in the process, destroyed the vibrant commercial and cultural center of the city's African-American community along Hastings Street, while the federal urban renewal program wiped out the adjacent Black Bottom neighborhood.

After the riot, more federal destruction occurred. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched a subprime lending program for low-income tenants in riot-torn areas to buy homes in better neighborhoods. Mortgages were issued with no down payment required. Housing sales spiked and when supply fell short, realtors used heavy-handed, illegal blockbusting to generate sales by promoting fear that new African-American neighbors would destroy the neighborhood.

Disaster soon struck, with widespread foreclosure and abandonment similar to the results of the subprime lending crisis of the past decade. Foreclosures soared, but banks were fully reimbursed, happily kept substantial closing fees and made more subprime loans. Foreclosed homes in Detroit reached 20 percent of HUD's national inventory, blighting neighborhoods and depressing housing values.

The Detroit public school system played its part as well. In an effort to racially balance its schools, which were one-third white, the board adopted a plan that moved 12,000 students to different buildings. In 1969, state Sen. Coleman Young, who became Detroit's first African-American mayor in 1974, fought the plan from Lansing, as he felt that African-American children were not required to attend schools with white students to be well-educated. In defiance and without board approval, the DPS superintendent and legal counsel met with the NAACP to invite the Milliken v. Bradley busing lawsuit.

The goal of the suit was to establish a regional busing plan. However, no suburbs were included as defendants by the NAACP or DPS. After finding that DPS itself had engaged in discrimination, lower federal courts concluded that a Detroit-only desegregation plan would totally segregate the system within a few years. Accordingly, a regional desegregation busing plan was ordered. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, reversed the order because no discrimination was proved against the suburbs. Detroit-only busing was then implemented and was further exacerbated by a six-week teacher strike, resulting in a major exodus of many remaining white middle-class families from the city. All the while, industry and jobs continued to exit the city.

Detroit's decline resulted from the loss of its job base and predominantly white middle class. The riot was one factor among many, including structural racism, that contributed. In-depth research on what actually motivated individual business owners and residents to leave is lacking, but there is little doubt that flawed government policies overshadowed the riot as the major contributing factor.

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John S. Porter
Sun, 09/03/2017 - 6:14am

Mr. Mogk raises more questions than he answers in discussing the decline of Detroit. "In 1969, state Sen. Coleman Young, who became Detroit's first African-American mayor in 1974, fought the plan from Lansing, as he felt that African-American children were not required to attend schools with white students to be well-educated. In defiance and without board approval, the DPS superintendent and legal counsel met with the NAACP to invite the Milliken v. Bradley busing lawsuit."

"Structural Racism" implies a white overclass doing harm to the black underclass. This article mentions structural racism, but doesn't successfully make that case. The white Mayor Jerome Cavanagh ( tried to work with black leadership in Detroit, but had a pigmentation problem. Coleman Young needed a black political base to displace the "white" power structure within the city. It wasn't all white based racism. People familiar with that period can point to a lot of advantages doled out by the government based on skin color. It was called "Affirmative Action". While affirmative action helped a lot of individuals, it also promoted division between people based on skin color, which was (and is) not good.

Chuck Fellows
Sun, 09/03/2017 - 8:00am

Detroit's decline began with white political policy actions in the late 1950s and industries search for "greener" pastures. Jane Jacob's "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" is a good resource for what happened. Racism is evolutionary, our genetically driven fear of difference. White political policy continues to drive racist policies to day, no better example than the "hold harmless" school districts in white communities as protection from Prop A.

John Saari
Sun, 09/03/2017 - 6:44am

Governments especially the larger ones, have gotten too bureaucratic and wasteful and they are not doing the will of the people. Governments should adopt a pay-it-forward volunteer program.

Wed, 09/06/2017 - 11:34pm

That's a tired old herring, that's been beaten to death many times. It's pushed by corporate oligarchs, who are more interested in lining their own pockets than helping anyone else. No one "earns" a billion dollars a year, just for moving money around

Sun, 09/03/2017 - 8:44am

John S. Porter makes some good points. More questions than answers or reasons. It is always easy to fall back on the term structural racism...aren't we all getting tired of hearing that?! Bad government also caused Detroit's bankruptcy. In reading the bankruptcy filings, it clearly documents the archaic, incompetent, inefficient and corrupt Detroit municipal government for the past 4-5 decades. I do agree that the local government leaders including Wayne County did not foster policies that adjusted to changing industrial times as it relates to attracting and maintaining jobs in the city.

Also, often missing from the discussion is that people make choices in life and there are consequences to bad choices. We now see for many decades "comfortable poverty" that continues to permeate the majority of inner cities including Detroit.

Rick Swartz
Sun, 09/03/2017 - 9:08am

David Maraniss' book "Once in a Great City" also traces the decline of Detroit, part of which underlay the riots rather then the other way around.

Thomas M Haley
Sun, 09/03/2017 - 9:30am

“Be careful how you choose your enemy, for you will come to resemble him. The moment you adapt your enemy’s methods your enemy has won. The rest is suffering and historical opera.” Michael Ventura

Snyder’s Cider that the “Flint water crisis was a failure of government at all levels” is rebottled Reagan’s Kool aid/ flavor aid that the “problem is government.” Reagan took the country off Keynesian economics (demand side) to Say’s Law (supply side) of Jean Baptise Say. In that way, the government was the problem. We live in a nonlinear world. Roger & Me was more about de-industrialization than Flint. I believe corporate ethos of South East Michigan was determined by Henry Ford and Alfred P Sloan. Both were autocrats:

When I found work in Chicago did I ever heard the correct organizational term “reporting to” and not “working for“ your boss. In a market economy people work for their customers. Neither Obama or Snyder use the correct parlance.

If the 2014 employees of MDEQ were working the people of the State of Michigan and not for Snyder as they have been since 2016, would there have been a Flint water crisis?

The left like generals are fighting the last war. This is not the 60s. I agree with Jeff Wright.
The Karegnondi pipeline has nothing to do with structural racism. The first water scandal in Flint was in the 60s. But it had more to with money in the narrow sense and not racism, as the second with money in the wide sense and not racism
See Gary Flinn’s book Hidden History of Flint chapters 29 and 35.

Tom Haley
Mt Morris, MI
Former MEA member

Chuck Raeder
Sun, 09/03/2017 - 9:50am

Finally an article that address the role busing played in the flight from Detroit. I am so tired of reading articles claiming to explore the decline of Detroit that never mention the busing desegregation plan. No one liked the busing program. Those that could afford to flee Detroit to avoid busing (both white and non-whites) left for the Suburbs. Property values plunged and the downward spiral accelerated. This resulted in the lower economic level residents remained, most of which were minorities. Tax base declined and services, especially the schools suffered. The lack of State and Regional leadership and the policies of Detroit administrations combined to prevent implementation of solutions that may have eased the problems. Thanks for the article.

Dave Maxwell
Sun, 09/03/2017 - 10:38am

You omitted one of the primary reasons....Coleman Young

Curtis Bridges
Sun, 09/03/2017 - 10:30pm

YES---the true racist --Coleman Young and his great "experiment" ---see how that worked out.

Once a great city that is now ---nothing.

Mon, 09/04/2017 - 4:00pm

Okay, I know that there are those that love to put the onus on the late Mayor Young; however, if you look at this article and others, most of the policy decisions which contributed to the decline of Detroit's fortunes occurred long before he became Mayor.....population peaked with the 1950 census, and businesses began exiting shortly thereafter.

Michael Staebler
Sun, 09/03/2017 - 11:52am

Great piece. Also remember the federal government began providing 90% of the sewer and highway money. Also remember the HUD appraisal scandals of the late 1960s which exacerbated the housing mess--grand jury and over 100 people jailed. Then there was Ford pressuring businesses to leave downtown and move to Ford Motor Land's huge development. AAA was the first. I was an associate at Dykema (summer clerk in 1968 and associate beginning in 1969) and the hallway talk of the senior partners was whether Dykema and other businesses would leave. And then of course there was the tax on non residents who worked in Detroit.

Death by many cuts led to the downward spiral. Inadequate tax base to support infrastructure and commitments built and made by a more populous city.

An urban tragedy

David L. Richards
Mon, 09/04/2017 - 11:06am

Two points. Clearly, the riots did not cause the decline of Detroit as the decline had started before 1967. In addition, the hollowing out of inner cities occurred across the country, not just in Detroit. However, the riots certainly expedited the downfall of Detroit. The second point is the difficulty of cause and effect. Many of the factors people claim was the cause of Detroit's decline were actually the result of the decline, such as the tax increases necessary to try to preserve infrastructure and services when people and the tax and economic base were moving out.

Ben Washburn
Tue, 09/05/2017 - 8:44pm

Thanks to John Mogk for a different and more nuanced take on the dynamics of Detroit's decline. Far too many folks seem to take delight in believing that rioters and the apologists for rioters got exactly what they deserved.
As Mogk notes, 1956 was a crucial year. That was the year in which the total taxable value of all of Detroit's residential, industrial and commercial properties hit it's historical peak. From that time on, when adjusted for inflation, it has drifted ever downward, except for a small blip in the early seventies, which again is attributable to that ill-fated HUD housing easy finance program, which Mogk notes..
1956 was also the year in which auto sales plunged, and massive lay-offs began to occur in Detroit. The whole U.S. economy went on a five-year skid. Meanwhile, the post-war Marshall Plan was financing the re-industrialization of Europe, factories with the very latest technology. Most American factories had been built and equipped in the 1920s, and many would sooner or later not be able to compete, to the extent that they were vulnerable to world-wide competition. But, in 1956, that problem was twenty years down the road.
I disagree with Mogk's conclusion that Detroit "government" made a bad business decision, in approving the metropolitan expansion of the water and sewage system, that is, that they should have known that it would lead to a hollowing-out within the bounds of the City. I was there in those years, and that concern was never raised nor even imagined. Neither the Mayor nor the City Council thought they were doing anything more than following the lead of the real movers and shakers of the time, meaning the land speculators and developers, who were making big contributions to their re- election campaigns.
Two commentators have referenced a couple of books which should be on everyone's reading list:
Chuck Fellows recommends: Jane Jacobs: The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs makes a convincing case against most of the "city planning" that has gone on for the past sixty years, and she made her case way back in 1961.
Rick Schwartz recommends: Larry Maraniss: Once Upon a Time in a Great City, which recounts a short period in Detroit governance from the Fall of 1962 until 1964. Looking back with 20-20 insight, it picks up on some themes which no one had at that time.

Wed, 09/06/2017 - 11:30pm

And the offshoring of good jobs, by mostly Republican CEOs, who discovered "enhanced shareholder value," didn't have any impact? You can't have a prosperous city when none of its citizens prosper. That's what's happening again today, as a relative few benefit from the gentrification of certain areas, and the rest of the workers struggle just to eat on $10/hour jobs.