Rising smoke, and terror on Detroit streets during 1967 violence

Detroit Riots

The memories of the burning and looting remain deeply engraved as a cautionary tale of how things can go south so quickly

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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 07/18/2017 - 8:41am

I was at Tiger Stadium that day for a game and on the way back to Lansing on the freeway we noticed a number of fires and a lot of smoke, I remember one building right next to the freeway going up in flames, and a helicopter going overhead. We had no idea what was going on since there was a news blackout, thankfully traffic was moving along at a regular speed and we got out OK, I don't know if the freeway was ever shut down but I'm glad we got out when we did.

Darryle J. Buchanan
Tue, 07/18/2017 - 11:26am

I grew up right in the epicenter of the rebellion. I call it rebellion because riot delegitimizes what happened. Rebellion causes change. And many things did change. Some good, some bad. What ended was the oppression by the police in my community at that time. Power is never ceded. A new level of Black empowerment and leadership arose from the rubble but so did the resentment and recriminations. Many of the same social ills from 1967 are still prevalent today. Some worse. What have we really learned in the past 50 years?

Ann Farnell
Tue, 07/18/2017 - 11:45am

Good story, well written. I was in the University of Michigan hospital with a severe sinus infection which swelled my eyes and forehead. I could barely see the TV, but I thought, " here it is!" The previous summer I worked for the then young Congressman Conyers. We were very aware of the rising tensions in the city. The congressman, Senator Coleman Young, Atty Robert Millender and other leaders in the community desperately tried to warn the Cavanaugh administration, offered plans for lowering the tensions, including motor integration of the police department, tackling red lining in housing, etc. Their efforts fell on deaf ears. I have always felt that the riot could have been avoided if white arrogance in the Cavanaugh administration had not been so flagrant.

Ann Farnell
Tue, 07/18/2017 - 2:47pm

more integration......not "motor".

Anna Hilden
Sun, 07/23/2017 - 1:42am

Some people, like you Ann Farnell, just look for things to correct and/or bitch about. Is that because it makes you feel superior to the person you are correcting and/or bitching about? Just wondering...

Mon, 07/24/2017 - 2:00pm

Did you notice that she was correcting herself? Wow. Some people like to jump in and bitch about people being superior before they even read what they're bitching about.

John Q. Public
Tue, 07/18/2017 - 1:51pm

Man, if I had volunteered for you, my heirs probably would have come along, too--and shot me themselves.

With a million bucks and a paltry 3% annual return that could be easily had back then in a passbook savings account, they could have received a perpetuity paying $29,000 per year. That first payment would have been about $212,000 in 2017 dollars.

Thu, 07/20/2017 - 9:03am

Mr. Power uses 'riot' to describe 1967 events, now to be politically correct 'rebellion' is used for Detroit in 1967. Let me offer one more from 50 years ago, 'big thief.'
Detroit had a ‘riot,’ it was started on Belle Isle in June of 1943 and spread, it was drive by racial rumors and social conditions, that wasn’t 1967. A rebellion is when people rise up against those in power, that wasn’t 1967. In 1967 it was people who were out on a hot humid night [no home A/C], were drinking beer and watching the night’s entertainment of a raid on a ‘blind pig’, not uncommon for Detroit then. Someone threw an empty beer bottle and it deteriorated from there. It was attacks on property that was convenient, in the neighborhood. After a couple of days reporting of stealing of all kinds, appliances to malicious destruction without any individual confrontation from the police, then the out of towners started rolling in. They were from New York and Chicago, even Pontiac. I met a couple of guys from Pontiac in January of 1968 and they told how they wanted to get in on the ‘fun’ in Detroit back in July. Their hopes were stopped when they met a new ‘sheriff’ that came to town. These guys with their buddies came face to face with a 101st Airborne APC with a manned 50 caliber machine gun on top pointed down at them. That was when they saw the error in their thinking [drinking and vandalism] and turned homeward.
Early that Sunday morning I went to visit [unaware of events] my fiancée at Moross and I-94 and returned home [hearing what was happening] to west County that evening. Crossing Woodward on I-94 the traffic became heavy as families in cars packed with family possession were streaming out of the 12th street area, the smoke was heavy, and you could see some fires.
The combination of the outsiders flowing in and the families leaving told me this was a ‘big thief’ not a social or political movement to the residents. Those families lost trust in Detroit government, and state and federal governments that night. They learned, as most in the area did, government was unwilling to protect them in their homes, unwilling to commit to the people who had sacrificed and invested themselves in family and home and community.
That July night exposed the politicians, and was a lost their innocents for those who believed in the whole family, responsibility, education/teachers, and that the government would help them defend that. That was the night the families [both ‘black’ and ‘white’ with the capacity] began the flight from Detroit.

Liz DeLaRossa
Thu, 07/20/2017 - 2:38pm

Thanks Phil for your post regarding the riots in Detroit. What you went through (along with your staff) had to be horrifying. I was 12 years old that summer living with my family in west Dearborn. My memories of that time are still pretty clear: fear in our neighborhood ("they'll be coming for Dearborn next, count on it!" was our next-door neighbor's rant); a curfew for Dearborn! That meant in our neighborhood that the typical after-dinner games that all of us kids played (kick the can, hide & go seek, et al) were not happening. We ended up (as kids do) making up games that we could play as each kid sat on their front porch with a flashlight. We smelled the smoke from Detroit, saw the orange sky in the distance and of course saw everything play out on the evening news. My dad, being the bigot that he was had his opinions about the riots & thankfully my mom explained to us what the definition of "prejudice" was ("It's ignorance, honey - in a nutshell.") My immediate question to her was "does that mean dad is ignorant?" "Yes, my darling, I'm afraid he is . . ." I recently received a phone call from NPR in D.C. asking me about my memories of the riots. I had answered a post of theirs on Facebook listing an 800# to call with my recollections. I did, they called me back & I had a nice chat with the gentleman who was writing the story. I was told that if my story was going to be used, they'd call me back. I have not heard back from them & don't expect to. I imagine stories like Phil Powers' recollections of literally being right in the thick of it are more relevant. It was nice to tell the guy from NPR about that time from the perspective of a 12 year old girl living in an all-white community like Dearborn & the fear & bigotry that seemed to crawl out from under the rocks as a result.

John Saari
Sun, 07/23/2017 - 6:59am

My scoutmaster was pinned down on the floor at the 16th PrecinctGrandriver and 6) from sniper fire.

Dave Hills
Sun, 07/23/2017 - 4:57pm

I was in Vietnam in 1967. I was stationed on a mountain top outside of Quin Yan. I went out to meet the mail chopper. They dropped a bundle and as I recovered it on the very top was the Stars and Stripes newspaper! Front and center looking me in the eye was a picture of Detroit on fire!!!!! I couldn't believe it. My first thought was, what the hell am I doing here? I should be there defending the city! I grew up in Petoskey but went to Detroit often as a kid. Always enjoyed our time there. Hudson's, Sanders Chocolate, Fisher Building, and White Castles. Tough time for our