Flashback: Detroit Erupts Into Race Riots in 1967

Fifty years ago this week, a raid on an illegal bar sparked a riot that helped change America

Fifty years ago this week, Detroit joined Newark and over 100 other American cities by erupting in chaos after lingering racial tensions thunder-clapped one of the most violent and devastating riots in American history. As part of that year's "long hot summer," the Motor City destruction drew approximately 7,000 National Guard and U.S. Army troops in response to the city's havoc. By its conclusion, 43 people had been killed, mostly black citizens at the hands of law enforcement; thousands more had been injured or arrested; and roughly $300 million (in 2017 dollars) in damage had been inflicted with nearly 1,400 buildings burned.

Initiated by a vice raid on a 12th Street "blind pig" – an illegal after-hours club operating without a liquor license – the 1967 Detroit Riots were the culmination of years-long strife between the city's black residents and its largely white police force. Economically and socially, Detroit during the summer months of 1967 was a tinderbox – and had been for some time. The city's jobs market had declined significantly since World War II, precipitated by white suburban flight just as a black middle class sprouted up.

Years earlier, black families migrated to northern cities like Detroit on the promise of greater opportunity, and encouraged by the prospect of escaping Jim Crow. That proved to be an illusion as overcrowding and charges of police brutality became rampant. And as the city's white population moved to the suburbs, Detroit's working class job opportunities continued to capsize. By the summer of 1967, the Virginia Park neighborhood in Detroit was home to tens of thousands of low-income residents – mostly occupying small apartments – a result of the city's housing restrictions.

This section of the city was also one of the black community's most vibrant centers. Police raids were common, however, and their tactics were typically aggressive. On the morning of July 23rd, patrons gathered inside an illegal club at the corner of 12th St. and Clairmount to celebrate the recent return of two men from the Vietnam War. A vice squad broke up the party, arresting all 85 attendees. As onlookers began to gather, police officers were forced to load the partygoers in plain view, as opposed to discreetly on a nearby side street. The crowd grew agitated, throwing bottles and expressing their dismay at yet another heavy handed intrusion into their lives. The simmering anger broke out, as a small mob began burglarizing nearby shops and setting the block on fire. 

Overwhelmed, the local police fled the escalating riot, and firemen were attacked for attempting to put out the blaze. The gathering quickly snowballed into the thousands, engulfing a larger terrain of the city and turning Detroit – in effect – into a warzone. "We saw soldiers patrolling our streets," reported NBC newsman Frank McGee in the riot's aftermath. "We saw stores and houses in our neighborhoods that looked as if they'd been hit by bombs."

Rioting continued as the mayor ordered the area's bars and theaters closed, in addition to implementing a curfew. Eventually, to end the disturbance, Governor George Romney sent in the Michigan Army National Guard and President Lyndon Johnson ordered the battle-tested 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, with the riot eventually ceasing on July 27th, 1967.

Years later, Governor Romney commented he'd been taken by surprise when he first learned of the rioting, as "Detroit had been treated very favorably by the Johnson administration, had been given a lot of special help in meeting urban problems." In fact, the prolonged violence has been attributed to political machinations by local and state officials, including Romney, who harbored presidential ambitions.

In the aftermath of the four-day riot, President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission, which produced a 426-page report, identifying the chief sources for the decade's race riots. Today, the riots remain touchstones for the 1960s social and political tumult, and continue to be a source of inspiration in the popular zeitgeist. Its events are examined in Kathryn Bigelow's upcoming Detroit, which focuses on the brutal, tragic Algiers Motel incident during the riot. David Bowie's "Panic in Detroit" commemorates the discontent, as told to him by Iggy Pop. And numerous books – including Joyce Carol Oates's them to Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – have used the riots as a backdrop.

While 1967 may have been the "Summer of Love" for denizens in Haight-Ashbury, the uprising in Detroit – like many other violent incidents during this period – reflected the black community's continued frustration with the lack of progress. And as outrage persists over the death of black citizens in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, and across the nation, the 1967 summer riots are a disturbing reminder of this country's deeply flawed record on race.