I am honored to be among several Detroit historians and scholars who were asked to contribute to a soon to be published journal, on the subject of Riot or Rebellion – for the Charles Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit 67 Project.
I write from the perspective of one whose family was irrevocably altered in July 1967. My father, Joe Von Battle, was a record store owner, recording Detroit artists from John Lee Hooker to Rev. C. L. Franklin and his young daughter Aretha.
His record shop and recording studio was located on old Hastings St.; in 1960 he was forced to relocate when it was demolished to build the Chrysler Freeway. He relocated to 12th and Pingree, and not long after, moved to another storefront a block away on 12th, between Philadelphia and Euclid. It was here that his business stood on July 23, 1967, six blocks from the epicenter of the unrest, on 12th and Clairmount.
My father, mother, and three younger siblings were in bed that early Sunday morning when the phone rang. The voice on the line said, “Something is happening on 12th St.” We knew without knowing what “something” was – a riot – as my dad and everyone called such a thing (though he – a southerner – pronounced it more like “route”). Watts had exploded in 1965; there was intense upheaval all over the country, as Black people emerged from the Civil Rights Movement with gains, yet were still treated as second-class citizens – even in prosperous Detroit. Protests against police brutality had erupted on the East Side on Kercheval St., exactly a year before.
I could feel the tension that ’67 summer, even as I stood in the doorway of the record shop, looking out on 12th St. at the dynamic culture and musicality of 1960’s Detroit. Despite today’s nostalgia for the “good old days,” of the city, much of the Black community heaved with silent – and not so silent – discontent.
Black shoppers were not welcome in many stores, especially Downtown; in the early sixties, we could not shop or try on shoes or clothing at the iconic Hudson’s department store, or enter certain exclusive departments. Employment there was limited to janitors, cooks and later, elevator operators, beloved in the memories of Detroiters. Many remember the black woman who took us from floor to floor, but they had to be of lighter complexions to have the job, and no matter how elegant or stylish, they were not allowed to work on the sales floors. Woolworths was vigorously picketed for its discrimination in hiring in the early 60’s, and we were not welcome at the soda fountain at Kresges.
It was not uncommon for a mother to carry in her purse a paper-bag cut out of their children’s foot – for they were not allowed to try feet were not allowed to touch the shoes that they tried on. We could not try on clothing or hats, for fear (of the sales staff) that our skin would touch the items.
Black factory workers were most often limited to the lowest paid, dirtiest and most dangerous jobs – such as in the hellish foundries and paint departments. Housing segregation was rigorously sustained by block-busting, redlinging restrictive deed covenants, and threats – or actual – violence.
Like the black veterans of prior wars, Detroit Vietnam Vets were fighting for their country, and returning home to blatant inequality. The police presence – “The Big Four” – guns often raised high from car windows as they drove by – was oppressive in the community. Notably, they were “four” because they traveled two in front, two in back – no need to have space in the rear for someone arrested – the intent was to detain and adjudicate on the spot – often with tragic results.
Due to segregation, blacks were forced to move from the old Black Bottom and Hastings Street communities, then were packed into the 12th St. neighborhood with severe spatial limitations, as they had been in old Black Bottom twenty years before. But there was a growing black middle class that would eventually become the largest in the US. Our exposure to the “good life” in Detroit put equality almost – but not quite – within reach. Despite the civic promotion of the “Model City,” many could see that it was a matter of time before the top blew off of Detroit. What happened on that steaming hot July night on 12th Street, when police raided a party for a returning Vietnam Vet was a shock, but not a surprise.
My father left the house in the night, desperate to protect the record shop. After a day of guarding his store with his gun and a “Soul Brother” sign in the window, he was crestfallen when he and the other business owners were told to leave by the authorities. As opposed to the big companies and factories around town, there would be little attempt by authorities to protect these small businesses.
Soon, the looting and uproar of the enraged pushed its way down 12th Street, our family business in its path. My father never shook the feeling that somehow, he and the others could have protected their shops, rejecting evidence of the futility of such thinking. In retrospect, I’ve wondered if he was right.
We lived in Highland Park, two and a half miles from the record shop, and could see the black smoke on the horizon in the west. Army tanks drove up John R, in our green, quiet neighborhood, untouched by the turmoil on 12th. In the absence of news coverage (an official “news blackout”) reports from relatives and friends recounted that it was clearly no “race riot” – they witnessed many Whites looting and carousing in the upheaval – unharmed – right alongside Blacks.
Days later, my father was allowed to return to 12th Street; the stench of smoke enveloping the burnt block, the sidewalks, a carpet of broken glass. Joe’s Record Shop was trashed and looted, records and reel-to-reel tapes strewn about in the wet debris – the music of untold number of Detroit artists gone, the life of my family changed forever.
Yes, there was lawlessness, looting and mayhem – but there was also a drumbeat of revolt. The looters were not just street folks, but working people too; caught up in the turmoil and reacting in a city where they remained on the lower scale of wages and jobs. They could not shop outside the neighborhoods to which they were confined, and were subject to often prohibitive loans, pricing and layaways to buy items more readily available to others. Resistance to these frustrations took many forms – like finally having that color tv, even if looted.
Today the question is asked, Riot or Rebellion? The word “riot” has come to be used, by especially mainstream news media, to describe eruptions of havoc and violence of no discernible cause, like mayhem after sports events. During the disturbance in Detroit, however, it is clear that authorities – the city, state and federal governments – no matter what they stated – regarded Detroit’s upheaval as not just a melee, but a mutiny of some sort – and organized their responses accordingly.
Black labor radical, the late General Baker, would recount that he was arrested at his home immediately after the raid of the after-hours club, and was detained through the days of the conflict – presumably as a preventative measure – to stop him (and other activists) from influencing the unrest. According to venerable bookseller Ed Vaughn, his Black power bookstore was targeted by police and burned – not once, but twice.
The 101 Airborne Division was routed to Detroit, to augment the local and state police and National Guard; the island park Belle Isle became a jail. Only the efforts of Judge George Crockett Sr. to hold emergency hearings on the island compelled the release of Detroiters who had been detained there for days without bond. The Algiers Motel on Woodward was the scene of the killing of three young Black men, for which White police were eventually acquitted by an all-White jury. The response to the spontaneous upheaval was as formidable as if the unrest had been a planned insurrection.
Many opine that the week’s events were mere mayhem, senseless rioting; in which folks foolishly, irreparably “destroyed their own neighborhoods.” But blacks owned few commercial properties, and it was the authorities that could not – or determined not to – – stop the fires from spreading to homes. Many residents were caught up in the turmoil; there was massive destruction, much collateral damage. But there was clearly an energy in the streets that was not “senseless” at all, but was in response to many decades of inequality. There is much denial about the apartheid-like lives of black Detroiters in the years prior to 1967.
I have said that I believe my father died when he walked back into his shop that day in ’67. He returned home from his ruined record shop and proceeded to drink himself to death – though he did not actually leave this earth until 1973. But his demise was not caused by the destruction of his shop alone. As I say in a recent essay: “…his life’s work and provision for his family was destroyed – by looters; by the explosion of the pressure cooker of racism and discrimination; by the move from Hastings to a new and different place with a new, modern music; by the turning of his beloved first record shop into a freeway service drive.”
The loss of his shop on 12th Street was the proverbial last straw – after years of systemic reversals. Notwithstanding the impact on my family and our personal losses due to the destruction of our business, I do not view the events of July ’67 as a senseless riot, but as an upheaval that, unfortunately, made perfect sense.
It was a massive civil disturbance, one of the innumerable revolts of the oppressed that have erupted throughout history; one of the hundreds of “upheavals” that exploded during that period around the country. The face that it was a spontaneous and unplanned made it no less in response to the pervasive policing and spatial containment of the segregation/apartheid in Detroit.
The nomenclature of “riots” alone minimizes the causes of unrest, denies the pervasive discrimination and resultant hunger for equality that existed for many Detroiters in ’67, for which there was an inexorable, explosive consequence – that can appropriately be termed a revolt, an uprising, an upheaval, unrest – or yes, a rebellion.