For Detroit, 1967 riots continue to cast long shadow

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Black Child During Detroit's Race Riots In 1967. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Black Child During Detroit's Race Riots In 1967. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

DETROIT – On July 23, 1967, an early-morning police raid of an after-hours club on 12th Street & Clairmount set off what was, at the time, the most destructive American riot of the 20th Century. Today, 45 years later, the 1967 Riots are seen as more than four days of destruction and mayhem; it became the seminal moment of the last half-century for Detroit.

“Riots and rebellions aren’t things that are planned,” said Dr. Melba Joyce Boyd, distinguished professor and chair of Africana Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. “It’s an accumulated outburst or reaction to ongoing repression”

By the summer of 1967, amid race riots in other major cities across the country, the tensions between the city’s black residents and then-majority white Detroit Police Department had reached a fever pitch. Racial intimidation, harassment, and police brutality were commonplace and by 4 a.m. on July 23, the powder keg exploded.

“The riot was a direct response to police repression,” Dr. Boyd said. “Black people had very little political power, or influence, over their lives in the city even though we comprised a substantial percentage of the population.”

The riot – or “rebellion” as older Detroiters often call it – was the city’s second in 25 years and the most destructive riot in U.S. history (it was surpassed by the 1992 Los Angeles riots). By the time it ended on July 27, 45 people were dead, 467 were injured, 2,500 businesses were destroyed, 388 families were left homeless and 412 buildings burned or damaged – some of which still stand today.

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Jerome Cavanaugh was in his second term as Detroit’s mayor in 1967. Cavanaugh, who ironically was elected in 1961 due to massive support from African-Americans who were fed up with police brutality, was heavily criticized for his handling of the riots.

“There were smaller riots around the country, and it seemed that Detroit had dodged the bullet by 1967,” said Phil Cavanaugh, Jerome Cavanaugh’s son and a current state representative. “You can diffuse a situation if you act quickly. This was a blind pig and it took a long time for the paddy wagon to get there to cart people away and crowds assembled.”

Cavanaugh, who passed away in 1979, came under heavy criticism for what was seen as a lax response to the riot. The criticism included the attempted black out of local media coverage during the riot’s first day and the delay in getting help from the National Guard from Governor George Romney.

“Once the incident did precipitate, I think politics kind of took over,” Cavanaugh, a former Wayne County Commissioner, said. “Romney had his eye on the White House. You have Republican versus Democrat [President Lyndon Johnson] with an election the following year.

“My father said that he wanted the National Guard to come in quickly, diffuse it, and be done. Johnson wasn’t going to [send in guard troops] until Romney asked for them to make him show a sign of weakness.”

While the immediate impact was devastating to the city, it was the lingering aftermath that redefined it. A long-standing misconception is that the riot caused the “white flight” from the city, which eventually saw revenue and businesses follow, but this was not the case.

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“There were still ethnically linked neighborhoods in the city for years afterwards,” Dr. Boyd said. “You don’t see that mass white flight out of the city until the election of Coleman A. Young [in 1973]. For the most part, there was still white control over the city after the riots and white people were not leaving en masse until after there was significant black political control.”

Since Young took over as mayor on Jan. 1, 1974, Detroit has had five mayors – all have been black. Today, nearly 90 percent of the city’s residents are black. A majority of the Detroit City Council has been black since 1980 and the city’s population has plummeted from 1.4 million to 713,000 in that time period.