We are the Children of Martin and Malcolm…
We are the children of Martin and Malcolm,
Black, brown, red and white,
Our birthright is to be creators of history,
Our Right, Our Duty
To shake the world with
A new dream!
July 25th, 2017
Throughout the city people are talking about the Detroit Rebellion, now 50 years in the past. The debate between riot and rebellion still surges, igniting energy and argument. The meaning of it all is still analyzed, the images still inspiring. In all of these conversations, fear lingers. Will it happen again?
Many people comfort themselves by narrowing the cause of the 1967 rebellion to police brutality. The story goes something like this. Detroit was becoming a majority black city, but the police department was 95% white. Many white officers had been recruited from the south, specifically because they were good at intimidating African Americans. It was excessive force and harassment, used against people celebrating the return of two Viet Nam veterans in an after hours joint that sparked what was then the bloodiest urban uprising in US history. Now, after Coleman Young and his efforts to integrate the police department, we no longer face the problems of police hostility. All may not be perfect, but it is much better.
Others acknowledge the complexity of racism, white supremacy, deindustrialization, and a host of local, regional and national policies that combined to oppress and dehumanize people of color. Many recognize that these forces are still distorting and destroying the lives of people throughout our city. School closing, pension seizures, unemployment, shut offs of heat and water, foreclosures and police harassment are part of daily life.
What rarely gets openly discussed, however, is the underlying logic driving much of the corporate elite and the choices they are making in the name of developing our city. That logic is the same as it was fifty years ago. It rests on a profound contempt for the lives of poor people, especially African Americans and other people of color. Their very presence has to be controlled. Their lives made invisible, their hopes and dreams diminished.
Public officials today reflect this same contempt. It is the foundation to all of their responses to the problems we face. For example, in a recent article in the New York Times discussing the blatant disregard for the law in the foreclosure crisis, Mayor Mike Duggan is quoted as saying he would not consider reimbursements to people who lost their home because of unconstitutional city actions. Duggan’s position is people had a chance to appeal their tax assessments. If people didn’t take advantage of the opportunity, it is just too bad for them. It is their own fault that they lost their homes, not the illegal actions of the city.
This contempt for people around the foreclosure crisis is the same attitude Duggan takes on water shut offs. He said people should just pay their bills. His attitude was echoed by the former radical, former city council person Sheila Cockrel. She was more direct, telling people who wanted “free water” to grab a bucket and head for the river. Comments from suburban leaders are no different. Most famously this contempt was expressed by L. Brook Patterson in Oakland County, suggesting putting a fence around Detroit and throwing in “blankets and corn.”
Contempt is essential to the protection of privilege. It justifies the inhuman and destructive practices necessary to maintain relationships based on injustice.
In sharp contrast to these corporate elites, people throughout the city are fostering relationships based on love and respect. They are growing food together, caring for children, creating new forms of education and developing local means of production for local needs. They are telling new stories of our past and opening new possibilities for our future. Whatever fires come next time, our best hope is in these community connections forged in love.
Eyewitness to History: July 23rd, 1967
Carl R. Edwards (founding member of the Boggs Center and People’s lawyer).
“Violence is the voice of the unheard.” – Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Sunday, July 23, 1967, I had just turned 20 years old. I was born on Bastille Day, July 14, 1947, the date in 1789 that the French people rebelled and overthrew their economic and political rulers, the King and Queen of France and the French monarchy. I had spent the day with my girlfriend at her parent’s home across the street from the old Olympia Stadium, home of Detroit’s professional hockey team, the Red Wings and its professional basketball team, the Detroit Pistons.
In the early afternoon, there was breaking news as we watched television: a disturbance had broken out in a lower west side neighborhood when the Detroit Police conducted a raid on an “after hours joint”. As time passed there were additional television news flashes: violence and looting of stores and business spontaneously erupted all over the City of Detroit. When I got ready to leave to return home, my girlfriend’s parents told me it was not safe to venture out and suggested that I spend the night and wait until the morning to return home.
I demurred. I thanked them for their kindness and set off for home, a mere 2-3 miles north on Grand River Avenue.
However, nothing in my 20- year-old young life prepared me for what I was destined to encounter. I was a witness to the apocalypse; a people’s primal scream for crimes committed by the white American and European race against African and African American humanity that shook the very foundations of the City of Detroit and the surrounding region, state and the nation.
It was both a riot and a rebellion. At that time, like so many other main streets in Detroit, Grand River was a beautiful avenue of retail stores, banks, grocery stores, gas stations, automobile sales lots, and all manner of large and small businesses. I witnessed scores of African Americans, young and old, breaking windows and stealing the store contents: groceries and meat, furniture, refrigerators, washers and dryers, irons and ironing boards, mops brooms and buckets, clothing, and every imaginable consumer good, vividly comes to my mind.
Although it was nearly midnight and the summer sun had gone to bed hours earlier, I recall the sky being “lit up” as if it were night and day at the same time. Bright red, yellow, orange, purple and black it was. Eerie. Flames danced up and up, higher and higher, to the heavens it seemed blotting out the dark night. To my young barely outside of mental adolescent mind, I said to myself: “This is what hell must look like”.
Why were people breaking into the stores and businesses stealing, and looting, I thought out loud. What my young, evolving mind could not yet piece together was the days and years of mistreatment, daily humiliations and myriad insults and degradations, heaped upon us all because of the color of our skin. I recall my father telling me that his stepfather was a dental school graduate but he could not practice in the dental profession because of the color of his skin. He found work instead at the United States Post Office where he worked until retirement. These and other narratives that were worse occupied the daily lives of African American Detroiters. More, the white Detroit police force was tasked with the responsibility of instilling fear and control, especially for those African Americans who dared challenge the normal operation of the way “things just were”. On that fateful Sunday, a typical day of rest, quiet and peace, “All HELL BROKE OUT” and African American Detroiters, as had African Americans in other American cities, exploded, releasing pent up energy, for a trillion grievances, outrages and despairs.
Police cruisers, fire trucks and ambulances sped up and down Grand River Avenue.
For the hour or so that I walked up Grand River, I saw absolutely not a scintilla of activity that could be described as resistance to the suffocating reality of virulent white racism, white skin privilege, white supremacy and white control over every fiber of my existence as a young African American Detroiter born and raised locally, not yet legally an adult. And it was white racism that caused this contagion. The report of president Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Commission) was unequivocal when it concluded, I am paraphrasing, that white racism caused the “Uprisings” in America’s cities, including Detroit. The Kerner Commission further stated unless drastic actions were undertaken immediately America was moving toward two societies, one black and one white, separate and unequal.
Yes, there was spontaneous unorganized resistance to the white police department when a largely white, Detroit Police Department attempted to quell the uprising by African American Detroiters against the symbols of white privilege and control in our largely racially segregated communities in Detroit. But the uprising also spread to Downtown Detroit’s political and economic power center and headquarters to most corporate businesses. It was only years later that I discovered there was also organized resistance by politically developed activist and revolutionaries in a few sectors of the uprising. However, and let me be absolutely clear on this point, there was no large-scale involvement of the masses of Detroiters with the goal or objective of organizing to seize control of private corporate property or power or state (governmental) property or power nor any aspect of same and negotiate with the moneyed or economic and political class for relief from the structures of white racist political and economic power in this city and region.
This statement should not be read, however, to support in any manner those apologist for the status quo as it existed for my entire young 20-year-old life in 1967. There has been a wealth of research, studies and books written on the history of race and racism as well as segregation and economic class domination in the City of Detroit. It is often loss to history that there was also a terrible racial uprising in 1943 that has been aptly documented by the national NAACP. Moreover, professor Thomas Segrue has documented this history of racial segregation and Jim Crow in the City of Detroit with his masterfully researched and written: “The Origin of the Urban Crisis”. Additionally, “Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, A Study in Urban Revolution” by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surken, is also a riveting account of the organized resistance and struggle against “Apartheid Detroit”, post-July 23, 1967.
In July 1967, a trillion pent up grievances, outrages and despairs exploded into spontaneous violence on a massive scale. Businesses and property, private and public, were targets for the most part. This is the definition of a riot. Indeed, $40-45 million dollars was the estimated cost in 1967 dollars ($325 million in 2013 dollars). This was the most destructive uprising and insurrection in United States history until the 1992 uprising following the not guilty verdict of the white Los Angeles police officers after their savage beating of Rodney King.
However, this eruption in mass violence by African American Detroiters was at the same time a rebellion, because although there was mass anger and revolt, the white owned businesses and property were the symbols of everything that was regarded as normal: the Detroit Public School system was racially segregated, with certain schools closed to African Americans; certain Detroit neighborhoods and homes were closed to African American Detroiters; the colleges and universities were also largely closed to African Americans, including those located in the City of Detroit and throughout the State of Michigan.
Jobs and employment, especially the skilled trades and white collar, salary, supervision and management, and all professional categories, also found it normal to exclude persons of color from their ranks. Banking, home ownership, business ownership, the legal and political process and even the downtown Detroit restaurants were off limits to African American Detroiters. In a word, whites reserved the “good stuff” and the “good life” to and for themselves.
African American Detroiters revolted and rebelled against this normal relationship of whites over blacks. From July 23-28, 1967 “…the world was turned upside down”.
Tragically, the decisions of the economic and political dominant class and their handpicked African American Detroit junior partners and comprador leaders created the storm that has created the legitimate grievances of African American Detroiters.
All too often these African American Detroit economic and political educated leaders and junior partners to white economic and political power elite served their individual interest first and the interest of their family members, friends and peers, rather than the interest of ordinary African American Detroiters, the people.
In a similar context in Africa, the iconic Dr. Kwame Nkrumah has referred to these individuals as “neocolonialist”: Africans whom serve the interest of white European and American economic rulers in power and not the interest of ordinary Africans. See “Kwame Nkrumah, The Conakry Years”, his life in exile in Guinea, Africa, after he was removed from office as President, Ghana, Africa, by his then Ghana Africa educated and military elite in collaboration with the United States and European powers; see also “The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born” by Ayi Kweiarmah, for a description of the lives of ordinary Ghanians under the rule of black Ghana, Africa, Junior partners to the United States and England economic powers, after independence when Britain was thrown out of Ghana. The replacement Ghana Junior partners treated ordinary Africans no better than their white former colonial masters, the English; and the values of these black African Ghanians remained fundamentally as they had been under British rule: worshipping at the altar of extreme materialism.
Martial law was declared in Detroit. The Constitutional protections and the Bill of Rights were locked away and placed in cold storage and the counter-revolution was unleashed with full fury and effect on African American Detroiters, men women, teenagers and, yes, even children.
In 1967, I was working as a janitor at Fred Sanders Bakery in the City of Highland Park, just outside Detroit on the afternoon shift. I was a sophomore at Michigan Lutheran College in Detroit attending day classes. I recall having to walk miles in order to make it home after my work shift ended at 10:00pm. An 8:00 pm curfew was in effect so we asked our supervisor if we could leave work in time to avoid being in violation of the curfew. We were told by our boss that as long as we possessed a permission slip from our job we could be out after the curfew went into effect. I decided to move back into my parents’ home located near Livernois and Warren Avenues because there was less public and private property destruction than there was in the Grand River Avenue area where my apartment was located. On day one after martial law was declared a coworker dropped me off on Livernois. As I walked passed the Detroit Police Department 10th precinct at Elmhurst and Livernois I saw a stunning spectacle that literally rattled me from my head to my soul. Scores of public buses were parked stuffed with African American Detroiters. No restroom there to relieve one’s self. No privacy whatsoever. No food, water, ability to buy a bag of potato chips or a soda pop. And this was the circumstance all over the City of Detroit. Every Detroit Police Department precinct mirrored what I witnessed at the 10th precinct. More, Detroit Public Schools football and baseball fields were converted into “ slave holding pens” and “concentration camps”. Later when the 82nd and 101st Airborne United States Army divisions and tanks moved into Detroit some of these playgrounds were also converted into military commands and stations. Even Detroit’s beautiful Belle Isle Park, at the time called the 8th wonder of the world, had its historic Bath House commandeered and converted into a modern day “slave holding pen”.
Army tanks randomly machine-gunned apartment buildings all over the city including in the areas where the uprising occurred. The “Dogs of War” were unleashed on a largely compliant African American Detroit citizenry. Legal murder and death were savagely committed against African American Detroit citizens by the United States military and local Detroit Police Department. Both were populated by white Americans raised on the toxic brew that we were their “inferiors”. Like their ancestors before them society gave these white citizens the privilege and powers and the right to control their darker brethren in any manner that they chose, including murder and death, including my death. A bestselling book was written by noted author, John Hersey, entitled: “The Algiers Motel Incident”, concerning the savage, cold-blooded death of three African American teenagers at the hands of white Detroit police officers. It was an open secret that Detroit’s economic and political power brokers went to the southern states and recruited white males to become police officers. So too, the United States military has been historically disproportionately comprised of white males from the south. These “good old boys” were born and raised with the powerful ideas that their darker citizens were “inferior” and it was their solemn, sacred duty “…to put and keep the “niggras” in their place”. Unlike their white northern brethren who dressed up, disguised and prettified this same system and personal white supremacy feeling and mental thinking, including the northern educated “liberal racist” socioeconomic class. For many years I have wondered why the towering Frederick Douglas sought personal independence from the white northern liberal abolitionist of his day, including establishing his own anti-slavery newspaper, “The North Star”.
For two nights, I trekked along Livernois Avenue the several miles to my destination, my parents’ home. During those harrowing nights, each step I made and each breath I took was anxiety filled as countless police cruisers and military vehicles sped by me. I carried the obligatory pass in my right pants pocket. But the fear of the “slave catchers” occupied my every young, innocent thoughts.
On night three my luck ran out. A police cruiser occupied by four Detroit Police Department officers, (nicknamed “The Big 4”), pulled alongside me as I walked home. I was ordered to stop. I froze in fear for what seemed like eternity. The first officer to exit his vehicle was particularly aggressive: “Nigger what are you doing out here. There is a curfew? Niggers are not to be on the streets”. In a nanosecond before I could provide an answer I see his right-hand move and he pulled out what appeared to my unschooled mind in weapons the biggest hand gun I had ever seen. Before I could say a word the barrel of this big, black pistol was pressed hard to my temple. I told the white officers I was heading home from work and I had a pass from my employer to be outside after the curfew. I reflectively went to reach into my right side of my pants pocket to show the white police officer my pass. I took a quick look out of the side of my eyes and saw and heard him pull the hammer back and hold it to the side of my head. My mind thought also reflexively this is my last seconds on this earth. I felt my heart racing, I was sweating profusely, a cold sweat on an extraordinary hot, Detroit, July summer day.
The white police officer holding the gun to my head grabbed my right hand and removed my paper pass from my pocket. He read it out loud and said words, I am now paraphrasing because of time and distance: “Nigger, this is just a piece of paper. It don’t mean shit. If we catch your black ass out again after the curfew we will kill you”. I watched as the crumpled paper pass was picked up by the wind and blown a half block distance. My hand still shakes as I recount this unspeakable experience 50 years later. I still suffer from the “guilt of the survivor” syndrome.
I was one of the fortunate young black men that July day and of that time. Many African American young men faced the wrath of the modern-day police state and it cost them permanently, with their life or their freedom, as it had cost millions of our ancestors. Our creator had her arms wrapped around me. She had a different purpose for my earthly life. I am certain that the seeds of what I was later to become were clearly planted with that harrowing life and death encounter with the modern day “slave catchers”: A trial lawyer, activist, humanitarian and freedom fighter.
July 23, 1967 was both a riot and a rebellion. Tens of thousands of young men and women of my generation heard and headed Malcolm’s call and challenge, a challenge that is just as urgent today:
“Wake up, from your oppressed status at the bottom of the economic, social pyramid; Clean up, mentally, spiritually and physically from your woeful miseducation concerning your history; you are not an inferior person or people; we are all exceedingly flawed and imperfect human beings but we have this incredible power that lies within, the power of choice and redemption; to choose to become a responsible citizen and purpose driven human being; and Standup; be a ‘man’ not a permanent ‘boy’, a woman, not an adult girl and stop being complacent to injustice in the face of what seems like an impossible challenge and odds.”
July 23-28, 1967 also confirms the enduring principle of the towering titan Frederick Douglass when he intoned: “Power concedes nothing without a demand; and that demand will be by words or sometimes by blows or both; the limits of tyrants are governed by the degree endurance tolerated by the person or persons they oppress and deprive of basic natural rights”.
July 23-28, 1967 was an insurrection. African American Detroit and African Americans in other sister cities both rioted and rebelled against the status quo and system of African American and black inferiority in every aspect of American and European life, imposed by white supremacy, white skin privilege and white control, circumstances which were considered normal by white Detroiters, white Americans and indeed white Europeans. Sadly, this normalcy fundamentally still persists today, 50 years later.
On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke to the violence that was occurring all over America in her cities shortly before Detroit exploded July 23, 1967. In a riveting passionate speech against the Vietnam War, delivered at Riverside Church in New York, Dr. King reminded America that violence is the language of the unheard and the poor. More, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated America urgently needed a revolution in values. He challenged America to shift from a “thing” oriented society to a “person” oriented society. Dr. King stated that “machines and profits cannot be more important than the people”. He warned America that it was headed for spiritual death unless it reversed course from worshiping at the altar of “…racism, extreme materialism and militarism”.
Finally, James and Grace Lee Boggs followed the words and example of Dr. King. They repeatedly called on us to struggle and fight to save the soul of America, not because we hate America, but because we love her so.
WHAT WE’RE READING
No water for poor people:
the nine Americans who risked jail to seek justice
(Marian Kramer and Rev Bill Wylie-Kellermann stand beneath Transcending, the monument built to honor Detroit’s Labor Movement. Photograph: Garrett MacLean for the Guardian)
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The James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership
3061 Field Street