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Scars Still Run Deep In Motor City 50 Years After Detroit Riots

Jul 24, 2017
Originally published on July 24, 2017 11:26 am

This week, the city of Detroit is remembering a series of days that forever changed the iconic Motor City.

Fifty years ago, the city ignited into five days of rioting after Detroit police raided an illegal after-hours club.

People there say police shoved a pregnant woman aside during the raid. Someone else threw a brick at the officers.

Many African-American Detroiters call it a rebellion against systemic racism and decades of harassment by some white police officers.

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And even with investment returning to Detroit now, the city's emotional scars still run deep.

Simply driving to a quiet inner-city intersection still brings it all back for former Detroit police officer Ike McKinnon.

It was there, 50 years ago, that McKinnon was a young African-American driving home in the midst of the riot. He was still wearing his police uniform when he was stopped by two white cops.

"They came up with their guns drawn," McKinnon remembered. "And I said, 'Police officer.' The older officer, brush cut, gray hair, said, 'Tonight you're gonna die.' As I dove back into the car he started shooting at me."

McKinnon said he reported the incident to his supervisors. But they did nothing.

That worried McKinnon as much as dodging bullets fired by other members of the police force.

He said, "If those officers were doing that to me, as a fellow officer, what were they gonna do on the streets of Detroit?"

McKinnon eventually became chief of police and a deputy mayor.

But in July, 1967 McKinnon was one of the few blacks on an almost all-white Detroit police force — in a city that had become a war zone.

It took five days for the violence to abate. The National Guard and U.S. Army troops and tanks were called in to patrol the city. When the arson smoke finally began to clear from the city blocks that had been torched, and the many businesses looted and burned, the toll was staggering.

About four dozen people had been killed, more than a thousand injured, thousands arrested. African-Americans made up the vast majority of those numbers.

Some black Detroiters said it was the price they paid for finally taking a stand.

That was certainly the view of the man who helped found the Black Panther Party in Detroit, Ron Scott.

Scott, who died in 2015, spent the last part of his life working in Detroit with a group called the Coalition Against Police Brutality.

But Scott frequently said that his work with the coalition, indeed his entire adult life, was shaped by what he, too, called The Rebellion.

Scott said the violence was the result of harassment targeted at him and other young blacks throughout the late 1950s and 1960s by some racist white Detroit police officers.

"They would generally engage in what today would be called terroristic activities," Scott said then. "They would beat you up, lock you up. I was told as a 13-year-old walking with my uncle, when a cop put a shotgun in my face, 'Nigger, if you breathe I'll blow your head off.' "

Detroit's mayor at the time, Jerome Cavanagh, was elected in part because he pledged to end the "stop-and-frisk" policies that were aimed almost exclusively at African-Americans in the city.

But even a year after the smoke had cleared from the 1967 uprising, Cavanagh was still pleading for restraint in an increasingly divided metropolitan region.

"The citizens of Detroit, both Negro and white, are arming themselves in unprecedented numbers," Cavanagh said in an address to the public. "And in the suburbs surrounding Detroit, gun sales have also soared. And let me say, my fellow citizens, that this arms race must stop. We must return to sanity."

But for some, like Sheila Cockrel, Cavanagh's appeal rang somewhat hollow.

Cockrel was a 20-year-old activist in July 1967, watching Army tanks patrol the city's streets. She went on to serve as a member of Detroit's city council.

Cockrel said, "There's this whole sort of narrative about falling property values and rising crime that were the nexus that, for white people [in the Detroit region], made the policing strategies acceptable."

Now, a half-century later, she believes the unrest actually had an upside.

Cockrel said the uprising led to Detroit electing its first black mayor, Coleman A. Young, who integrated the city's police force.

But Cockrel also notes the five days of violence in 1967 accelerated an exodus of white people, and financial capital, out of Detroit.

"The irony is that today working-class poor black people [in Detroit] are worse off than they were in 1967," she said.

A presidential commission later determined that systemic racism had driven the rioting.

Officials initially downplayed that report.

Yet some Detroiters say the reasons behind the rebellion must not be consigned to the past.

There's a small park now at the intersection where the uprising first ignited.

Detroiter Lamont Causey calls it an attempt to sanitize events city officials would rather forget.

"I think a lot of folks is trying to hide the stigma about what happened," Causey said. "But you can't throw history under the rug. Can't do it. Have to talk about it in order to move forward. So that's what we're doing."

Causey said he's lived in this neighborhood all his life.

And when he glances at the overgrown areas nearby, Causey finds the ravages left from the uprising remain very apparent.

"Look around you, [can] see the consequences. Do you see any businesses? All you see is a bunch of raggedy houses right now that we waiting and hoping to get redeveloped. That's what we [have been] waiting on. [For] 50 years," Causey said.

There are plans afoot to create new stores and even a cultural center on this spot.

But Causey and others living near the area where the violence erupted in 1967 meet official pronouncements with a mix of hope and suspicion.

They were targeted 50 years ago by police sworn to protect them. And the wounds remain very raw. And very real.

Copyright 2018 WDET 101.9 FM. To see more, visit WDET 101.9 FM.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Fifty years ago this week, police in Detroit raided an illegal after-hours club. Somebody threw a brick. Violence spread. The city erupted into five days of rioting. Many African-Americans in Detroit did not call it a riot. They called it a rebellion against decades of harassment from racist, white police officers.

Well, how long does it take to get over an incident like that? Fifty years is apparently not enough. Here's Quinn Klinefelter of our member station WDET.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Former Detroit police officer Ike McKinnon stops his car at an inner-city intersection. It was here, 50 years ago, that McKinnon, an African-American still wearing his police uniform, was driving home in the midst of the riot when he was stopped by two white cops.

IKE MCKINNON: They came up with their guns drawn, and I said, police officer. The older officer, brush-cut gray hair, he said, tonight, you're going to die. As I dove back into the car, he started shooting at me.

KLINEFELTER: McKinnon says he reported the incident to his supervisors, but they did nothing. That worried McKinnon.

MCKINNON: If those officers were doing that to me as a fellow officer, what were they going to do on the streets of Detroit?

KLINEFELTER: McKinnon eventually became chief of police and the deputy mayor. But in July of 1967, McKinnon was one of the few blacks on an almost all-white Detroit police force in a city that had become a war zone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

KLINEFELTER: After five days of violence with the National Guard and U.S. Army troops and tanks patrolling the city, about four dozen people had been killed and more than a thousand injured, the vast majority of them African-Americans. Even months after the uprising, then Detroit mayor Jerome Cavanagh was confronting increasing tension between black Detroiters and white suburbanites.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEROME CAVANAGH: Gun sales have also soared. And let me say, my fellow citizens, that this arms race must be stopped. We must return to sanity.

SHEILA COCKREL: There's this whole sort of narrative about falling property values and rising crime, that we're the nexus that, for white people, made the policing strategies acceptable.

KLINEFELTER: Former Detroit City Council member Sheila Cockrel was a 20-year-old activist in July of 1967 watching army tanks patrol the city's streets. She calls the unrest a rebellion against constant police brutality, one that actually had an upside. She says it led to Detroit electing its first black mayor, who integrated the police force. But Cockrel notes the uprising also accelerated an exodus of white people and financial capital out of Detroit.

COCKREL: And the irony is that, today, working-class, poor, black people today are worse off than in 1967.

KLINEFELTER: A presidential commission later determined that systemic racism had driven the rioting. Officials initially downplayed that report. But some Detroiters say the reasons behind the rebellion must not be consigned to the past.

A small park now stands where the uprising first ignited. Detroiter Lamont Causey calls it an attempt to sanitize events city officials would rather forget.

LAMONT CAUSEY: I think a lot of folks are just trying to hide the stigma about what happened. But you can't throw history under the rug - can't do it. You have to talk about it in order to move forward. And so that's what we're doing.

KLINEFELTER: Causey says he's lived in this neighborhood all his life. He glances at the overgrown areas nearby and says the ravages left from the uprising remain very apparent.

CAUSEY: Look around you. You see the consequences. Do you see any businesses? All you see is a bunch of raggly (ph) housese right now that we're waiting and hoping to get redeveloped. That's what we waiting on.

KLINEFELTER: Fifty years down.

CAUSEY: Fifty years.

KLINEFELTER: There are plans afoot to create new stores and even a cultural center on this spot. But Causey and others here say they meet official pronouncements with a mix of hope and suspicion. They were targeted 50 years ago by police sworn to protect them, and the wounds remain very raw and very real. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF LRKR'S "BLUE LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.