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Rebellion, crisis & social transformation

The global struggle's connection to Detroit's 1967 upheaval

Part 1: Background to conditions in Motor City

Published Aug 2, 2007 12:08 AM

On July 23, 1967, a confrontation between Detroit vice-squad officers exploded into a major rebellion in that city’s African-American community, the largest rebellion in U.S. history at that time. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in National Guard and U.S. Army paratroopers to repress the population. The result was 43 dead, 467 injured and over 7,200 arrests. More than 2,000 buildings burned down. The following is Part I of excerpts based on a talk give by Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire, to a Workers World forum in Detroit this July 21.

Abayomi Azikiwe
WW photo: Cheryl LaBash

On July 23, 2007, the city of Detroit will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Great Rebellion of 1967. It will not be surprising that the corporate media will label this series of events as a “riot” in an effort to minimize its significance and to strip the upheaval of that year from its political and social significance. Yet, when the five days of confrontations with police and national guard troops, the shopping for free, arson attacks on businesses as well as sniping are placed within the context of what was taking place around the United States and the world at that time, it will illustrate that the so-called “Detroit Riots” were in fact an act of mass rebellion very much connected to the global struggle against racial capitalism, neo-colonialism and imperialism.

The city of Detroit had experienced a consistent growth in African immigration from the pre-World War I period right through the late 1960s when the rebellion took place. The city had been a central destination point during the period of slavery for the Underground Railroad, being located right across the river from Canada.

With the industrialization of the city during the early 20th century, Detroit became a magnet for the influx of labor from the Black Belt regions of the South where Africans were fleeing from the wretched conditions of sharecropping and tenant farming that were enforced with Jim Crow laws, lynchings, mass poverty and landlessness. Consequently, when Henry Ford and other industrialists offered increased salaries for the labor of African workers, many people made the trek to Detroit with the aim of increasing their living standards and enhancing their opportunities for greater personal and political freedom.

National Guard, U.S. paratroopers patrol
Detroit, July 1967.

However, the city of Detroit was always a focal point for racial exploitation, segregation, tension and unrest. Dating back to the disturbances of 1833 and 1863, the city has been noted for its periodic outburst of violence and rebellion. During World War II there were two historic incidents that illustrated the problems associated with large-scale African migration within the context of labor exploitation and white intolerance.

The efforts by whites to keep Africans out of the Sojourner Truth Homes on the East Side laid the basis in many ways for the so-called “Race Riot” of 1943. The 1943 racial clashes are often attributed to the competition for housing and access to public accommodations in the city. In June of 1943, white mobs chased, attacked and murdered African men and women in the streets along Woodward Avenue and in other sections of the city. In response Africans destroyed white-owned businesses in their communities and set up self-defense patrols that would not allow whites in their communities.

The corporate media at the time attributed the so-called “Race Riot” to the behavior and attitudes of zoot-suit wearing African-American youth who carried knives and flaunted laws related to segregation and the white-dominated caste system prevalent in Detroit at the time.

Urban renewal devastated communities

In the aftermath of World War II, the city adopted a massive urban renewal program that set out to remove large sections of the African community on the city’s East Side. The major areas affected were known as “Black Bottom” and “Paradise Valley,” where African Americans had established, as a result of residential and labor segregation, viable communities with small businesses, social clubs and religious institutions.

By the early 1960s, the communities on the East Side were devastated. The main business district along St. Antoine and Hasting streets were destroyed in order to make way for the Chrysler Freeway, which transported whites to the burgeoning suburbs and outlying areas of the city. Of course the growing Black electoral political power that resulted from the large-scale immigration during World War II and its immediate aftermath was suspected by the African community as the major reason behind the mass dislocation.

Beginning in the aftermath of World War II, African-American families began to move into the areas around 12th Street, 14th Street, Linwood, Dexter, etc. This area had been dominated by Jewish-Americans who had earlier moved from the Paradise Valley area that Africans had populated beginning with the increased migration during and after World War I.

The transformation of this community took place very rapidly. In fact some apartments, flats and single home subdivisions were racially changed within weeks. By the middle years of the 1950s the Virginia Park community and its environs became virtually all-Black neighborhoods. As a result of the lack of political representation within city government, with the exception of City Councilman Patrick, who was elected in 1957, African-Americans felt disenfranchised by the municipal authorities.

A neighborhood which was characterized by its sturdy and well-built apartments, flats and single-family homes soon deteriorated and by 1960 the Virginia Park Community organization held a forum asking the question as to whether 12th Street was becoming another skid row. Despite the fact that the neighborhood was virtually all-African, the majority of merchants and many of the landlords remained Jewish-American. The community soon began to complain about the problems associated with poor city services and the refusal of the local merchants to reinvest in the community and to assist in its upkeep.

By 1963, the racial tensions in the city had reached a major crossroad. In that year, the Detroit Council for Human Rights (DCHR) was formed under the leadership of the late Rev. C. L. Franklin, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church. New Bethel had been located in the heart of Paradise Valley on Hastings and Willis during the late 1940s through 1961, when it was ordered demolished as part of the so-called Detroit Urban Renewal Plan.

The DCHR in conjunction with the Group on Advanced Leadership (GOAL), formed by Richard Henry, Milton Henry and the Reverend Albert Cleage of the Central Congregational United Church of Christ among others, organized the June 23, 1963, “Walk to Freedom” down Woodward Avenue. The demonstration, which invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the keynote speaker and march leader, drew approximately 200,000 people, and became the first real mass demonstration for social justice and civil rights in the U.S.

The June 23, 1963, march represented a milestone in the history of Detroit as well. The fact is that the established labor and civil rights leadership had to run and catch up with the momentum tapped into by Rev. Franklin, Rev. Cleage and the organizers of the march. The political dynamics surrounding the evolution of the march and the development of the Detroit Council for Human Rights requires much more attention than this discussion will allow. Suffice it to say that the attitudes of the masses of workers and poor in Detroit were becoming more difficult to contain by the city’s power structure.

The march down Woodward Avenue set the stage for the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Dr. King had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech initially here in Detroit at Cobo Hall on June 23. The speech was later released as an album by Motown Records. Nonetheless, the popular version is the one that is canonized by the corporate media delivered at the Lincoln Memorial.

What is interesting about the rebellion of 1967 is that many had felt that because of the relatively affluent character of African Americans in Detroit—their greater access to homeownership, quality housing, industrial jobs and an educated middle class composed of professionals and business owners—that no large-scale rebellion would take place. The events of August 1966 on the city’s East Side, known as the “Kercheval Incident,” was contained and defused and utilized as proof that the city would not explode as New York had in 1964 and Watts in 1965 or as Chicago had in 1966.

However, these predictions proved false with the rebellion erupting on July 23, 1967, becoming the largest and most deadly in U.S. history.

Next, Background on the international dimensions of the African-American question.