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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.
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
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
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
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
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