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July 1967 and its aftermath: 'You set the scene'

The global struggle’s link to Detroit’s 1967 rebellion, part 5

Published Sep 3, 2007 7:55 PM

On July 23, 1967, a confrontation between Detroit vice squad officers and a section of the Black community exploded into a major rebellion, the largest in U.S. history up to 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 more than 7,200 arrests. More than 2,000 buildings burned. The following is the fifth and final part of excerpts based on a talk given by Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire, to a Workers World forum in Detroit this July 21.

During the early morning hours of July 23, the vice squad unit of the Detroit Police Department 10th Precinct staged a raid at the United Civic League for Community Action offices located on 12th Street between Clairmount and Atkinson on the city’s west side. The police had been notorious for raiding social gatherings in the African-American community under the guise of shutting down illegal drinking establishments known as “blind pigs.”

The area around 12th Street at the time was inhabited by tens of thousands of people, many of them youths and young adults. Twelfth Street had a reputation as a business strip where both legal and illegal activity coexisted in an equilibrium that served the immediate interests of those who lived and visited this community. For example, people could hear music in storefront bars and clubs, they could order soul food at restaurants such as Carl’s or they could purchase clothing and furniture at the various small businesses on the strip.

Record stores sold the latest hits and pawn shops provided opportunities for people to get quick cash for jewelry and other items. Just north and west of the 12th Street area, enclaves of middle-class and working-class neighborhoods existed where African-American factory workers, business people and professionals lived in close proximity to the working poor, welfare recipients and those involved in the informal economy.

During this time period prior to the rebellion, the city administration under Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh, a young urbane politician who was likened to John F. Kennedy, had gained political office in 1961 with widespread support within the African-American community. In 1965 he was re-elected and his administration fostered the notion of Detroit being a “model city,” where people were too busy to engage in the type of civil disorder that took place in other cities around the country.

African Americans had access to industrial jobs within union shops. They had some representation within the United Auto Workers (UAW) during this time period. Although their position within the leadership was subordinated and even marginalized, the African-American membership within organized labor was proportionately higher than in many other areas of the urbanized northern and western cities.

The fact that Detroit exploded on July 23 proved that the so-called “Great Society” and “Anti-Poverty” programs established by the Johnson administration and its political allies were an abysmal failure. With the passage of national civil rights legislation, Africans were receiving a lot less than what had been desired with the completion of these legislative processes. Therefore, the response to the continuing oppression of African people not only alarmed the status quo but set the ruling class on a course to suppress the rising militancy in the communities across the country.

Efforts aimed at neutralizing the growing consciousness of the African masses sought to contain the rebellions through intensified government repression and also economic efforts to meet the immediate need for employment and advancement within the labor market. However, the administration’s preoccupation with the war in Vietnam and its unwillingness to allow genuine self-determination and political power within African communities doomed these policy initiatives to ineffectiveness and evisceration.

Need for Black leadership

From the standpoint of the evolving political consciousness of African Americans, many people who had been involved in the protracted struggles during the early and middle years of the 1960s concluded that any genuine social movement aimed at reform or more structural changes in the power relationship prevalent in the society would have to be led by African Americans. Because it was the African-American people who had initiated the decisive phase of the civil rights movement during the 1950s and early 1960s that shattered McCarthyism and anti-Communist hysteria.

In addition, the African-American people had advanced their struggle to encompass urban rebellion and the call for Black power, which not only impacted the political thinking within the United States, but created the atmosphere where pride in a people’s culture and national identity flourished.

As a result of these ideological and philosophical developments, a view of democracy, coalition building and style of work altered the way in which Africans and European-Americans interacted in a political context. People began to demand that Africans who participated in multiracial projects have proportional representation and that they should be in a position to exercise veto power over whites no matter how well-meaning and purportedly committed to social change. In other words, it would be the African-American people and their organizations that acted as the vanguard of any real movement for reform and fundamental social transformation in the United States.

One example where this view of proportional representative democracy was revealed took place at the National Conference for a New Politics which was held during Labor Day weekend at Palmer House in Chicago, Ill. James Forman said of the NCNP that:

“At the huge gathering held by the National Conference for a New Politics on Labor Day weekend of 1967, the issues of self-determination, imperialism, and the role of whites erupted and became traumatic for many. The Arab-Israeli War had already created its conflicts. The increasing insistence of Black people that our struggle was against the United States government, and linked to the worldwide struggle against imperialism in general, upset many of the old arrangements between whites and Blacks. The growing awareness that Black people must assume leadership in the revolutionary struggle in the United States had also displaced the former power and social relationships.” (“The Making of Black Revolutionaries: A Personal Account,” James Forman, Macmillan Company, 1972, p. 496)

Judy Watts in the Inner City Voice wrote on the NCNP from the perspective of the simultaneously held Black People’s Convention in Chicago. She conveys that:

“Many Black people were lured to the National Conference on New Politics convention at Chicago’s Palmer House because an appeal to attend, signed by several leading Black militants, was released to the press by the NCNP. Upon arriving in Chicago, we discovered that not only had some of these leaders denied signing any such appeal, but Black people had been almost totally excluded from the decision-making processes and preparations for the convention.

“Seeing that Black people were only being used to make the NCNP look radical and integrated, a number of Chicago Afro-Americans made plans to provide an alternative, a Black People’s Convention which would really serve the interests of our people. All Afro-Americans, both residents of Chicago and those traveling to the NCNP conference were invited and urged to attend the Black People’s Convention, which was held at Christ Methodist Church.

“Solidarity between Africans and Afro-Americans was best expressed by representatives of the Pan-African Student Conference and by James Forman, who recently returned from Africa. A revolutionary African poet who was a member of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union received a standing ovation for his poems dedicated to Malcolm X and the Black people of America.

“It was brought out by the African speakers that Africans are very much aware of their brothers and sisters in America, despite the lies and distortions used by the imperialist powers to keep them divided.”

This notion of proportional representative democracy and the vanguard role of Africans in America were also reflected during the visit of SNCC Chairman H. Rap Brown to Detroit on Aug. 27, 1967. Brown had been under intense pressure from both the state of Maryland and the federal government. He was associated by the corporate media with the wave of urban rebellions sweeping the United States. He did arrive and spoke to thousands of people from atop the Dexter Theater located on Dexter and Burlingame on the city’s west side, an area severely affected by the rebellion.

John Cosby Jr. in the Inner City Voice quoted Brown as saying:

“You see brothers and sisters we were brought here to work. Now machines have replaced us, and whitey can operate them. ... You have been replaced, dig it? The man don’t need you anymore. You’ve outlasted your usefulness, Chump.

“The man’s solution for us has to do with 13 concentration camps,” which Brown said “are now being prepared for people sitting next to you.’”

On that same day SNCC sent a letter to Oliver Tambo (the then acting president of the African National Congress) pledging moral support and other help as the liberation movements ask for it. According to Brown in a statement published in the Nov. 16, 1967, issue of the Inner City Voice:

“In our letter we stated that in the United States we are this day, Sunday 27th of August, 1967, calling on Black people not to buy new General Motors cars for the year 1968. We are fully aware that General Motors is a heavy investor in South Africa and the profits from exploited labor of our brothers in South Africa make this company even richer.

“We are making this appeal in the city of Detroit, the state of Michigan, where General Motors has its main plants. ...

“Remember that the struggle against racism, colonialism and apartheid is an indivisible struggle.” (Inner City Voice, Nov. 16, 1967, p. 10)


What we must conclude from these concrete examples of the internationalization of the Pan-African struggle in 1967 is that the developments in Detroit and other cities around the country did not take place within a political vacuum. Those who seek to describe the events of July 23, 1967, and the days, weeks, months and even years afterwards as a “riot” or some other criminal aberration with no real lasting social significance are attempting to obliterate key aspects of the collective consciousness of African people and others who cherish human liberation and social justice. It is an attempt by the historical enemies of the African struggle to distort the future prospects for building revolutionary movements that transform concrete realities in which people live and struggle.

The collection and reflection upon these historical processes will assist in providing younger and future generations with the intellectual and political ammunition to wage the continuing battles for genuine liberation and social transformation. These efforts will contribute further clarity in the ongoing intersection of the struggle of Africans in the Western Hemisphere with the movements against neocolonialism and imperialism around the world.

Therefore it is up to the African people themselves to research, chronicle, evaluate, write, publish and disseminate their historical analysis of the events of 1967 and their significance. It is this challenge that the Detroit Oral History Project must assume with vigor and persistence. Oppressed people cannot afford the luxury of others, no matter how well-meaning or not well-meaning they may be, to dominate the way in which their history is presented and interpreted.