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Inner City Voices: 'I Just Wanna Testify'

The global struggle’s link to Detroit’s 1967 rebellion, part 4

Published Aug 27, 2007 9:28 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 biggest 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 down. The following is Part 4 of excerpts based on a July 21 talk given by Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire, to a Workers World forum in Detroit.

When the rebellion erupted in Detroit on July 23, 1967, it was part and parcel of a consistent pattern that had been evolving over the several summers since 1963. The mass demonstrations of the spring and summer of 1963 in Birmingham, Ala., and other areas of the South and North heightened the sense of community and shared commitment for advancing the status of African-Americans.

In Birmingham that spring—1963—a violent response from the African community erupted during the period when police used repressive tactics aimed at halting the demonstrations to desegregate public accommodations and businesses in that Southern city. In 1964 rebellions erupted in New York City, Rochester, N.Y., and other cities on the East Coast. Of course the Watts rebellion of August 1965 raised the stakes to even higher levels with the dispatching of National Guard units into Los Angeles to put down the upheaval.

In June of 1966 the “Black Power” slogan, which arose out of the cotton fields of the Delta Mississippi region during the “March Against Fear,” became the rallying cry of the masses of youth and working people in the South, the West Coast and the North. That year even more urban rebellions erupted across the United States with outbreaks in the Hough Section of Cleveland in May and on the west side of Chicago in July.

The rebellions in Chicago were closely intertwined with the citywide Freedom Movement that sought to desegregate neighborhoods and to improve housing conditions in African-American communities. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved to a housing project in Chicago and declared that the Northern cities would now be a key focus of the next phase of the civil rights struggle in the aftermath of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the so-called “white backlash” unfolded.

When [Chicago] Mayor Richard Daley Sr. dismissed the moderate demands of the Chicago Freedom Movement, the masses erupted and rebelled for four days on the west side of the city. The city administration blamed King and the civil rights movement for raising the expectation of the African masses to unrealistic heights and consequently frustration would set in after immediate progress would not be forthcoming.

There is a certain logic to this allegation based upon the rapid development of historical and social processes during the middle and late years of the 1960s. In a matter of a few years the African masses went from seeing no potential relief from institutionalized racism, segregation and national oppression to the mass movement of hundreds of thousands of people in support of full equality and political power. This was coupled with the overall international situation. As Malcolm X as well as others observed, the African nations were making rapid advances in their national liberation struggles and served as a source of inspiration to Africans in the United States.

According to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, during 1967 more than 160 urban rebellions took place throughout the United States. Prior to the rebellion in Detroit, violence erupted in Newark, N.J., on July 12. New Jersey had been a center of urban rebellion since the summer of 1964. A widespread rebellion beginning on July 12 prompted the dispatching of the National Guard once again in an American city.

Other cities throughout the state also went up in flames with mass looting and sniping. In the aftermath of the Newark rebellion, a National Black Power Conference was held which drew people from throughout the United States. Broad sections of the African-American movement gathered and grappled with the question of what strategies would take the struggle forward amid mass rebellion and increasing repression on the part of the Johnson administration, which was caught in a military quagmire in Vietnam facing growing casualties and tactical defeats on the ground.

Sherman Adams wrote in the Oct. 20, 1967, issue of the “Inner-City Voice” that the National Black Power Conference in Newark was a watershed in the ideological developments of the time period. Adams says in his article, which was published in the aftermath of the rebellion:

“The conference was clearly not just a small, secret meeting of burning eyed radicals, but a gathering of over 1,000 registered delegates from 38 states, representing a broad cross-section of Black America. There were old women from Rochester on welfare, Mississippi cotton pickers, municipal judges, Black Muslims, Black Catholics, broken down ex-boxers, Black Republicans, and a police captain from Harlem.

“Every major black organization in the U.S. was represented: H. Rap Brown of SNCC, Floyd McKissick of CORE, Watts’ nationalist leader Ron Karenga, Dr. Martin Luther King’s top troubleshooter Rev. Jesse Jackson and representatives from the Urban League were all official delegates. The delegates emphasized the role of Black Americans in the international struggle for human rights, a theme which earlier was developed by the late Malcolm X.

“A black manifesto was issued condemning the aggressive U.S. policy in Vietnam, Cuba and other foreign countries. Part of the manifesto read:

“‘Black people in America allowed themselves to become the tool of policies of white supremacy. It is evident that it is in our own interest to develop and propagate a philosophy of blackness as a social psychological, political, cultural and economic directive. ...

“‘Blacks in America, Asia, Africa, and Latin America stand at the crossroads to either expanding revolution, or ruthless extermination.’

“At about 4:30 p.m. on the first day of the Conference Ralph Featherstone, program director of SNCC, whispered in my ear, ‘We are going for the revolution.’ Within 10 minutes a nervous anxiety had spread through the crowd. Ralph stood up and asked to be heard; Dr. Wright granted him the floor. The young SNCC field worker said: ‘In order that our Black brothers in Newark have not died in vain, I have a resolution I want to read:

“‘Whereas freedom and all of the rights conferred upon men has been the unshakable foundation of all societies ever since civilization were known and whereas man in his uncompromising struggle to be free has fought and died for centuries in rebellions, riots, insurrections, uprisings, revolts, crusades, revolutions and wars;

“‘Whereas the tree of freedom has been succored by the blood of such warriors as the Americans who died in the Revolutionary War, the French who stormed the Bastille, and the Asians and African battles against colonialism through insurrection;

“‘Whereas the nation of Black people which lives in the United States is determined it too will join the endless legion of Freedom Fighters by the fighting and dying for their freedom.

“‘Be it resolved that this National Conference on Black Power on July 20, 1967 hereby goes on record as strongly endorsing the black revolution. Further, that it proclaim its approval of the rebellions in cities from Watts to Newark as necessary to achieve nationhood.’

“Mr. Featherstone, in addition, stated that Black people should pledge their loyalty and resources to their brothers in Black ghettoes who carry the fury of the Black revolution on their shoulders. The resolution was adopted on the spot amidst shouting and cheering. It seemed as though everyone at the conference, regardless of his political stripe, was concerned about the Black rebellion and the reaction of the white power structure.” (ICV, October 20, 1967, p. 4).

These efforts to transform the urban rebellions into revolutionary insurrection were paramount in the minds of the most advanced elements in the Black Power movement in the United States. The Johnson administration and others within the Congress and the intelligence community sought to stifle these efforts through the intensification of the Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) that specifically targeted the most active organizations and leaders with both the civil rights and Black Power tendencies in the African-American political spectrum.

One question that arose in government circles was whether the rebellions were planned or derived from a national conspiracy. In June of 1967 several members of the Revolutionary Action Movement were arrested and charged with a conspiracy to assassinate civil rights leaders such as Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Whitney Young of the National Urban League. RAM leaders issued a statement dismissing such allegations and stating that the arrests were part of a government plot to contain and isolate the militant wing of the movement from the African-American community as a whole.

Next, Part 5: July 23, 1967 and its aftermath: ‘You set the scene’