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
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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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.
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