The Great City Burns
This is not an anniversary. Nor is it a remembrance. Not for me. For me, it serves as a reminder of what happened in the 15 months afterwards.
Fifty years ago, shortly after 3:30 am, police raided a after-hours party at 12th and Clairmount. There was a party for two returning Vietnam veterans and as police were loading the 80 or so (mostly) African-Americans into Paddy wagons (yes, they still had those 50 years ago), someone threw a brick. It ignited a riot that lasted five days and destroyed a city — and indirectly, my family.
It’s easy to look back at the good times in your life. Not so much the bad ones.
The weekend of the riot, revolt, whatever you want to call it, I was at home with my younger brother, Chris and our parents. My sister, Lynn, was at my grandparents house about six miles away. My dad was a salesman and my mother worked in a medical office in the Fisher Building in the New Center Area of the city. It was, typically, a hot and muggy weekend in Detroit. Maybe that had something to do with what happened at 9125 12th.
That Saturday, the day before, the Tigers, in a heated pennant race with four other teams, crushed the last place New York Yankees, 11–4. They were tied for first place with Minnesota that Sunday morning as they prepared for a doubleheader against the Yanks.
My grandmother, Marion Franks, was the kindest person I ever knew. She took care of me in my young life. She was wonderful and my heart swells up with both pride and sadness when I think of her. Pride, because she would have been happily surprised to see me grow up to be the person I became. But, as we all know, life’s fates befall us all.
But on July 23rd, 1967, in our little house on MacArthur Street in Redford, no one knew of the unrest brewing just west of the Lodge Freeway. I was working on a model airplane with my dad and the phone rang. My mother picked it up and it was grandma, telling her to come and get my sister, because there was trouble. My mom called a neighbor to look after my brother and I and they took off to get my sister. No one knew anything because Mayor Cavanaugh had asked the TV and Newspapers not to report it. The news blackout lasted until about 5 that afternoon. CKLW (Channel 9, or, as I called it, “the hockey channel”) first started reporting it.
That night, at the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit, the famous “Motortown Review” was set to take the stage. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas (in my mind, still the better of The Supreme’s) were about to take the stage to sing their top 10 hit song, “Jimmy Mack” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmfVFJBZUBA when the stage manager told Martha, “we have to cancel the show. There’s a nine o’clock curfew because there’s a riot. Tell everyone to go home.”
The Mayor had called Governor Romney and Romney told him to put in a curfew to stem the mayhem. It didn’t work. The next day, Romney called President Johnson, reluctantly, to ask for the National Guard to help quell the disturbance. Johnson went on national TV to make the announcement. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6mpbxpVGag
My mom, dad and sister were home about two hours later. The next day, Grandma and Grandpa Franks came to stay with us. “Just for a few days,” mom told dad. I would never see the inside of their house again. They might have gone back, but I never did.
Nothing was the same after that. The National Guard was called in, snipers were reported to have manned the freeways and were shooting at cars heading out of town. It turned out to be one of many false rumors during the five days that followed. Willie Horton, the Tigers star left fielder, left the ballpark in his uniform and headed up twelfth to try and stop the looting. John Conyers, then a young Congressman, went up and down 12th for two days, until his voice gave out. Nothing worked. Years of tensions between the police, then 90% white and a growing black population had exploded and nothing would be the same.
In 1960, Detroit was, depending on who you believed, the fifth or fourth largest city in America. It was 87% white and had a 92% home ownership. By 1967, ‘white flight’ had taken hold and the city was losing residents at a pace unseen before or since. After July, 1967, up to 100,000 people moved out by the end of the year.
Suburbs like Livonia swelled to over 100,000 residents by the early 1970’s. Warren replaced Grand Rapids as the state’s third largest city. The whites who left the city, just didn’t leave it, they abandoned it. They refused to sell their houses, refused to pay their taxes and ignored the fines and levies against them. They proudly said “I’ll die before I go back to Detroit.” Many did. A few years ago, when Detroit was going through bankruptcy, the sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of those who abandoned homes and businesses paid pennies on the millions of dollars accrued over two-plus generations of leaving.
Fifty years. Nothing was ever the same. Not for me, my family or the city. The Tigers split a doubleheader that day with the Yankees. Mickey Lolich lost his 10th straight start in the first game, but the Tigers won the nightcap. John Hiller, a rookie pitcher, got his first Major League win and drove in two runs to boot. After the doubleheader ended, the public address announcer said the Finkell, Grand River and Dexter buses would not be running, but made no mention of the unrest going on just three miles up 12th street. Lolich was an active member of the Michigan National Guard, ended up being on patrol from Monday until nearly two weeks after the riot ended.
Ernie Harwell, the Tigers Hall of Fame announcer, remembered, “a policeman told me, you’d better go down Michigan Avenue, the city’s in pretty bad shape.” It took him two-and-a-half hours to get home that night. The Tigers next series, a two-game series with Baltimore, was moved to Baltimore. A soccer game scheduled to be played at the old stadium was cancelled. Production at Ford, GM, Chrysler and tiny American Motors was shut down. Neil Shine, the late reporter and editor of the Detroit Free Press, who would win a Pulitzer for its coverage, recalled that the looting, at first, was done by both blacks and whites, but after a few hours, the whites started running away. My late journalism professor at Wayne State, Dick Wright, told me he stayed at the Free Press from Sunday afternoon until Wednesday night. The News’ sports columnist Jerry Green told me he was at Lions training camp at Cranbrook and decided to stay in one of the dorms with the team for a night. He didn’t get home until Tuesday. He had a young daughter at the time.
We were all young.
Next Sunday: The aftermath.