50 Years Later: Remembering the Detroit Riots of 1967
On July 23, 1967, Detroit, Michigan, became the scene of a five-day riot that remains one of the deadliest civil disturbances in the United States. The intensity and relentlessness of the riot forced President Lyndon B. Johnson to call on the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to restore peace in the city. By the end of the week, over 2,000 buildings were destroyed, over 1,000 injuries and nearly 50 civilians, military and police officers were killed.
What happened in the Motor City was one of 159 “race riots” that occurred during the long, hot summer of ’67, but it’s the most memorable and influential; for many living in Detroit, the city has never fully recovered.
Despite the national media attention the riots garnered, the story of the Detroit Riot is often skipped over in schools (as most race riots are), so when the trailer for Detroit, an upcoming film that chronicles part of the 1967 riots, was released, many viewers took to social media to vent their frustration about never learning this important piece of American history in school.
So crazy to me that a lot of schools in MI don’t teach or even speak of the Detroit riots
— Karah (@karahmiddendorf) July 18, 2017
I was actually never aware of the 1960s Detroit riots. I will be viewing the #DetriotMovie
— Her (@xlovebarbara) June 26, 2017
I’m happy to see a major film about the Algiers Motel Incident and Detroit Riots. Often hear of LA but never ours. #BETAwards
— Qiana H. (@PinkGlitterRain) June 26, 2017
Historians dispute whether the 12th Street Riot, as it’s called, was actually a race riot because of the multicultural demographic of the rioters. However, race was certainly the catalyst. In the early morning hours of July 23, Detroit police officers raided a local unlicensed drinking club with the expectation of catching a few random occupants. They were instead met by 82 African Americans welcoming two GIs home from Vietnam, and decided to arrest the entire party. While officers waited for transportation, a crowd of onlookers gathered and Walter Scott III threw a bottle at the police, initiating the riot.
As looters tore through the streets of Detroit, city police stood by waiting for the melee to diffuse, which it never did. The arrival of the Michigan National Guard the following day did little to stop the riot as crowds continued to vandalize white- and black-owned business, sparing no one in the process. The riot grew almost effortlessly, fueled by a suppressed rage that seemed to have no end. An overwhelmed police force was found guilty of abusing civilians in their custody, including the tragic shooting deaths of three black men during the Algiers Motel Incident.
Sid. E. Taylor, the founder of Detroit-based SET Enterprises, U.S. Marine, and Vietnam combat veteran, was just 18 years old in 1967 and vividly remembers riding a convertible straight into the middle of the riots with his older brother and a friend.
“A friend of ours was driving the car, I had a video camera and I sat on the back of the car and we were driving around acting silly like we were news reporters filming what was going on,” Taylor recalls. “The National Guard was out there and we drove by an apartment building and somebody pointed a gun at the car and said, ‘You n——- better get out of here before we blow your head off.’ And you know what we did? We lifted the roof and got ourselves outta there.”
Taylor admits that in hindsight it was a bad decision to drive into the riots considering the scale of violence, but he says they were “curiously nervous” because Detroit “had made the news. Every time you turned on the television they were showing the streets and we knew all these places.”
Much of the city was destroyed during the riots, leaving thousands without a place to work or live, and businesses that were unharmed shut down for safety purposes. Taylor and his brother worked for General Motors at the time and were told not to go into work because of the hostile atmosphere throughout the city, which included curfew violations, fights, and multiple fires.
Looters continued to steal millions of dollars of merchandise, including a few of Taylor’s friends who stole TV sets from a local business. “It got so bad that they canceled our work because it was too dangerous to move. Black people were mad and white people were scared and everyone was kinda scared to go anywhere.”
The presence of mainly white military worsened the violence initially, but within 48 hours the riot had been contained and dissipated. In the span of a week, Detroit went from being a leader in race relations for its time to a city reeling from the pain of a tragic and violent race riot. Many of the themes and concerns that arose from the 1967 riot, such as police brutality, racial unrest, and discrimination have emerged in urban centers across the country since: in Los Angeles in 1992, and cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015 and 2014, respectively.
Famed baseball outfielder Willie Horton drew a comparison between Detroit and Baltimore following the 2015 riots in response to Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. Horton, who now lives in Baltimore, called the recent events “flashbacks” to the moment he left his Tigers game July 23, 1967, and drove into the riots, standing on the hood of his car pleading with the city he loved to restore peace.
Police brutality and the ethics of rioting are far from resolved, but in preparation for the 50th anniversary, Kathryn Bigelow (the only female Oscar winner for best director) hopes her story of the Detroit riots will honor those lost during the incident and incite discussion about these issues. While the film focuses on the harrowing Algiers motel incident, it comes at a prime time in our country and joins many commemorative events like the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67: Perspectives exhibit, which runs through 2019.
The camera Taylor was carrying that day didn’t have any film in it, but the images from his personal memories are just as strong. When asked if he’s excited to see Detroit, he said, “Absolutely. I’m probably going to see it more than once.”
Detroit will open in theaters nationwide Friday, August 4.
Check out the Detroit trailer below: