Rereading the 12th Street Riot

It’s been five decades since the 1967 Detroit Riot, but the issues surrounding it are as urgent as they’ve ever been. Certainly they’re as divisive. Witness how U.S. citizens can’t even agree on whether to refer to it as a riot or a rebellion. What we do agree on is that the six-day uprising was one of the most violent in our country’s history, and that it presaged a new era in race relations in America, not to mention a totally misguded movie that has only succeeded in tanking Kathryn Bigelow’s career.

The 12th Street Riot, as it also was called, began when white police officers raided an after-hours club in a mostly black neighborhood, and long-simmering anger about the police force’s racism boiled over along with frustrations about segregationist employment, housing, and education policies. When all was said and done, entire city blocks were burnt down, 43 people were dead, 1,189 were injured, more than 7,000 had been arrested, and 683 buildings were destroyed. A presidential commission later determined that “police officers shot at least twenty people to death, and Army troops and National Guardsmen killed up to ten more.” All but ten of the forty-three killed were black.

Detroit was never the same again, transforming from an industrial and cultural mecca into one of America’s most depressed cities; most of its denizens now live under the poverty line. On the national spectrum, the optimism of the Civil Rights movement made way for a bleaker era marked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other race riots across the country. More recently, the election of Donald Trump, along with unabating police shootings of black people, has provoked the kind of open racial discord that feels – well, it feels a lot like 1967. Here at the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Detroit Riot – its exact dates were July 23-28, 1967 – it would behoove us to connect that past with our present. Here are some books to help us do so.

The Detroit Riot of 1967–Hubert G. Locke
Written by a black administrative aide to the then-police commissioner of Detroit, this firsthand perspective offers a blow-by-blow breakdown of what happened during and immediately after those fateful days. Originally published in 1969, the new edition includes an essay considering the Riot’s legacy fifty years later.

Them–Joyce Carol Oates
Never one to eschew a difficult topic, National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates follows a (barely fictionalized) Detroit family from the 1930s to 1967. Though this tale, the third in her “Wonderland Quartet,” is not exclusively about the Riots, the dissatisfaction and unrest leading up to those six days imprints every page of this finely crafted treatise on the American working class.

Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes: An Oral History of Detroit’s African American Community, 1918-1967–Elaine Latzman Moon
In the hallowed tradition of Studs Terkel, Elaine Latzman Moon has compiled a set of interviews with more than 100 individuals who lived in Detroit at some time during the period from 1918 to 1967, when the riot took place. These are key voices who must always be heard in terms of our country’s history of race and, yes, racism.

Detroit ’67–Dominique Morisseau
A Kennedy Prize winner, this play takes place in a Detroit basement during the 1967 riot. Part of Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit Trilogy” (not unlike August Wilson’s bevy of Pittsburgh plays), this tale may address family tensions and dreams of upward mobility but, oh, how the Riots loom in the foreground of every scene.

Detroit 67–Stuart Cosgrove
It’s impossible to talk about Detroit without discussing its extraordinary musical legacy; Motown Records is still the name of the game for most soul and R&B lovers. In this volume, Stuart Cosgrove breaks down how the city’s 1967 political unrest was inextricably entwined with its best musical output.

The Algiers Motel Incident–John Hersey
On July 25, 1967, police and National Guard troops seized the annex of a neighborhood motel, ostensibly in search of snipers. Though they found no gunmen, they left three dead black youths in their wake. Originally intended as a novel, this nonfiction book reconstructs the incident – one of the worst of the Riot – using interviews, court testimony, and newspaper accounts.

Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies–Joel Stone, Editor
An essay collection by twenty historians and journalists, this is one of the most thorough examinations of Detroit 1967 to date. Tracking relevant history including colonial slavery on the Detroit River and the myths and realities of the city’s “white flight,” this anthology, published only this spring, breaks down the Riot’s causes as well as what its legacy invokes today.

This was originally published at Signature.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy