Remembering important anniversaries in Detroit's history and their lessons

Jul 23, 2013

Today and tomorrow are anniversaries of two of the most important events in Detroit’s history, events almost never mentioned in the same breath.

Tomorrow it will be exactly three hundred and twelve years since a hundred Frenchmen scrambled up the riverbank, started cutting down trees, and establishing a fort they called Pontchartrain du Detroit.

There was an immense celebration of that anniversary a dozen years ago, a celebration virtually forgotten today. Nobody celebrates today’s anniversary, though we grimly discuss it.

Forty-six years ago today, the police raided an illegal after-hours drinking establishment over a print shop on Twelfth Street. Somebody threw a bottle at a policeman.

Then they threw rocks. For the next four days the biggest and bloodiest urban riot of the nineteen sixties devastated Detroit.

Most of the damage and the killings were confined to a relatively small area, a little over two square miles in size.

But the entire city was, in a sense, mortally wounded. Few know this, but the population drain that had begun in the nineteen fifties had slowed by the time the riot occurred. 

Detroit in fact lost fewer people in the nineteen sixties than in the fifties, even with the exodus that began after the riot.

But the riot, which left-wing radicals sometimes call “the rebellion,” was a devastating blow that helped make Detroit‘s population loss and economic decline irreversible. 

We often forget now that the business community and government at all levels did whatever they could think of afterwards to try to bring Detroit back, to help the city recover.

They built the Renaissance Center; founded groups like New Detroit, Detroit Renaissance, and Focus Hope. They did probably succeed in preventing another riot.  The fear of that gripped the city for years after the big one. No riot ever came, but economic decline did.

Today, few people are thinking about the nineteen sixty seven riot, and almost nobody remembers the city’s first terrifying race riot, seventy years ago this summer, an event which led to the army -- in the middle of World War II -- being sent to Detroit to stop it. Life has seldom been easy in this city, and it isn’t now.

Today, everyone’s minds are on Detroit’s impending bankruptcy. Some are fighting the bankruptcy filing itself; others are jockeying for position to see what they can get out of it.

Art lovers and suburbanites are worried about the treasures in the Detroit Institute of Arts. A very few worry about the elderly and sick, many of whom are worried sick about what may happen to them if they lose their pensions and their health care.

What I think we should be worrying about most is what will happen after the bankruptcy ends and the lawyers and the emergency managers go away. If you can stand one more historical parallel, think of the treaty imposed on Germany after World War I.

That treaty made World War II inevitable. We need to make sure Detroit is left with the resources to become a viable and prosperous city again. If we don’t, in the not-so-very long run, every one of us may again have to pay.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.