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Civil rights attorney recounts defending hundreds of Detroiters rounded up during 1967 rebellion

Jul 21, 2017

The mistreatment of African-Americans and Detroit's mostly white police force fueled the violence of July 1967. But black Detroiters didn't fare much better in the courts.

Bill Goodman was a young lawyer in the city during the uprising, when thousands of people were being arrested and held in cramped, unsanitary conditions.

Goodman joined Stateside to talk about the weeks he spent in the courthouse as a pro-bono lawyer for those defendants in the wake of the 1967 rebellion.
 

People during the uprising in 1967 were arrested en masse ... Wayne County Jail was overflowing, Detroit police headquarters was overflowing and then they were held on buses, in the bathrooms at Belle Isle and other parks, and they were crowded in every possible way and they stayed there for many days under those kinds of conditions.

According to Goodman, after the city imposed a curfew, thousands of people were arrested, leaving the courts overwhelmed. 

"The judges of the Recorder's Court [which covered felonies and misdemeanors] basically rubber stamped ...widespread unconstitutional practices by the Detroit police department, with one exception," Goodman said. 

That exception was Judge George Crockett Jr., who was a friend of the Goodman family. Goodman said Crockett objected to what other judges were doing: Ordering bonds between $25,000 and $50,000 for a curfew violation. Goodman called such bonds excessive and unreasonable, a claim the Kerner Commission later supported.

With so many arrests, there was just no place to put everyone, so the police department had to improvise. 

"People during the uprising in 1967 were arrested en masse, huge numbers of people, hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands of people were arrested. They were held in every police lockup in the city of Detroit," Goodman said. "Wayne County Jail was overflowing, Detroit police headquarters was overflowing, and then they were held on buses, in the bathrooms at Belle Isle and other parks, and they were crowded in every possible way and they stayed there for many days under those kinds of conditions."

After all that, Goodman said, almost every case was dismissed.  

Listen to the full interview above to hear how defense attorneys were treated in the summer of 1967, a particular case that stood out for Goodman, and how far he thinks Detroit's criminal justice system has come since then.

From July 17-28, Michigan Radio is looking back at Detroit in 1967, the Summer of Rebellion. We'll explore the issues that led to one of the deadliest civil disturbances in American history and examine why it still resonates in the city today. 

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