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The Detroit riot: Looking behind and beyond

Jul 24, 2017

The fires of the Detroit riot began blazing exactly fifty years ago today. Years later, in an odd case of serendipity, I got to know Ray Good, the first police lieutenant on the scene, in the course of profiling his wife Janet for Esquire Magazine.

That was in the 1990s, when she had her moment of fame as Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s partner in evaluating who he would help die.

Eventually Janet Good got pancreatic cancer, and Kevorkian helped his assistant check out forever. But thirty years before she died, Janet nearly became a widow. Ray said when he arrived at the chaos at 12th Street and Clairmount, the main agitator was one man wearing a long-sleeved shirt with green sleeves, who was yelling, “We’re going to have a riot.”

Good firmly believed if he had been able to grab “Mr. Greensleeves” and put him in his police cruiser, he could have defused the situation. So he waded into the crowd and woke up in the hospital. He’d been whacked on the head with a brick or a paving stone, and when he came to whole blocks of the city were aflame. That was half a century ago, and we live in a world that is very different.

Michigan Radio has been doing a superb job analyzing this terrible and significant event. But I am old enough to remember it, have written about it, and want to share some thoughts with you. First of all, in recent years, it’s become politically correct to call it a rebellion or an uprising – but it was not. It was a riot. I know that racism and generations of oppression led to the explosion in this and other American cities throughout the 1960s.

You could make the case that black folks, or Negroes, as even they called themselves then, would be fully justified in rising up. I also know that the word “riot” sounds as if you were talking about a bunch of drunken sailors.

But nobody of any color called it anything other than a riot in 1967. The only contemporary use of the term “rebellion” I’ve seen is in what we all called the Kerner Report, formally known as the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.

It quotes a 24-year-old black radical as saying he wanted “a true revolt” and headed for the scene. But when he saw looting, he said, “I really got sick to my stomach. Rebellion against the white suppressors is one thing, but one measly pair of shoes…”

He spent the next four days helping an all-white company of firefighters. True rebellions have an overtly political purpose. This did not.

For years, the conventional wisdom has been that the riot sealed the fate of Detroit, and accelerated the flight of both whites and capital. But that process was well advanced by 1967. We often forget, too, that positive things came from the riot.

The Renaissance Center, New Detroit and Focus Hope. And, there’s this, barely eight months after the riot, cities went up in flames when Martin Luther King was murdered. But not Detroit. We had learned a harsh and bitter lesson.

We’ve learned more since. Detroit’s motto, adopted long before the riot, is the Latin for “It shall arise from the ashes. We hope for better things.”

Today, it finally seems like that might be true.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.