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Energized by out-of-touch city leaders, black pastors redoubled activism efforts post-rebellion

Jul 26, 2017

The violence in Detroit in the summer of 1967 destroyed large swaths of the city, mostly in black neighborhoods. It also energized the political ambitions of the city's African-American citizens.

The Shrine of the Black Madonna, which opened a few months before the riots broke out, wanted to turn the black church into a political force in Detroit. Its founder Albert Cleage combined the church's history in civil rights activism with an emerging black nationalist movement.

As the nephew of the Shrine's first leader, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans has a unique take on how the summer of 1967 changed the course of religious and political life for black people in Detroit. He also had a front-row seat to the chaos that broke out less than two blocks from his home.

Evans joined Stateside to talk about his memories of the 1967 uprising, his uncle's role in the crisis, and what was done to start the healing process in Detroit. 

When police raided an illegal after-hours bar on the west side of Detroit in July of 1967, this is seen by many as what launched the rebellion. After the violence erupted, Evans, who was a teenager, was nearby, at his grandmother's house less than two blocks away from the bar where the raid happened. He was instructed to hunker down in the house to stay safe as he watched tanks roll down the street in an attempt to regain order. 
 

In many respects, [the rebellion] helped [Rev. Cleage] ... emphasize that the concerns that the church, and often times black people in general had complained about, were in fact real. They were real enough for people to, at some point, say this is enough and ... explode.

According to Evans, many in his community were not shocked by the eruption in violence. Police were known to harass African-American men in an effort to crack down on crime in a city that had become extremely segregated. This led to "stop-and-frisk" methods, and stopping black men who were driving or walking through predominantly white neighborhoods.

 "In many respects, [the rebellion] helped [Rev. Cleage] ... emphasize that the concerns that the church, and often times black people in general, had complained about were in fact real," Evans said about his uncle's reaction to the uprising. "They were real enough for people to, at some point, say this is enough and ... explode."

Evans said that people in his community and communities like his were not shocked, but people who were in a position of power received a rude awakening when the rebellion broke out in 1967.

"I think it's safe to say that [Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh] was very, very surprised that there was that level of discontent in the African-American community," Evans said. "I think a lot of that was the fact that the people in the community that he talked to were not those generally impacted by the conditions"
 

I think it's safe to say that [Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh] was very, very surprised that there was that level of discontent in the African-American community. I think a lot of that was the fact that the people in the community that he talked to were not those generally impacted by the conditions.

According to Evans, his uncle, Rev. Cleage, worked to try to heal some of the divides of the segregated city, while also trying to empower his own people.

"People of color needed to work more closely together to help create their own institutions. To have their own support groups," Evans said about his uncle's message to the public. "It certainly didn't mean not to interact with other groups, but the idea that you could have an African-American community and it could be viable economically with respect to business and you could have quality schools ... were things he believed were extremely important."

Rev. Cleage would take that message and later make an unsuccessful run for governor.

Listen to the full interview above to hear about Cleage's approach to integrating political activism into the church, and how that helped get Coleman Young elected mayor of Detroit. Evans also analyzes how far the city has come since the summer of 1967, and how many of the same problems of that era exist today.

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