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Historian: Divide between “White Detroit” and “Black Detroit” led to city’s 1967 rebellion

Jul 17, 2017

In 1967, a series of civil disturbances in cities across America rocked the country. The unrest, called a rebellion by some and a riot by others, made its way to the city of Detroit in July of that year. 

Five days of clashes between law enforcement and Detroit residents left dozens of people dead and thousands of buildings destroyed by fire and vandalism.

Fifty years later, Detroit's neighborhoods are still grappling with the legacy of that summer.

Over the next two weeks, Stateside will be looking back to try and understand what issues led to one of the deadliest civil disturbances in American history, and the lasting impact it has had on the city.

Thomas Sugrue is a professor of social and cultural analysis and history at New York University, and he's the author of the landmark book The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. He joined Stateside to explain how social inequality in the city created conditions that were ripe for conflict.

Like many uprisings around the country, Detroit's began with a confrontation between the police and African-American residents. Early on a Sunday morning in July, the police raided an illegal after-hours bar. As the police began to make arrests, a large crowd formed. A man threw a glass bottle toward the officers. The shattered bottle became the spark that set off five days of violence and destruction on the city's west side. 

"[It was] a long, tense and unresolved history of conflict between Detroit's overwhelmingly white police force and its African-American population."

But to say that it started with the bust of an after-hours bar, Sugrue says, would be putting it too simply. 

"[It was] a long, tense and unresolved history of conflict between Detroit's overwhelmingly white police force and its African-American population," Sugrue said. "There had been clashes between the police and African-Americans going back for decades, intensifying in the 1950s and 60s as the city's black population grew."

White Detroit residents were putting pressure on the city's police department to crack down on crime. The tactics police used to carry out that crackdown helped drive a wedge between an already divided city. 

"[The police] often stopped and frisked and harassed African-American men, particularly those who were driving through or walking through predominantly white sections of the city," Sugrue said. "That created a lot of tension and it remained very much unresolved in 1967." 

"You can't underestimate the intensity of that segregation in housing and the role that it played in dividing metropolitan Detroit by race."

As the African-American population grew, patterns of discrimination led to a massive economic divide. The divide was physical, too. Discriminatory housing practices steered black people of all income levels into segregated neighborhoods. 

"'Black Detroit' and 'White Detroit' were entirely separate pretty much in 1967," Sugrue said. "That is, the city was highly segregated by race. Large sections of Detroit were home to almost all African-Americans, and vice-versa. Large sections of the outlying neighborhoods in Detroit in the suburbs were nearly entirely white. And that separation led to resentment, a lack of opportunity, particularly on the housing market, and mutual distrust between whites and African-Americans.

"You can't underestimate the intensity of that segregation in housing and the role that it played in dividing metropolitan Detroit by race," he added.

Listen to the full interview to hear why Sugrue believes that the 1967 rebellion wasn't the beginning of Detroit's downfall. And listen to an essay from long-time civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs on why the events of July 1967 were not a riot, but a rebellion against the discrimination and inequality facing black Detroiters. 

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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