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Is unrest smoldering in Detroit?

May 23, 2017

Twenty years ago, when I was covering Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s assisted suicide crusade, I came to know a retired Detroit policeman named Ray Good, whose wife Janet was a Kevorkian ally.

Good was present at his own moment in history, when he was the first police lieutenant on the scene at 12th Street and Clairmount in the wee hours of Sunday, July 23, 1967.

A man wearing a shirt with long, unbuttoned green sleeves was loudly encouraging the gathering crowd to riot.

Good figured if he could grab the man he called “Mr. Greensleeves,” police could get things under control. So he waded into the crowd. That’s the last thing he remembered before waking up in the hospital. He had been whacked in the head with a paving stone, and he woke up to a world when Detroit was ablaze, and nothing would ever again be the same.

That was a half a century ago this summer.

And this year will be full of forums and symposia analyzing what happened, why it happened, and what it means today. One of those is tonight at the Detroit Historical Museum, with a dinner and a panel discussion sponsored by a group called Detroit ’67: Looking Back to Move Forward, and the Detroit Orientation Institute.

If you are interested and can’t attend, there will be many more. Last week, I was present for a similar one to launch a new book of essays published by Wayne State University Press, called “Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies.”

I was a teenager at the time of the riot, and while I have no special story, it is seared on my memory.

What strikes me most today is that there is still vast disagreements about those four days in July.

The basic facts are not in dispute. We know when it started and when it stopped; that 43 died and thousands were injured.

What we can’t agree on are seminal questions, like whether this was a riot, or a rebellion. The late philosopher Grace Lee Boggs insisted it was a righteous rebellion, if an unfocused one, caused by many years of unjust oppression.

Personally, I disagree. The oppression was indeed very real. But a rebellion has some concrete political aim; this was an uprising without a goal, and which featured whites and blacks looting together, mainly color televisions, in its first hours.

What we all know was that the city was never the same again, and we’ve been struggling to recover all these years. The mayor who came after the riot, Roman Gribbs, told me he spent every day in office worrying there’d be another one.

There never was. When the nation’s cities exploded nine months later when Dr. Martin Luther King was killed, Detroit’s charred streets stayed gloomily silent. Detroit has been living with that riot ever since, however, baked into its very essence. Desiree Cooper, one of the city’s most perceptive writers, concluded her essay in the 1967 book by saying if Detroiters are “willing to build a city that works for everyone, they are sure to avoid the fire next time.”

But on a panel last week, she added, “just because you cannot see the flames, it doesn’t mean something isn’t smoldering.”

There are, indeed, unseen fires burning in the city still.

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.