Saturday July 22, 1967, found Detroit in the middle of an oppressive heat wave. It had regularly approached 90 degrees in a neighborhood where air conditioning was as rare as a presidential visit. It was eerily similar to the searing June day in 1943 that spilled the blood of Detroiters all over Woodward Avenue and opened a gaping wound in the soul of the city. It was, after twenty-four years, blood that never dried.
Early Sunday morning, July 23, Detroit police raided a blind pig on the city's notorious 12th Street and triggered the biggest riot in American history. Why Detroit? There were 300 riots between the East coast riots of 1964 and the Detroit riot in July of 1967. Summer after long hot summer, American cities were being put to the torch. One city magically seemed to be getting skipped; Detroit.
The Great Rebellion
A Socio-economic Analysis of the 1967 Detroit Riot
Forty-eight years later, Detroit is still a divided city, its multitude of abandoned buildings snarling at a fate dictated by a myriad of circumstances. A thick layer of ignorance has stubbornly hovered over this subject since its inception, creating a cement like barrier that has locked old beliefs in place. In an effort to move past the ugliness in 1967, the community mentally put this event in a time capsule for some distant generation to examine. That time has arrived. If the beginning of wisdom is understanding, knowledge of the problem will ultimately lead us towards the necessary enlightenment.
From President Johnson on down, Detroit was seen as the Model city because of its progressive young mayor, Jerome Cavanagh, an FDR disciple. Cavanagh's meteoric rise would put Detroit back on a national pedestal of prominence but his stunning success would be short lived.
12th Street - A Bizarre Amalgamation
With the onset of the Roaring Twenties, the Jewish community would make the pilgrimage from the Detroit's east side to 12th Street on the west side. From Grand Boulevard all the way north to Clairmount, 12th Street was dominated by a mile-long row of Jewish shops. Twelfth Street was a city within a city. It was no longer necessary to go downtown to shop; Jewish bakeries, fish markets and handyman stores filled the void. These two and three story brick buildings, each with their own unique ornamentation and configuration, were built so close together that 12th Street gave the appearance of a walled street. Even in peaceful times, the buildings always seemed to loom over 12th Street with an angry foreboding.
12th Street in its infancy circa 1930s - The area was no stranger to violence. Twelfth Street was once the home of the notorious “Purple Gang.” A byproduct of Prohibition, this ruthless group of Jewish racketeers thrived on the illicit alcohol trade that flourished in Detroit. The Purple Gang baptized 12th Street with the blood of anyone who decided to go into business for themselves.
Bullet ridden bodies of people who tried were a harbinger of the violent days to come.
The venerable Olympia Stadium looms off in the distance.
With the gradual easing of housing restrictions in the 1950s, the complexion of 12th Street began to change. Middle-class blacks from the east side began to trickle over. For a few years there seemed to be a peaceful coexistence. However, when Black Bottom was razed for urban renewal, much of its displaced poor (including the more sordid elements) had little place else to go. Like the previous generations of blacks who followed the Jews into Black Bottom, blacks now followed the Jews over to 12th Street, the new Hastings Street.
Twelfth Street had deteriorated badly in the years preceding the riot. The fabled Jewish thoroughfare was now a far cry from its kosher days of gefilte fish and matzo balls. By 1967, the remaining Jewish shops now formed a bizarre amalgamation with the liquor stores, pawn shops, soul-food shacks and sleazy bars that had materialized. Greedy landlords divided and subdivided the once-spacious apartments and flats above 12th Street. The area now boasted the highest population density in the city and, not surprisingly, the highest crime rate. Twelfth Street had become a malfunctioning melting pot that was about to boil over.
As the sun went down over 12th Street, a nefarious underworld emerged from the darkness. Its dens of iniquity opened to the endless tide of revelers that swept into town from who knows where to indulge themselves in the shadowy nether world of 12th Street. The eerie neon glow emanating from the store signs completed the deviant circle of decadency that saturated the sinful strip.
“12th Street is a place where a black man with a little money
in his pocket can go and try to forget he’s black.”
Twelfth Street was a freak magnet, attracting the most sordid cast of characters known to man. Slick-haired pimps roamed the street adorned in shark-skins suits that changed color from gray to purple in the sunlight. Hustlers clad in bell-bottoms and shoes with jangling spurs picked through cars while their unwary owners satiated themselves in the brothels above the now silent 12th Street stores. Revelers sporting shiny gold pants and black silk shirts danced to the endless beat of Motown which blared from the neighborhood juke boxes.
On the Saturday night prior to the riot, 12th Street was lined with out of state cars bearing license plates from Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. It was hardly a revelation to the locals, nor was it apparently to the entire Mid-west, that 12th Street was the best side show around.
But fornication was not the only vice available. Drugs and gambling bolstered the veritable treasure trove of vices offered to those who came seeking the outrageous. They were rarely disappointed. During Prohibition, hundreds of blind pigs (speakeasy) honeycombed the city. While the failure of Prohibition was now only a laughable mistake of history, its legacy of blind pigs still remained scattered throughout the city.
The ill-fated 12th Street one week before the riot. One of the old 12th Street regulars described its twisted dichotomy: “There was a daytime 12th Street, and there was a nighttime 12th Street, and they didn’t overlap. During the day the good citizens came out like your mother. All the hustlers that were out there knew that your mother wasn’t into that stuff, so she just came shopping. But come dark, mama goes home, gets off the street, and the night shift comes on.” Known as the Sin Strip, Avenue of Fun or the Pocket Ghetto, anything you wanted, legal or illegal, you could get on 12th Street.
Detroiter Bill Scott was hosting a party at Economy Printing for two returning Vietnam veterans and another who was on his way over. The 10th Precinct cleanup squad was looking for action too. Sgt. Howison, who is white, was sorely out of place in this virtually all black neighborhood. His two undercover operatives, Patrolman Charles Henry and Patrolman Joe Brown are black and in plain cloths. At 10:30 Saturday night, they knocked on the door of Economy Printing posing as University of Cincinnati basketball players. The peephole opened and the doorman, suspicious, challenged them. “We don’t know you.” Their story was too flimsy and he sent them away. The patrolmen departed for other game as Economy Printing’s jukebox, blaring James Brown, echoed on into the night.
Acknowledging defeat, Howison took his crew and moved on; there were other blind pigs to bust. By 3:30 in the morning, however, they were still unsuccessful. Almost ready to call it a night, they found themselves coincidentally passing Economy Printing again when patrolmen Henry noticed three young ladies heading for the front door. On a hunch, he exited the car and quickly mixed in with the group. The peephole opened, and the very same doorman who had curtly refused him five hours earlier, now foggy-eyed from drinking, gleefully waved them by. The raid was on!
The infamous Economy Printing, which hosted the notorious party that brought Detroit to its knees, ironically managed to survive the riot virtually unscathed, while much of 12th Street burned to the ground. The police raid would prove to be, as one local appropriately phrased it, “the most expensive pinch in history.”
Patrolman Henry, a future police commander, later commented on what transpired next. “I had trouble getting in. There was a pool table they’d used to shoot dice, a bar, a kitchen that served food. It looked like a third-rate bar. People were having a good time. There were different circumstances in those days. People were friendlier, they would drink and gamble, but there was very little dope. Customers had no fear of a jail sentence. Especially in the 10th Precinct, along Twelfth Street (a police raid) was a common occurrence.”
Pandemonium ensued. Howison was as bewildered as anyone when he found not the usual fifteen to twenty party goers but eighty-three! This presented him with a difficult dilemma. The 10th Precinct possessed only one paddy wagon which held fourteen prisoners at most. Phone calls were made to the adjoining 6th, 11th and 13th Precincts to quickly send their wagons over, but this would take time. In the interim, the prisoners were held upstairs.
Outside on 12th Street, the commotion of the police cruisers was beginning to draw a crowd. This was the norm on 12th Street as people wandered about from party to party in numbers all through the night. At first there were only twenty some people watching from across the street, 12th Street regulars with wine clouded eyes, drinking a staggering path back home. As the first paddy wagon arrived and Howison brought down a group of prisoners, the streetwalkers directed some good-natured mocking towards the familiar faces.
Like a ticking bomb, the agonizing minutes clicked by as the police awaited the next wagon. The crowd outside, which originally numbered twenty around 4:00 a.m., quickly multiplied to fifty, then one hundred, then two hundred. An incensed young black man, known to the police only as Green Sleeves because he was wearing a long green sleeved shirt, began lacing the air with invective, “Black Power, don’t let them take our people away; look what they are doing to our people....Let’s kill them whitey mother f-----s ... let’s get the bricks and bottles going. Why do they come down here and do this to our people?”
The police now anxiously awaited the arrival of the last wagon. It was 4:45; they had been there an ill advised hour! As the last wagon approached, some two hundred and fifty angry onlookers had pooled across the street. Led by Green Sleeves, the periodic missile throwing continued against the harried police standing guard outside.
The crowd could see the last prisoners upstairs emptying into the stairwell for the final load and when the wagon doors closed behind them, the final barrage of bricks and bottles showered the frenzied officers. As the frenzied flight back to the 10th Precinct began, two cruisers narrowly missed colliding with each other, much to the delight of the 12th Street regulars.
But the coup de gras was yet to come. As the police began to breathe a premature sigh of relief, someone from the crowd picked up a bottle and launched it high into the air. Like the home crowd at a football game watching a last chance hail Mary pass, the mob bridled as the bottle arced passed a streetlight, began its decent and crashed right through the rear window of the last police cruiser which wisely kept on going. Like scoring the winning touchdown with time running out, the crowd went berserk.
The Great Rebellion had begun.
Twelfth Street looking south towards the boulevard. As daylight broke, this was the scene that greeted Detroit police when they returned to the area in force.
Their numbers, however, were dwarfed by a swarm of looters. A holiday of piracy ensued. Soon after this photo was taken, 12th Street would be on fire. The Supreme Linoleum & Paint Company on the right would burn for days.
Like an A-bomb detonation, the crowd surged down 12th Street, doing a dance of destruction as they went. A symphony of burglar alarms added to the carnival atmosphere. When the police did not return, the crowd grew. Between 8 a.m. and noon, the crowd ballooned to some 10,000 people. Some were looters, some were observers, some were older residents trying to stop it, to no avail. The rioting continued unabated. Inertia was now in charge!
Owing to the success in putting down the Kercheval mini-riot in 1966, it was decided by Cavanagh and Girardin to follow the same parameters of police restraint, meaning no looters would be shot in hopes that the lack of provocation would cause the crowd to self-liquidate. One must also weigh the value of not shooting into the crowd of spectators, many of whom (as can be seen lining the sidewalks) were women and children. Their deaths at this early stage would surely have brought about a full fledged race riot.
So, much to the disdain of the police, they cordoned off the area and waited. But the fury never subsided. An avalanche of humanity poured onto 12th, at some points over 10,000 people joined the melee.
When rioters discovered police were ordered not to shoot, a carnival atmosphere ensued. Note Detroit Police in the background have erected barricades to cordon off the area. Rioters were allowed out of the area but not in.
Just north of Economy Printing, the first contingent of Guardsmen assemble outside St. Mark’s for their initial assault on 12th Street Sunday evening. The carnival atmosphere that saturated the West side was about to come to a screeching halt. The trigger happy Guardsmen would expend an astonishing 155,000 rounds over the next five days. The no shoot order Detroit police had been forced to adhere to was ignored by the Guardsmen. Henceforth, it would be an eye for an eye.
Despite the ever growing presence of the Guardsmen the riot was spreading, not only to the entire west side but also on the east side which had rioted the year before and well knew the routine. By midnight Monday Michigan Governor George Romney was on the phone to the White House requesting Army assistance. President Lyndon Johnson had previously offered army assistance to Govs. Brown of California and Hughes of New Jersey to put down their rebellions. Both men, like Johnson, were Democrats. No such offer was made to Romney who at the time was the leading Republican candidate for president. When Romney requested troops, he was given a bureaucratic cold shoulder. Johnson sent his personal envoy, Cyrus Vance, to Detroit to act as a liaison and to stall for time. After touring the devastated area with Romney and Cavanagh, Vance transparently quipped, “Is doesn’t look too bad to me.” Cavanagh scornfully fired back, “Usually the city isn’t burning.”
President Lyndon Johnson and Michigan Governor George Romney pictured
in happier days. The Detroit riot would strain their relationship considerably.
Again, as in 1943, there was political wrangling between federal and state officials about the legalities involved with such a request. Romney refused to declare a State of Insurrection which would have nullified most insurance policies covering Detroit’s multitude of fire victims. President Johnson went on TV at midnight, Monday, to rationalize his decision to send U.S. troops to Detroit. He tried to make up mileage against Romney, mentioning him fourteen times and constantly citing the “clear, unmistakable and undisputed evidence that Governor Romney of Michigan and the local officials have been unable to bring the situation under control.”
Political saber-rattling aside, President Johnson had yet another powerful concern about sending troops to Detroit. Daily anti-war demonstrations branded him as the sole cause of the Vietnam War. He feared the media would “charge that we cannot kill enough people in Vietnam, so we go out and shoot civilians in Detroit.”
U.S. Army paratroopers land at Detroit Fairgrounds at noon on Monday but remained there another 12 hours on President Johnson's orders who was hoping the riot would blow itself out and the soldiers would not be needed. When U.S. Army Lt. General John L. Throckmorton, who was in overall charge, telephoned Johnson that the riot was indeed getting worse, Johnson had no choice but to commit the troops. Much controversy would later surround General Throckmorton who insisted that the army take the more tame East side and while the Guardsmen were given the hellish West side.
When Throckmorton first met his counterpart, Michigan National Guard General Cecil Simmons, he asked him what his orders were pertaining to looters. Simmons replied, “We are to use as much force as necessary. If we are unable to stop them any other way, they will be shot.” Throckmorton countermanded the order, adding that all Guardsmen were to unload their weapons and to fire only on an officer’s command. Simmons bristled, “You mean you want them to get away?” Throckmorton nodded, explaining it was the lesser of two evils. Simmons attempted a rebuttal but Throckmorton stopped him in mid sentence. “You have your orders,” snapped Throckmorton. “Yes sir!” bellowed Simmons, “and they will be obeyed.”
Flames and smoke from arsonist fires boil out of the S.S. Kresge Department Store on Grand River, as the last of the major West side thoroughfares goes up in flames. By Tuesday the looting had slowly receded, perhaps because there was nothing left to steal. Denuded mannequins could be seen grotesquely twisted over the pavement or hanging ominously from a lamppost. They stood as a sign of the rampaging army of looters who had sacked the city in the first two days of rioting. The young toughs had had their day. Now the professional revolutionaries were taking over, the snipers. The sniper activity under cover of darkness was especially dangerous.
Prior to the U.S. Army's arrival on Tuesday morning, the Guardsmen had to canvas the entire city. Here they close in on a sniper who has wreaked havoc on the East side off Mack Avenue. Many of Detroit’s police and fire stations were under attack by snipers during the riot. The early morning hours of Tuesday were the worst. There were eleven sniper attacks on the east side and thirty-eight on the west side during this time. The only confirmed sniper killed was Jack Sydnor, who blazed away from his third-story apartment on Linwood. Detroit police rushed Sydnor’s apartment. Sydnor managed to shoot two police officers before his bullet-ridden body tumbled through the window and landed three stories below. It stayed there for hours while the authorities battled other snipers in the area who were bearing down on them.
The riot did not cause Detroit’s problems, rather it catalogued them. In the space of one horrific week, Detroit had gone from being the Model City, a pennant of progressivism, to having the dubious distinction of hosting the most devastating civil disorder the country had ever seen. Between the Michigan National Guard, U.S. Army paratroopers, the Michigan State Police and the Detroit Police Department, it took some 17,000 men, armed to the teeth, to put down the Great Rebellion.
Above: After the most hectic week of their young lives, two Guardsmen sleep the sleep of exhaustion on Detroit's West side.
For many, it seemed incredible that “only” forty-three people had died during the riot. With tens of thousands of bullets filling the air and fire engulfing entire neighborhoods, it seemed a peculiarly low number, but it is the number that stands to this day. It is impossible to determine with any degree of accuracy how many snipers there were, but if even a fraction of the police reports were correct, sniping was more prevalent in Detroit than all previous riots combined. Fortunately, they were poorly equipped with little training for their intended purpose or the death toll would have been frightfully higher. The heart-wrenching stories range from a police officer killed two days away from retirement to a four-year-old girl whose world of dolls and tea parties ended in a hail of bullets meant for someone else. Other stories, such as the Algiers motel incident, remain shrouded in mystery to this day. They are all a tragic part of a bigger element - the death of a city that once held world prominence.
Where it all started - The remnants of Bill Scott's Economy Printing, a pool table, broken glass and money scattered on the floor all bear mute testament to a party that was crashed by the DPD and would forever change the soul of the city. It would be a long time before Detroit was in a revelrous mood again.
For the Baby Boomers who were just coming of age during the turbulent 60s, this book is a chance to revisit their youth. Many of their most formative impressions they carried with them throughout life pivoted off these events. Caught up in the emotion of the era, sentiment often dictated personal ideologies. Now that the dust has settled, new perspectives can be explored.
While history has painted Detroit into a unique and ugly corner of fate, the reality of the situation is that any big city in the country could have shared this distinction albeit for a few transitional strokes of luck. Detroit's biggest problem isn't black or white, it is green. This book proves out this thesis.
This book is an 8.5 x 11 hard cover, 376 pages and over 350 photos.
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Detroit - Blood that never dried
Still adhering to the no-shoot order, Detroit police watch in disgust as rioters’ loot and burn their way unabated down 12th Street.
Snipers quickly learned to stand back from the window when firing, making it very difficult for this young Guardsmen to pinpoint the telltale muzzle flash.
This page was last updated: January 4, 2016
Nobody knows you...
when you're down and out.
Elite paratroopers from Ft. Campbell, Ky, a.k.a. The Screaming Eagles, relieved the Guardsmen on Detroit's
east side early Tuesday, enabling the Guardsmen to deal with the hellish west side exclusively.
Many of the paratroopers had seen action in Vietnam or the Dominican Rebublic and were under strict orders not to shoot unless they could point out their target to a commissioned officer.
Despite their disciplined fire control, the last person killed during the riot was by the army, who were shooting at a looter when a innocent bystander walked in front of the intended target.
Above: Guardsmen have successfully cleared 12th Street of rioters. The riot quickly drifted over to neighboring Linwood Ave, Dexter and Grand River where less resistance was present.
Below: Guardsmen troop carier takes control of intersection in front of General Motors headquarters off
Grand Blvd. in the heart of the riot area.
Irony of ironies: Above, an arc of water from a fireman's hose leaves a rainbow, the ancient symbol of hope, for a city whose hope now hung by a precariously thin thread.
Below: As a Guardsmen convoy pulls out of Detroit, they pass a lady and child who have just emerged
from the funeral of 4 year old Tanya Blanding who was inadvertently shot by a Guardsmen tank commander that mistook the lighting of a cigarette in a window for a muzzle flash.
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Although martial law was never declared, when U.S. Army General John Throckmorton took over midnight Monday, Michigan National Guard General Cecil Simmons now had to answer to him. Throckmorton's orders, perhaps echoing President Johnson, were that looters were not to be shot. Whether those orders were disobeyed or never received, Guardsmen continued to blaze away at the numerous transgressors on the West side.