I’m republishing this Blog post I wrote two years ago.
Every generation has those “where were you when…” moments we associate with historical events. For Baby Boomers it’s usually one or more of the evil string of political assassinations of the 1960’s; JFK, RFK, MLK. But everyone who lived in Metropolitan Detroit in the summer of 1967 knows exactly where they were and what they felt.
In the early morning hours on July 23 the Detroit Police raided a “Blind Pig” operated at Clairmont and 12th street on Detroit’s west side. A Blind Pig is an after hours drinking establishment. It was hot and humid night. Confrontations between the police and patrons and other onlookers escalated. The whole thing devolved into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in the history of the United States. Wikipedia provides a concise summery.
To help end the disturbance, Governor George W. Romney ordered the Michigan Army National Guard into Detroit, and President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the 82nd Airborne Division. The result was 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. The scale of the riot was surpassed in the United States only by the 1863 New York City draft riots during the U.S. Civil War, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Most of the damage occurred in Black neighborhoods. Stores were looted and set on fire. Snipers were on roof tops shooting at will. Most of the business were white owned. Black owned business with windows signs that said “Soul Brother” were spared.
I’ll not presume to even attempt an answer to that question here. Some things to note. President Johnson appointed an 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders known as the Kerner Commision for its chair, former Ohio Governor Otto Kerner. The take away from the report was; “Our Nation Is Moving Toward Two Societies, One Black, One White—Separate and Unequal”. In short, an American form of Apartheid.
Last Saturday I enjoyed a delightful visit to Camp Ozanam for its annual Alumni Day. That’s where I was in the Summer of 1967 working as a dish washer. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school. While walking the camp grounds I thought a lot about that summer.
So here’s the thing. I went to high school at Sacred Heart Seminary’s Cardinal Mooney Latin School. We were all admitted there because we believed we were called to be Roman Catholic priests. The seminarians staffed the camps each summer.
There is this east side – west side thing in Detroit. I am an eastsider. I spent my formative years three blocks from the City Airport at Gratiot and Conner (look it up). When I was 14 I went to the bus stop at 6:30 in the morning and traveled across town to Chicago and Linwood to Sacred Heart Seminary’s Gothic campus. I rode the “Clairmont Through” line which went right passed the intersection where the riot started. Looking at newspaper photos at camp I instantly recognized all of the businesses at that intersection.
Most of us had transistor radios then so we got the news of the riots as it happened. My father was a Detroit Fire Fighter. As news of arson and snipers came through I became increasingly upset.
The camp had one land line and when I got permission to call hone on it I was greeted with a recording that “no circuits were available”. Many of our campers lived in affected neighborhoods. We choose to tell them nothing until the day the boarded the bus home.
When I came home at the end of the summer my father told me what he had decided. I would no longer ride the bus across town. I would become a boarding student living on campus and coming home on week ends.
My father didn’t talk much about his combat duty that summer. He did talk about crawling under his fire rig twice when sinpers began to fire on them. He also told me about sitting in the rig across form a young national guardsmen and pushing the barrel of his rifle away from his face. Young Guardsmen: “What, are you afraid?” Dad: “Of that gun? You bet I’m afraid.”
When it was all over my dad and a bunch of other Firefighters vowed they would never go into anything like this again unarmed. Someone went to Ohio and bought several small caliber hand guns that were called Saturday Night Specials. I was always aware that that gun was in our house. But it didn’t mean much to me. The gun was under my parents’ mattress and the ammunition was in a dresser drawer.
In 2008 we planned to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday. My older brother Ron came in from Seattle. All of his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren would be there. He was not doing well. Macular Degeneration had robbed him of most of his vision. The side affects of radiation for prostate cancer made him chronically uncomfortable. This strong proud man who enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17 bristled at the fact that he needed help using the remote for watching television.
Ron’s call woke me before 6:00 a.m. I sped the 70 miles to their house. A sheriff’s deputy’s car was in the driveway. Dad was on the back porch. The EMS had come and gone. Nothing for them to do. I sat with him until the people from the funeral home arrived. As far as I know that was the only time that gun had actually been fired.
Most people’s reactions to suicide is anger and that was mine. But this very proud ex-marine, fire fighter, carpenter and home builder was watching his independence and dignity slowly but steadily erode. I’ve come to regard it as a courageous act and a loving act.
Post Script: Canadian Singer, Song Writer Gordon Lightfoot was was in Detroit and confined to his room in the St. Regis Hotel on West Grand Blvd during the riot. He saw a lot of the smoke and fire and did what singer song writers do. He wrote the song “Black Day In July” Predictably, a number of radio stations banned it. Ah, the 60’s
Here is a very nice YouTube video of the song with haunting pictures from that summer.