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The Call-In: Detroit's Riots Of 1967


And this is The Call-In. Fifty years ago, violence broke out on the streets of Newark and Detroit, sparked by outrage over police actions in African-American communities.

CAMILLA TATE: Hello. This is Camilla Tate (ph).

TERRY MEHL: Hi. This is Terry Mehl (ph).

JP MASCHKEY: J.P. Maschkey (ph).

TATE: And I called in regard to the riots of '67.

MEHL: In the summer of 1967...

MARYANNE WILLOUGHBY: I was 14, living in Detroit.

TATE: I was a student nurse at Henry Ford Hospital.

MASCHKEY: I worked in a chemical factory that made tire studs. And this was during the Detroit riots.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: On July 21, 1967, Detroit was hit by a riot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Detroit at the time was a segregated city with an almost all-white police force. Poverty, unemployment and exclusion were felt deeply by the city's black residents. Tensions were increasing. And one incident lit the match. Early Sunday morning, the police raided an unlicensed bar where a group of African-Americans were celebrating the return of two veterans from the Vietnam War. The police arrested the group. Onlookers threw bottles in protest. Things quickly escalated and spread. Stores were looted, the city burned. There was complete chaos on the streets.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Curfews were ignored. And police cracked down on African-Americans.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Then they started shooting tear gas and everything. And then they brought a tank out here. And they had us to come out of the pine grove with our hands over our heads and lay out there in the middle of the street.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized the use of federal troops.


LYNDON B JOHNSON: Law and order have broken down in Detroit, Mich. Pillage, looting, murder and arson have nothing to do with civil rights. They are criminal conduct.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After five days of clashes, 43 people had died. More than a thousand were injured. More than 7,000 were arrested. Homes and businesses were smoldering wrecks. And the city of Detroit was more divided than ever. The violence stunned the white residents of the city, recalls Terry Mail.

MEHL: Some of the things that resonate with me from that event are how removed I was as a nice, little, white girl in the suburbs and how totally unaware I was of what was going on in downtown Detroit at the time. It was just about to burn down.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Luther Keith was 16 at the time, living in Detroit. He also says he didn't see it coming.

LUTHER KEITH: Growing up in my neighborhood on the west side of Detroit - it was a great life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Keith is now executive director of Arise Detroit, a community development organization.

KEITH: My father was a postal clerk. I went to Catholic schools. I grew up loving to play baseball in the neighborhood, one of those neighborhoods where everybody on the block knew each other, looked out for each other. So for me, it was a wonderful, wonderful experience growing up. I have wonderful memories of being a young kid growing up in Detroit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Take us to where you were on Sunday, July 23, 1967.

KEITH: Well, I have extremely vivid memories of that because as I said, everyone went to Catholic schools in our parish. And church was St. Agnes Church, which is located on 12th Street, about 10 or 12 blocks from the epicenter of the disturbance. And that particular morning, I went to 8 o'clock mass. And as we came out of church that morning, all up and down 12th Street, which was the flash point - it was a very strong commercial strip. And people were breaking into stores.

We didn't know what was going on until we got home. And, you know, that afternoon, I had a baseball game scheduled on a park further west of Detroit. And I looked up. It's about 3 o'clock in the afternoon by this time. And I'm seeing black smoke rising on the horizon. And I was 16. The coach was a young, white gentleman named John Earl (ph). He was driving me home. And as we got near my house, instead of driving me home - I live about five blocks away - I said, John, let me off here. I can walk the rest of the way - so it would be easy for him to get on the freeway. I still don't know why I said that.

But as I turned to walk down the street, and he took off, as I turned into my neighborhood, there were people throwing bricks at cars with white folks. You know, I didn't engage in any of the rioting or looting or any of that stuff because my parents weren't having none of that. But it was - I remember I was ducking under the bed, hearing bullets flying like it was Vietnam. It was surreal. It was terrifying. And Detroit has never been the same since.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mr. Keith, when you say Detroit has never been the same, what do you mean?

KEITH: What I mean is that I think that was the impetus for a couple things. Number one, it was the rise - it led to the rise of black political power in the election of Coleman Young as the first African-American in 1974.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's the mayor.

KEITH: It led to the representation of African-Americans in government. But along with that, it led to disinvestment and population loss to rival or - maybe any city in American history. You're talking about all the major retail chains leaving. All the major grocery store chains leaving. So when you lose population, you lose tax base. And you can't provide services. So it started a tailspin for Detroit. And so what has happened - there's been this long, 50-year arc where Detroit has relentlessly tried to move forward. I can't tell you how many times we've written about a revival in the city of Detroit. Every five years, there's another revival. There's another revival. There's another revival.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So are you seeing that in the communities which were affected in 1967.

KEITH: Well, you've got to remember that particular area along Virginia Park and 12th Street, where now it's called Rosa Parks Boulevard in Detroit, is completely changed. It's housing in there. There's no retail district in there. That community has been completely obliterated and transformed. The dynamic now in Detroit - there's a tremendous amount of capital investment in downtown Detroit and midtown Detroit.

We're talking about millions and millions of dollars. We've got new stadiums being built. Some of that is filtering out into the neighborhoods. But there's a real sense of - that not enough of it is. We get a tremendous number of new people coming in, the quote, unquote, "creative class" coming in. But there's a tension there that exists sometimes. And, sometimes, people will want to come in and do their thing without acknowledging the people who've already been there or asking them their opinion. Because if you don't, that builds the resentment.

That builds some of the forces, you know, in 1967. Not in the same way - but the feeling was there that, you know, quite frankly, black Detroits weren't getting theirs. These other folks were. And so now, even though 50 years later, things are much different, you can't build a new Detroit and have other people feeling locked out of that new Detroit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I just want to get your view on one particular thing, which is what to call 1967. Some people call it a riot. Some people call it a rebellion. People call it an uprising. What word do you choose?

KEITH: It was all three. It was all three. See, if you sit out in Montana and just see the stuff on TV, it was a riot. If you're in Detroit, and you're the victim of police brutality or being denied a job, as was the case in 1967, you might view it as a rebellion or an uprising. So I think that, you know, the most important thing about that is not what you call it. The most important thing to remember is that it happened.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Luther Keith, executive director of Arise Detroit, thank you very much for joining us.

KEITH: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This coming weekend, our colleagues at All Things Considered will be covering the 50th anniversary of the riots and broadcasting live from Detroit. Tune in on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. And next week on The Call-In, the United States has been fighting in Iraq for 14 years. This past week, Iraq's president announced his troops, with American help, retook the city of Mosul from ISIS. Are you a veteran who fought in Iraq? Are you an Iraqi refugee who came to America? Tell us about your experience. Do you have questions about where the U.S. commitment to Iraq stands now and how the conflict is going? Call in at 202-216-9217. Be sure to include your full name, contact info and where you're from. That number again - 202-216-9217. And we may use your story on the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF CURDUROI'S "MY DEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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