In the D part two: Detroit burns in the 1967 riots

In a previous post I covered the remarkable rise to power and glorious heyday of Detroit, fuelled by the booming motor industry. In this post we’ll take a look at how it all started to go wrong.

Down on the Street

In the early hours of the morning on July the 23rd 1967, the Detroit police force arrived at a small unlicensed downtown venue where a party had been taking place. They were expecting around two dozen revellers to be there and the plan was to arrest them all, but they found the situation was not what they had expected and over 80 people were present. In spite of this, the police dug in their heels and placed 82 people under arrest. The scene attracted a small crowd outside while the officers waited for transports to arrive to take their detainees away.

So how did a raid on an unlicensed bar lead to city-wide rioting? Well, race relations in 1960’s America were still imperfect and black people across the country were campaigning for equal rights, often complaining of police brutality and lack of respect from shopkeepers and employers. Against that backdrop it’s easier to see how the raid provoked tensions because all 82 people arrested were black.

After the police left the scene, a small group of young black men who had watched and been angered by the arrests began looting a nearby shop. This single act ignited a wave of riots across the city that lasted for five days. In the early stages the media didn’t report on events to try and maintain calm and prevent copycat action, but this had a marginal effect. Fighting, looting and arson spiralled out of control and completely overwhelmed the Detroit police force. The State Police and then the National Guard were brought in to assist, and the situation became so serious that President Johnson brought the military into the city.

By the time everything was over the devastation was immense – Wikipedia records forty-three deaths, 467 injuries, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed by arson. So many people were arrested that there was nowhere to put detainees and various makeshift facilities had to be used. At one point on the second day of the riots, 40 National Guard personnel were pinned down by snipers : 26 people armed as snipers were arrested during the riots.

It isn’t quite accurate to call the 1967 riots ‘race riots’ – the causes are more complex but can be categorised as social unrest – itself brought about by factors such as the lack of affordable housing and the changing demographics of Detroit with it’s massive influx of African Americans attracted by the availability of jobs in the auto industry.

Impact of the riots on Detroit

What is clear is that the aftermath of the riots certainly had lasting and serious implications for race relations. Residents of the inner city were terrified by the scale and intensity of the rioting and this massively accelerated a social phenomenon that was already affecting Detroit and other US cities called white flight. This is the name given to the migration of white people from inner cities to the suburbs where racially-restrictive housing policies made it hard for back people to live. The construction of interstate freeways across America was the enabler for this demographic change – allowing suburbanites to easily commute to their jobs in the city.

Changing demographics in Detroit

The effects of the declining auto industry and lingering issues from the riots have had a dramatic effect on the city and reversed the population from a white majority to a black majority in within 40 years. The black population within the city became trapped, initially by regulations that prevented them from moving to the suburbs, and in later decades by the falling value of property driven by increased crime and urban decay.
The second important point to note from the table above is that as well as the demographic change there has been a severe overall decline in the population of the city – the 2000 population figure shows a drop of over 40% from the number of residents in the city in 1960. A million whites left the city in this period, but the black population only increased by 350,000.

Whether the city could ever recover from what happened in July 1967 is difficult to say, but it didn’t get an opportunity to because just around the corner was the 1973 and 1979 oil crises which caused a terminal decline in the Detroit auto industry, resulting in huge job losses throughout the next two decades. I’ll be covering this in my next post.

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