Viewpoint: Lessons from the Detroit July 1967 Rebellion and Prospects for Social Transformation – Part I

City remains mired in social crises stemming from decades of extreme exploitation and national oppression

Detroit Rebellion July 1967 as African Americans take over the streets
Detroit Rebellion July 1967 as African Americans take over the streets

July 23, 2017 marked the beginning of the 50th anniversary of the Detroit Rebellion of 1967 which at the time represented the largest of such an occurrence since the conclusion of the Civil War.

Detroit Rebellion July 1967 as African Americans take over the streets
Detroit Rebellion July 1967 as African Americans take over the streets
Officially 43 people died in rebellion-related incidents in the days from July 23-31. Of those who lost their lives there were 33 African Americans and 10 whites. Scores of others were wounded by gunfire, injured in beatings and mishaps.

During the course of the period of July 23-31, approximately 7,200 people were detained by the police and Michigan National Guard. Most of the people who were arrested did not face prosecution due to the sheer volume of cases and the lack of evidence in regard to specific crimes allegedly committed.

Property damage estimates ranged from $40million to $500million. Most of the property which was damaged or destroyed belonged to white business people operating within the African American community.

There were African American owned businesses and occupied homes damaged and destroyed as well, most of which were inadvertent. In the cases where people were rendered homeless from arson and other forms of property damage it was in connection with attacks on other white-owned more lucrative establishments.

A report issued by the offices of the-then Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh revealed that over the period of nine days (July 23-31), one police officer, two firemen and one guardsman, all of whom were white, died in the rebellion. The remaining 39 people who lost their lives were civilians, 32 of whom were African Americans and 7 whites. (See 12th Street collection at the Reuther Library, Wayne State University, Detroit.)

These same statistics released by Mayor Cavanaugh’s office indicates there were 143 injuries among police officers, firemen and guardsmen. In addition, 181 civilians were injured, for a total of 324 people.

Damage done to properties included 1,682 buildings impacted by 727 arson attacks. There were 211 building totally destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Another 114 buildings required major repair and renovation. In addition to the buildings impacted by arson attacks, some 770 businesses were broken into and looted.

Of the 7, 200 or more arrests, 6,528 were adults and 703 juveniles. 5,747 of the people detained were African Americans and 781 whites.

As it related to the overall assessments of property damage, the Cavanaugh office report says: “There is no reliable estimate of property damage resulting from the riot (rebellion). State Insurance Commissioner Dykhouse has estimated that losses in the riot (rebellion) areas alone were $144million, of which $84million was insured and $60million was uninsured. Others including magazine and newspaper writers have estimated total loss as a result of the riot (rebellion) may run as high as $500million for the entire city, counting lost sales and wages.”

This same document goes on to provide figures for costs in relationship to City of Detroit governmental operations as $3.1 million. This was for extra personnel expenses in overtime for police, fire and other civil servants. $1.7 million in costs was incurred as a result of damages to city property and additional operating expenses. Altogether the City of Detroit estimated that $7.2 million in its revenues were lost during the rebellion.

The major questions surrounding how the rebellion was portrayed by the corporate media, the present city administration and the civilian population remains a source of debate and contention. Referring to the rebellion as a “riot” is a gross distortion of what actually transpired in Detroit and the other 163 municipalities where unrest occurred during 1967.

Rising Militancy and the African American Struggle

When the national wave of unrest erupted in the summer months of that year it greatly expanded a pattern which had evolved since the unrest in Birmingham, Alabama in the spring of 1963. Although the demonstrations which occurred in Birmingham aimed at ending legalized segregation in public accommodations have been reported as being nonviolent in orientation and scope, there were limits to the tolerance of blatant state repression in that industrialized southern city.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the co-founder and then President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) entered Birmingham in early 1963 utilizing the urban area as a test case in a campaign to end 20th century Jim Crow. Soon enough Dr. King was arrested along with other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

Facing fear, hostility and even indifference by many church leaders in both the African American and white communities of Birmingham, SCLC staff members recruited youth to continue the mass demonstrations in the streets. Attacks on African American youth by police who utilized clubs, police dogs and water hoses, prompted a fightback among more radicalized young people and workers.

This author noted in an article published in February 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham campaign and other mass efforts of the same year which erupted in cities across the South as well as the North, that: “Several thousand people, mainly children were arrested by the police and jailed. Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth were all arrested and beaten by the racist police. The struggle would come to a head on May 5, when thousands of mostly youth marched through the African American community to the downtown area. Police chief Bull Connor ordered fire hoses turned on the people. In response to the repression on May 5, the first significant urban rebellion of the 1960s occurred. James Forman, executive secretary of SNCC, described the events that day saying that ‘The police had cordoned off the intersections leading to downtown and started shooting water on people. Bricks and rocks started flying back at the police and the firemen.’ (The Making of Black Revolutionaries, 1972, p. 315) Forman went on to point out that ‘For over forty-five minutes, there was a chase in and out of alleys and streets. Other Black people joined in the fight against the police. The ‘riots’ that day in Birmingham received wide public attention—they were a prelude to Harlem ’64, Watts ’65, Newark and Detroit ’67.’”

By characterizing the series of rebellions which took place during the years of 1963 through 1970 as “riots” criminalizes the struggles of the African American people against racism, economic exploitation and national oppression. Internationally, oppressed peoples have rebelled and resisted the imposition of racialized and exploitative social conditions. In many cases revolutionary movements were organized which engaged in mass demonstrations, boycotts, general strikes as well as armed attacks on the controlling economic institutions and repressive state structures.

Alternative political dispensations were formed throughout Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Europe in the period after the conclusion of World War II. The African American liberation struggles inside the geographical confines of the United States were part and parcel of this global movement against capitalism, colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism.

Slavery, Emigration and the Rise of Racial Capitalism

Detroit has been a center of racial unrest going back at least to the Blackburn Rebellion of 1833 when Africans and their allies liberated a couple who were seeking freedom from enslavement in Kentucky. By 1863, another racial disturbance occurred during the period leading up to the period of the draft by the Union military forces in the Civil War.

Utilizing charges of sexual assault against a Black business owner in the city, the white immigrant residents engaged in property destruction, arson and murder directed solely against the African community in 1863. The Michigan National Guard was deployed to end the outbreak which left two people dead, one African and one European, where significant loss of commercial and residential property was suffered by Black people.

The city had been a major depot in the anti-slavery movement known as the Underground Railroad. Thousands of Africans escaped slavery by traveling to Michigan and across the Detroit River to Canada. By the 1850s, Ontario and Detroit were hubs for the abolitionist struggle spawning independent Black newspapers, religious institutions, mutual societies and small enterprises.

Prior to the rise of industrial production in the automotive and steel sectors in the early decades of the 20th century, during the 1800s Detroit became known for its innovative developments in the areas of steam engine shipbuilding, copper mining and lumber. A former French territory beginning in 1701, the area was later taken over by the British and eventually the Americans. The Native population was displaced while European immigrants and a small number of enslaved Africans were brought in to facilitate the integration of the territory into the broader U.S.

With the founding of the automotive assembly line by Henry Ford I in the first decade of the 20th century, the demand for cheap labor accelerated. In order to stave off the burgeoning desire to organize workers by labor unions, Ford Motor Company became the first in the industry to recruit African Americans largely from the rural sections of the South.

In the period leading up to World War I, Ford began to advertise in the African American press for Black labor in 1913. Over just a ten year span, 1910-1920, the number of African Americans migrating to Detroit rose rapidly.

The migration created a host of new social problems primarily of which was the question of housing and public accommodation. Racial tension grew after the end of WWI. In several cities throughout the U.S. race riots erupted including Washington, D.C. and Chicago. Detroit may have escaped a major disturbance in 1919, however, in the subsequent years of the 1920s there was a proliferation of racist incidents which sought to keep the African American people in a subservient class-caste position.

Membership in the Ku Klux Klan grew exponentially in the 1920s. By 1925, Charles Bowles, an attorney who had graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1908, ran for mayor in a special election resulting from the resignation of Frank Ellsworth Doremus. Bowles was supported by the Ku Klux Klan and came in third in the primary elections leaving him out of the runoff.

Nonetheless, Bowles ran as a write-in candidate and would have won the election if 15,000 ballots had not been disqualified. Bowles made another unsuccessful attempt at winning election to the mayor’s office in 1926. In the meantime he secured a judgeship on the bench of the Detroit Recorder’s Court.

Later in 1929, Bowles resigned from Recorder’s Court and ran in the mayoral race for the third time winning in the primary against John C. Lodge and in the final election defeating John W. Smith. Bowles had run his campaign on a purported anti-crime platform.

Nonetheless, shortly after taking office he fired Police Commissioner Harold Emmons in the wake of a series of raids and was soon accused by various leading forces in Detroit of tolerating lawlessness. Only six months into his tenure as mayor, Bowles was the subject of a well-organized recall campaign. He was forced from office in 1930 becoming the only mayor to date to have been recalled.

The fact that Bowles could win such considerable electoral backing as open advocate of Klan policy spoke volumes about the nature of race relations in the city. As African Americans streamed into Detroit during the 1920s, tensions escalated to a fever pitch.

The Black community organized to fight for better housing, jobs and overall access to the city’s municipal services. Their success would enflame the racist elements in the white community who in many cases were being manipulated by the ruling interests within industry and finance.

Dr. Ossian Sweet in 1925 moved into a home in a previously all-white neighborhood on the eastside of Detroit. His home was soon confronted by a racist mob demanding that he immediately move out of the area. The physician defended his home and one of the assailants was killed in a gun battle.

There were two trials in the prosecution and Sweet was acquitted by an all-white jury in the second proceeding. Attorney Charles Darrow served as defense counsel making compelling arguments on behalf of Sweet.

In subsequent years, the migration of African Americans continued. The Great Depression extending from 1929 to the beginnings of World War II severely impacted the city of Detroit which was dominated by the auto industry. Ford, the leader in car production, after 1929 laid off nearly 70 percent of its workforce. 80 percent of the overall automotive production was halted leaving hundreds of thousands of people in destitute conditions throughout the region.

Unemployment was rife while African Americans maintained their patterns of relocation from the South to the industrial North. By 1932, many within the city of Detroit and its environs were practically dying from starvation.

Concomitantly, there was a rise in resistance to the travails of the economic collapse. The Communist Party began to organize large rallies surrounding May Day and other occasions making demands for hunger relief, public service jobs and a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. Ford along with the other automotive companies vigorously blocked the organization and recognition of labor unions.

To illustrate the horrendous social conditions in the city, the Communists along with their allies within burgeoning United Automobile Workers (UAW), called for a Hunger March from the city into Dearborn where the Ford Rouge plant was located. A list of 14 demands was to be presented to the ruling class interests specifically designed to feed, house, cloth and employ the displaced workers.

One account of the Hunger March said of the day that: “On the morning of 7 March 1932, approximately 3000 people, former and current Ford workers as well as other unemployed members of the community, met together at the edge of Detroit. The marchers planned to walk to Dearborn, Michigan, to the Ford River Rouge Complex, the main Ford factory that housed the company’s employment office. One of the march leaders, Albert Goetz, gave a speech to the protesters, emphasizing the need for peaceful resistance and orderly behavior during the march.” (

However, the captains of industry, their security forces along with local police had other orders to carry out of that faithful day. This same above-mentioned report went on to chronicle the events which occurred soon after the Hunger March began.

It says: “Upon entering Dearborn, however, the protesters encountered city police. The Dearborn police launched tear gas against the marchers, some of whom began throwing stones and dirt clods at the police in response. The police temporarily retreated, and the marchers continued toward the Ford factory. When they arrived at the factory, Dearborn police, the Dearborn fire department, Detroit police, Michigan state police, and Ford Motor Company’s private security force blocked the marchers from proceeding further. The Fire Department attacked the protesters with cold water from their fire hoses, and the protesters continued to throw stones. The police and Ford security began to shoot at the crowds of marchers, killing four marchers and injuring over sixty more. Goetz and the other leaders called off the demonstration and police arrested almost fifty marchers.”

This event later known as the Ford Massacre resulted in a huge outcry against police brutality against the workers and unemployed. Five days later on March 12 in a funeral procession in honor of the martyred all of whom were members of the Young Communist League (YCL), an estimated 60,000 people marched along Woodward Avenue to Woodmere Cemetery where they sang the International hymn of the world socialist movement. Curtis Williams, an African American, was wounded on March 7 and died three months later from his injuries. As a result of the institution racism even in death, Williams could not be buried at Woodmere Cemetery.

These developments did not lead to any immediate change in the conditions of workers particularly African Americans in Detroit. It would nevertheless provide an insight into the violent character of exploitation and oppression prevalent in the city at the time. The automotive bosses engaged in fierce reprisals against Communist labor organizers through the banning of socialist literature and activity within the plants.

The first recognition of the UAW came in the aftermath of the Flint sit-down strike of 1937 against General Motors. Ford would not accept the UAW as a bargaining partner until 1941 on the eve of the entry of the U.S. into World War II after much unrest within the plants.

Although the Communist Party and other left formations sought to build alliances between African American and European-American communities, there were other currents which agitated for exclusionary and race-based discriminatory politics. Racist elements some of whom were members and sympathizers with the Klan and the Black Legion, another bigoted organization which was funded by the industrial owners, sought to keep African Americans out of certain job categories as well as neighborhoods which were dominated by whites.

Racism and the Housing Question: From the 1930s to the 1960s

This strategy of dividing African American and white workers through racist demagogy had enduring success. A series of events in 1942-43 would draw national and international attention to Detroit.

As the migration of African Americans increased during the 1930s, the community was largely confined to several geographic areas of the city. The majority of Blacks lived in the lower eastside areas popularly known as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.

Overcrowding within areas surrounding John R, Brush, Beaubien, St. Antoine and Hastings running north and south and expanding further east along Lafayette and Larned, resulted in conditions worsening for many residents. Housing stock was becoming more substandard lacking in some cases indoor running water and toilet facilities prompted the demand by the exclusively white city administration for demolition and relocation. However, the question became removal to where in light of the polarized racial atmosphere which was the norm throughout Detroit.

During the first term of the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal programs were established in order to meet the growing discontent of millions of poor and jobless people in the U.S. Drawing from the demands advocated by the Communist Party and progressive elements among the African American people, public works initiatives were established leading to the construction the federal courthouse and post office in the city.

By September 1935 ground was broken on the first public housing project in the city known as the Brewster Homes. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended the event which began construction on the government-funded development. Many African Americans opposed having their homes razed to make way for the concentrated housing complex. However, during the time there was no effective political vehicle in existence to halt the program.

The first 941 units of the Brewster Projects opened in 1938. The complex was located between Hastings and Beaubien Streets and bounded by Wilkins and Mack Avenue in the heart of the African American community. Additional structures were erected in the early 1940s and by 1951 another complex called the Frederick Douglass Homes consisted of high-rise apartments.

At its peak, the Brewster-Douglass Projects was home to several thousand largely African American families. In the initial phase of the project there were conditions for admission to the units. Nuclear families with steady employment at a certain level of income were required to move into the area.

Nonetheless, this development was still not enough to meet the rapidly growing demand for housing among African Americans moving into the city. When the U.S. intervened in World War II on December 7, 1941, the industrial manufacturing base of the city was being converted to military production. Despite the draft, the migration of people into Detroit seeking employment in the war machine created an even greater crisis in the need for adequate housing.

The federal government responded with the building of wartime housing for African Americans further to the north on the eastside. Known as the Sojourner Truth Homes, the units were designed to meet the dynamic situation created by the War. Racist sentiment surfaced in regard to this housing development where European Americans opposed the relocation of Blacks into the previously all-white area.

One source summarized the social atmosphere at the time saying: “In 1941 the federal government and the Detroit Housing Commission approved construction of the 200-unit Sojourner Truth Housing Project to house Black defense workers during World War II. White residents living near the project’s location at Nevada and Fenelon Streets protested to change the occupancy to white only, and federal authorities promised to build housing for Black workers elsewhere. After failing to secure an alternative site, these Black workers fought for the right to move into Sojourner Truth, but not without incident. Continued demonstrations, violent clashes, and hundreds of arrests prompted Mayor Edward Jeffries to mobilize the Michigan National Guard to move the first Black families into the Sojourner Truth Housing Project.” (

The Sojourner Truth incident laid the basis for the outbreak of full-blown racial warfare during June 1943. Tensions led to clashes on the afternoon of Sunday June 23 on Belle Isle, a large public park area located on the eastside of Detroit. Later in the evening an apparent false rumor spread throughout the African American community that a child had been thrown into the river by a white sailor from the bridge leading to and exiting Belle Isle.

The same source cited above in regard to the 1942 Sojourner Truth Homes incident, said of the events which took place the following year that: “On June 20, 1943 fighting broke out between white and Black youth on Detroit’s Belle Isle, igniting three days of violence, looting, and arson. Mayor Edward Jeffries and Governor Harry Kelly requested federal intervention when the police could not quell the spreading riots. By the time President Franklin Roosevelt sent more than 6,000 U.S. Army troops to restore peace, nearly 700 people had been injured and 34 people were killed (25 Black and 9 white), and property damage totaled approximately $2 million. The brutal nature of the injuries and deaths in those three days revealed a well of hatred that went much deeper than city officials were prepared to publicly acknowledge. A lack of honest action, combined with questionable investigations that placed blame squarely at the feet of Black Detroiters, further incited their growing sense of injustice.” (

On the near west side of Detroit there was also a burgeoning African American presence. During the years of World War II Orsel and Minnie McGhee were targeted for removal from a home they had initially rented and sought to purchase located in the West Grand Boulevard and Grand River neighborhood at 4246 Seebaldt Street. The white neighborhood association organized to force the McGhees to leave the area. They recruited one white family, the Sipes, to file litigation in Recorder’s Court seeking McGhee’s eviction.

One website chronicling aspects of the history of Detroit recounts that: “When the McGhee v. Sipes litigation reached the Supreme Court in Washington, the judges had two other restrictive covenant cases to decide. The lead case was Shelley v. Kramer concerning restrictive covenants in St. Louis. The Supreme Court merged the Seebaldt Street litigation with that from St. Louis since the instant matter was the same. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1922 that restrictive covenants were legal but in their 1948 decision in Shelley v. Kramer, the Supreme Court decided that while there was no federal prohibition against including restrictive covenants in property deeds, no state or federal court could enforce them. Civil rights activists viewed this as a great victory since restrictive covenants could no longer be used to keep Jews or Blacks out of a neighborhood. However, developers continued to insert them into property deeds until the 1960s. In theory the Shelley v. Kramer decision was a major blow to Jim Crow practices in residential segregation but the actual segregation of Blacks from whites in neighborhoods did not start to decline until well after 1970, presumably due in part to the Open Housing Law that Congress passed in 1968.” (

After the conclusion of the War plans were drafted to raze large sections of the African American community on the eastside. The Detroit Plan of 1947 and the Master Plan of 1951 was based upon notions of “slum removal” and “urban revitalization.”

The election of Mayor Albert Cobo in 1949 was reflective of the increasing decentralization of industrial production from inside the city of Detroit and its suburban enclaves of Highland Park and Hamtramack to areas further into the suburbs. Cobo campaigned on a promise to white residents and business interests to contain the geographic expansion of African Americans into previously all-white communities through the systematic effort aimed at relocation of lower-income working people and the refusal to either refurbish or build affordable housing.

A series of measures beginning in 1951 were tantamount to “ethnic cleansing.” The Gratiot Park neighborhood was targeted first in an ostensible effort to reconstruct the lower eastside with improved housing stock providing encouragement for nearby downtown business development.

These relocation efforts were actually incentivized by policies emanating from the Post World War II federal government administrations of Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Municipalities controlled by white mayors and city councils provided resources for the construction of expressways which fostered flight from the urban areas into the expanding suburbs.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, known also as the National Interstate and Defense Highway Act, was enacted by the Eisenhower administration serving to speed up the process of suburbanization. Investment in public transportation was discouraged due to lack of funding from Washington and with specific reference to Detroit, by the automotive industry itself which sought greater dependency on car usage for obvious reasons of enhanced profitability.

Soon enough by the late 1950s, plans were underway for a further breaking up and forced removal of the large population of African Americans living west of Hastings Street. The area known as Paradise Valley was a center for Black businesses, churches, social organizations and rising urban political power.

In 1961, the final orders to vacate the Hasting Street corridor were issued paving the way for the construction of the Chrysler and Fisher freeways running right through the heart of the African American community. Although many of the residents in the Paradise Valley district were poor and lived in overcrowded substandard housing due to systematic racial discrimination in housing policy, there were no provisions made for the residents, religious institutions and small businesses to establish themselves in other areas of the city.

Through suburbanization, the abandonment of industrial enterprises to areas far removed from the central city, resistance by middle-class, upper middle-class and working class white neighborhoods to welcome African American residents, the population of Detroit began its long precipitous decline. The city’s population had reached its highest level in 1950 with approximately 1.85 million people. Over the next decade there was a decline of nearly 200,000 residents in the city. During the course of the period leading up to the 1967 rebellion, further white flight was well underway. By 1970 the city was occupied by 1.5 million dropping by 300,000 in just two decades.

As a result of housing discrimination many of those African Americans forced to relocate moved into Virginia Park District on the west side. This section had been the center of the Jewish American community which previously resided in the areas known as Paradise Valley and Black Bottom from the 1880s through the 1930s.

Over a period of one decade from 1947-1957, the Virginia Park District and its surrounding environs were predominately populated by African Americans. The relocation to this area came at a tremendous price for the more marginalized strata of the community. Although some appreciated the expansion of access to housing, many were restricted to rental properties such as two-family, four-family flats and apartments.

Along the 12th Street corridor in the 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s, apartments were broken up into smaller units to accommodate the influx of African Americans. The nature of industrial production which was changing rapidly during this period translated into fewer stable jobs available to Black people. Despite the levels of economic expansion in the U.S. in the early and middle years of the 1960s, many African Americans remained trapped in lower-income job categories subjected to periodic recessions in the 1950s and early 1960s.

These economic changes which marginalized African American working and middle class households paralleled the intensifying militancy of the masses which won Civil Rights legislation, Federal and Supreme Court rulings purportedly widening opportunities through the legal overturning of segregation within the labor market, education, municipal services and housing. Legal reforms nevertheless did not keep apace of the rising expectations of large segments of the African American people. Moreover, the passage of laws and court rulings in favor of Civil Rights did not immediately tear down the walls of institutional racism and economic exploitation.

Just two years after the bulk of forced removals from the Black Bottom (Gratiot Park) and Paradise Valley areas, Detroit would be the scene of the largest mass demonstration in U.S. history for Civil and Human Rights on June 23, 1963. Underlying the success of the Detroit Walk to Freedom was the discontent emanating from the forced removals, the ongoing institutional discrimination in education, employment and housing.

Leading figures in the city at the time including Rev. C. L. Franklin of New Bethel Baptist Church, educator and real estate salesman James Del Rio, Rev. Albert Cleage, among others, invited SCLC leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Detroit to lead the demonstration down Woodward Avenue. Hundreds of thousands participated in the trek south on the city’s main thoroughfare from Warren Avenue to Cobo Hall on the riverfront. Dr. King would deliver an early iteration of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Detroit two months prior to the March on Washington held on August 28. In fact the Detroit Walk to Freedom would lay the groundwork for the March on Washington taking place amidst widespread protests against segregation throughout the South in the spring and summer months of 1963.

Even with these laudable efforts by the African American community, racism and police brutality persisted. Alternative voices of a more radical nature would come to the fore by the latter months of 1963. Events rapidly developed during 1964-66 inside the city of Detroit, around the U.S. and internationally which would create the social conditions for the eruption of the Great Rebellion of July 1967.

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

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