Motor City Burning: Looking At The Real Events Of The Detroit Race Riots

A peek behind the curtain at the true events of Kathryn Bigelow’s DETROIT.

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People like to believe that the Race Riots of 1967 marked the start of the city of Detroit's downfall. They like to think that the broken bottles and fuming citizens and raging fires signified a panic which burned and consumed everything in its path, leaving Michigan in a state of unrest which could only be quelled by armed forces, and thereafter never returned to its former glory. What people fail to realize is that this uprising didn’t signify the beginning of the end of a strong and powerful Detroit, but rather, symbolized the day that its people, tired of being trampled upon, finally stood up for themselves, and fought back against the racist regime that held them prisoner within the confines of a superficial white man’s cornucopia.

It all started on Sunday July 23rd, on a night that should have been an evening of celebration. Two black veterans returning from the war in Vietnam gathered with friends after hours in a blind pig on the corner of 12th Street and Clairmont Avenue to take in libations and share smiles and reunite with old loved ones – but that’s not the way it went down. They were instead handed a lesson in terror, and reminded that no matter how hard they fought for their country, their country still wasn’t happy to see them return home. In a short-sighted showcase of bigotry and casual racism, a group of swine posing as police officers raided the pig, and arrested every single person inside, adding up to more than eighty total party patrons.

Rumors of police brutality spread like wildfire through the streets, and before long, a crowd swarmed outside the bar, buzzing with furious excitement. The crowd grew to a massive size, swelling up to over two hundred people, until their anger and resentment towards the men in uniforms amassed into one single act of rebuttal: a little after 5:00 A.M., the first bottle was tossed through the back of a squad car. Shortly after, a trash bin was thrown into a storefront window. The streets of Detroit then erupted into a blaze of defiance which could not be calmed. The people could not be quieted. They had long stood by and watched silently as injustice reigned supreme in their little part of the world, but now, it was their turn to do some damage.

Looting began to run rampant, with more and more windows being smashed and more and more men of the law growing fearful at the storm they had started. Around 5:20 A.M., more policemen were sent to the area to help return the streets to a state of normalcy, but to no avail. It was far too late. The cops had sparked this freak show, and now, they were going to watch the madness blaze until only embers were left glowing.

12th Street became a sight of chaos which no man could lessen – not even Detroit Congressman John Conyers. At one point, he tried to climb up on top of a car in the middle of the street and talk some sense into the people pelting bricks and bottles in his direction, but nothing came from his speechifying other than more and more hurled objects at his head. The police had warned him that they could not guarantee his safety, but he had to witness his peoples’ anger firsthand before he came to understand their caution.

Police began to report injuries from all of the things being thrown at them at about 1 P.M. in the afternoon, and firefighters were called in for assistance. Fires had begun to pop up around the area, but as the flames soared higher and higher into the skies, so, too, did the rage of the people escalate into a frenzy, neither of which would soon be extinguished. Firemen tried to put out the fires, but they, just like the policemen who tried to assess the situation beforehand, were only hit by objects being thrown through the air. The citizens of Detroit were finally being heard, and they weren’t about to let their anger be silenced. No fires would be put out tonight. Not even with twenty-five mile per hour winds stirring the pot and spreading the flames to surrounding neighborhoods. Even with businesses and homes going up in flames. It didn’t matter. Those things could be rebuilt. Their pride and glory couldn’t be restructured as easily.

Twelve hours into the riots, Mayor Cavanaugh requested that the National Guard be brought in to deal with the chaos. Panicked and in pain from all of the things being thrown at them, the firefighters abandoned the area they had been trying to save, leaving roughly one hundred square blocks in size around 12th street in flames. Motor city was burning, and the fire smelled like freedom.

The first troops arrived in the city at 7:00 P.M. Less than one hour later, Mayor Cavanaugh instituted a curfew that lasted from 9:00 P.M. until 5:00 A.M., creating an even larger backlash in his attempt to simmer down the heat that was already boiling over. He only made the fire spread further.

Just seven minutes after the curfew was installed, a sixteen-year-old black boy was shot. At roughly 11:00 P.M., a white man seeing looting a store was shot by its owner. Four gunshot victims shortly followed, and soon, sniper fire was reported in the area. Policemen claimed they could not distinguish the area from which the sniper shots were being fired.

On Monday, July 24th 1967, 800 state police officers and over 8,000 National Guardsmen were sent the city of Detroit by Governor George Romney. They were soon joined by 4,700 paratroopers from the 82nd airborne division, as ordered by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson was no stranger to intimidation tactics, and as expected, his scenario to slow the mayhem worked like a charm. The smashing of windows, the looting, and the fires began to cease, but the sniper fire didn’t end until the violence came to a complete halt on Thursday, July 27th. On August 1st, the mayor lifted the curfew, and the National Guardsmen left for greener pastures. It was finally over, but the remnants of the battle waged on the streets lived on in the hazy smoldering neighborhoods, in the littered glass that lined the alleyways, and in bare bones of the brittle smoked stained buildings left behind.

In the five days of crazed chaos, a heap of bodies were racked up as casualties. Around 7,200 people were arrested, and 1,189 people reported injuries. Ten white people were killed, and thirty-three black citizens died in the skirmish. About 2,500 stores were looted. The damage in dollars came to approximately $32 million.

In the midst of the racial hostility of the 1960s, people of color in the streets of Detroit had found a way to the call the shots. They were tired of being discriminated against on the basis of their color. They were tired of being sent off to die for a country that hated them. They were tired of being told where they could and couldn’t eat, could and couldn’t sit, could and couldn’t vote. It may have been violent, it may have been bloody, but the Detroit Race Riots of 1967 marked a time when the citizens of Detroit had their voices heard, their frustrations were vented, and their city was forever changed. These were not times of sadness – these were times of triumph, of history being altered, and of men standing up for what they believe in, even if it meant losing all that they held dear in their bold acts of defiance.

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