The riots that shook America: Detroit 1967
Patti Waldmeir reflects on the legacy of the Detroit riots of 1967 and talks to some of those who lived through the events of 50 years ago
Filmed and produced by Ben Marino. Additional footage by Reuters and Getty.
It's the 50th anniversary of Detroit's 1967 riots, the deadliest of all the urban riots of the 1960s, that changed the face of American race relations forever. By the time all the fires were out and the looting was over, 43 people were dead. It was a shock to the American body politic, not to mention to the Detroiters who lived through the violence.
That sound of rumbling tanks on concrete is scary and frightening. I had seen pictures of Vietnam, so I knew what tanks could do. The smoke was still in the air. And it burnt your eyes. It was frightening.
One of the customers came to me and said, I know your dad wants to stay and wants to protect his business, but we can't hold these folks off too much longer. It's time for you guys to leave.
I said Dad, I'm scared. And you've lived for 56 years, I've only lived for 16. I'd like to see what the rest of life is like.
More riots broke out when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by a white assassin nine months later. After that, white Americans finally got serious about giving black Americans more political and economic power. A solution to the country's race problem seemed on the horizon.
But now there's a backlash against the civil rights revolution in some white communities. A backlash that President Donald Trump exploited to get elected.
There have been new outbreaks of violence in American cities after a spate of police shootings of black men. Today, America is arguably more racially divided than at any time since Detroit went up in smoke. Reverend Dan Aldridge was a black community leader in 1967.
Well, 50 years later almost nothing has happened. Very little has changed. I think the election of Donald Trump shows you how very little has changed.
Who would have thought that the same people who elected Barack Obama could elect Donald Trump?
Now on the golden anniversary of the riots, white and black Americans are reflecting on how America got to this point. Ike McKinnon is one of them. His grandparents were born into slavery in the American South. And he was one of the first blacks to join the Detroit police force in 1965. He says police brutality sparked the riots, a problem that continues to bedevil race relations in many American cities to this day.
I was pulled over by two Detroit police officers. And they were both white. And one guy I remember, he had silver hair and a brush cut. And I had my uniform on, had the shield on, the two for the second precinct.
And I said, police officer, and smiled. He told me, get out of the car. And as I did so, I again repeated, police officer. And he had his gun in his hand. The other officer had his gun. And he said, tonight you're going to die, and said a racial epithet.
And the thing, it was as if it was a slow motion. And I could see, because we're under a light, I could see him starting to pull the trigger. And as I said, it was in slow motion. And as I dove back into the car, he started shooting at me. But I dove into my car through the open door and hit the accelerator with my right hand and steered with my left hand and sped out of there.
Frank Rashid, whose family stayed in the city, despite having the family grocery and liquor stores looted in 1967, explains the economic roots of the crisis.
The false narrative is that somehow the people of Detroit are responsible for Detroit's decline. And that 1967 is the centrepiece of that. That the people who rioted or who rebelled in the streets in 1967 are the people who brought about Detroit's decline.
When the reality is that Detroit was in serious trouble since World War II. Because white folks were subsidised to move out of the city. And the auto industry, at the same time, had decided to disinvest from the city.
Elijah Anderson is a professor at Yale University. But his parents were part of the great migration of Southern blacks to the industrial North, where his father became an auto worker. He says race relations have come a long ways since Detroit exploded.
And as I said, this has resulted in the largest black middle class in American history, you see. Because then it kind of takes on a life of its own, this inclusion, this ethos. At the same time, there were many white people who felt that their own rights were being abrogated by the rise of black people.
And these white people were quite resistant, you see. And that resistance has lasted to this day. And to some extent, grown, you see.
Now whites have begun to trickle back into Detroit as it bounces back from its 2013 bankruptcy and registers its first real growth in decades. Much of Detroit has been a wasteland for decades. So even things like demolishing over 10,000 blighted buildings and reconnecting tens of thousands of streetlights have been a major improvement. But it's too soon to tell whether the city's recovery will do more than just scratch the surface.
And many black Detroiters worry that the benefits of its fragile regeneration are not reaching down to them. Walter and Wallace Crawford, who had just graduated from a local Catholic high school when the riots broke out, say little has changed.
Certain parts of the city are just off limits, you know, for certain people, you know. And it's not going to succeed unless everyone shares in the economic opportunities.
That's the way I see it also. That-- I mean, you know, like could be apartheid. You know, I mean, I'll be honest with you, that's what I see. You're going to be apartheided. The only way you're going to be able to get through downtown if you're black is if you show some sort of ID.
Detroit is a potent reminder that America remains, even 50 years after the Civil Rights Revolution, even nine years after the election of the first black president, a nation cleft in two by race. 50 years from now, the racial composition of the US will have changed dramatically. Whites will be heavily outnumbered by non-whites. It's anyone's guess whether that will make things better in terms of race relations or possibly even worse.
Patty Waldmeir, Financial Times, Detroit.