The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Detroit 1967:
The Festival of the Oppressed

Jul 17, 2017

When Floyd McKissick, head of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), compiled a list of the 12 cities where riots could break out in 1967, Detroit wasn’t on that list. Harlem and Philadelphia had exploded in 1964, Watts in 1965, Cleveland in 1966 – and along with them, dozens of other communities in Northern cities.

But Detroit was supposed to be different: a “model city,” a good place for black people to live. It had a liberal mayor, Jerry Cavanagh, who marched up Woodward Avenue with Dr. Martin Luther King and 125,000 other people in the 1963 Detroit March to Freedom. It had a union, the UAW, which was supposed to be leading the fight against racism in labor. And it had a “reform” police commissioner, who was supposed to be overhauling a 95% white police department that had been known for its brutality, especially against black people.

In 1965, after Watts, Cavanagh would blindly declare: “That kind of thing can’t happen here.”

Can’t happen in Detroit? Well, of course, it could. And did. Before it was over, the Detroit rebellion of 1967 would become the largest, most destructive and deadliest of any uprising in 20th century America. At least 43 people were killed, and 347 injured. These were official figures, undoubtedly understated. Over 1300 buildings were destroyed, and 2700 businesses sacked. Property loss was estimated to be half a billion dollars – more than 12 times the loss in Watts. These are the numbers, but they don’t tell the human and social story of the Detroit insurrection of 1967.

“Model City”? No, Model Powder Keg

Unemployment was rampant in Detroit’s black neighborhoods, low wages endemic. The police were an every-day occupying army. The UAW, whose head marched in civil rights demonstrations, steadily ignored the fact that black workers were confined to the dirtiest, hardest jobs in industry – in the forge, foundry and labor pools – IF they were hired. They were, for all practical purposes, excluded from the skilled trades.

They were directly ruled by a white political structure, controlled by white police, and “represented” by a white-run union.

But the issue went far beyond what Detroiters confronted in their own city in 1967. Families remembered great grandparents who were enslaved and grandparents who worked themselves to the bone as sharecroppers. Their parents came North to get jobs during the world wars – only to find themselves tossed aside when the war was over. They were sent off to die in wars for a “democracy” that had no intention of granting them simple, basic democratic rights.

An enormous powder keg of grievances had accumulated. On Saturday, July 22, 1967, it took only an “ordinary” incident of police brutality to set it off.

The Fire This Time

Police raided an after-hours bar on 12th Street and Clairmont, where 82 people were celebrating the safe return of two soldiers from Viet Nam. All of them – including the soldiers – were man-handled into police vehicles.

People had seen it all before, again and again. But this time, several thousand people gathered on 12th Street.

A police commando unit swept down the street in a large wedge, pushing people off the street. The crowd parted – only to form up right behind the cops, gathering in more people.

The police began to cede ground, first giving up a 16-square block area, waiting for the passions of the crowd to die out on an early Sunday morning. That’s what the police had done in 1966 after an incident of police brutality on Kercheval, over on the East Side. In 1966, people blew off steam and went home.

But the crowds grew larger in ‘67. Cops, vastly outnumbered, stood by the stores as people walked in, right past them. People needed and wanted things, and they grabbed them up. Other streets came alive: Linwood, Dexter, Grand River. Time Magazine talked about the “carnival spirit” that overtook the growing crowds. People were laughing, joking, dancing a few steps, calling on friends and neighbors to come on down.

Black politicians, black educators, black police officials were called on to “talk sense” to the crowds. Sam Johnson, in his book, A Fighter All My Life, described what happened:

“Congressman John Conyers was up there on 12th Street telling people, ‘We got to bring this to a halt. We got to stop this’....

“The young people that were there, most of them teenagers, yelled at him: ‘Uncle Tom, where was you when we needed you? We don’t need you now.’ Boom. They started throwing rocks and bottles. The car he was in, his chauffeur took off.”

Groups of young people moved down the streets, setting fire to many of the stores that had been emptied. Sometimes, they even rushed ahead of people trying to get in. Others had to tell them, “Wait, people need these things.”

“They’re setting fire to their own neighborhood” – so said the radio and TV commentators, scorn filling their voices.

No, it wasn’t their neighborhood they were setting fire to. They were torching the little groceries that charged them outrageously high prices for spoiled food, and the check-cashing places that took a big chunk out of their paycheck. Their resentments flared up at a fire department that came too late when their homes were burning. They were attacking a police department that had made no effort to prosecute four young white men who beat a black Viet Nam vet to death in front of his pregnant wife – the same police department that took its pleasure in rousting out black people celebrating a soldier’s return.

By the end of the first day the police had been forced to withdraw from a 10-square mile area on the West Side. By the end of the second day, 14 square miles had been scoured by fire.

Before the insurrection ran its course five days later, it would stretch almost up to the Northland shopping center, outside of Detroit’s northern border on the west side. It would hop-skip-and-jump across Grand Boulevard down into an area where white people, facing many of the same issues caused by poverty, joined in. It flooded across four miles of Woodward, the street that divides the city east from west. It ran up Hamilton Avenue in Highland Park and touched Hamtramck, two “suburbs” entirely within the borders of Detroit. Jumping into the lower east side area, which had been “cooled down” in 1966, it reached over to Gratiot Avenue.

Factories and offices were closed starting on the second day. For the rest of the week, downtown was empty, freeways deserted. The capitalist owners of big industry, along with their servants in government, woke up to the realization they were powerless to deal with masses of people in revolt.

If people retreated to their homes after five days, it was because they saw nothing else to do – NOT because the cops, state police, sheriffs, National Guard and the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions had battered them into submission.

They maintained for a whole period a feeling of their strength, a feeling that would exhibit itself over and over in the factories, other workplaces and in the neighborhoods.

They had lived through what Lenin, under other circumstances, had called “the festival of the oppressed.”

They Will Be Heard

Five years before the Detroit uprising, James Baldwin had written two essays, published as a book, The Fire Next Time. Among other things, he said: “The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it.”

The uprising of 1967 was a declaration that people would be heard.

The capitalist class certainly heard – and moved to appease and divert that anger. The auto companies set up hiring halls on 12th Street – which was quickly renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard. Within nine months, 28,000 people had been hired by the three auto companies, and Michigan Bell, Detroit Edison and Hudson’s Department Store. Almost as many got jobs with the city, county and state.

The federal government’s housing agency, HUD, opened the spigot on mortgage money, letting people buy the house they were renting. Medical care was extended through Medicare and Medicaid.

By 1970, the gaps between black and white unemployment, between black and white wages began to narrow.

The capitalist class also sought out a new layer of black politicians – mostly Democrats – to mediate with the black masses.

Capitalism’s Twins: Racism, Exploitation

By the next recessions – 1974-75, and 1979-81 – American capitalism was mired in a crisis it couldn’t get out of.

And with the receding of the movement, all the old functioning reappeared. “Last-hired-first-fired” meant black workers were out on the street again. The HUD mortgages didn’t mean much if you didn’t have a job and wages to pay off the note.

Black men and women had been hired as cops, but this did not change their basic function: to contain any revolt of the poor. And to mark that, cops who had openly committed crimes during the five days in 1967 were completely exonerated. The three car loads of cops who broke into and destroyed Ed Vaughn’s bookstore during the curfew weren’t even charged. The deputies and security guards who had held five young black men hostage, before murdering three of them in the Algiers Motel, weren’t charged. The streets were thrown wide open for heroin, with cops at the very least turning a blind eye on the traffic, when not being an integral part of it themselves.

The black Democrats, who took over just when budgets were being cut, were put in charge to ease the cuts through.

As one recession followed another, as plants closed in the city, only to open in the suburbs, the situation of the black population grew measurably worse. Median income of black Detroiters went from 74% of white income in 1970 to only 56% today (2014). The level of black poverty doubled, going from 20% to 41%.

Of course, the Detroit area isn’t what it was. Many black people in the middle class found their way into the suburbs, as did a certain number of black workers. The poorest were left in the city, only to see the city being rebuilt in some areas – for young middle class people who flood in to take advantage of this “new Detroit.”

The decades-long destruction of Detroit is not the result of the insurrection – a charge always thrown against the people who revolted. It has been caused by the normal functioning of capitalism, in a period of crisis.

The concessions granted to the black population of Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s were a temporary expedient, aimed at letting the American capitalist class get beyond the challenge once posed to its control by the urban uprisings.

The concessions that were taken back were simply proof that capitalist exploitation still exists – in a society where racism has always been inextricably linked with exploitation.

Few of those who went out into the street in revolt in the 1960s saw the link between the functioning of capitalism and racism. But they understood that power concedes nothing unless it is forced to. And they saw power concede to them. They did feel their own strength for a while – the strength that masses of people can have when joined in a common struggle.

That is the real meaning of Detroit, 1967. And it’s on that, the future can be built. The next time, however, it is necessary not only to shake the capitalist class and their system. It’s necessary to uproot them, throw them out, when the mass of the people once again gain the upper hand in the streets.