Aug 21, 2017
The recent 50th anniversary of the Detroit rebellion sparked a rash of documentaries and discussions about its history. A movie about the rebellion and the torture and murder at the Algiers Motel, called Detroit, was released shortly thereafter.
The various presentations and the movie acknowledge that the working class and particularly the black population of the city of Detroit had reasons to protest. They show something of the poverty and segregation experienced by the black population of the city, and particularly the frequent brutalization of the black population by the police.
Ultimately, however, they show the sole outcome of the rebellion as a victimization of black people and the working class.
It’s a false picture of what actually occurred. Many of those who participated in the events felt buoyed by them.
In his book, “A Fighter All My Life,” Sam Johnson describes how he and others felt. “I’ve been through different things, been discriminated against and saw how the cops treated us. So to me 1967 was a big thing. I really felt good. I saw that here all the cops in Detroit couldn’t much deal with it. They couldn’t deal with us. So that makes you get a bigger picture. That’s why I was if there are enough of us together, they can’t deal with us. I saw that way back then. That’s what really made me feel good.”
In addition, the rebellion forced the wealthy ruling class to sit up and take notice: For a period, the economy of the city was improved when black and other working class people in the city gained greater opportunities and decent paying jobs. Johnson says, “Afterwards, they opened up places for people to put in applications for the auto companies. Right away. There was one right there on 12th Street ... and Grand Boulevard. They set up a little office where they’ve got Martin Luther King Park now. You could put in an application right there for jobs at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, all three of them. I guess they put that little office right in the neighborhood, so people could come right in to sign up. You didn’t have to go to one of the plants. They did that to get those black people off the streets.
The auto plants went on hiring from 1967 until about ‘69 or ‘70. The corporations were thinking they had too many blacks in the street. They didn’t want another riot – better give them jobs.
The sense of power people gained from the rebellion carried over when they hired into the auto plants. Johnson describes the situation at his Chrysler plant: “We would get off the line. We’d be acting so crazy, they thought we were fixing to riot again. Workers had the radio in the cars coming down the line turned up to the last notch, the music on. James Brown. The ones on this end hollering with him, ‘Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud, Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!’ Someone on that end would answer back, ‘Say it loud, goddam it, I’m black and I’m proud!’ Sometimes we would jump off the line to the side, be dancing. Those white supervisors, they’d just stand there looking like they didn’t know what to do, what was going down. They acted like they were scared. It didn’t take Chrysler long after that to get a lot of black supervisors.
However well intentioned some of the broadcasters and film makers may have been when
putting together their versions of the history of Detroit ‘67, they avoided discussing how the population felt at the time: They had a strong sense of their power.