By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
Summer was just getting started in Chicago in 1967. Memorial Day weekend was less than a week away. After a brutal winter where a historic snowstorm crippled the city for days with 23 inches of snow, Chicagoans were coming out of hibernation to enjoy warm weather.
Six minutes from where “A Raisin in the Sun” author Lorraine Hansberry lived, was a group of Black activists in one of the many leafy sections in Washington Park. Integration in the once predominantly white neighborhood was at full speed some 25 years after Hansberry’s father won a landmark Supreme Court case that struck down racially restrictive housing covenants. While a big victory, jobs and racial equality were still elusive for many Blacks in Chicago.
On May 21, 1967, amidst the towering trees in Washington Park, several Black activists held a Black Nationalist rally. In front of some 200 people, they advocated changing the name of a park that was named after a white, English-born slave owner who became the first president of the United States. Activists wanted the park named after Malcolm X, the radical Black leader who was slain in New York two years earlier.
When two white women appeared at the meeting, shouts of “Black Power” eventually gave way to rock throwing and police clashes. Later, a squad car was overturned. Two undercover police officers safely escorted the two white women out of the park.
But that day, 10 Blacks were injured and 22 people went to jail. The Long Hot Summer of 1967—a brief, but packed period of numerous rebellions in cities around the country—was well underway. And Chicago, with its notorious past of police brutality and segregated neighborhoods, would become part of the mayhem.
In a few days, millions of Blacks around the country will flock to theaters to view the highly anticipated film, “Detroit.” The movie will rekindle intense emotions in those who lived in Detroit when two big incidents of police brutality rocked Detroit for days and left an unprecedented amount of destruction, arrests and deaths. The violence shook the city to its core. Museums, cultural institutions and even Motown are remembering the anniversary of the unrest with exhibits and a soundtrack release.
The Long Hot Summer of 1967 got its name as the violence dragged on and the number of rebellions grew. America was on the verge of a new era in race relations, but for Blacks, the battle for civil rights would come at a very high cost.
It was a time when race relations boiled and cooked American cities to a crisp. Three years earlier, Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but discrimination in housing and jobs was still rampant throughout the nation. A young Baptist minister named Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. pushed for non-violence as the way to force white America to end segregationist laws in public places. But as poverty, unemployment and police brutality raged across the American landscape, Black America unleashed a torrent of anger and raw aggression on streets everywhere to tell white establishments that they had had enough.
Over the course of three months, Black America rebelled in oppressive cities in ways the country had never seen before. Many died. Thousands were jailed. While store owners lost everything, devastated neighborhoods were left with scars and business districts that never recovered.
In cities everywhere, these rebellions shared a common frustration: anger at police brutality, high unemployment, poor housing and discrimination. That year, the Civil Rights Movement was at full speed, but while Blacks in urban ghettos wanted more, they were tired of getting less. In June of 1967, Aretha Franklin’s, “Respect,” and James Brown’s, “Let Yourself Go,” were #1 and #2, respectively, on Jet magazine’s R&B chart.
On June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court invalidated bans on interracial marriage in the case of Mildred Loving (née Jeter), a Black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man. The two had been sentenced to a year in prison in Virginia for marrying each other. That summer, America was still reeling as Muhammad Ali went into exile after he was banned from boxing and stripped of his heavyweight title after refusing to enter the U. S. military draft.
As the Black Panther Party in California grew in the national spotlight with its Black Power Movement, it helped inspire Blacks in cities across the country to stand up to a white establishment that was determined to keep schools, parks and neighborhoods segregated.
Yet, some prominent institutions are recognizing the Long Hot Summer of 1967 as a significant milestone in American history, and to a greater extent, Black history. The events of that summer were so big that President Lyndon B. Johnson was forced to address a problem that was long ignored until it exploded and set a nation on fire.
After decades of smoldering racial tensions, America marks the 50th anniversary of the Long Hot Summer of 1967. The most well-known part of this period is the biggest and most devastating of the rebellions. It took place in a Midwestern city some 288 miles east of Chicago: Detroit.
The Long Hot Summer of 1967 was not just about Detroit. It was about an entire nation in turmoil. While all eyes are on the Motor City, few remember the rebellions that erupted in Chicago and other American cities that summer.
In the sweltering heat of summer, an unprecedented wave of rebellions rocked city after city for days. From May to August, rebellions erupted on college campuses and rocked small and big cities, including: Atlanta, Birmingham, Cincinnati, Detroit, Houston, Minneapolis, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Tampa, Philadelphia, Buffalo, N.Y., Milwaukee, Newark and Plainfield, N.J.
Various news outlets reported that more than 150 rebellions of various sizes burned through the South, Northeast, Midwest and West that year.
In Illinois alone, there were a total of nine reported rebellions in Chicago, Elgin, Maywood, Waukegan, Peoria, Cairo, Alton, East St. Louis and Rockford.
In Maywood—nearby suburb west of Chicago—Black youth on June 14 broke store windows demanding a swimming pool. On July 29, police sealed five blocks in Elgin after groups of Blacks hurled fire bombs, bricks and bottles.
Some 372 miles in Cairo, IL, a jailhouse suicide story that rivals Sandra Bland’s, sparked three days of rebellion. Police said Pvt. Robert Hunt, a young Black soldier on leave, hanged himself. In a small town with big race problems, Blacks didn’t believe the story and took their anger over Hunt’s death to the streets.
The state with the largest amount of uprisings—New Jersey—was rocked by 14 rebellions, including the one in Newark on July 12, 1967. Angry Blacks took to the streets after police jailed John Smith, a cab driver who sustained injuries while in police custody. Twenty-six people, the majority of them Black, were reported killed; 750 people were injured; and 1,000 were jailed after six violent days of looting, clashes and $10 million in destruction.
Today, many call them disturbances or civil unrest. Back then, police precincts, white newsrooms and television anchors called the uprisings “riots,” quickly denouncing Blacks as criminals or delinquents with no purpose. The White House called them “civil disorders.”
In Newark, NJ, they were called insurrections. To Blacks, they were known as a rebellion that released years of frustration and anger from being denied equal housing and employment opportunities that whites enjoyed. In most cases, police officers across the landscape struck a match that ignited passions that raged uncontrollably for days, leaving trails of death and destruction in many of America’s heavily populated Black neighborhoods many of which never recovered.
One of those areas is Boston’s predominantly Black neighborhood of Roxbury where a rebellion erupted. On June 2, six minutes from where the teen singing group New Edition grew up in the Orchard Park housing projects, some 30 police officers entered, smashed the windows of a Grove Hall welfare office and beat a group of poor Black mothers dragging them outside over broken glass and shoving them into paddy wagons waiting outside 515 Blue Hill Ave.
What started as a peaceful sit-in demonstration for respect, escalated into three days of looting, smashed storefronts, burned buildings and bloody clashes. The damage done to the busy Boston street totaled more than $3.7 million in today’s dollars, according to the Boston Globe which reported that the three days of violence left 65 injured and resulted in 50 arrests.
The most devastating rebellion of them all swept Detroit on July 23, 1967. Historically, it’s known as the 12th Street Riot. After four violent days of clashes and looting, 43 people were dead, 467 injured, over 7,200 arrests were made, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed—mostly in Black residential and business areas, according to various news reports.
Of the nation’s 10 costliest rebellions, the Detroit uprising was ranked #1, with some $289 million in damage.
Race relations in the Motor City were brewing. Seven years before the city elected its first Black mayor, Coleman Young, white residents were fleeing Detroit in droves for the suburbs. In 1966 alone, some 22,000 residents, mostly white, fled the city.
The next year, about 42 percent of the city’s 1.5 million population was Black. About 12 percent of whites in Detroit lived under the poverty level compared to 20 percent of Blacks. At the time, only about five percent of the 4,380-member police force was African American, although the city’s population was about 40 percent Black, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Having secured the Black vote in 1963, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh became the first mayor to allow Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead a march down the city’s famed Woodward Avenue. The unprecedented number of appointments of Blacks to Cavanagh’s administration aimed to help the city heal from the violent rebellion that had ripped Detroit in 1943.
Detroit also had a large, prosperous Black middle-class that had high-paying, professional and union jobs. Housing for Blacks in the city was considered better than that in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.
These conditions were not enough to diminish Blacks’ distrust and anger toward the Detroit Police Department. There were reports that police responded to 9-1-1 calls slower for Blacks than whites. Blacks often reported being arrested simply for not having proper identification while walking the streets. Accusations of racial profiling were common. Despite the community’s distrust, Cavanagh’s appointee, Detroit Police Commissioner George Edwards, a former judge on the Michigan Supreme Court, refused to establish a civilian review panel that was demanded by community leaders, further aggravating tensions.
On July 23, 1967, things came to a head in the Virginia Park neighborhood. At the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount was a tightly-packed corridor lined with residential buildings whose ground floors were filled with food stores, bars, pharmacies, beauty parlors and bakeries. Four minutes from the iconic Motown headquarters, Virginia Park was one of the most crowded residential districts in the city and included many middle- and working-class families.
Here, William Scott ran the “Blind Pig,” slang for illegal late-night partieson the second floor of the Economy Printing Co. building. The parties ran on weekends out of the office of the United Community League for Civic Action, a civil rights group.
On a humid night, the Blind Pig hosted a party for several war veterans, including two soldiers recently returned from the Vietnam War. Hours later, the party would come to a sudden end.
At 3:35 a.m. on Sunday, July 23, Detroit police raided the “Blind Pig.” Patrons were reluctant to leave, but one by one, the 85 patrons were taken away to waiting paddy wagon.
A crowd of some 200 onlookers had gathered to watch the scene unfold. By the time the last patron was led out of the building, a bottle was thrown onto the street, but police ignored it. More bottles were thrown, including one through the police car window.
After police fled, violence erupted. Within an hour the uprising was full blown with 1,000 angry people on the street. Looting began, and soon, buildings were on fire. Angry protesters attacked firefighters as they battled to put out the flames. By the next day, news stories reported some 483 fires. Some 231 incidents were reported per hour. Many Black businesses were destroyed. According to news reports, an estimated 10,000 people participated in the riots. Most of the 7,200 arrested were Black.
The violence also spread to other Michigan cities, including Flint, Pontiac and Saginaw.
Of the 43 people who died in Detroit, 33 were Black, 10 were white. Four days after the mayhem began, the National Guard was finally deployed after Michigan Governor George Romney sparred with President Lyndon B. Johnson over the need for the troops in the city.
For this story, a Crusader reporter visited Detroit and talked to several residents who were there when the violent rebellion began.
“I remember my father telling us to hit the floor before he cut the lights outs,” said Michael Matthew, who was 12-years-old in 1967. “We lived at Philadelphia Street and Beaubien. They (the police) stopped a guy in front of our house and beat him so bad. I never seen anything like that before.”
The movie, “Detroit,” which will be released nationwide on August 4, focuses on the controversial fatal shootings and beatings of Blacks at the Algiers Motel during the Detroit rebellion. Motown will release a soundtrack of the movie.
The Algiers Motel was a Black-owned business at 8301 Woodward Avenue. While Detroit burned, several local, state and federal law enforcement officers shot through the windows of the motel before they stormed the building, killed three young Blacks and badly beat seven Blacks and two whites.
After several indictments and a string of trials, all of the officers were cleared and acquitted of wrongdoing. The details of what really happened still remain an emotional topic of debate. The story is documented in the 1968 book, The Algiers Motel Incident by author John Hersey.
Detroit’s famed Charles Wright Black Museum is marking the 50th anniversary of the Great Rebellion with the exhibit, “Say It Loud: Art, History, Rebellion.” The installation is a two-part exhibition that compares the uprisings of the past to the upheavals that shocked our nation in the 21st century. Famed Detroit Institute of the Arts’ “The Art of Rebellion” exhibit is a provocative exhibit which weaves today’s problems and the Black Lives Matter movement into Detroit’s Great Rebellion of 1967.
Among the numerous uprisings during the Long Hot Summer of 1967, the Great Rebellion in Detroit perhaps gave more exposure to the national problem of race and discrimination than any other outbreak of discontent.
While some historians say the incident accelerated white flight and the city’s economic decline, one could argue that the Great Rebellion forced the White House to address the problems in ways that neither King nor any other civil rights leader could.
After a bloody summer of violence and arrest, Johnson commissioned Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, Jr., chair of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, to investigate the causes of the 1967 rebellions around the country. Called the Kerner Commission, the commission released the 426 page report known as the Kerner Report, which concluded the rebellions resulted from Black frustration over the lack of economic opportunity.
Today’s economic conditions are eerily similar in Black America. With poverty, high unemployment and police shootings, questions remain as to whether Blacks have made any progress since 1967.
Weeks before his assassination, King said in a speech, “A riot is the language of the unheard. White society is more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. In a real sense our nation’s summer of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”
Some 50 years after the Long Hot Summer, the Algiers Motel is gone. Neighborhoods across the nation remain devastated while race relations are heating up in America once again. A large tourist advertisement featuring only white people was unveiled on a downtown Detroit building on July 24, igniting a social media firestorm in a city that is now nearly 83 percent Black. Detroit’s 12th Street has been renamed Rosa Parks Drive, but the thriving business district in Virginia Park is gone and a park now stands where the Great Rebellion began.
On Sunday, July 23, the exact date of the Detroit Rebellion, busloads of residents and students watched as leaders unveiled a historical marker to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Detroit Rebellion.
After years of decline, a $12 million development project aims to bring back shops, residences and a cultural center back to the area. Whether this and other efforts will prevent a future long hot summer similar to the one in 1967 remains a concern.
As parts of Detroit are experiencing an economic revival, many Black neighborhoods are still struggling with poverty, urban blight and high unemployment.
“I don’t see no major changes,” said Phillip Tolbert, 58. “It looks like it did 30 or 40 years ago.”