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12th Street Riot

From Academic Kids

The 12th Street Riot in Detroit occurred in the early morning hours of Sunday, July 23, 1967, after vice squad officers executed a raid at an illegal after-hours drinking establishment (colloquially referred to as a blind pig) on the corner of 12th Street (today also known as "Rosa Parks Boulevard") and Clairmount Avenue on the city's near westside. This evolved into one of the most deadly and destructive riots in U.S. history--far surpassing the disturbances which broke out in the city during 1943--and eclipsed only by those occurring in Newark (also 1967) and the riots in Los Angeles (1992). In 1967, the Detroit Police Department's Tac Squads, each made up of four police officers (predominately white), had a reputation among the black residents of Detroit for harassment and brutality. While the city of Detroit still had a white majority in 1967, the city gained an African-American majority by the early 1970s.

On that summer Sunday morning, the officers had expected to find only a handful of individuals in the bar, but instead there were 82 people celebrating the return of two local veterans from the war in Vietnam. Despite the large number, police decided to arrest everyone. A crowd soon gathered around the establishment, protesting as patrons were led away. After the last police car left, a group of angry black males who had observed the incident began breaking the windows of the adjacent clothing store. Shortly thereafter, full-scale rioting began throughout the neighborhood, which continued into Monday, July 24, 1967, and for the next few days. The mayhem expanded to other parts of the city, despite a conscious effort by the local news media to avoid reporting on it so as not to inspire copy-cat violence, theft and destruction beyond the 12th Street/Clairmount Avenue vicinity.

Some 8,000 National Guardsmen were called in after 48 hours to quell the disorder, but their presence only fueled more violence. Willie Horton - Detroit resident, and popular Detroit Tigers baseball player - arrived after a ball game, and stood on a car in the middle of the crowd wearing his baseball uniform but could not calm them, despite his impassioned pleas. U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) likewise attempted to ease tensions but was equally unsuccessful. Michigan Governor George Romney and President Lyndon Johnson disagreed about the legality of sending in federal troops. Johnson said he could not send federal troops in without Romney declaring "a state of insurrection"; Romney was reluctant to declare it for fear it would relieve insurance companies of their obligations to reimburse policyholders for the damage being done. Eventually, Johnson sent in federal troops from the 82nd Airborne of nearby Selfridge Air Force Base in suburban Macomb County, without a state of insurrection being declared.

Contrary to popular belief, black-owned businesses were not spared. One of the first stores looted in Detroit was Hardy's drug store, owned by African-Americans, and known for filling prescriptions on credit. Detroit's leading black-owned clothing store was burned, as was the city's best black restaurant. In the wake of the riots, a black merchant noted "you were going to get looted no matter what color you were." (Thernstrom, Abigail and Stephen. America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible: Race in Modern America. 162-4)

Over the period of five days, 43 people died, an additional 1,189 were injured, 7,000 were arrested, and more than 1,400 buildings were burned. The riot caused an estimated $22 million in damages. Beyond the immediate destruction of a considerable section of the city, the disturbances are thought to have accelerated white flight (and also middle-class black flight) to the surrounding suburbs and led to an increased fear of the city among many suburbanites which continues to this day. Furthermore, Detroit's overall population within the city limits (today more than 80% black) has been sliced in half within the space of five decades. In the 1950 census, there were more than 1,800,000 residents within the city limits, more than three-fourths of whom were white. By the 2000 census, however, there were only about 950,000 city residents—the first time since the 1910 census that Detroit had officially recorded fewer than a million inhabitants—and whites made up less than 15% of the population. As conditions have deteriorated in the city—notably in the performance of its public school system and in its notoriously high crime rate—some of the city's suburbs have become predominantly African-American, such as Southfield in neighboring Oakland County. Many observers trace the dramatically quickened pace of these developments to the 1967 unrest and to public school desegregation orders by federal courts in the early 1970s.

At the time, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, a white liberal Democrat, lamented upon surveying the damage, "today we stand amidst the ashes of our hopes. We hoped against hope that what we had been doing was enough to prevent a riot. It was not enough."

Reflecting on the riots, later Detroit Mayor Coleman Young wrote:

"The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit's losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The riot put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could. They white exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the rebellion [sic], totally twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion—the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty-thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969." (Hard Stuff, 179)

See also The Algiers Motel Incident.


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