Soul superstar Martha Reeves was on stage in her hometown of Detroit on Sunday 23 July 1967. The regular Motown Revue at the Fox Theatre was in full swing with thousands of mostly black teenagers dancing in the searing summer heat.
To all intents, Detroit, the “Motorcity”, was doing well. Tens of thousands had jobs in the car factories.
And at weekends the young spent what was left of their wages trying to forget the dirt and danger of the sweltering foundries and pressing plants. But this week was going to be different—and outside a heat of a different kind was growing.
In the early hours Detroit police had raided The Blind Pig, a black, unlicensed, late-night drinking club where locals were celebrating the return of two soldiers from Vietnam.
Scuffles and fights followed cops’ attempts to make arrests. Shop windows were smashed and soon looting began.
Hatred of the police was widespread among the poor in Detroit, especially the black poor. The vast majority of cops were white and the force excelled at recruiting and promoting the most bigoted.
Officers routinely stopped and searched young men and women—and were not afraid to lash out if anyone didn’t know their place. Even old black men were routinely addressed by police as “Boy”.
Small scale disturbances were common, so top cops expected things at the Blind Pig to calm down as the morning wore on. But by afternoon buildings were ablaze and smoke billowed across the city.
Evening saw rioting spread and the overwhelmed Detroit police call in reinforcements from Michigan State and Wayne County. Hundreds of white officers carrying shotguns and long-held resentments against the black poor were off the leash.
They rounded up people, whether or not they were committing crime, who defied instructions to stay indoors.
Arrestees appeared in police mugshots battered and bruised after their encounter with the law. They gave false names and addresses, creating chaos in the courtrooms the next morning.
By the time revellers were ushered out of the Motown show, unrest had spread to many of the poorest black neighbourhoods.
Ghetto life meant pitiful housing, often without heating and running water. It also meant high rents—and no means of escape as landlords elsewhere refused to let to black people.
As the riot took hold, men and women, young and old, ran into shops and grabbed whatever they could. Hundreds of businesses were robbed, smashed and burned. But some were spared.
Black-owned places wrote “Soul Bro” on their windows, and sometimes this was enough for rioters to pass them by. In other cases shops known to give black people credit and treat customers with respect were allowed to stand.
Long-simmering resentment spilled out. African Americans made up 65 percent of Detroit’s inner city population, but were completely frozen out of top positions and only owned 38 percent of the businesses.
Shops were often owned by people that had long-since moved out of the ghettos into the suburbs, where black people were not allowed.
But the rioting was not restricted to African Americans. Many young whites from the poorer suburbs joined in too. A joke spread through the blazing city—Detroit had pioneered “integrated looting”.
Motown, the black music label rightly known as the “Sound of Young America”, defined 1960s Detroit.
Its bosses condemned the riots. But rioters adopted one of Martha Reeves’s hits—Dancing in the Streets—to be the soundtrack.
They celebrated taking control of the city as an act of liberation.
Even many of those who were not active participants believed that the authorities would now have to learn a lesson, and that it was right to fight. Some 10,000 people joined in the rebellion with ten times more watching from the sidelines.
Over the next four days the battles only intensified.
The president used the Insurrection Act of 1807 and gave the order to send in troops. The US Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were among those who had recently returned from the Vietnam War. Now they were on streets of one of the US’s greatest cities.
Tanks and armoured cars took up positions, on occasion firing shells into homes suspected of harbouring shooters. But compared to the police, the troops were relatively restrained.
Some rioters who were war veterans took up positions on roof tops and high windows as snipers to rain down fire on officers. The cops used them as an excuse to smash their way into hundreds of black homes.
Anyone suspected of looting faced being shot by police or store-owners, and there were many cases where police seemed to shoot into buildings randomly, injuring many.
Author Stuart Cosgrove paints a grim picture of Detroit General Hospital.
“Bodies were wheeled though darkened corridors, and overworked staff buckled under the pressure of poor resources and a disorderly admissions system,” he wrote.
“Monzie Edmonds was told to report to the hospital, having been informed that his brother had been shot while sitting in his backyard.
“On arrival Edmonds was reassured that his brother had undergone successful surgery and would make a good recovery, but when Edmonds arrived at what was supposedly his brother’s bed, he found an older white man lying asleep.
“His brother was dead in the county morgue, tagged as John Doe.”
It took until Thursday for the fighting to end. State repression on this scale could not be defied indefinitely through street fighting alone.
With so many arrested or injured, those that remained in the fight got tired and many ran out of food and supplies. According to Time magazine the city had become a ghost town.
“Detroit was shrouded in acrid smoke, the Edsel Ford and John C. Lodge freeways were nearly deserted, and tens of thousands of office and factory workers stayed home.”
Over a period of five days 43 people had been killed, 33 black and 10 white. Thirty of the victims were shot by cops, National Guardsmen or store owners.
Over seven thousand were arrested—the youngest being just four years old and the oldest 82.
The riots had a deep impact. It was a turning point in the growth of the Black Power movement that shook US society.
And its example helped inspire revolts around the world in 1968.
New hope of Black Power rises from Detroit's ashes
Black ghettos across the US burned in riots every summer from 1964 until the end of the decade.
The rebellions—of which Detroit was the most significant—served notice that racism had ceased to be merely a problem of the Southern states.
For many Civil Rights activists, the urban revolt confirmed their own frustrations with the slow pace of change and the hypocrisy the white liberal establishment.
From the mid-1950s onwards unemployment for black people soared to double the national average. Thousands of black families lived in permanent poverty, depending on welfare payments for survival.
Long after formal segregation ended, black people in Northern cities were everywhere faced with white authority—in the schools, in the welfare departments, and especially the police.
A study of black people in Los Angeles after the Watts riots of 1965 showed that large percentages had been subject to or witnessed police mistreatment.
One fifth had been unnecessarily stopped and searched, two fifths had seen it happen to others.
How could leading Democrat politicians support black rights in the South but ignore racist policing, prejudicial hiring and firing, and appalling housing in the ghettos of the North?
The answer lay in the way the struggle in the North demanded massive redistribution of wealth and a confrontation with the racist state if it were to be resolved.
Northern Democrats could not support fight against racism in their own backyards without undermining their own power.
As white liberals turned their backs, black people started to look to more radical solutions.
Soon the demand for Black Power came to surpass those of Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Movement.
But in making this militant appeal, new Black radicals were to find that they had potential allies. By the end of the 1960s, millions of young whites also rejected the American Dream and wanted an end to imperialism and capitalism.
Horror at the Algiers Motel
The Algiers Motel was about a mile from where the riots began. It was popular with travelling musicians, young ravers, drug dealers and prostitutes.
Up and coming young soul act The Dramatics checked in on the evening of Tuesday 24 July after playing the Motown Revue, along with friends who were trying to escape the riot.
A party atmosphere prevailed, with guests intermingling, drinking and getting high.
Police and National Guardsmen raided the Algiers in the early hours of Wednesday after reports of shots being fired nearby. Officers, enraged by the idea of inter-racial sex, found the Dramatics in a room with young white women.
By the time the cops left the building three teenage boys—Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard and Fred Temple—were dead. One had been shot in the face and his testicles blown apart by police bullets.
Four men accused of committing the horrific acts at the Algiers were to face various charges but in every instance the verdict was not guilty, or the case was dismissed.
Read and hear more
- Detroit ’67: the year that changed soul by Stuart Cosgrove, £9.99
- Detroit: I Do Mind Dying by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, £15.99
- Class, Race and the Civil Rights Movement by Jack M Bloom, £17.99
- The Algiers Motel Incident by John Hersey, £17.50
- The Motor City is Burning (1967) John Lee Hooker
- Black Day in July (1969) Gordon Lightfoot
- Motorcity is Burning (1969) MC5
- Panic in Detroit (1973) David Bowie
- There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971) Sly and the Family Stone
- Dancing in the Streets (1964) Martha Reeves and the Vandellas