It was the birth of what would become one of America’s greatest cities — home of innovation in music, automobiles, sports, manufacturing, religion and many other “firsts” that too few are aware of.
Yet, on the eve of the city’s 266th birthday, on July 23, 1967, the city was dealt what many still consider a fatal blow.
The 1967 Riot, as it was known, seemed to wipe away everything Detroit had built and symbolized.
It was a four-day period of endless violence that left 43 dead, hundreds injured and a city on life support with a less-than-promising and ever-changing prognosis.
The evolution of Detroit was never without challenges, most of which seemed to stem around strained, or never established, racial harmony.
The Detroit race riot of 1863 and the riot of 1943 were two other events that continued to shape Detroit into the polarized city that many continue to try to change today.
In 1863, racism in the military led to explosive encounters between the races. Death, injuries and property destruction resulted, as did the establishment of Detroit’s first full-time police force.
In 1943, Belle Isle was the site of a three-day riot that resulted, again, in death, injuries and massive property destruction. The war factories had attracted throngs of southern residents — both black and white — who migrated here for better jobs and wages. With them, they also brought the racial prejudices and practices common in the South.
A mere 24 years later, the city experienced what has regrettably become the face of Detroit’s demise. Whenever people talk about the problems of Detroit, whether racial, economic or social, they always attribute them to the 1967 Riot. Again, death, arrests and property destruction was the outcome. In each of these situations, external forces — like the National Guard — were brought in to restore order.
What they failed to infuse was peace.
Detroit has, from the beginning, represented promise and potential to many. But defining it has been an ongoing struggle over which varying sides wanted control. That dynamic has not changed over time. We continue to be in a race for change, but what does that change look like? What should it look like, and who should help define and execute that change?
The biggest elephant in the room is race. It has undeniably been the bane of Detroit’s existence since day one. This will continue to hold Detroit back.
But the discomfort of talking candidly about race and race relations continues to suppress feelings, prejudices and misperceptions about others on both sides of the racial divide. Even the way the city was designed fuels separation. Early black residents were relegated to the Brewster projects, while no mass transit means people are not allowed — or even forced — to interact with those who are different than they are, the way people are encouraged to in cities like New York and Chicago. Offensive acts are still often attributed to race rather then mere rudeness or ignorance.
It’s interesting that both the city’s birth and what is widely perceived as its demise happened on nearly the same date. These dates, forever tied to one another, give us cause to both celebrate and reevaluate who we are and where we want to go as a city.
Whether we continue to ignore the racial strife that has held us back will define whether we ever face yet another outbreak of separation or embrace a degree of unity that we could add to our list of “firsts.”
Detroit remains on the brink of change.
What that change looks like is up to us.
All of us.
Karen Dumas, former chief of communications for the city of Detroit, is owner of Images & Ideas, Inc. a communications firm.