The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit

The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit

by Scott Kurashige

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520294912
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/04/2017
Series: American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present Series , #2
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,237,601
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Scott Kurashige is Professor of American and Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington Bothell and coauthor with Grace Lee Boggs of The Next American Revolution.

Read an Excerpt

The Fifty-Year Rebellion

How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit

By Scott Kurashige


Copyright © 2017 Scott Kurashige
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96786-1



America changed forever in 1967.

For the purposes of our story, the year began on April 4, the day Martin Luther King Jr. broke his silence over the Vietnam War. Condemning U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia, he declared that "the nation must undergo a radical revolution of values" to conquer "the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism."

Exactly one year later, Dr. King and his dream of an integrated nation guided by justice were gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

In the middle of that tumultuous and eventful year, the eyes of Dr. King, as well as those of the entire nation and much of the world, were focused on Detroit. On July 23, 1967, the struggle over alternative futures took a dramatic turn when the city erupted in a rebellion that raged over four days of liberation and destruction, of hope and peril. Detroit was central to an overall pattern of social rebellion in 1967–68. The historical moment was further marked by the mass revolt against American imperialism in Vietnam and sites throughout the Third World, dozens of small and large outbreaks of urban rebellions across the United States, and radical and militant forms of organizing and movement building among and between communities of color, indigenous peoples, feminists, queer communities, disabled persons, workers, and environmentalists.

Explaining his antiwar stance, King proclaimed: "I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government." His moral outrage at foreign wars was paralleled by a domestic concern "that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity." Recognizing that "a riot is the language of the unheard," King stressed the need to condemn the "intolerant conditions" that left many with "no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention."

Detroit epitomized this general rebellion of 1967 that upended the old social order but fell short of instituting a new one. In the eyes of James and Grace Lee Boggs, the movements opened up more contradictions than they resolved. Despite the twists and turns from five decades of rebellions and reform, of counter-revolution and repression, an underlying fact remains: the social tensions and conflicts we are grappling with today can be traced directly and indirectly to the divisions that tore apart the nation in 1967.


It is an understatement to say Detroit has never been the same since the great rebellion. Indeed, people under the age of 50 only know Detroit by what it became after 1967, a proud black-majority city beset by economic hardship, scorned by its suburban neighbors, and mocked or forgotten by the rest of the nation.

Those who look back at Detroit before 1967, especially the city's white former residents and their descendants, often do so primarily through the lens of nostalgia. They recall arriving in town at the grand Michigan Central Station, spending the holiday season at the downtown Hudson's department store, and cheering the home team at old Tiger Stadium. Detroit was the "Paris of the Midwest" in its golden age, but most of the glittery symbols of that era have been abandoned or demolished. Beyond the spectacle, Detroit was known as a city of industry — or, more specifically, a city of work. It was a site of opportunity and reward for those who put in their time. The nostalgia for pre-1967 Detroit is ultimately rooted in the day-to-day existence of working-class and middle-class families who lived in single-family homes within vibrant neighborhoods filled with well-functioning schools, churches, and business strips.

Conveying a mix of sadness, tragedy, anger, and regret, these nostalgic images provide a deep sense of what white America felt it lost in the Detroit Rebellion of 1967. This deep sense of loss, in turn, informs what these ex-Detroiters would like to bring back or take back. In this way, today's impulse to "make America great again" echoes the discourse defining Detroit for the past half-century.

Nostalgia for the city's so-called golden age before 1967, however, overlooks a plethora of inconvenient truths about pervasive and longstanding patterns of racism, discrimination, and police brutality in Detroit and America. Detroit had a storied place in history as a stop on the Underground Railroad, but its settlement was defined by the seizure of indigenous lands and antiblack racism. Industrial-era Detroit drew thousands of African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South as part of the Great Migration. During the 1920s, however, the city's Ku Klux Klan chapter had over 20,000 members, many of whom took root within the Detroit Police Department. The average white citizen did not need to be a Klan-sympathizer to share its goal of confining African Americans to substandard, segregated housing.

Giving rise to the modern American labor movement, the struggles of Detroit and Michigan factory workers during the Great Depression and World War II set a new national standard for livable wages and job security backed by union contracts. Propelled by the heroic sit-down strikes against Detroit's major car companies, the United Auto Workers became an economic and political force that embraced civil rights measures. Black workers, nonetheless, generally remained stuck in the lowest-paid, "meanest and dirtiest" jobs. When Detroit's massive factories became the "arsenal of democracy" against fascism, the federal government enacted historically unprecedented fair-employment policies to promote maximum participation in the workforce. In response, thousands of white workers went on "hate strikes" to protest the notion of working alongside even a handful of African American workers in integrated workplaces. Racial tensions in the city exploded in June 1943 in a disorder properly called a "race riot" — a term that, prior to the 1960s, almost always referred to white mob attacks on the black community. Of the 34 who died in the 1943 riot, 25 were African American, most of them killed by the police.

While Detroit became a hotbed of movement building during the postwar era, civil rights activism brought slow and incremental progress in the long march to freedom. The first black city council member in Detroit's history did not take office until the 1950s. During the '60s, new progressive policies were implemented under Jerome Cavanagh, the young mayor who upset the conservative establishment and carried the aura of John F. Kennedy's Camelot. Two months before the national 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. locked arms with the city's civil rights leaders and 200,000 Detroiters in the Walk for Freedom. Backed by an interracial coalition, Cavanagh drew tens of millions of dollars in federal funding to promote jobs, education, health care, child care, and other measures aimed at creating what President Lyndon B. Johnson called the Great Society. Moreover, Detroit served as the exemplar for the federal Model Cities program, which was an urban pillar of the War on Poverty.

In hindsight, Cavanagh's reforms were woefully inadequate, but they helped relieve unemployment and moved further in the direction of racial equality than the agendas of any of his predecessors. Part of the problem stemmed from implacable white opposition. In 1963, for instance, Detroit's city council voted overwhelmingly to reject an open-housing ordinance and even passed a resolution affirming the right of white homeowners to refuse to sell to black buyers. White denial comprised another aspect of the problem. Two scholars reported that Wayne State University fired them and terminated their urban studies program for drawing attention to the persistence and worsening of racial segregation and discrimination in Detroit.

Police brutality and racism within the criminal justice system consistently undermined black hopes for dignity and fair treatment. Despite Cavanagh's steps toward integration, the Detroit Police Department remained less than 3 percent black through the 1950s and reached only 5 percent by 1967. The force was both overwhelmingly white and noxiously racist. Cavanagh's first police commissioner reported that 90 percent of the city's cops were "bigoted." They subjected African Americans to humiliating and unconstitutional stop-and-frisk searches and routinely beat suspects to enact justice through the "alley court." Corruption was rampant within the ranks and led to shakedowns that particularly heightened the abuse of black women sex workers. The most notorious cops belonged to units referred to as the "Big Four," featuring a driver in uniform accompanied by three plainclothes officers to surround, harass, and brutalize black civilians.

Whites lived in an alternate reality from African Americans — when the subject of race was broached in general, but especially when the focus was on policing. Reports of black criminality and violence led to blanket racial stereotypes degrading the African American community while sanctifying white guardians. Roughly 80 percent of whites in Detroit considered the police to be fair and unbiased. Indeed, Detroit's men in uniform saw themselves as the real victims, regularly claiming that the shooting or beating of African Americans was justified by self-defense or suspects resisting arrest. As city leaders refused the consistent demand for a civilian review board, police misconduct was rewarded and reinforced by racism and corruption among prosecutors and judges.

By ignoring these historical realities, the nostalgic story of Detroit facilely blames the city's downfall on the 1967 "riot" — cast as one and the same moment with the rise of the Black Power movement and the 1973 election of Coleman A. Young. The profound social divisions that have shaped and scarred southeast Michigan over the past half-century are in many ways encapsulated in the riot-versus-rebellion debate. From the events of the 1960s to the recent protests against police killings in Ferguson and Baltimore, the use of the term riot focuses attention on acts of violence or lawlessness. The hard racist or authoritarian sees rioters as animals that need to be put down or caged. These racial stereotypes intersect with sexual stereotypes, pervasive during slavery and Jim Crow, of black men as sexual aggressors seeking to prey on white women. The relatively moderate perspective, while acknowledging that legitimate social problems may need to be addressed, emphasizes that a riot solves nothing or makes the situation even worse. Hence, the immediate concern remains policing the "riot" and restoring order.

In contrast, to use the term rebellion is to foreground the intrinsically political nature of the disturbance. As Grace Lee Boggs stated, "We in Detroit called it the rebellion [because] there was a righteousness about the young people rising up." Those who took to the streets were standing up "against both the police, which they considered an occupation army, and against what they sensed had become their expendability because of high-tech." As white elites and multinational corporations found ready substitutes for black labor, black bodies once viewed as competition for jobs came to represent a problem to be ignored, contained, and eliminated.


In the early morning of July 23, 1967, the Detroit police raided an after-hours club in the city's 12th Street neighborhood on the near northwest side of town. Although this type of venue — known as a "blind pig" and selling booze outside of the hours of regulation — was not strictly legal to operate, it was not uncommon either. Many of such kind had existed within the city since the days of Prohibition. The police, however, had targeted this one with fervor, attempting to raid it nine times within the past year. The owner of the blind pig insisted that the July 23 raid was a shakedown. When the police moved to arrest everyone in the bar — 85 African American patrons — crowds outside became incensed as they witnessed acts of police brutality (but none the police would admit to). This incident touched off four days of rebellion that involved 43 deaths and over 7,000 arrests, nearly double the number arrested in the 1965 Watts Rebellion.

Historian Sidney Fine authored an extensive account of the "Detroit Riot of 1967" in Violence in the Model City. For tens of thousands of whites in the city, the rebellion represented their worst nightmares come to life. It should be pointed out that some whites sympathized with the politics of rebellion, quite a number participated in looting, and 12 percent of the arrestees were white. For the most part, however, white Detroiters saw a breakdown of law and order — and hostility directed at them by African Americans. Dismissing any political definition of the disturbance, the Detroit Free Press in its 10-year retrospective characterized it as "a meaningless event that stimulated nothing, contributed nothing, revealed nothing of any substance or durability."

While black Detroiters who were surveyed initially described the event as a "riot," the majority, by a wide margin, gravitated to calling it a "rebellion." They viewed it as an expression of black unity and a political declaration for their "fair share" of resources and power in the city and the nation. Activist Ed Vaughn described the "strong sense of camaraderie" that black Detroiters "enjoyed" after the rebellion. "We felt that we had accomplished something," he recalled, "that the riots had paid off, that we finally had gotten the White community to listen to the gripes and to listen to some of the concerns that we ... had been expressing for many years."

Regardless of opinion, when we look closely at the deadly violence that took place during the rebellion, one pattern stands out: the killing of African Americans by state actors. Of the 43 who died, 33 were black and 30 were killed by law enforcement, as the streets of Detroit were covered by 17,000 Detroit cops, state police, National Guardsmen, and finally U.S. Army troops. Authorities had hoped initial outbreaks of violence would play themselves out. When they instead expanded into full-fledged rebellion, the police became the aggressors in one confrontation after another. "This is more than a riot," said one police officer, reflecting the view of many peers. "This is war."

When Governor George Romney called in the National Guard, they were poorly prepared and rushed into action. Many had signed up to avoid being sent to Vietnam, yet they also had little prior experience in or knowledge of Detroit when they were deployed to the city. "I'm gonna shoot anything that moves and that is black," one declared. In one of the most horrific episodes, a four-year-old African American girl named Tonia Blanding was struck 27 times after the National Guard mistook the lighting of a cigarette for sniper fire and saturated her apartment building with .50 caliber machine gun fire. When the final count of the dead was tallied, most had been killed by the police and guard. The army, under direct orders, exercised comparative restraint and carried unloaded weapons.

From the vantage point of thousands of black Detroiters, the civil disorder was experienced largely as a violent police riot, recreating what had occurred in 1943. Whatever resentment the black street force may have felt toward "whitey," the rage was almost uniformly directed at property rather than human life. Nonetheless, the police systematically rounded up, illegally searched, beat, and arrested scores of black Detroiters, including members of the press and citizens doing nothing more than observing events. Hundreds of suspects were detained in poor and unsanitary conditions; most notoriously, up to a thousand were forced to sleep, urinate, and defecate on a cement floor of the police department's underground parking garage. Many were subsequently railroaded by an overstressed legal system with little regard for due process. Misogyny underlay abuse, as well. One woman was falsely arrested and then groped, molested, and forced to strip for a photograph with an officer fondling her half-naked body.


Excerpted from The Fifty-Year Rebellion by Scott Kurashige. Copyright © 2017 Scott Kurashige. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Overview ix

Introduction 1

1 1967 14

2 The Rise of the Counter-Revolution 30

3 The System Is Bankrupt 51

4 Race to the Bottom 74

5 Government for the I Percent 94

6 From Rebellion to Revolution 114

Conclusion 140

Acknowledgments 145

Notes 149

Glossary 171

Key Figures 173

Selected Bibliography 177

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