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African American Michigan: Insurgence of the century

Editor’s note: This story is the fifth in a series looking at racial disparity in Michigan.

One of the most tumultuous times for the advancement of African Americans in U.S. society was from 1954 to 1968, or the Civil Rights Movement. The American Civil War had been roughly 100 years ago, and still African Americans didn’t have the same rights and allowances of white citizens, especially in the South and some cities in Michigan, like Detroit and Grand Rapids.

The Michigan government established the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and a Michigan Civil Rights Commission, the latter of which came into being in 1963, to investigate and propose solutions to Michigan’s civil right issues. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission released “1964-2004: Forty Years and Beyond” as a comprehensive study to modern civil rights issues.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission applauded Michigan for having progressive legislations passed dating back to just after the Civil War, but as Grand Rapids taught us, a written laws did not stop racism dead, nor guarantee full support of Michigan law at various levels. The MCRC also totes 1952 Michigan statues against discrimination in regards to government housing, but that does nothing to stop private housing discrimination, or anything to improve the state of government housing received by Black Michiganders. In 1955, Michigan passed the Fair Employment Practices Act, which barred hiring or refusal of hiring based on race, but that is something that looks good on paper but is harder to honestly enforce, and hard to prove that a hiring decision wasn’t based on race.

The MCRC did acknowledge holes and shortcomings, saying, “Laws however are often not enough to bring about change, and civil action remedies require attorneys willing to pursue the matter in court.” It also requires fair judges. The MCRC report continues, “While Michigan’s laws offered more protections than most states, discrimination and overt racism were still very prevalent in Michigan.”

The MCRC also notes issues previously stated, but adds police misconduct and public accommodations. What is one to do when those sworn to serve and protect you are also against you?

Civil tensions came to a head in 1967, with what was called the “Uprising of 1967” or “the Detroit Rebellion of 1967.” The Detroit Historical Society provides the Encyclopedia of Detroit, which includes a segment on the Uprising of 1967. The five-day struggle began when white policemen raided a Black-owned, unlicensed bar. This instance was a match lighting a fire that would involve Detroit police, the fire department, Michigan State Police, the National Guard and up to the US Army. The Uprising of 1967 saw 43 deaths, hundreds of injuries, over 1,500 fires, and over 7,000 arrests. It would be deemed the largest civil disturbance in 20th century America.

The Detroit Historical Society states that “The insurrection was the culmination of decades of institutional racism and entrenched segregation,” the covering of which has been the point of this episodic study up to this point. The population of Detroit came from all over the country, enticed by manufacturing and industrial jobs, including automotive. This meant that Detroit was inhabited by Blacks and whites alike, and saying they didn’t always work well together is a total understatement.

There had been race riots in Detroit 24 years prior, and throughout the 1950s, homeowner associations, with the help of the mayors, Albert Cobo and Louis Miriani, fought to keep schools and neighborhoods from integrating, causing ongoing housing and education disparities, and therefore working issues, for Black Detroiters.

Jobs within the city limits of Detroit started to move out to growing suburbs, dominantly white, middle class havens that started with the building of freeways during the Eisenhower Administration of the early 1950s. The lack of jobs mixing with housing disparities gave rise to “ghettos,” a term that had been used for disadvantaged Jewish neighborhoods. Whites leaving the city to the suburbs created a tax vacuum, meaning less funding was going to city improvements. The Black ghettos were often over-policed by a notoriously biased Detroit Police Department including racial profiling and severe police brutality. In the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry for Detroit Riot of 1967, race historian Train Quarks Emeka argues that “All of those factors encouraged African Americans in Detroit to view the police as merely the occupying army of an oppressive white establishment.”

Early in the morning on July 23, 1967, a crowd gathered to watch the Detroit police execute their raid and start loading up cruisers of the bar on 12th St. and Clairmont, the densest populated section of Detroit’s largest Black neighborhood. An enraged bystander threw a brick and broke a cruiser window. The police reacted, but so did the crowd that had been watching. Detroit law enforcement was quickly overran by the Black citizens of Detroit that had had enough. Detroit mayor Jerome Cavanagh expressly ordered that “looters not be shot.”

Michigan State Police and the Michigan National Guard reinforced the police, but squabbles between Mayor Cavanagh, Governor George Romney, and President Lyndon Johnson delayed the implement of the U.S. Army. After the first two days, the riot had spread throughout the city. Firearms and weaponry thefts through the city broke records and turned looters into an urban army. The riot only died down when veteran army troops arrived in force.

The Uprising of 1967 proved that something had to change. 120,000 whites left Detroit by 1969, and community action and integrated engagement began in earnest. It took over 120,000 whites leaving the Detroit area for Detroit to see its first Black mayor, Coleman Young. Many of the buildings were never rebuilt. While the riot was still taking place, President Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate what had caused riots like the Detroit Riot since 1965. The report came back in 1968 stating that “white racism, discrimination, and poverty” were the largest factors and warned that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white–separate and unequal.”

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