Detroiters reflect on Summer of '67 unrest

We met John Picking outside of his old business Downbeat Bar on 16th and McGraw.

He recalls the moment it could have went up in flames.

“Major carried the firebomb down there and he put his arm up and Kinslow said ‘Don’t move your arm or I’ll shoot you. Major didn’t move his arm and my building went through the riot without any damage.”

Whether you call it the riot or rebellion, many remember the civil unrest that began at 12th and Clairmount 50 years ago as if it were yesterday.

“During the day, I was able to go up to Central High School and I could see the tanks. It was the first time I’d ever seen a tank before and all the artillery.”

Albert Ramsey was 17-years-old at the time and living on 14th and Glynn -- a stone’s throw away from the uprising.

“I was in the operating room at Metropolitan hospital. I was one of the first blacks to be in the operating room in nursing here.”

Ophelia Northcross lives on Longfellow.

“I could look out the window in between surgeries and see people stealing. That’s what they bust the windows for,” said Northcross.

“People took advantage of the situation. You got people who never had anything breaking into stores stealing furniture. They could not afford furniture, so if you can’t afford certain things, when there’s an opportunity like Hurricane Katrina,” said a neighbor.

The rebellion of ’67 was, many would say, the single most defining factor in the city's decline.

Detroit burned for days and by the time the smoke cleared more than 7,000 people were arrested, nearly 1,400 buildings burned and 43 people were dead.

Historians point to racial discrimination, segregated housing, and the destruction of black businesses and neighborhoods as causes for the civil unrest - but police violence, more than any of those factors, was at the heart of the outrage.

“I’ve seen the police beat the hell out of people. Beat them unbelievable, and they enjoyed beating them.”

“My friends would tell me how they were harassed. How their fathers were harassed.
“Your parents could be driving down the street and the police didn't like your father's new car, would go there and degrade your father -  search him, search your mother. Put his hands all through your hair 'let me if something is hiding in there.'”

“You can only oppress people for so long. You kick a dog around so much the dog is either going to bite you or run away.”

But just as police brutality played a crucial role in the uprising -- Larry Mongo says the city's black upper class at the time equally culpable.

“The black bourgeoisie were, those connected to the white power structure, was telling them and I'm going to use the words of the 60s,'oh the negroes are ok, they're happy.' but the black bourgeoisie even today do not go spend two  minutes with the black underclass.”

“So the people just - they fought back. Whatever way they could.

As Detroiters reflect on the city's past some are pessimistic about their place in its future.

“The only thing the city is concerned about is getting white folks to move back in and basically the people that are here and been here the last 50 years there doesn't seem like there's any hope for us,” said Ramsey.

“In my honest opinion not only could it happen again, but you're dealing with a different type of person out here on the streets now. Instead of bricks and bottles. you're dealing with people who shoot it out with police for getting pulled over because they have no car insurance,” said Skip Mongo. 

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