Remembering the 1967 Detroit Riot, part 2: “Be calm and as quiet as possible”

by Brian Matzke on July 12, 2017

“Be calm and as quiet as possible”:
Rebellion on the television

Grand River and Joy
Susan Messer

TV Land–Detroit
Gordon Castelnero

The Detroit Tigers Reader
Tom Stanton, Editor

Violence in the Model City
Sidney Fine

Susan Messer’s novel Grand River and Joy begins on Halloween 1966. Harry Levine arrives at his wholesale shoe warehouse in downtown Detroit to find an ethnic slur soaped on his window. Searching the basement for supplies to clean the window, he discovers a makeshift living room with a stash of marijuana and black power literature, left there by Alvin, the teenaged tenant who lives in the apartment above the warehouse with his father Curtis. In the following months, Harry learns through Alvin and Curtis about the frustrations and fissures permeating his city, tensions that he had previously ignored, but that culminate in the 1967 riot.

Messer describes Harry watching the riots on TV with his wife as they are happening close by:

Ruth and Harry watched flames and black clouds fill the skies of Detroit. Looters slammed garbage cans into store windows, ran through streets with armfuls of clothes, pushed shopping carts with loaves of bread and bottles of liquor, kitchen chairs, stereos, sides of beef. Not only Negroes.

Harry watched for landmarks, storefronts, intersections, faces. He knew those places, knew the broad swath, the sad scary slash highlighted in the TV maps. It had started at 2:00, 3:00 A.M. in that one spot, they said, shading on the maps changing, the dark arrows, stretching and pointing, eventually reaching to Grand River.

The police were surrounding the areas, to contain the arsonists, looters, snipers–so many specialized titles for the previously invisible Detroiters. Newscasters used domestic images–pots boiling over and pressure cookers. Officials placed blame, pointed fingers, analyzed causes. Federal to state to local and back up again, like the arrows on the maps that showed where the fires were burning, where the streets had been blocked off (175).

The chaos had indeed begun around 3:00 A.M. on the morning of July 23, when police raided a “blind pig,” an after hours drinking establishment located at 9125 Twelfth Street, on the corner of Twelfth and Clairmont. Blind pigs had a reputation among some for being haunts for pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers, but they largely served middle class black Detroiters who were effectively barred from downtown restaurants and bars. Police raids on blind pigs were a common source of resentment for the city’s Black residents. Unlike many neighborhoods, Twelfth Street was busy 24 hours a day, so even at 3:00 A.M., a crowd quickly amassed to view the raid, and became angry at how the police were treating people. The police made arrests at the blind pig and left as the angry mob began to throw bottles and bricks. The mob’s violence escalated over the next several hours, with nearby stores suffering looting and property damage. Police did a sweep of twelfth street that morning, but unconfirmed reports of police bayoneting a man during this sweep only caused the violence to escalate further. The first fire occurred at a shoe store on the corner of Twelfth and Blaine that morning.

The violence continued to spread up and down Twelfth Street. At the request of Damon Keith of Michigan’s Civil Rights Commission, local television stations kept the riots off of the news until after 2:00 P.M. that afternoon. When they did describe what was happening on Twelfth Street, Keith asked that they “be calm and as quiet as possible” (Fine 184). This was because of the “contagion theory” of riots, that “television, by depicting the tactics of rioters and the ‘gratifications’ they derived from their actions, raised the tension level among some viewers, created a sense of ‘black solidarity,’ reduced the viewers’ inhibitions to participate in a riot in their own community, and taught them, as it were, how to riot” (Fine 356). The theory made a certain amount of sense. This was, after all, the “long hot summer of 1967,” when 159 riots broke out across the United States. By the time the Detroit riot began, major riots in Cincinnati, Buffalo, Newark, and elsewhere had gained major news coverage. And this was the period that Gordon Castelnero calls “Detroit’s golden age of television,” when local TV enjoyed particular prominence as a source of news and entertainment.

A major star of Detroit’s golden age of television was Swingin’ Time, Detroit’s version of American Bandstand. Airing on CKLW-TV from 1963 to 1971, Swingin’ Time was a showcase for local musical talent, and was the premier venue for some of Motown’s supergroups well before nationally broadcast programs like American Bandstand, Shindig, and Hullabaloo had even heard of the label. On the afternoon of July 23, Swingin’ TIme was recording an episode with Martha Reeves and the Vandellas at the Fox Theater. The show’s host, Robin Seymour–a Dick Clark type known as “the world’s oldest teenager”–recalled the day:

We heard some reports that there were riots, and sure enough a couple of policemen came walking up to the stage in the middle of the show. Martha was onstage doing a song, and they stopped the show. They asked the kids to exit quietly to the lobby and their parents would soon be there; they had to close the show. And Martha got up and gave a nice long talk to the kids, ‘I’m sure it’s temporary…don’t worry kids, your moms and dads are gonna be here…everything is fine, just be comfortable.’ We went outside on Woodward Avenue to look, and all we could see were puffs of smoke. The rest, of course, is history (149-150).

At the same time that Robin Seymour was looking out at the riots from the Fox Theater, the Detroit Tigers were defeating the New York Yankees at Tiger Stadium by a score of seven to three, thanks in part to a fourth inning home run from left fielder Willie Horton. In 1967, Horton was four years into what would be a 14 year career with the Tigers. Two years earlier he had been an All-Star, the first of four appearances at the All-Star games. A year later he would be part of the team that won the World Series. Horton had a reputation as a relatable player, someone not afraid to let fans see his humanity. As Rebecca Stowe writes:

I liked that before his first All-Star Game, he ran around the field collecting his heroes’ autographs. I also took note that he gave cookouts for the Tigers’ grounds crew. I thought it was amusing when he showed up at spring training overweight and said, “I only eat two meals a day. I just like snacks” (Stanton 167-168).

Horton had grown up near 12th street. On the evening of July 23, still in his Tigers uniform, he stood on a car in the middle of the mob and plead for everyone to calm down, but even the All-Star couldn’t persuade them.

Rioting continued for five days. On Monday, July 24, state police arrived on the scene, and before midnight that night, Lyndon Johnson authorized the use of federal troops, who were deployed to the city on the afternoon of Tuesday, July 25. That day there were also reports of snipers firing on police from buildings. The violence mostly subsided by Thursday, July 27, and federal troops had completely withdrawn from the city by Saturday, July 29.

Michigan historian Sidney Fine provides the most comprehensive history of the riot in his book, Violence in the Model City. Fine notes that, just prior to the riot, Detroit was hailed by many as a model city for its handling of urban renewal and race relations, and this was a reputation touted by the city’s young mayor, Jerome Cavanagh. Just as Susan Messer mentions in her novel, Fine observes that finger-pointing by officials at the local, state, and federal level complicated the responses to the riot. The Democratic Mayor Cavanagh clashed with Republican Governor George Romney, who was planning a presidential run in 1968 and had a difficult relationship with President Lyndon Johnson. Exactly how much these political tensions impeded an effective response to the riots is unclear. It’s also unclear whether the riots were inevitable — whether, without the raid on the blind pig providing the spark, something else would have ignited the city. However, it is clear that the rioting on Twelfth Street gave the lie to the notion that Detroit was a model city, and showed that frustration with public institutions ran much deeper than people had realized.

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