A look back at the racial tension that exploded in Detroit fifty years ago…and a selection of songs inspired by the 1967 uprising.
ri·ot: A noisy, violent public disorder caused by a group or crowd of persons, as by a crowd protesting against another group, government policy, etc., in the streets. re·bel·lion: Open, organized, and armed resistance to one's government or ruler.*
Fifty years after the city of Detroit erupted in fire, residents and outsiders alike still can’t agree on which term best describes what happened over the course of five days in the summer of 1967—riot or rebellion.
It started the way such things always do – over something seemingly small and insignificant. Late on a hot and humid July Saturday night in Detroit’s predominantly African-American neighborhood of Virginia Park, a group of over 80 local residents were celebrating the return of two men who had just returned from serving in Vietnam. The party, held at a “blind pig” – an illegal after-hours club that during the day housed a civil rights group – went late into the night with revelers enjoying not only drinks, but the club’s air conditioning.
Just after 3:30 am on Sunday, July 23rd, Detroit police moved against the club, filing the partygoers onto the sidewalk at the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount. It took almost an hour for enough police vehicles to arrive to remove those arrested, long enough for a crowd of almost 200 neighborhood residents to gather and the atmosphere turn from that of a party to one of aggravation and violence. After seeing white police twisting the arms of some of the black women arrested, William Scott III, son of the club’s owner, threw a bottle that crashed at the foot of a police sergeant. Then another bottle was thrown. A minute later, a brick smashed the windshield of a patrol car. The police fled in a shower of bottles and bricks as the crowd grew larger. By 6:30 am Sunday morning, fires had been set on 12th Street and the looting of stores had begun. The 300 state troopers called in could not contain the uprising, which spread across neighborhoods with buildings set ablaze and rooftop snipers keeping firefighters at bay.
In 1967, the Detroit Police Force was 93% white, even though the city was 30% African American. Detroit’s black residents were subject to random stops, an overly aggressive stop and frisk campaign. They were routinely referred to as “boy” or other insulting terms and often arrested for not having proper identification. It was widely believed that police did not respond to calls made by black residents with the same speed as they did from calls made by white residents.
By Wednesday and Thursday, July 26th and 27th, federal troops and National Guard tanks rolled down city streets, engaged in firefights with militant blacks shooting from sniper positions.
Over the course of the five days, 43 people would be killed, nearly 1,200 injured and over 2,500 buildings looted or burned. Many of the buildings destroyed were never rebuilt. The “White Flight” phenomenon had begun before the riots but was accelerated after the summer of 1967, with white Detroiters leaving the city for the suburbs in record numbers. Over the next two decades, virtually every industry in the city left as well. Fifty years later, much of Detroit remains unchanged from that summer. Burned out houses and empty lots litter the city landscape. There are, however, signs of positive change. Unemployment in the city is down and a recent article in Forbes reports that in 2016, the city opened 110 development sites in greater downtown.
Detroit, a movie about the events, is in theatres August 4th:
Soundtrack to the Detroit Riot
Below are songs that were either directly inspired by the 1967 uprising in Detroit or are emblematic of the times. You can also listen to Please Kill Me’s Detroit Riot Soundtrack on Spotify.
MC5: The Motor City Is Burning
The Motor City 5 perform an excellent cover of the John Lee Hooker original. This video, with actual footage of the riot as a backdrop, stars lead singer Rob Tyner at his sweatiest, gap-toothed best, while Brother Wayne Kramer wields his guitar like a gun!
The Rationals: Guitar Army
A rock band from Ann Arbor, The Rationals were fronted by Scott Morgan, who went on to play in the legendary Sonic’s Rendezvous Band. White Panther founder John Sinclair named his collection of street writings/prison writings after this song.
Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On
Recorded a full four years after the Detroit uprising, this song was partially written by Renaldo “Obie” Benson a member of the Four Tops, after he witnessed police brutality in Berkeley. He gave the unfinished song to Gaye, who added lyrics and changed the melody. Issued by Tamla, a subsidiary of Motown, the song features background vocals by Detroit Lions cornerback, Lem Barney.
Gordon Lightfoot: Black Day In July
Bob Dylan’s favorite songwriter captures the feelings of rage, helplessness and sadness of a great city on fire and forever changed.
The Up: Just Like An Aborigine
The Up formed in Detroit in early 1967 and was the house band of the city’s famed Grande Ballroom. Closely aligned with the MC5, members of both bands lived in the heart of Detroit’s black neighborhoods where the rebellion began.
John Lennon: John Sinclair
Written for the founder of the White Panther Party who was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for two joints, John Lennon performed this song at the Free John Sinclair rally held in December 1971 in Ann Arbor.
The Stooges: TV Eye
Along with Motown, The Stooges are the sound of Detroit!
Fugi: Mary, Don’t Take Me On No Bad Trip
Released in 1968 on Chess Records, this collaboration between Ellington “Fugi” Jordan and Detroit band, Black Merda adds some stone cold funk from Motown.
The Temptations: Ball of Confusion
By 1971, the Temptations sound had turned edgier and funkier. Ball of Confusion speaks to the continued struggle of Black America in a post-riot, post-Martin Luther King America. Lyrics speak of “cities aflame in the summer time” and the eventual “white flight” that occurred in Detroit after the rebellion of 1967.
John Lee Hooker: Motor City Is Burning
John Lee Hooker, who moved north to Detroit from Mississippi in the 1940s, watched the city burn from his front porch. In the fall of 1967,he recorded this song with Buddy Guy on guitar. “My hometown, burnin’ down to the ground,” Hooker sang. “Worser than Vietnam.”
*Definitions from Dictionary.com