I am a child of Detroit. Suburban Detroit. Eminem wasn’t wrong when he said there was a dividing line at 8 Mile. In fact, that line had inched out considerably from the time when I was a kid in the Motor City.
There were two worlds, linked together by the Woodward bus. I lived at 12 Mile, went to high school at 13 Mile. My Grandparents and many Aunts and Uncles lived at the 6 Mile area. We would visit often, heading over to Kelly’s to bowl, or to our cruel and unusual dentist, Dr. Champagne. The Gesu Parish area was full of beautiful Tudor homes. The Black community was concentrated in the downtown area around 12th street. As vilified as the housing projects were here in Chicago- in Detroit, there were few options for the many families who came North to Detroit seeking jobs in the auto factories. Nor was there a system of public transportation except the busses. Those bus lines did not lead to the places where cars were built. The families lived in crowded, re-subdivided homes and apartments.
The dream of a factory job was fading in 1967 as the Big 3 sought to compete with imports by lowering manpower and outsourcing the supply chain. Unemployment resulted in concentrations of vice…drinking, dice, prostitution. The police spent an inordinate amount of time hassling Blacks who were on the street.
Then one night, a raid in the Downtown area went miserably wrong. Instead of rousting prostitutes and unlicensed bars, the police came across a party of seventy or so, who were welcoming home a couple of friends from Vietnam. Attempts to arrest this large number were greeted with protests, then rage…and resistance. Then looting. In a matter of hours, the city was on fire, stores were looted, guns were fired. These were the riots of 1967 in my hometown. For four days, things escalated. The National Guard was called in. Then army troops. Bars, liquor stores, gas stations were all closed. Curfews were in effect. Bus service was suspended. Access to Canada was blocked. George Romney was the governor, a Republican, and he worked with Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, to put the lid on the roiling pot. The 82nd airborne, a unit my father had served in as a reservist, was called in. It did not end until there was martial law. People died. The mayor, Jerome Cavanaugh, described the riots as the “end of hopes” for Detroit. That was a terrible proclamation to hear, but it seemed like the residents accepted it as truth.
During this, I was a high school girl. I was on lockdown 10 miles away because Woodward Avenue was a logical thoroughfare for mayhem. My Grandparents and Aunt called from their homes, terrified of the chaos occurring two blocks over. There were sirens, broken glass and gunfire. Fires blazed. We were afraid for them. Detroit was officially a battle zone.
It remains scarred, abandoned and defined by this episode. White people moved to the next county in droves. Metal gates replaced store front windows. People shifted their offices to the suburbs, and the Downtown lost its business district, hotels, and department stores. A monorail train circled the downtown, taking riders to the nowhere that Detroit had begun. Rats moved into the abandoned Hudsons, and for years, the city was too poor to tear it down. When we would visit the area my Grandparents lived in, fear and flight had left the streets pocked with For Sale signs and abandoned homes. There was the occasional Tudor home with the stucco quadrants painted in the revolutionary colors of Black Power. The Avenue of Fashion was replaced with wig shops and empty stores.
Today, entire blocks are being cleared, and the Mayor has stopped offering municipal services to lone homes on a city block. But there is resistance to THE END that has been proclaimed. Community gardens are being planted where homes have been razed. Some artists are daring to move back. It is small and slow. It will never be the Detroit where I stood in awe of a Thanksgiving parade with Santa. Kids will never sneak out of school to grab the Woodward bus and explore the big city. The glory days are past. The Renaissance will be spotty in my lifetime.
The saddest thing is, after the riots, no understanding and empathy occurred. If anything, the great divide became greater. Blacks died more in the violence. They lost their own stores, homes and businesses in the flames. They were more hopeless, more angry. Their White counterparts were incredulous, fearful; they had the means to migrate. With distance between Black and white citizens, there was no urgency to create a dialogue.
This is the legacy of rage and inequality, seasoned with police brutality and hopelessness.. At the base of this uprising was fear. It was precisely the kind of action Martin Luther King deplored as he explained his dream:
But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.
In July of 1967, Detroit ignored the call of Martin Luther King, Jr. There was no equality, no fellowship, no peace. Nine months later, King was dead, assassinated in Memphis as he attempted to peacefully resolve a labor strike. Detroit had predeceased him. After his death, there were no riots in the streets of the Motor City. There was no fight left. Just the shells of buildings, and the shell of hope.
All these years later, I still love Detroit, and am rooting for its comeback. The hopes of Martin Luther King have guided people of conscience to adopt his dream. This day is dedicated to acknowledge that a mighty voice guided his brothers and all of us to seek equality and dignity for all our citizens. We need to inhabit the chorus of his message, and work for better schools, homes and futures for all of God’s children. There are legislative avenues, charitable opportunities and moral imperatives. We all share the dream. We need to work together to achieve more steps.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
It is the purpose of this day to acknowledge that we have traveled far upon the road to Dr. King’s dream. We remain vigilant and determined that the blessings of this great nation are available for all who wish to work for them. We are not at the destination yet, but we still believe in the dream.
Lenny Kravitz has put together a touching ditty and video positing that maybe we are getting there….using his own life as Exhibit one…He says we may have found our common ground. Because it incorporates Detroit style funk, I cannot resist including it.