Detroit has faced a tumultuous past, but the most painful week in Detroit's modern history arguably happened exactly 50 years ago. On July 23, 1967, after decades of discrimination, poverty, and mistreatment by police, many black citizens of Detroit erupted in violence. Some call that five-day period of burning and looting the "riots;" others call it the "uprising" or the "rebellion."
Detroiters have had 50 years to contemplate the reasons for the civil unrest, and at our Going There event at WDET in Detroit, NPR's Michel Martin spoke with three guests who remember where they were when the five-day rebellion started. They spoke with Michel about how that week of unrest changed their relationship with the city of Detroit, what impact the rebellion had on the city, and what the future holds.
Dennis Archer is former mayor of Detroit and a former Michigan Supreme Court judge. Ike McKinnon was one of the first African-Americans on the Detroit police force, and ultimately became police chief. Dennis Coffey is a former session guitarist for the Motown record label, and was in studio recording an album when someone came running to tell him the city was burning.
On how the cops were told to deal with the civil unrest
McKinnon: Go out and lock people up. We were woefully unprepared to handle what occurred. We had received no training. And we could not have handled the situation because at that time we had close to 1,600,000 people [in Detroit]. And if you have 5,500 police officers — and all of us were not on duty at one time — and if we try and stop a rebellion as such, or people looting, it was impossible to do so. So we were undermanned to handle this.
On the roving police squads that terrorized the city
Coffey: Back in the mid-50s, they had two patrolmen in the front and two detectives in the back, and the detectives in the back had shotguns. And so they rolled down the window and said, "What are you guys doing?" Well, we're walking home from school. And they said, "Do you know there's an ordinance? You can't have more than two people in a group." And we said, "Yes sir." Because the reputation — when they said do something, you did it.
McKinnon: I'd seen this before of other young men, but never to me. And at this point they grabbed, threw me up against the car, and proceeded to beat me. And I was, "But sir, but sir!" I'm asking — and the more I ask, the more they beat. And the look of anger — extreme anger — on these officers' face, with the name-calling and beating. And they were good at what they did, I should tell you. They beat me between my neck and my belt. And toward the end of it — I'll never forget this — they said, "Get your black ass out of here." And I ran home. And I never told my parents. ...[T]he reason being if you told your parents, they would go to the precinct and they would get locked up or beaten also.
On the cause of the rebellion
Archer: You've heard the explanation already, in terms of what people of color and whites as well were subjected to. But let's talk about economics. The federal government would not allow blacks to have mortgages. You couldn't live in certain neighborhoods. And when you consider that you couldn't go into certain restaurants, and certain hotels and businesses if you happened to be black. ... When people are able to live and they're comfortable, and they're able to do what they pretty much want to do... you take that away, and you strip people of hope or dignity and the like? You set up an environment that can be explosive.
On how white cops brutalized black cops
McKinnon: After about an 18-hour shift, I came off at the Chicago Boulevard and made a left turn, and as I passed the overpass to the freeway, these two white police officers pulled me over. And I was in uniform — had my shield on — people think it's a badge but it's a shield. I had my "2" for the precinct I was at. And you could clearly see I was a police officer. I was stopped by these two white police officers — one was an older guy with gray hair - but he got out of the car with his partner. And they said to me, "Get out of the car."
I said, "Police officer! Police officer!" And I smiled, the way I am right now. And as I stepped out of the car, the officer with the short stub-nosed silver gun, he said, "Tonight you're gonna die." And he didn't stop there; he said the N-word. And I looked at him, and I couldn't believe this was happening. And as I looked at him, it was as if time froze. And when time freezes — and when there are exceptional circumstances — your senses are heightened. And I could see his finger pulling the trigger. And as I dove back into my car he started shooting at me.
Archer: If we could invite in the 100 or so police officers who were African-American who were working in their precincts, you would hear a lot of similar stories, in terms of how guns were pulled on them in the precincts, and how they were fussed at, cussed at, and white officers saying, "I'm not going to ride with that blankity-blank."
... And then I would just ask us to speed forward for a moment, and then you wonder why there's a group called "Black Lives Matter." And why those issues are very relevant today, as they were back then. And then when you start thinking about what we're hearing in terms of the divisiveness that's being openly talked about today, it hurts our country, it hurts our cities, it hurts people and it hurts all of us.
NPR's Stacey Samuel edited this story for Radio. NPR's Ashley Young produced this for radio. NPR's Maquita Peters produced this story for the Web.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin coming to you from WDET in Detroit, Mich. We've been here all week checking out the city, the people, the places, the issues, what people here call Old Detroit and New Detroit. I've actually been here several times in recent years, reporting on lots of different stories from fashion to the food scene, politics, the new manufacturing movement to the drama over the city's finances. This week, we wanted to focus on a pivotal moment in the city's history that's connected to so many of these stories. We're talking about the days in July, 1967 when parts of the city went up in flames. The numbers are not the whole story, but they help tell the story - 43 people killed, more than a thousand wounded, 7,000 people arrested, more than 2,000 buildings looted or burned.
Last Thursday evening, we invited three people to fill in the rest of the story at a conversation before a live audience at member station WDET here in Detroit. All of our panelists were here during the riots, and we wanted to know what they saw, what it was like, and we wanted to hear about their views today. But we wanted to set the table with a little poetic vibe, so we turned the mic over to acclaimed Detroit-based poet Jessica Care Moore.
JESICCA CARE MOORE: We are the economy of black gold survivors, a highway of stars shine bright as our rims and express the way Motor City of tomorrow could include making room for bikes and carpool lanes or an express train that can get citizens across our glove with ease. We are the hope and the heartbreak, a fast car with no brakes. We are the old school Cutlass, the Cadillac, the Focus. We are the prom date and the first kiss. We are our ancestors' wildest wish.
We were born moving. Mobility is the ability of Aretha to reach that soul note and Smokey to rearrange our tears, to know our city is built on love and project window wonder men and supreme women. The Holy Ghost of Alice Coltrane's heart. The power of Marion Hayden's hands flying down her bass. Follow that sound of your favorite satellite station. Move closer to what really matters to you.
MARTIN: That was Jessica Care Moore setting the mood at our event this past Thursday, where we spoke with Dennis Coffey. He's a former session guitarist for the Motown record label, who's been involved in the Detroit music scene for decades. In July 1967, he was in the studio working on an album when someone came running in to tell them the building down the street was on fire. We also welcome Dennis Archer. He was mayor of Detroit from 1994 to 2001. During the riots, Dennis Archer was a law student at Detroit College of Law. Afterward, he shadowed and assisted lawyers defending residents who were arrested during the unrest.
And last, but certainly not least, Ike McKinnon. He was one of the first African-Americans on the Detroit police force in the 1960s. He became police chief in 1994, and later still, deputy mayor. At the time of the riots, he was a rookie on the force and witnessed the events of that week from behind the thin blue line. I started by asking him if he remembered where he was at the start of the riots.
IKE MCKINNON: I was at home at the time. In fact, I lived on - at 3265 West Boston. And I received the call at 6 a.m. that the - some problems had started, that people were rioting, and I had to report to work right away. Mind you that at that time, we had 5,500 police officers and less than a hundred of color. And I was...
MARTIN: Wait. Say that again for people who didn't - there were 5,500 police officers in the city and less than a hundred were of color. But how - what were the demographics of the city at that time?
MCKINNON: We were probably about 40 percent if I recall. Yeah. It would have been 11 officers and one sergeant, and everybody was white except for me.
MARTIN: What were people saying? I mean, what were the instructions you were given? What were - what was being said about what was happening?
MCKINNON: I mean, we were woefully unprepared to handle what occurred. We had received no training, and we could not have handled the situation because I think, at that time, we had close to 1,600,000 people. And if you have 5,500 police officers - and all of us were not on duty at one time. And if we try and stop a rebellion as such - or people looting - it was impossible to do so.
MARTIN: We're going to - I think we're going to go to the hard question of, why? Because even now, there are people who, you know, well, why? You know, for a lot of people, it just seems like a completely irrational, crazy thing to do. Like, how do you burn down your own neighborhoods? So, Ike McKinnon, I'm going to start with you on this because you have a really interesting story about why you became a police officer to begin with.
MCKINNON: But I think we have to look at this history of the city and certainly the country in terms of a great number of things that happened to people - all people of color and particularly - and poor people. As a young boy growing up, I would see the police drive through the neighborhood, and I never saw a person who looked like me as a police officer. I would see the officers in particularly the Big Four. They would pull up to Superior and Saint Antoines.
There's young boys standing on the corner. And they would jump out of the patrol car with a machine gun and their rifles, and they kicked these young kids up against the car, beat them up and then take off. And you want to know why, but it was like - it was accepted in the neighborhood because you couldn't make a complaint. Who would you make a complaint against? Because these are the police.
MARTIN: Can I ask about the Big Four? Had any of you all heard about the Big Four?
DENNIS COFFEY: I got stopped by them once.
MARTIN: OK. I see some hands go up. And was this something that you knew?
COFFEY: If you were stopped by them, you knew. Because I was going to post-intermediate...
MARTIN: This is Dennis Coffey.
COFFEY: ...And there were about five of us walking down, and some of my friends were African-American. And the Big Four pulls up in a big cruiser. Now, back in the mid-'50s, they had two patrolmen in the front and two detectives in the back. And the detectives in the back had shotguns. And so they rolled down the window and says, what are you guys doing? Well, we're walking home from school. And they said, do you know there's an ordinance? You can't have more than two people in a group. And we said yes, sir. Because the reputation - when they said do something, you did it.
MCKINNON: You were lucky because I saw these young men - so in 1957 when I was 14 years old - I'm 39 right now, so - in case you...
MARTIN: I can - 39-plus.
MCKINNON: ...When I was 14 - and so, at 1:30, I was leaving the school. The Big Four pulls up, and they jumped out of the car. And I'd seen this before of other young men, but never to me. And at this point, they grabbed me, threw me up against the car and proceeded to beat me. And I was - but, sir, but, sir, you know, I'm asking. And the more I asked, the more they beat. And the just look of anger - extreme anger - on these officers' face for the name calling and beating. And they were good at what they did, I should tell you. They beat me between my neck and my belt.
And towards the end of it - I'll never forget this - they said, get your black ass out of here. And I ran home, and I never told my parents. No, no, the reason being that if you told your parents, they would go to the precinct, and they would get locked up or beaten also. This was known in the neighborhood. And so, that evening, I made a decision that I was going to become a police officer. And the reason being that I wanted to become a different kind of police officer than those guys, and I would try and help whomever it might be - whether it's black or white or brown. I was going to try and help in any way that I could. And that's why I became a police officer.
MARTIN: Dennis Archer, why - why did this happen?
DENNIS ARCHER: Let's talk about economics. The federal government would not allow blacks to have mortgages. You couldn't live in certain neighborhoods. And when you consider that you couldn't - all this going on - you couldn't go into certain restaurants and certain hotels and businesses if you happen to be black.
MARTIN: You know, I think for some people, that's a surprise because they think that that's - that was the South, that was the segregated South, and that it was different up North. This is where people came to get opportunity.
ARCHER: When people are able to live, and they're comfortable, and they're able to do what they pretty much want to do and live within - we had a great business community in what was called Black Bottom, et cetera. A lot of outstanding - everybody worked together, et cetera. You take that away, and you strip people from hope or dignity and the like, you set up an environment that can be explosive. But this was occurring in other cities. It wasn't just Detroit.
MARTIN: Oh, absolutely. Just to point out, there were nearly four dozen riots and more than a hundred smaller cases of civil unrest in the United States in 1967 but Detroit's were the deadliest. I mean, the presidential commission said that the overwhelming majority of the people who were killed were African-American. There were 10 whites who were documented to have been killed. There were 33 African-Americans who were killed. Ike McKinnon, you wanted to say something?
MCKINNON: As the mayor said, listen, you have to understand. Just before that, the police could arrest you and - (laughter) for an investigative arrest. They could hold you for 72 hours without you making a phone call, without you - anybody knowing who you were. And that became part of your permanent record. When you went to apply for a job, it was on your record that you had been arrested for investigation of murder, investigation of rape.
And so, that became part of your permanent record. If you tried to get into the military, if you tried to get into college, that was the status quo at that time. So we talk about people being angry and why they responded the way that they did. These are all part of these systemic things that occurred throughout the years. And in - as it led up to '67, people were saying, enough is enough.
MARTIN: Dennis Coffey, you know, one of the things that has - that I think a lot of people have understood is that the music changed at that time. You were a part of that change. Did you want to talk a little bit about that? It's like artists wanted to respond to kind of what was happening.
COFFEY: You know, musicians are musicians. They get involved because, at Motown, I ended up getting a call to go over there because I was at the producer's workshop - they hired me - and Norman Whitfield came in with this song called "Cloud Nine." That was the first Motown protest song, and I happened to have this wah-wah pedal, and I put it on the introduction to the song at Golden World, and he says, that's what I'm looking for. So what happened was - is then, Norman was one of the leaders of the songs that was going to mirror the protests and what people were talking about.
And so, I ended up being the psychedelic person with the wah-wah pedal and the fuzz and the distortion - all that edgy guitar stuff that went with these angry songs like "War," "Cloud Nine," "Psychedelic Shack" - all this stuff because the music now started to reflect the people, and then, the whole psychedelic movement. You know, John Sinclair - and I knew John back in the day. That was a whole hippie thing. All the protests were coming out of people - I think they felt that they were not - be able to be free. They couldn't be themselves.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are having a conversation at our member station WDET in Detroit. We're talking about the Detroit riots - the uprising, the rebellion as it's sometimes called. We're speaking with the former mayor of Detroit, Dennis Archer, legendary Motown guitarist and musician, Dennis Coffey, the former chief of police of the Detroit Police Department - actually, one of the first African-Americans to join that the Detroit Police Department, Ike McKinnon.
So you have a story about the resentment lasted for a long time, particularly, it has to be said on the part of a lot of the white residents and the white police officers. And, Chief McKinnon, there is a story I wanted you to tell about when you were coming home from work. What - you went, like, 17 days straight without a day off? And then, you finally got a day off. Do you mind telling that?
MCKINNON: Well, yes, yes. I laugh about this because I'm still alive. And what happened was this - after about a 18-hour shift, I came off at the Chicago Boulevard and made a left turn. And as I passed - or went over the overpass to the freeway, these two white police officers pulled me over. And I was in uniform, had my shield on. People think it's a badge, but it's a shield. And you could clearly see I was a police officer. I was stopped by these two white police officers who - one was an older guy with gray hair. He was probably younger than me now, you know. But he got out of the car with his partner, and they said to me, get out of the car. I said, police officer, police officer, and I smiled the way am I right now. And as I stepped out of the car, the officer with the short, snub-nosed silver gun - he said, tonight, you're going to die. And he didn't stop there. He said, you know, the N-word.
And I looked at him, and I couldn't believe this was happening, and I could see his finger pulling the trigger. And as I dove back into my car, he started shooting at me - or maybe the two of them - I don't know. But I pushed the accelerator with my right hand, drove with my left hand as they were shooting at me. My position was that, here, you have an officer who is supposed to uphold the laws of the country and certainly the laws of the state and our city and be fair and just. And that wasn't happening. In my - I think I've said this a number of times - if this person was treating me that way as a fellow officer - trying to kill me - what was he going to do to the other people of the city of Detroit?
ARCHER: Michel, one of the things that I think is important...
MARTIN: Dennis Archer.
ARCHER: ...To recall and remember when you hear Ike talk about his personal experiences. If we could invite in the hundred or so police officers who were African-American who were working in their precincts, you would hear a lot of similar stories in terms of how guns were pulled on them in the precinct and how they were fussed at, cussed at, and white officers saying, I'm not going to ride with that blankety blank. And I'm not going to be with him. They had no women police officers at that time.
And so, there was a lot of things that were going on. And then, I would just ask us to just speed forward for a moment. And then, you wonder why there's a group called Black Lives Matter and why those issues are very relevant today as they were back then. And then, when you start thinking about what we're hearing in terms of about people and the divisiveness that's being openly talked about today, it hurts our country. It hurts our cities. It hurts people, and it hurts all of us.
You look at - people can't see this beautiful audience, but this audience that's here with us - you see a group of outstanding, very beautiful, handsome people who are from all different ethnicities, races, religion and the like. And that's what makes Detroit great. But when you have others who want to be divisive or, through their actions, cause things to be divisive, it creates a powder keg that people who do not have the connections, people who are not on the police force, people who have that happen to them, and they talk to their friends about it at school or in the barber shops or beauty shops, et cetera, that's what creates a bad climate.
MARTIN: Dennis Coffey, what effect do you think living through these events has had on you?
COFFEY: Myself, you know, as a musician, you know, when I worked in Motown, we all carried guns down there because it was dangerous, you know. But I look at it that way, but I also have a resolve. You have a resolve. I mean, it's a human thing that you have. And that's the difference where that's how you survive. I worked on an assembly line. I did a lot of stuff - music and everything. It's a resolve.
The city has a resolve. The city is coming back big time. The people in this city - there's nothing like it. That's why I moved back from New York and LA. This city has a resolve, and this city is coming back. It's like - it's almost like a powerhouse. It's really coming back big time. I can just feel it.
MARTIN: That was musician Dennis Coffey, former police chief Ike McKinnon and the former mayor of Detroit, Dennis Archer. They all joined me at member station WDET for a live conversation about the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riots. And we concluded with Detroit-based artist and actor Mike Ellison. He ended the night with his spoken-word piece, "The Lodge" (ph).
MIKE ELLISON: Some people think the D is all about the Big Three. Some think it's the ruin porn reporters often employ you to see. Some believe it is, indeed, a phoenix rising from the ashes. And still, others say it's just an ashtray writhing with madness. But if there's one thing that I've clearly come to see, it's that, basically, Detroit don't give a damn what anybody thinks. The D does not care whether you, me, we think it is on the brink of extinction or the apex of greatness. It's a matter of perspective because, like life itself, Detroit is ripe with unanswered questions. Its truth is elusive, rarely matter-of-fact, never either/or, always this and that. The last stop on the Underground Railroad and the station where Rosa graciously parked her remarkable soul.
It is Motown and techno, P-Funk and J Dilla, John C. Lodge and the late, great Grace Lee Boggs. A bellwether for the nation, Detroit is beautiful transformation and brutal gentrification. It is Andre Johnson's drug recovery program acknowledged as a champion of change by the Obama administration and water shutoffs admonished as a human rights violation by the United Nations. Detroit is defiance and patience, riots and rebellions. And in my estimation, renaissance is a worthy endeavor and ideal, but it is not a gloss applied to conceal that which is real and relevant by merely projecting benevolence. Now, whether we revel in its praise or persecution, its grit or glory, Detroit is an epic novel depicting its own story.
MARTIN: That was Detroit-based artist and actor Mike Ellison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.