Where Do We Go From Here? Part 1: A Contested Commemoration

Until Sunday, no marker commemorated the site where the 1967 unrest began.

[This is the first part of a three-part series on the past, present, and future of Detroit in the light of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 rebellion.]

“I think it’s best to leave that night in the past.”

“You sure it’s gonna stay there?”

  – from Dominique Morriseau’s play Detroit ’67, performed at Rosa Parks and Clairmount on July 23, 2017

This past Sunday, July 23, as the Motor City’s top elected officials gathered to commemorate the most traumatic event in Detroit’s 316-year history, they painted a hopeful portrait of a city on the rise.

Not everyone in the crowd agreed with that optimistic picture.

As a teacher of mine once observed, anniversaries are not only a means of linking the past and present, but also a means of remaking past and present alike.

Many people today might like to put the memory of 1967 to rest under a tidy memorial – if not an unmarked grave. But as Sunday’s event suggested, the present being what it is, the ghost of rebellion past is not resting easy.

“It does not define us”

A half-dozen politicians, ranging from Congressman John Conyers, Jr. to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, had taken the stage in Gordon Park at Rosa Parks (formerly Twelfth Street) and Clairmount, where it all began in the early hours of July 23, 1967, following a police raid on an after-hours bar at that site.

The dignitaries were there to mark the anniversary, but more importantly, they said, they were there to celebrate the progress that had been made.

Congressman Conyers had tried in vain to calm the crowds on Twelfth Street 50 years earlier. Now 88 years old, the longest-serving current member of Congress, he began his remarks by asking the audience, roughly equal parts black and white, to repeat after him: “Never again.”

John Conyers in 1967 (left) and 2017.

Recounting the police abuses that sparked the rebellion, Conyers directed attention to the progress since made towards a less segregated society. “It’s easy for us to get together now and think nothing of it,” he said. “In those days, it was another story entirely.”

Conyers’ younger colleague, Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, seemed almost embarrassed to be there. “I’ve had some people tell me, why are we celebrating that?” said Lawrence, who in 2001 was elected the first African American mayor of Southfield, Detroit’s largest and most prosperous majority-black suburb.

“This is not to make the riots something sexy,” she continued. “While we had a moment…it does not define us.”

It was after this that another perspective on that “moment,” and the present, burst back onto the corner.

“We ain’t got no fairness”

The next speaker was Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who talked of how the DPD had transcended its racist past. As he spoke, however, a few people in the crowd called out “Stop shutting off the water!”

Over the past several years, the city has shut off water to more than 80,000 homes which have unpaid water bills, creating what activists describe as a public health crisis among Detroit’s poorest residents.

When Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan took the stage, he was greeted with both applause and boos. “As someone who was born in the city, it’s painful to be here,” the mayor began, but he was nearly drowned out by more cries of “stop shutting off the water!”

Meeko Williams, a 32-year-old activist with the Detroit Water Brigade, was surrounded by ten police officers and escorted to the sidewalk at Clairmount, the far edge of the park, as the mayor described how “too many people turned their backs on each other” after the events of 1967.

But Williams would not be silent. A bevy of journalists and dozens of onlookers followed him and his police escort to the street as he continued to shout in protest, livestreaming his comments on Facebook. (Video here.)

Meeko Williams (right) protests as police block his path back to the park.

“The suburbs still hate us! The mayor needs to be challenged!” Williams cried. “We ain’t got no jobs or opportunity! We ain’t got no fairness in our city!”

Many onlookers nodded their heads in agreement, as the police officers, all black, made sure Williams did not set foot back into the park. County Commissioner Jewel Ware had begun to speak, but many of the people in attendance were more interested in the citizen intervention into the official program.

“We have not been anywhere since 1967! We have apathy in the city of Detroit! We had a bankruptcy under false pretenses!” Williams said. “And sixty-five thousand foreclosures in the city of Detroit!”

Wiping sweat from his brow, he told the group gathered that he had not come there to protest, but as he heard the speakers continue, he could not restrain his anger at a program that failed to capture the continuing crisis faced by hundreds of thousands of Detroiters, nearly 40% of whom live below the poverty line.

Ball of Confusion

As the afternoon program at the park continued with music, dancing, and the author getting his ass handed to him in a game of chess, it was impossible not to reflect on what had just transpired.

On the one hand, there were sights that would have been unimaginable in 1967. Perhaps the most remarkable was the sight of the Detroit police officers rushing to have their pictures taken with the young stars of the soon-to-be-released “Detroit” movie, who took the stage after the politicians.

A DPD sergeant takes a picture of colleagues with the stars of the “Detroit” movie.

In the movie, those actors play the teenagers killed by Detroit police officers at the Algiers Motel in the most horrific incident of police violence during the 1967 rebellion.

There could be little question that, as the speakers had said earlier, the Detroit police department had changed dramatically since the 1967 rebellion, in large part due to the crusading efforts of Mayor Coleman Young.

And yet, symbols of the crushing inequality that Williams described were also on full view.

They were there in the boarded-up homes visible at either end of the park, the vacant lots lining Rosa Parks, and the incongruous representation of the downtown QLINE streetcar on a temporary, developer-funded art installation on the side of a house visible from the park, three miles and a world away from the streetcar’s terminus at Woodward and Grand Boulevard.

So what gives? Since 1967, has Detroit moved forward, backward, or both?

Depending who you ask, you’ll get very different answers. Even when you get the same answer, it may be given for a very different reason than the one you just heard.

Can we make sense of this “ball of confusion,” in the words of the Temptations song released four years after the rebellion?

Chess in the shadow of Gordon Park’s sculpture – previously painted white.

It’s not easy. What you see depends on who you are and where you are. But in the next installment, we’ll give a broader analysis a shot by trying to unravel three of the tangled threads in the ball: race, class, and the metropolitan region.

2 thoughts on “Where Do We Go From Here? Part 1: A Contested Commemoration”

  1. Very nice piece, Joel! Only one detail I take issue with. Southfield was not a majority black neighborhood in 2001. Do you have actual statistic on that? I grew up there and moved away in ’75 and it wasn’t then. So maybe it changed?


    1. Thanks, Nancy. Southfield would, indeed, have been virtually all-white in the early 1970s. By the 1980s, it was being touted by some as an “integrated” city, but as in other neighborhoods, that didn’t last. The structural forces of segregation proved too great. Today the city is 70% African American and 25% white, but the Southfield school district has almost completely re-segregated: as of 2013, 96% of students in the district are African American.


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