Present at the Destruction
From the January/February 2008 Issue
An eyewitness story of the 1967 riot: how programs that were supposed to create a heaven turned Detroit into a hell.
Dean Acheson, who was President Truman’s secretary of state, wrote a memoir in 1969 titled Present at the Creation—the creation of the Marshall Plan, the NATO alliance, and other initiatives at the beginning of the Cold War. In that same spirit, I can proclaim that I was present at the destruction—the destruction of much of the city of Detroit.
In Acheson’s case, what was created was the postwar Western alliance that waged the Cold War for 40 years to victory. In my case, what was destroyed was a great city, once the fourth-largest in the United States, in a long and drawn-out process over the next 40 years. Acheson was writing about the years he served at the top of the State Department. I am writing about my internship in the mayor’s office during the summer of 1967, the summer when Detroit suffered the most damaging urban riot in American history.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Jerome Cavanagh was elected mayor in 1961 at age 33 with near-unanimous support from the city’s black voters and was reelected by a wide margin in 1965. He started ambitious poverty programs, set up a civilian complaint bureau in the police department, and brought in $360 million in federal money. He was bright and charming and, until he lost a Senate primary in 1966, seemed to have an unlimited political future. In 1965, I had written an article in The Harvard Crimson praising him for his liberal policies and contrasting them with the conservative policies of Los Angeles Mayor Samuel Yorty, which I suggested were responsible for the Watts Riots. That got me an interview with Cavanagh and eventually the summer internship.
As I began work in June, I felt I was at the cutting edge of social change. City governments had long been providers of basic services such as water, garbage pickup, policing, and firefighting—humdrum stuff. Now city governments were overcoming poverty and providing opportunity for poor blacks to advance. Or so I thought. The mayor assigned me to spend one week at the city’s poverty program headquarters and to interview the heads of each program. That changed my thinking a little. Some of the officials appeared enthusiastic about what they were doing. But others, it seemed clear to me, had been dumped by their former agencies and were just marking time. Still, I remained confident, even as a major riot broke out in Newark, New Jersey, on July 12, that no civil disturbance like it would happen in Detroit. Newark’s mayor was a white hack politician, opposed by most local blacks. Detroit was different.
Not so. In the small hours of Sunday, July 23, Detroit police raided a “blind pig” (an after-hours bar) at 12th and Clairmount—about a mile from where my mother grew up. There were protests as police made arrests, but then people in the crowds started breaking windows, looting stores, and setting fires. The police, heavily outnumbered, made no efforts to stop them; Commissioner Ray Girardin felt that would only invite more violence.
White mayor Jerome Cavanagh was elected in 1961 at age 33 with near-unanimous support from the city’s black voters. He started ambitious poverty programs and brought in $360 million in federal money.
“A spirit of carefree nihilism was taking hold,” said the Kerner Commission Report, which was supposed to be the definitive statement on America’s urban unrest. It was an odd description of what was going on. Firemen, unprotected by police, abandoned 100 city blocks. The looting and arson continued during the day even as Representative John Conyers, then serving his second term in the House and now chairman of the Judiciary Committee, called on rioters to stop and as Cavanagh met with black leaders at police headquarters at 1300 Beaubien (a building site familiar to readers of the crime novels of Elmore Leonard). I arrived at the City-County Building around noon and found my way into meetings. At one point Mayor Cavanagh asked me, fresh from my first year of law school, whether he had the power to declare a curfew. He ordered one at 7:45 p.m., and by 9:00 p.m. Governor George Romney had declared a state of public emergency.
I kept no diary, and my memories of the days and nights that followed are jumbled. State police were sent in by the early hours of Monday, and the National Guard was summoned from summer training camp 200 miles away. But as the looting, arson, and killing continued on Sunday night and Monday morning, it was plain that city and state police forces were too small to be effective and that the National Guard, with no riot training, was shooting off its weapons far too much. By noon Monday, President Lyndon Johnson had ordered troops to a nearby Air Force base. After a late afternoon tour of the city, Deputy Defense Secretary Cyrus Vance and General John Throckmorton decided the soldiers weren’t needed. But when darkness fell after 9:00 p.m. the rioting continued in full force, and by midnight the decision to deploy federal troops had been made. The Army wound up using much less firepower than the National Guard had—and it was far more effective.
I remember listening to the police radio in the commissioner’s office, probably on that night. A call came in that police were withdrawing from one square mile of the city, followed by a similar call a few minutes later. I knew large parts of Detroit block by block: the neighborhoods where my relatives lived; the long avenues radiating out of downtown Detroit, lined with stores and churches and auto dealerships; the big auto factories well into town but on its periphery when they were built between 1905 and 1930. When my father used to take me with him on his Saturday hospital rounds, he would point out neighborhoods—whole square miles—that had been all white the year before and now were well on their way to becoming all black.
Riots occur when people think they can get away without punishment. That may not be ‘carefree nihilism’ but it’s also not ‘seeking fuller participation in the social order.’
When I got my driver’s license in 1960, I liked to drive around Detroit, exploring and seeing the effects of what we called neighborhood change. It didn’t occur to me then not to spend the evening in an art theater or a jazz club in what had become a black neighborhood. Now, I was in what was called the Command Center as large parts of the city were being looted and torched. As I drove home on the freeway in the daylight I could see smoke rising from the fires; at one stoplight I pulled up next to a tank.
The rioting continued on Tuesday and Wednesday, then ceased Thursday; it had gone on for five nights and much of the days in between. In all, 43 people were dead, 33 of them black; 7,200 people had been arrested. (At one point I was told to find 2,000 mattresses for prisoners; after much calling around, I got them from the Salvation Army, to which I contribute every year.) My initial reaction to the riot was that we needed to show that we could maintain basic order. The official response was different. Almost all political and civic leaders sought to understand the rioters’ grievances. The Kerner Commission Report, issued in 1968, pontificated, “What the rioters appeared to be seeking was fuller participation in the social order and the material benefits enjoyed by the majority of American citizens.” Certainly, blacks in Detroit had grievances: the residential segregation then universal in America was a disgrace, and the city’s police force was only 4 percent black. But I believe the rioters were making a different calculation. They knew about the riots in other cities, and they figured that if enough people started looting and firebombing, no one would stop them. Riots occur when people expect a riot to occur and think they can get away without punishment. That may not exactly be “carefree nihilism,” but it’s also not “seeking fuller participation in the social order.”
The riot set in motion decisions and actions that physically and spiritually destroyed much of the city over the next four decades. It sped the exodus of whites from the city to the suburbs north of Eight Mile Road; it staunched the flow of investment into the city; it led to a vast increase in crime. Coleman Young, Detroit’s mayor from 1973 to 1993, was blatantly hostile to whites and seemed entirely unperturbed by the city’s crime. Today when I drive in Detroit I see neighborhoods with burned-out, abandoned houses and empty lots once inhabited by middle-income homeowners. Detroit had 1,600,000 residents at the time of the riot. The latest Census estimate is about 919,000.
My political views have changed over those years, more because of what has happened to Detroit than anything else. In retrospect, it is plain that Detroit was as likely to have a riot as any other major city and that the programs I hoped would produce a kind of heaven in our central cities ended up producing something much more like hell. A more forceful response to the crowd outside the blind pig might have prevented the riot (as it probably did, without much notice, in other cities), and a more rapid deployment of federal troops could have stopped it earlier (as happened in Los Angeles in 1992). But it’s not clear to me that we could have avoided the disastrous policy responses that were already in train in 1967: taking a more lenient view of urban crime and promoting greater welfare dependency among blacks. That was a wrong turn, but white America did have sins to answer for, and what seems to me now the more productive response—nurturing middle-class habits and educational achievement among blacks—was a course white Americans felt too guilty to pursue. The people left in Detroit are still paying the price.
Michael Barone, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has been a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report for 17 years.