That dark day in 1957, Isaac “Ike” McKinnon decided he was going to be a cop.
Walking home from school through his Detroit neighbourhood as a 14-year-old boy, he was brutally attacked. It wasn’t local punks.
The thugs wore blue. The colour of his skin triggered their rage.
“These four, very large white officers proceeded to beat the hell out of me,” the former Detroit Police Chief told The Toronto Sun. “That’s when I made the decision to become a cop. I wasn’t going to be like those guys.”
Across the Detroit River, Motown was in flames.
By the time the hundreds of fires had been put out and order restored, 43 people were dead, another 342 injured, some with life-altering injuries, and about 1,400 buildings had been incinerated.
A great American city had been obliterated, never to be the same again.
As America once again burns with rage, what happened during those dark days in July 1967 remains a chilling foreshadowing of what happens when people are brutalised, left behind and shoved to society’s margins.
July 23, 1967 was hot and humid in Detroit, an unwelcome addition to the bubbling racial tensions soon to boil over.
It kicked off at a “blind pig” or a booze can around 3:35 a.m. and owner William Scott was throwing a party for two GIs who had just arrived home from the war in Vietnam. Cops often raided the “blind pigs” in the Black Bottom neighbourhood.
The 85 patrons weren’t keen on leaving. A crowd was gathering outside, swelling to around 200.
A single bottle of booze flew towards the cops. They ignored it. But the Detroit Police Department wasn’t going to ignore the rest of the bottles thrown at them. Not by a long shot.
Rioting and looting were soon underway. Corpses began piling up as the great city burned.
Jeff Horner teaches a course on the riots at Wayne State University. A lifelong resident of Detroit, he says that terrible summer of 1967 ripped the city’s heart out.
“White Detroit didn’t see it coming,” Horner said, adding that at the time Motown was about evenly split, 50% white and 50% black.
After a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, Ike McKinnon returned to Detroit and in August 1965 fulfilled his ambition to join the police department. There were maybe 50 black cops in a force of 5,500.
Like a lot of other blacks, McKinnon’s family headed north from Alabama in 1953 looking for work in the auto factories of Detroit.
“The racial problems in Detroit went back to the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s,” McKinnon said. “In the late 1950s a white nurse was murdered and 1,000 black men were brought in for questioning … it was never solved. But here were 1,000 men with the stain of being questioned for murder on their records.”
“And when they applied to a school or for a job, there was that stain. The case was never solved,” he added.
Detroit had always been a multicultural lure for immigrants both from outside the U.S. and from the Jim Crow deep south. Italians, Greeks, Jews and others had their own neighbourhoods.
For blacks in Detroit, it was Black Bottom. A crowded sliver of land, just 460 acres, where 60,000 low income residents called its tiny apartments home. A practice called “redlining” kept them from moving to other neighbourhoods.
“Segregation wasn’t just a southern thing,” McKinnon said. “You couldn’t get into nice places like Greenfield’s on Woodward Ave. They always had a long line-up but you’d never see a black face. You just knew.”
“When the summer of ’67 came along, the city hit a boiling point and it just spilled over into the streets,” he said. “People desperately wanted change.”
McKinnon was a young Detroit cop living in the centre of the rioting.
“It was very tormenting for me … it just wasn’t fair. I had endured the name calling from other cops. Not all of them were racist but no one stood up for me either,” he said, adding he sympathised with the rioters.
For five days the world watched as one of the cradles of the American Century was burned to cinders and ash with a vengeance born of injustice. Cops quickly lost control of the situation.
Michigan Gov. George W. Romney called in the National Guard and then U.S. President Lyndon Johnson ordered the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions into the American nightmare. The weekend warriors, nearly all white, made a volatile situation worse.
The airborne divisions were integrated and had seen service in Vietnam and reportedly calmed the situation.
But Detroit and its peoples’ lives lay in ruins.
Reformist Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh, who was elected as part of a black and white coalition, was appalled and found the riots so crushing that he resigned.
“Today we stand amidst the ashes of our hopes,” he said afterwards at the scene of the rioting.
“We hoped against hope that what we had been doing was enough to prevent a riot. It was not enough.”
DETROIT: What’s different now from deadly ’67 riots?
Detroit burns, July 1967.WINDSOR STAR / POSTMEDIA
Detroit lay in ashes.
The bloodletting had claimed the lives of 43 people, injured hundreds more and obliterated the facade of brotherhood that Motown sold to the world.
The great metropolis never recovered from those dark days in 1967, sending it into a death spiral that has only recently slowed.
As racial tensions again explode in the U.S. (and to a lesser extent Canada), Wayne State University lecturer Jeff Horner told The Toronto Sun that this time, things are different.
Horner teaches a course on the Detroit riots.
“I was six-years-old when the riots began,” the lifelong Detroit resident said.
“Afterwards, the Kerner Commission determined that the country and the police weren’t treating minorities well. This was mostly because of bad white cops.”
Former Detroit Police Chief Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon said that when he came on the force in 1965, he was one of only 50 black officers out of a force of 5,500 policing a city that was 50% black.
The commission identified the causes but many whites were “less than thrilled” with the prescription.
Another problem was a rightward lurch to 1968 Republican candidate Richard Nixon who promised law and order.
“At the time, the electorate in southern Michigan was around 90% white. Police decided they were going to crack down and they came up with something called STRESS (Stop The Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets,)” Horner said.
It was a failure and led to the election of black reformer Coleman Young.
“The difference now is that a lot of white people, particularly suburban kids, are sympathetic …. there’s more openness,” Horner said.
“But there are a lot of contradictions, the white working class for example.”
“And everything is documented now. In 1967, there was a news blackout overnight and police went to the two newspapers, The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, and at first asked them not to report on what was happening.”
But Detroit’s implosion could not be kept quiet because many residents listened to Canadian radio stations in Windsor.
“Oddly, the protests in Detroit have not blown into something worse and the police are respecting the crowd,” Horner said.
“And the white kids know their job prospects aren’t great either.”
McKinnon said that besides a police force with a reputation for brutality, many of the earlier tensions can be traced to the mass migration of southern whites and southern blacks to Motown’s bustling plants.
“What’s changed from 1967 is that young people —white young people —are understanding the true nature of racism,” McKinnon said adding that many are still not receiving the “true education of America, there is a new awakening.”
He added: “The reality is that some people shouldn’t be law enforcement officers if you don’t see citizens as people then you shouldn’t be a cop. Your first obligation is to serve the community, protect the community and respect the community.. If every officer did that, there would be far fewer problems.”
McKinnon added that officers are required to head to the gun range twice a year. Not so with psychological evaluations.
“You get a psychological evaluation when you sign up and don’t get another one. Twenty years is a long time in a very difficult job, it can wear you down but there’s no safeguard,” he said.
Now, 53 years later, the lessons of Detroit are as fresh as they were on that July day so long ago.
“Most of the protests here have been peaceful. The looting is petty, most of it from ‘outside agitators’,” Horner said.
“Today there’s a good deal of understanding. There is a respect. And that’s a long way from 1967.”
50 years ago, they thought they had answers — then nothing
FILE – This July 2, 1964 file photo shows President Lyndon Baines Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Standing, from left, are Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Ill.; Rep. Clarence Brown, R-Ohio; Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn.; Rep. Charles Halleck, R-Ind.; Rep. William McCullough, R-Ohio; and Rep. Emanuel Celler, D-N.Y. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is considered one of the most celebrated legislative achievements in U.S. history. Signed on July 2, 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, this law made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and barred unequal application of voter registration requirements. (AP Photo, File)
Shortly before the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson commissioned a massive inquiry into the cause of black rioting in cities like Detroit and Newark.
They were dangerous times.
Windsor Star journalists were ordered to stay away from Detroit (and do the same when things heated up again in 1968), but nonetheless made serious freelance money from European news agencies and American newspapers who did not want to take the risk sending in their own.
The inquiry, officially called the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, was 416 pages, and made public its findings concerning the nature, causes, and solutions to the violence that rocked those two cities during the “long, hot summer of 1967.”
“Let your search be free,” Johnson had said. “As best you can, find the truth arid express it in your report.”
“This matter is far, far too important for politics,” he said. “(But) only if you put your shoulders to the wheel can America hope for the kind of report it needs and will take to its heart.”
The basic conclusion of the report: “(America) is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
The cause was “white racism.”
As the New York Times’ Tom Wicker wrote in the report’s introduction, “What had to be said has been said at last.”
The result, said the inquiry, was that “the American Negro (had) yet to become the Negro American.” That demographic hadn’t “bought in” to the American dream that anything was achievable.
“What white Americans have never fully understood, but what the Negro can never forget, is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” said the report “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it,”
For ghetto, think Chicago’s South Side where nine children under the age of 18 have been shot dead since June 20. The blight has existed seemingly forever.
Much of the language in the report will ring familiar today.
The report laid down a multitude of solutions, each of which would need some deep re-thinking as well as tons of money.
But its heart was firmly in the right place.
“To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarisation of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values,” the report warned.
“The alternative is not blind repression or capitulation to lawlessness. It is the realisation of common opportunities for all within a single society.
“This alternative will require a commitment to national action — compassionate, massive, and sustained action backed by the resources of the most powerful and richest nation on this earth,” it read.
Even the media got advice to include blacks in its general coverage and to go into the ghettos, and not just when there was bad news.
It included, of course, “recruiting more blacks into journalism and broadcasting and promoting those who are qualified in positions of significant responsibility.”
So why has nothing changed? Why is there still a lack of diversity in workplaces? Why is there still anti-black racism in the United States, and to a lesser degree in Canada?
The answer is that nothing was done. Not one solution from that 416-page report was put into play. No resolutions were activated. No black aspirational themes were developed. And not a dime was spent.
But, looking back, the saddest part of it all is that this is 2020 not 1967, and a half-century has passed.