In those years before an explosion of anarchy made “riot” the ugliest four-letter word in Detroit’s lexicon, the 12th Street neighborhood was like no other, Darryle Buchanan says. It was a robust city-within-a-city crowded with attractions ranging from the respectable to the roguish.
“There were stores, there were theaters, there were restaurants, I mean, it was a fully self-contained area,” recalls the 61-year-old Detroiter, who grew up on Virginia Park. “There was no reason for you to ever leave that neighborhood.” Hustlers, street vendors, and speakeasies thrived in what was the most densely populated section of Detroit.
Then came that one hot stretch in July 1967, when the youngster’s comfortably circumscribed world fell to ashes. Buchanan remembers indiscriminate looting, raging fires, burning rats fleeing collapsed buildings, and the numbed fascination with which he watched a week of unfathomable chaos unfold.
Despite family warnings to stay off 12th Street, he kept returning. “Each time I went back, there was less and less of 12th Street than I remembered,” he says. The soundtrack to the ongoing havoc was the “constant drone of sirens that just never went away. After a while, it just started to sound like wailing, like crying. It’s almost like the city was dying and it’s that crying sound that you heard. It was eerie, you can’t forget it, you never forget that.”
There’s no chance Detroit will ever forget.
From Melee to Mobocracy
It all began in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, July 23, 1967, the start to another scorching summer day. The 10th Precinct vice squad conducted a routine raid on an after-hours joint above the Economy Printing Company at 12th Street and Clairmount Avenue. They expected to find 15 or 20 people inside the blind pig. Instead there were more than 80 partygoers celebrating the homecoming of two soldiers back from Vietnam. A call went out for paddy wagons to transport the revelers.
A growing crowd of onlookers, initially more curious than confrontational, was milling around when David Bruce and his partner were among the first uniformed officers on the scene. There was some good-natured ribbing. A chant went up: “Let ’em go. Let ’em go.”
“There was this one guy across the street, he had a green polyester shirt … he was the one that was agitating,” says Bruce (whose reminiscences, like some others in this narrative, are from the “oral histories” gathered by the Detroit Historical Museum and its Detroit 67 project). “The auto got there, that was prisoner transport, men started coming down, getting into the prisoner transport. The last one that came down was drunk, I mean he was drunk-drunk. When he went to step onto the auto to go in the back, he fell. Guy across the street — the guy I call Mr. Greensleeves — said, ‘Look, they knocked him down.’ That’s when the bottles and stuff came at us. We started calling for help.”
A police lieutenant arrived and took a brick to the head. With that, 12th Street slid into mobocracy. Windows were smashed. Alarms clanged. Sirens sang. Reinforcements came but were instructed to hang back. The hands-off approach emboldened the crowd. Events spiraled out of control. “There was a shoe store there called Cancellation Shoes and they had very good quality shoes, so people were breaking in there, stealing the shoes,” Bruce says. “They were breaking into the restaurants. The thing about it is, white people were helping black people steal, black people were helping white people steal, so it definitely wasn’t a race thing, it was definitely — I guess they call it a ‘civil disobedience.’ ”
There was an almost carnival atmosphere. “We saw people cutting through the alley carrying couches, carrying chairs, carrying dinette sets, refrigerators,” recalls Albert Colbard, who lived a few doors down from Economy Printing. “This one guy had a refrigerator on a dolly. On a dolly!”
Word of the shopping spree raced through the neighborhood. The frenzy may have spent itself as soon as all of the shelves were emptied and the temperature climbed. But fires soon started breaking out. Black youths threw rocks and bricks at responding firefighters, some of whom pulled the lids off garbage cans to use as shields. An all-black unit was sent out, but it, too, was assaulted.
One of the first buildings to go up was a furniture store — a spectacular blaze, says Colbard, who was forced to hose down his roof. “Now it got really, really serious. Because then you have the fire department coming to put the fires out, and somebody started shooting at the fire department. They would leave and just let something burn.” It was a breezy day, which helped disperse the fluttering waves of twinkling red embers. Twenty percent of the buildings on 12th Street around Virginia Park were destroyed.
As Sunday wore on, a dirty gray haze spread ominously across the clear blue sky. The crowd watching the Tigers-Yankees doubleheader at Tiger Stadium began to stir. There appeared to be a major fire in the distance. Those listening to the game on WJR were kept in the dark. Announcers Ernie Harwell and Ray Lane were instructed to talk nothing but baseball.
The curl of smoke drifting from the backyard of Alice Nigoghosian’s home on Central Avenue near West Chicago signaled a good meal in the making. Her mother was grilling lamb chops in the small brick fireplace. One of the dinner guests had a police scanner in his car. “Do you know what’s going on?” he said upon arriving. “There’s trouble in Detroit.”
Nigoghosian went inside and turned on the TV. Nothing. There was a news blackout.
“So all afternoon, I kept returning to the car for updates,” the Dearborn resident recalls. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. You could hear yelling, screaming, firemen were being shot at.”
All Sunday the rioting spread through the west side — along 14th Street, Linwood, Dexter, Grand River, Livernois — with looting and fires breaking out on the east side around Mack and Van Dyke. Local black leaders, including U.S. Rep. John Conyers and City Councilman Nicholas Hood, were jeered and run off when they tried to calm rioters.
Some business owners scrawled “Soul Brother” and “Afro All the Way” on their storefronts to dissuade looters. Sometimes it worked; often it didn’t. Some stores were singled out because the owner had a poor reputation with customers.
Mutual respect appears to have saved the Grande Ballroom on Grand River, just a few blocks from the riot’s epicenter. The rock venue’s impresario, Russ Gibb, rushed to the site with two musician friends, hoping to load valuable equipment into a trailer before rioters got to it. Gibb was admittedly scared. To his surprise and relief, neither his crew nor the building was touched. According to Gibb, “We had cut a deal with some of the neighbors that we would pick up the mess that our kids made after each show. We tried to treat them as though we were a guest in their community.”
Thousands of police and National Guardsmen were hastily mobilized, many called back from vacation. A 9 p.m. curfew was imposed. Liquor and ammunition sales were banned. Families huddled behind locked doors, away from windows, and tried to process what was happening.
Curiosity got hold of Richard Rybinski, a lifelong Detroiter then living on Hancock. After watching the fires from the roof of his apartment building with friends, he rode his bike down Grand River in the wee hours of Monday for a closer look. He came across a kid, maybe 12 years old, pulling a wagon. In it was a large television set. Rybinski asked if he could bum a cigarette.
“What kind you smoke?” the boy asked.
“Wait a minute,” the kid said. “Watch my TV.”
“He stepped through the window of this convenience store,” Rybinski recalls. “He obviously knew his way around it. Went over to a counter, came out, had a couple of packs with him, and he handed me a pack of Camels.” Rybinski thanked him, and both continued on their separate ways.
Not all encounters were so innocuous. The riot’s first “official” victim, 45-year-old Walter Grzanka, had been shot dead a couple hours earlier by a shopkeeper while stealing cigars and shoelaces from the Temple Market on Fourth Street. Nearly all of the looters who would die the next few days were young to middle-age black males, several of them employed family men caught up in their greed. Their number included two men, both autoworkers, found asphyxiated in the basement of Brown’s Drugstore on 12th Street.
Some business owners stubbornly defended their property. One of them, 68-year-old George Messerlian, was barely 5 feet tall. Nonetheless, when teens burst into his shoe repair shop on Linwood on the first day of the riot, he stood his ground. He was struck repeatedly with a thick 30-inch club. He died four days later.
Most of the pillaging was over by Sunday night, as groups of National Guardsmen were deployed as needed to protect firemen, guard property, man checkpoints, and enforce the curfew. Then the sniping began in earnest. At least a dozen persons were struck by bullets on Monday. Rumors flew that the sniping was organized, with gunmen brought in from out of town, but most of the firing was slapdash. One police official dismissed it as “a damn poor performance for a professional ring, if there is such a thing.”
It would later turn out that much of the gunfire was the work of skittish, undertrained, and trigger-happy guardsmen. One member, Jim Atkin of Dearborn, admits today that the weekend warriors were unprepared for what they encountered. “Yes, most of the fellows in my unit all had our marksmanship medals and stuff, and we can take orders, we can march, we can do our job, but to be confrontive on the street situation? No, it was all new to us.”
The result would be numerous tragedies in the coming days. On one occasion, a businesswoman turned on a lamp and looked down from her motel window. Bullets flew out of the darkness, killing her. On another, a tank took aim on an apartment where a sniper was supposedly holing up. Machine-gun bullets ripped through the flimsy wooden walls, shredding 4-year-old Tanya Blanding. She was the riot’s youngest victim. According to the Detroit Free Press, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage, guardsmen were involved in 11 deaths, nine of them innocent.
Monday, July 24, was Detroit’s 266th birthday, an occasion marked by more than 600 alarms and a long string of deaths, mostly looters. Tigers owner John Fetzer offered to have the team play a televised game inside a closed, empty Tiger Stadium, hoping to keep baseball-loving arsonists indoors. Instead, the scheduled home series with the Orioles was moved to Baltimore. Mickey Lolich couldn’t go; the pitcher was instructed to report for National Guard duty.
Law-abiding folks in the affected areas tried to make sense of what was going on. Anita Hadley, then 11 years old, recalls being sequestered at night with siblings and visiting cousins in the basement of the family home on Helen, between Vernor and Charlevoix, as gunshots popped and smoke drifted over the neighborhood. “We had a corner store that was on Vernor,” she says, “and they were owned by some Italian people, and they were very good to everybody. They would let you buy stuff and pay for it later, and I remember that my dad and a lot of people got together to protect the guy’s store, and said, ‘We’re going to take care of Al’s store. We’re not going to let anybody burn or mess with his store.’”
The inferno engulfing Detroit dominated print and broadcast news. The images were frightening. There was no denying the city resembled a war zone, complete with tanks and helicopters. Miles from the action, adults gathered on lawns, talking in hushed tones while pointing at the sky. Hunting rifles were brought out of closets. Several suburbs enacted curfews. Orville Hubbard, the unapologetically racist mayor of Dearborn, stationed police along its border with Detroit. The less paranoid sat on roofs in the muggy night air and marveled over the soft orange glow in the distance.
A State of Emergency
Late Monday night, responding to requests by Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and Gov. George Romney, President Lyndon Johnson went on national TV to announce a federal state of emergency now existed in Detroit and that 4,700 members of the 82nd and 101st Airborne would be sent to help restore order. The first contingents of paratroopers, many combat-tested, began arriving early Tuesday.
The airborne units, their ranks thoroughly integrated, were assigned to the east side of Woodward. Displaying the kind of breezy self-confidence that comes from jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, they used a light hand in quickly securing that part of town. Richard Rybinski approached one trooper guarding the Detroit Institute of Arts. How did all this compare with Vietnam? “Piece of cake, man,” he replied.
On the west side, guardsmen and Detroit and state police continued to employ a heavy, uneven hand. The most infamous incident to emerge from the riot occurred the night of July 25-26. Cops and guardsmen stormed the rundown Algiers Motel on Woodward at Virginia Park. Among the occupants they encountered were three black teens — Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard, and Fred Temple —and two young white girls, runaways from Ohio. The three males were killed with shotgun blasts at close range, though the exact circumstances remain unsettled. The three Detroit officers ultimately charged with their murders claimed the victims were snipers. John Hersey, author of 1968’s The Algiers Motel Incident, speculated that the death of Jerry Olshove, the only policeman killed during the riot, may have set the cops off.
“Fred was not someone who would handle a gun,” insists Michael “Doc” Holbrook, a streetwise 68-year-old Detroiter who was friends with Temple. Holbrook spent part of his childhood in the South and respected the outsized power of a white man with a badge and a grudge. Temple “was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says. “I know his crime, his sin, was he was there with white girls, and I know how that could go down because I was in a situation similar to that but had the smarts to leave. Wasn’t going to stick around and say, ‘Well, we’re not doing nothing. We have the right.’ No.
“See, that’s the type of thing where a lot of people, they get in trouble. And they can easily lose their lives if you don’t understand the situation. And when you’re looking at someone who has a weapon that can take your life and they have the authority, there’s no reasoning, no rational discretion, if they are of the mindset that you are something less than.”
Heavy publicity surrounding the case would cause the officers’ trials to be moved outstate. All were acquitted, enraging the black community. The killings underscored the belief that July ’67 really was a “police riot,” an unrestrained expansion of the everyday police brutality that helped lead to the riot in the first place. Twenty-four blacks were killed by white policemen or guardsmen. Several were shot under murky circumstances, where official reports clashed significantly with eyewitness accounts.
Looters and curfew violators accounted for the majority of the 7,200-plus arrests. Prisoners were stuffed into precinct cells, station house basements and garages, buses, and the elephant cage at the Belle Isle zoo. They ate baloney sandwiches and baked in the heat as they waited their turn before a judge. One defendant admitted to torching a building, but only to burn out his cheating girlfriend and lover inside. Another was asked about the new appliance found in his car trunk. “I didn’t loot that,” he argued. “I bought it from a guy at a traffic stop. I gave him a five-dollar bill for a washing machine.” Only 3 percent of the cases ever went to trial, and just half of those wound up in convictions. Not a single person was convicted of sniping.
As the week wore on, firefighters struggled to contain the seemingly endless number of blazes. “I learned a great respect for firemen at that time,” Jim Atkin says, “because it didn’t matter what the color was of the area. If there was a fire, they went to put out the fire.” By the time the last of the 1,600 fires had been doused, more than 1,700 firefighters from Detroit and 44 nearby communities, including Windsor, had risked their lives. Two Detroit firemen died. One was shot; the other was electrocuted.
By Thursday, July 27, some 17,000 soldiers and cops were keeping the peace. The last looter had been killed the previous night, a young white man caught stealing a $4 part in an auto junkyard. The city had finally calmed down. Thousands of prisoners were released and guardsmen were ordered to unload their weapons and sheath their bayonets. There was a general air of exhaustion, even among suburbanites who had done nothing more stressful than watch news coverage all week with a pellet gun next to the sofa. Federal troops began withdrawing on Friday. Camera-toting gawkers toured gutted neighborhoods, auguring Detroit’s future as a destination for ruin-porn aficionados. The last victims of the violence lingered in hospital beds. The final death was Roy Banks, who succumbed Aug. 14 to gunshot wounds received three weeks earlier. The 46-year-old deaf-mute had been walking to work when police mistook him for a looter.
Aftermath and Exodus
Many people believe the riot’s death toll was higher than reported, insisting that bodies were cremated inside burning buildings, dumped into sewers, or secretly buried. The official figure stands at 43 deaths: 33 blacks and 10 whites. (Read more).
Property damage was in the range of $40-80 million. About 2,500 stores were looted or burned, and 690 buildings had to be torn down. Nearly 400 families were left homeless. Many businesses never reopened or moved, a blow to devastated neighborhoods. Price gouging was rampant.
Sociologists describe the 12th Street riot as an opportunistic uprising against society’s ingrained inequality.
From a child’s simple perspective, the “revolt” was as incomprehensible as it was overwhelming. “Everything you knew that was familiar was gone … the dry cleaners, the grocery stores, meat market, and everything was just burnt and gone,” says Anita Hadley, recalling the widespread despair left in its wake. “To this day it’s still gone … it was always so nice because these people that we shopped with … they knew us by name, and a lot of them were white. Italians, Jewish people, most the people that owned the businesses were white people. But, it was sad … we wouldn’t see them again, they wouldn’t see us … everything that we knew that was familiar wasn’t there anymore.”
There were various public and private initiatives in response to the riot, including a state housing act that was stronger than existing federal law and aggressive minority hiring programs. The Detroit Police Department doubled its number of black officers while the State Police hired the first black trooper in its 50-year history. Programs like Focus: Hope and New Detroit arose to address social and economic inequities. Nothing stemmed the exodus of families, businesses, and tax dollars from the polarized city, a migration that accelerated with the election of its first black mayor six years later.
“I was taking over the administration of Detroit because the white people didn’t want the damn thing anymore,” Coleman Young said. The seminal event in Detroit’s long history would remain the country’s deadliest riot until Los Angeles blew up over the Rodney King verdict in 1992.
Twelfth Street was renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard in 1976, its scorched contours reworked beyond recognition. It still occupies a bittersweet spot in Darryle Buchanan’s heart. It once was the city’s most vibrant neighborhood, he says, and then suddenly it wasn’t. “It was like it just died, and it never, ever came back.”