July 1967: Rebellion

— Kate Stacy

[The following article appeared on the tenth anniversary of the rebellion in the Detroit-based International Socialists paper Workers Power, July 25, 1967. We reprint it here to convey how the events’ impact rippled through the movement’s consciousness in succeeding years.]

“A LONG HOT summer.” Ten years ago, those words did not mean record-breaking temperatures.

In the violent summer of 1967, Detroit, Newark and more than 40 other urban ghettos became the scenes of bloody conflicts and community uprisings.

Detroit was the bloodiest. There were 41 known dead, 347 injured, 3800 arrested, 5000 homeless. Thirteen hundred buildings burned to the ground. Twenty-seven hundred businesses were ransacked. Final property damage was set at $75 million.

The Detroit uprising was the biggest. The size of the Black community here gives it a strength and ability to organize that few other Black communities have.

When the Great Rebellion began, it took the combined might of the U.S. Army, the National Guard, and the city and county police to crush it.

That is why Detroit was so bloody — because the government deliberately set out to do more than “restore order.” It set out to crush the mightiest and most political Black community which rose up in anger.

For three summers, since Watts, Detroit’s power structure was afraid of an uprising. And when the Rebellion began many of them, including the police commissioner, really believed that the Revolution had come.

Those fears were not entirely groundless. The civil rights movement had a big impact in Detroit.

In the early sixties the entire Detroit chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was expelled. They were advocating direct action against racism in the North as well as the South.

Traditions Strong

In June 1963 Bill Conner’s police dogs in Birmingham, Alabama provoked a march to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first Detroit uprising.

One hundred and twenty-five thousand people marched down Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main street. It was, according to Rev. Franklin, march organizer, “a warning to the city that what has transpired in the past is no longer acceptable to the Negro community.”

In 1963 a Black nationalist group called UHURU began organizing against police brutality. UHURU’s founders formed “Freedom Now,” to “mobilize the masses of Negro people into an independent black political movement.”

In 1964 the Freedom Now party had the strength to win ballot status and ran Reverend Albert Cleage for governor of Michigan.

Cleage’s church was on 12th Street, the heart of the Rebellion.

The Negro Action Committee, the Revolutionary Action Movement, the Medgar Evers Rifle Club, and the Fox and Wolf Hunt Club all organized on Detroit’s west side. And Black Power figures such as Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, were frequent visitors with real impact among young Black Detroiters. Nationalist Robert Williams corresponded from his Cuban exile.

H. Rap Brown spoke in Detroit at the four-day “Black Arts Convention” at Cleage’s church a month before the Rebellion: “Let white America know that the name of the game is tit-for-tat, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life. Motown. If you don’t come around, we are going to burn you down!”

Powers Nervous

These kinds of meetings and activities made Detroit’s white power structure very nervous indeed.

The night after the Rebellion actually began they believed that the disturbance would quickly break out of the ghetto areas. They stationed police and National Guard forces to turn back an assault on the General Motors Building and on auto and other production plants near the Detroit River.

They were wrong. Despite the sympathy that many people had for the arguments of the Black nationalists, the Rebellion was leaderless.

Black nationalism accurately reflected the anger and frustration, and the refusal to tolerate racism that Black people felt. But the nationalists had no direction to take that anger; they had nowhere to lead it.

They were as overwhelmed by the rush of the Rebellion as the police were.

But the establishment’s belief in the political level and organization of Detroit’s Black workers — and the establishment’s extreme and vicious racism — led it to crush the Rebellion with as much violence and brutality as could be mustered.

The National Guardsmen believed themselves to be in “hostile territory” engaged in a domestic guerilla. war. Their weapons were loaded and they discharged them frequently. Accidentally, or at street lights, or across the fronts of cars.

Each shot led to return fire by other Guardsmen stationed a block or so away. And each volley by one Guard led to terrified reports from another of being “pinned down by sniper fire.”

Next, the tanks, the artillery, the machine guns were brought in — and used on homes, buildings and people. The myth of widespread sniping was just the excuse the military took to shoot up the streets.

Where the more disciplined Army forces were stationed reports of “sniper fire” all but ceased.

In addition, hundreds of fires were being fed by ten to twenty mile an hour winds. Only one-sixth of the thousands of buildings burned were purposely set afire.

By Tuesday the city looked like a World War II scene.

Army Lies?

The Army command later claimed that it ordered the Guard to unload their weapons — but the order, if it ever existed, never made it to the troops.

That was the attempt by the local and federal government to destroy the political consciousness of a people — not just their hopes and neighborhoods.

The attempt was a failure. In particular, to many young Black workers the Rebellion was the spark that pushed them into greater and much more effective political organization.

Just nine months after the Great Rebellion, 4000 Black workers, led by the Inner City Voice group, a new and very radical newspaper, shut down Chrysler’s Hamtramck Assembly plant. The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement was born.

DRUM and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers were born from the lessons Black workers had learned on the streets of Detroit the previous summer and on the shop floor each and every working day.

DRUM’s spirit was the spirit of the Rebellion, and the spirit of the new society that its members were determined to create.

The government had failed completely in its attempt to smash Detroit’s Black revolutionaries. Instead it had helped to create a whole new generation.

The impact of the ‘60s movement on city politics was phenomenal. Over the next decade the Black community gained tremendous social power. But that power is not wielded by Black workers, it is controlled by the middle class and professionals.

Black politicians and Black city officials run the day-to-day affairs of the city. The highest levels of the police and fire departments, the school board, the local union officialdom, all are Black or well integrated.

The business and commercial community, led by Mayor Coleman Young and Henry Ford II, is experiencing a financial rebirth.

Yet day by day, the city becomes more and more of a ghetto. Living conditions are worse, more oppressive, more dangerous than they were ten years ago.

Joseph Alexander, who lives near the burned out buildings and weedy lots where the Rebellion began, says:

“In some ways it was better then. At least then we had decent places to shop. What’s there now? A big hole in the ground.”

The traditions and history of political understanding and organization are deep in Detroit, but they have not been used for some time.

It is time the community put those same tools to good use again, to solve the serious problems we face.

ATC 129, July-August 2007