“Panic in Detroit”: Reflecting on a Riot 50 Years Later

Fifty years ago to this very day, the Detroit Riot of 1967 ignited.

West Grand and 12th Street/Rosa Parks in Detroit, the site of rioting in 1967.
West Grand and 12th Street/Rosa Parks in Detroit, the site of rioting in 1967. (photo: Source: ‘Mikerussell’, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I was only five then, but I can easily recall certain times from my youth, including because I was one of the youngest in a big Catholic family, been blessed with a good memory, had an early interest in journalism, and also because of the magnitude of the events.

Watching astronaut Neil Armstrong become the first person to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. A year before—within months—the assassinations of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy on April 4 and June 5, respectively (Kennedy died a day later).

And in 1967, less than two months before I began kindergarten in my beloved hometown of Motown, the riots that erupted in late July.

I later learned that another riot—one more based on racial animosity—had hit Detroit in the summer of 1943. But the one in 1967 would last longer, take more lives and result in much more property damage. And the spate of spring and summertime riots of the 1960s did not begin in Detroit. They had broken out previously in cities across the country, including in Los Angeles (1965) and—just days earlier in July 1967—in Newark, NJ.

My family and I were in nearby Canada that fateful day in July 1967, finishing up a weeklong vacation in a cottage off of Lake Erie. As we came back home that evening, crossing over the Ambassador Bridge that links the United States and Canada, my Dad—who was driving—alarmingly noted various fires lighting up the horizon.

“Where?! Where?!” I asked, quickly, realizing that something big and bad was unfolding in the Motor City, although I could only see darkness as I strained to look out a side window, because my eyes were trained on the Detroit River. Meanwhile, the fires could be briefly seen through the front windshield and to the right a little, but my diminutive stature and backseat location precluded my seeing a “city aflame in the summertime,” as “The Temptations” would subsequently lament in their hit single “Ball of Confusion.”

Police directed us to take a detour home as we exited the bridge. A more direct route would’ve put us in the heart of the bedlam of vandals, looters, arsonists and “snipers,” the latter term serving as an addition to my youthful vocabulary, similar to how I learned that gorillas are not the only guerillas during the terrible massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.

We arrived home that night, and I stayed up later than usual. I remember watching firefighters battle the blazes on the 11 o’clock news. My Uncle Frank Szczesny was one of those firefighters, and so we prayed for him and all those concerned striving to restore sanity to our city.

Our neighborhood was on Detroit’s northwest side and, like most neighborhoods in the city, was thankfully unaffected by the rioting. But a 150-block area on the west side that was closer to downtown was declared off limits, given the rioting there. Like most Detroiters, my brothers and sisters and I stayed close to home as the rioting raged for several days.

“Detroit,” a new movie set to hit movie theaters nationwide on August 4, had the audacity to proclaim, “It’s time we knew,” in its first official trailer, as if Detroiters and others had been in the dark about what happened in the city 50 years ago. That slogan has happily been dropped in more a recent promotion, though the infamous events at the Algiers Motel —in which three young black men were killed and a number of others badly beaten after partying with prostitutes—remain the central focus of the film.

And yet, even speaking of providing “the untold story” of those terrible events is itself a misnomer, as the resultant controversial trials were widely covered at the time, including in John Hersey’s bestselling book The Algiers Motel Incident. But such is marketing a new film: The events are arguably unknown to many in the younger generation.

The Algiers Motel incident didn’t spark the riots. It began in the evening on the third day. A raid on a “blind pig,” a late-night and unlicensed bar and gambling outlet operated by some African-Americans, sparked the rioting in the early hours of Sunday July 23.

When I reflect on what happened 50 years ago, I’m reminded that Catholicism—authentically lived—can serve an effective preemptive strike to such social unrest. With apologies to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, I like to say that the Catholic Church is the original and baptized “Rainbow Coalition,” because “Catholic” means “universal”; and so people of every color and “ all nations” are to be welcomed as “disciples” (Mt. 28:18-20).

In American history, a good number of white Christians have prejudicially—and even in a racist manner—embraced their own ethnicity, failing to learn scriptural lessons when Miriam and Aaron wrongly protested Moses’ marrying a Cushite—an African outside of the Israelite clan, pun intended (Num. 12)—and how Ruth, a Moabite, declared to her mother-in-law, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).

In my grade school, St. Mary of Redford in Detroit, I recall that I had classmates of Asian and Arabic background in my first years, as one boy was of Japanese heritage and a girl’s family had hailed from the Holy Land. As I progressed through grade school, we welcomed African-Americans as well, including some who were not Catholic. It may not have been a perfect place, but St. Mary’s showed that legitimate ethnic cultural diversity can be celebrated amidst our common oneness in Christ, and the school strove to strengthen that unity. Indeed, unity within diversity is a hallmark of Catholicism.   

A symbol of that Catholic universality and solidarity can also be seen in a stone statue of Jesus outside of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. The statue’s face, hands and feet were painted black by some local residents during the riot. Some other Detroiters painted the statue white a short while later, but the Archdiocese returned the statue to its modified black color, conveying that Jesus is for everyone, particularly those who are poor and disenfranchised.

That’s sadly not often not been the case in American history, and I have friends who have been unjustly profiled for “DWB”—“Driving While Black”—or otherwise been immorally discriminated against because of their African-American heritage.

On the other hand, rioting is not the answer. As with other urban riots, many are now calling the 1967 a “rebellion” and not a riot. Protesting police brutality and diminished economic and other social opportunities was and is needed. But vandalizing, looting and burning down businesses in your own neighborhood—including some owned by fellow blacks—is itself immoral and self-destructive, because such actions only worsen—not improve—the social conditions of the people living in those neighborhoods.

The overwhelming majority of Detroit’s blacks didn’t participate in the riots, nor did those of white European and other ethnic heritages. Various leaders—white and black—came together to help end the violence. In addition, my favorite baseball player growing up—Detroit Tiger Willie Horton—left Tiger Stadium after a game that July afternoon in 1967 and put his life at risk—by driving to his boyhood neighborhood where the riots had started. Still in uniform, Willie stood atop his car and pleaded for peace. He wasn’t successful, but Horton’s heroic actions displayed Detroit at its best, and an example for all of us to follow (cf. Jn. 15:13).