It was hot and sticky that day, as it had been for more than a week, a Sunday in late July, July 23rd 1967. It was humid, my clothes were sticking to me. It was moist, the type of hot where you hoped and prayed for rain for some relief, to cool things off. These prayers were not answered. If the prayers for rain had been answered? If it actually rained? Then you would have seen the steam rising off the black asphalt, you would have heard the spit of the water turning to steam when it hit the black hot, tired, streets. Then the humidity would have been worse.
I was living near downtown Detroit on the campus of Wayne State University, a large sprawling urban university. In September I would begin my second year of college. My major was political science. My room was not much bigger than a college dorm, a furnished room with bath and kitchen down the hall. All I brought to the room other than clothing, books, record player and toiletries was a used black and white television I had recently purchased for $25. The TV sat on a ledge, square like a cube, in the corner of my room.
The Palmer House where I was living was a half block from Woodward Ave, a wide major street that divides the city east and west. Two blocks away, within the college campus were the Detroit Institute of Arts, a huge art museum, and the Central Detroit public library.
Sweating. I was sweating that morning, Sunday, July 23, 1967, waiting for the bus to take me to the ballpark. I was going to a baseball doubleheader at Tiger Stadium. The New York Yankees vs. the Detroit Tigers. The haze was visible and thick even in the morning. There was no need for a lot of clothing that day, no wind, the seats at the ballpark were in the upper deck. It is sunny but, the light was muted by the hazy. The air had texture, and moisture “sticky”.
It was the good guys, the Detroit Tigers, against the bad guys, the New York Yankees. For a baseball fan from Detroit, there isn’t a better good guys vs. bad guys baseball matchup.
Game one, bottom of the fifth inning, Ray Oyler the runner on first, the Tiger pitcher Mickey Lolich at bat. A sacrifice situation. Lolich lays down a bunt. The Yankee catcher Elston Howard picks up the ball, throws to second, shortstop Ruben Amaro covering, Amaro throws to first, second baseman Horace Clarke covering, runners erased, a double play.
After 5 innings Detroit–1 New York–2
Top of the seventh inning, game tied at 2-2. Yankee’s Horace Clarke singles. Roy White singles and Jim Northrup the Tigers right fielder fumbles the ball. Horace Clarke scores, Roy White advances to second base. Yankees 3, Tiger 2.
Bottom of the eighth, Willie Horton pinch hits for Mickey Lolich. Horton strikes out.
Final Score– Yankees–4 Detroit–2
Between games I ate another hotdog, got some popcorn and got a coke.
Game two bottom of the fourth, Willie Horton comes to the plate. Horton was raised in Detroit, one of only two black players on the team. Horton puts the Tigers on the board with a Homerun to left field! Later in the inning, pitcher John Hiller is at bat, bases loaded, two out, Cash on third, Stanley on second and Oyler on first. Hiller hits a single, (one of eleven hits in his career) and drives in two runs, (two of the four runs he would bat in in his ten year baseball career), two runs score, Tigers 4, Yankees 1.
Game two, top of the seventh, runners on second and third. Horace Clarke hits a fly ball to center fielder Mickey Stanley. Stanley catches it and throws home to Ray Oyler, who throws to catcher Jim Price who throws to 3rd baseman Don Wert, runner out at 3rd double play, inning over.
Game 1- Tigers–2 Yankees–4
Game 2- Tigers–7 Yankees–3
Total attendance for the doubleheader 34,623.
Hot and feeling gritty I walked down the wide ramps toward the exit. My stomach was gurgling and moving like an overloaded washing machine. It was full of hot dogs, coke, popcorn, peanuts and ice cream, gastro-remnants from the games.
As I walked down the wide cement stadium exit ramp several people pointed to the smoke coming from an area of the city not far from downtown and the ballpark The grey smoke hung, like a lazy kite, in the hot hazy humid motionless air. The grit on the ramp was not just underfoot. The air had a prickly gritty quality. I remember pausing for a moment, touching the cement railing, feeling the grit on my fingertips, and viewing the cityscape. It was like a painting and I thought to myself that this was Detroit’s version of a Canaletto painting; the smoke, the clouds, the sky, subtle shades of grey over a busy urban, building filled landscape, shades of brown and grey.
After leaving the ballpark the bus took me a few blocks back downtown. It was early Sunday evening, still hot. Walking past a theater, I smelled and felt the air-conditioning, it felt like a cool beverage for the lungs. I decided on an impulse to see a movie rather than go home. I knew my room would be hot and still.
The air-conditioned movie was “The Dirty Dozen”. Lee Marvin, the lead in a story of a violent multicultural group of unpredictable men, with tainted pasts. All the men are portrayed as misfits, untrusting of one another, and behind enemy line in a harsh dangerous environment on a last chance mission. The “Dirty Dozen” had plenty of conflict, tragic death, and heroism, the good and the bad guys were easy to distinguish and all in color on the big screen. Remarkably, this Dirty Dozen collection of men by movie’s end had learned to trust one another. By the end of the movie you could over look the men’s transgressions, “The Dirty Dozen”, had become a potent team.
The Detroit Tigers team that year had two black players, Willie Horton and Gates Brown, of twenty five on the roster.
Leaving the theater that night theatre personnel were at the doors leading to the street repeating, “there is a curfew in the city, the Detroit police are directing everyone to take the shortest route home.” It was dusk, the air was still hot and smoky. The bus seemed to be wheezing as it cruised up Woodward Ave.
I heard again, “Take the shortest route home”, as I hung on the leather strap from the ceiling of the bus, my face was wet with sweat. I heard people, black and white talking and speculating about the reason for the curfew. No one on the bus was sure why there was a curfew.
I got off the bus near home, the wide main thoroughfare, Woodward avenue was empty. Looking both directions, I searched for a car and couldn’t believe what I was seeing, no cars. I crossed the street and looked north. The image burned itself on to my retina. More than forty years later, I can see it now as I saw it then, a huge tank.
A huge, battle green, army tank with turret gun and camouflage paint was slowly moving up the exit ramp of the expressway. For a moment I thought I was still in the movie theatre with the “Dirty Dozen”. Mesmerized I watched the grass being torn up on each side of the exit ramp, my eyes zeroed in, and focused. I gasped in disbelief, the tank was wider than the cement exit ramp. It glided like a huge insect. For a long moment standing in the middle of the street, normally busy with cars, I gawked at the huge green moving camouflaged object.
I turned on the black and white television the moment I got into my room. The T.V seemed to take a lifetime to flash on with a picture.
The black and white square 20 inch TV became my window on the riots. The Palmer House restaurant was just down the street, now had restricted hours due to a city wide curfew. A dollar at the restaurant bought a piece of pie and coffee. My late evening pie was moved to mid-afternoon during the curfew.
For over 24 hours the TV networks showed live coverage of the riots. This was very early reality TV. Seen through my window, my twenty inch black and white set; people smashing windows, reaching through bars in the windows to get a bottle of booze. I saw kids throwing rocks at police cars, the black and white police cars were shown parked at weird angles on the streets. I saw fires burning in black and white, the sounds of guns, snipers up on the roof?
I remember the images now like lightning flashes, short image bursts on the TV, broken glass sounds, storefronts ripped open, merchandise carried out through the ripped open windows, and more black and white police cars. The sirens and gunshots through the tiny TV speaker, added to the surreal spectacle like a violent percussion symphony, this was the soundtrack for the Detroit Riots and all televised LIVE.
This was no Andy Warhol artsy film, this was the revolution LIVE, televised for over twenty four hours without commercial interruptions. There were no warnings; “Don’t try this at home.” The images of people carrying new clothing out of the store, a fat ham, kids with new bicycles. Black and White owned stores were looted. And then the live network coverage stopped. There were no more TV mobile live units with live riot scenes. The coverage changed to talking heads and commentary.
Ten people were shot by National Guardsmen during the riots. Amongst those killed was Roy Banks a deaf mute man on his way to work on July 24th. Julius Dorsey was a security guard at a store. Clifton Pryor was mistakenly identified as a sniper and shot, and Tanya Blanding, the youngest victim, four years old, was killed by tank fire in her living room when her father struck a match to light a cigarette.
— — — — — — — — –Paul my Father drove to Detroit that day, Monday July 24, 1967, and to the Wayne State University campus in order to take me to safety. I hadn’t lived with Paul since I was four years old when my parents divorced. “Home” for Paul would be a place I had never lived. His place was suburban Warren, Michigan. Paul may have had a gun in the car that day.
And of course I was not going with him. I flatly refused the rescue ride. The two of us exchanged some non-verbal angst because I refused the ride with him several times. No doubt he had been watching the riots on TV as had I. My father drove back to the safety of white Warren, Michigan there were no black people there, Detroit Police or National Guardsmen.
For me at that time there was an intoxicating sense of uncertainty in Detroit. What was unimaginable was happening. What could be next? There was no ordinary for the next few days of curfew. And there was no way I would abandon my sanctuary, or the square television screen, my front porch seat for the Detroit Rebellion. This was political science, I recognized it. This was my major. My studies had started earlier than anticipated. I was getting the summer crash course, my political science immersion course was the insurrection.
Governor Romney wanted Federal troops but President Johnson hesitated, the Sedition Act prohibited the use of Federal troops used against U.S citizens except in the case of an insurrection. With fires in many parts of the city and over 2,000 buildings destroyed Michigan Governor Romney called the civil disturbance an insurrection and President Johnson ordered Federal troops into the city.
Almost all of the action for me was on the TV. The roar of traffic on the street got quiet at curfew. The hollow ring of gunshots was not an uncommon sound in the neighborhood even without a riot.
Later I learned, three days into the insurrection about the signature police incident of the riots. The action took place just a little more than a mile down Woodward Avenue from my room. The Algiers Motel Incident was documented in graphic, heart stopping, minute by minute detail by author and journalist John Hersey. His story became the morality tale for the riots. The incident was a full color, bloody tale of out of control Detroit police. From Woodward Avenue you could see the garish tropical colored palm trees that marked the Algiers Motel. I had seen them many times riding down Woodward Avenue on the bus.
In 1967 ninety-three percent of the Detroit police force were white while thirty percent of Detroit residents were black. From the black community in Detroit, Police brutality was the number one complaint before and after the riots.
Near midnight on July 26th, a security guard reported hearing shots and three Detroit police officers and several national guardsmen were called to the Algiers Motel. What the police officers found at the motel were nine people, all unarmed, seven black men and two young white women. Two hours later three black men were dead, Aubrey Pollard, nineteen years old, Fred Temple, eighteen years old, and Carl Cooper, seventeen years old were found lying in pools of blood in different rooms of the Motel. The other six surviving people were tortured and beaten by the police officers. The officers; Ronald August, David Senak, and Robert Paille were tried for the murder of the three young black men. There were no convictions for the deaths.
A block from where I lived the outdoor community swimming stood empty that summer due to lack of city funds for lifeguards and pool personnel. After the riots and for the rest of the summer the noise and the crowds of people returned to the pool. I could hear the pool noise from the front porch of the Palmer House where I lived.
Later I had to reconcile my belief that violence would get you nowhere with what I had seen and learned in Detroit that summer. Change grew out of the violence, looting, fires and mayhem. Difficult still for me, has been finding the good and bad guys during that steamy week. For me, it was a passion play, seen mostly on the twenty inch black and white T.V beginning that hot summer evening, July 23, 1967.
Remembering now that the day began as a game. the good Tigers vs. the bad Yankees. I watched as they split a doubleheader. It was a baseball game. How things changed that day, for me black and white, good and bad blended in a disturbing way and quickly got mixed up. Looter and Detroit Police, Guardsmen and snipers, smashed windows and burnt buildings, innocent people killed. There were no winners when it ended.
The Riot Toll
Over the period of five days, forty-three people died, of whom 33 were black and 10 white. Other damages were calculated as follows:Injuries
Injuries- 467 injured: 182 civilians, 167 Detroit police officers, 83 Detroit firefighters, 17 National Guard troops, 16 State Police officers, 3 U.S. Army soldiers.
Arrests- 7,231 arrested: 6,528 adults, 703 juveniles; the youngest, 4, the oldest, 82. Half of those arrested had no criminal record. Of those arrested, 64% were accused of looting and 14% were charged with curfew violations.
Economic damage- 2,509 stores looted or burned, 388 families rendered homeless or displaced and 412 buildings burned or damaged enough to be demolished. Dollar losses from arson and looting ranged from $40 million to $80 million.