Detroit at crossroads 50 years after riots

Residents of Detroit’s riot area stand in line for free emergency food from a neighborhood organization in this July 27, 1967 file photo. — AP

DETROIT, Michigan — Deborah Chenault Green is 62, a writer. But 50 years ago she was a pre-teen, sleeping on the porch to escape the oppressive heat, awakening to see a sky that glowed unnaturally.

Azerine Jones is a retired baker. But in 1967 she was the 12-year-old daughter of a barber who watched his business go up in smoke.

Gerard Townsend is 66 now, living in a seniors building near the Detroit waterfront. But a half century ago, he was just a kid on a city bus.

The bus stopped near 12th and Clairmount streets. Townsend stepped off — and into the very start of the Detroit riot.

“I saw all these guys with masks and shields,” he said — city police officers, most of them white, far outnumbered by a seething black crowd.

In the days that followed, he would witness — and take part in — an epic eruption of violence that still reverberates in his life and the life of this city.

Five days of violence would leave 33 blacks and 10 whites dead, and more than 1,400 buildings burned. More than 7,000 people were arrested.

A decline that had already begun would accelerate; Detroit was the nation’s fourth biggest city in 1960, but would rank 21st by 2016. The middle class fled, and a proud city fell into poverty, crime and hopelessness.

There are signs of rebirth in Detroit. But the men and women who lived through the riots are getting older, and most doubt they will live to see Detroit reclaim its former glory, when its very name was synonymous with American know-how and industry.

“Detroit still hasn’t come back to where it was,” Townsend said sourly, sorting through 50 years of memories.

Detroit wasn’t the first of the riots in the summer of 1967, and it was far from the last. Buffalo, New York, and Newark, New Jersey, preceded it; in the course of the summer, more than 150 cases of civil unrest erupted across the United States.

Detroit’s started after a July 23 police raid on an illegal after-hours’ club — a “blind pig” — at 12th and Clairmount.

The raid, though, was just the spark. Many in the community blamed frustrations blacks felt toward the mostly white police, and city policies that pushed families into aging and over-crowded neighborhoods.

“We had a fear and kind of a hatred toward the police department,” Green said. “They would harass people, especially young black men. Stop them for no reason. A lot of men and women were beaten. A lot of that led up to the city exploding.”

When Gerard Townsend got off the bus that night, he stumbled into the immediate aftermath of the blind pig raid. By the next day, the riot was in full bloom: “I got up the next morning and the whole west side was on fire. Everything was burning. People were running around with clothes in their hands, TVs and all kinds of stuff.”

Townsend was among them. He made off with a television from a furniture store. — AP