July 23, 1967, has long become one of those days that I will never forget despite the fact that I was only 7 years old at the time. Why? Because it was the beginning of five days of destruction in my beloved hometown of Detroit when Blacks finally said to the city’s white leadership, “We have had enough.”
The flame that ignited the Detroit Riots has been attributed to several incidents including a police raid that occurred on the city’s Westside at a then-popular speakeasy, the Algiers Motel — now examined in a film released nationwide on Friday, “Detroit.” That raid, standing on the backs of incalculable examples of police brutality, white racism and economic and educational injustice, has been described as the catalyst for what would become America’s deadliest and most destructive uprising in modern history.
But I don’t need a movie to tell me what happened — I was there.
There’s so much I could say about what I saw, what I heard and how I felt, but let me make it plain — I was terrified, troubled and confused. I couldn’t understand why Mr. Policeman was being so mean, so cruel and so intent on hurting those who looked like me — just because they looked like me. And yes, as I would hear in future history lessons, “the natives were restless.” Imagine, a community staple, a hardware store located just a stone’s throw away from your home spanning an entire city block, being bombed and utterly destroyed.
Imagine your parents, your uncles, your male cousins and others standing ready in your home, occupying every floor, with an arsenal of armed weapons, prepared to do battle in order to protect their women and children. We were Ground Zero for our clan.
Imagine wondering if you would ever again see your next birthday, play with your best friends, learn from your inspiring teachers, or embrace beloved relatives who lived in other cities and could only imagine the fires that burned each day before your eyes.
Incredibly, perhaps to some, I was confident that we would survive the war, primarily because my Daddy told me we would be safe. Yet, in those many moments when fear got the best of me and tears flowed without ceasing, I wasn’t totally sure that despite my Daddy being a Navy veteran, a gridiron standout at Tuskegee Institute, 250 pounds of muscle and my personal “superman,” could really alter the course of the ship steaming toward us and which seemed to be singularly focused on securing the Black community’s utter annihilation — America’s ages-old legacy and on which the U.S. was founded: racism.
So, I held onto my mother, looked to my father, and … believed.