July 23, 1967 began as a typical, hot summer day in Detroit, then one of the largest cities in America.
But that’s where most similarities ended. One singular event, the unwarranted police raid of a well-frequented Black, after-hours speakeasy, the Algiers Motel located on the city’s Westside, resulting in the deaths of three African-American men and the brutal beatings of nine others, seven Black men and two white women, would serve as the catalyst for five days of revolt, looting, burning and chaos.
The film, “Detroit,” scheduled for release on Friday, Aug. 4 nationwide, promises to tell “the unknown story” of the event that led to the 1967 Detroit Riot (also known as the 12th Street Riot) — one of the bloodiest non-military uprisings in U.S. history.
But two Black trailblazers, a then-second-term member of Congress and a well-respected radio host who would later become one of the city’s top TV news anchors, say because they were there and on the streets, they know the real deal.
“Life for Blacks back then, even in the North, was one impacted by segregation,” said Democratic Congressman John Conyers Jr., 88, who has served in the House representing Michigan’s 13th Congressional District since 1965. “Shortly after the Detroit police raided the bar, word spread of excessive force against Black patrons as they were being arrested.”
“Few of us were surprised. Blacks were fed up with instances of police brutality, the unwavering cycle of poverty and inadequate housing and poor education could no longer continue. I went out into the streets, jumped on a car and used a bullhorn, attempting to persuade people to put an end to the violence and destruction. But people were just too angry. Frustrations had built up; people were outraged,” said Conyers, who noted that before the smoke had cleared, the uprising, following on the heels of the riots in Newark that began on July 14, 1967, would result in 43 deaths, 500 injuries and the arrest of over 7,000.
“The jails became so packed that the police began using Belle Isle (an island adjacent to downtown Detroit) to detain prisoners,” he said. “Many people had already started to move out of Detroit, a lot going to the suburbs. Today, I would say that race relations have improved significantly. When Coleman Young, the city’s first Black mayor (term: 1974 — 1994), decided to throw his name in the ring, folks called him ‘crazy.’ But he led a surging group of men and women determined to rebuild our city.”
“We’ve since had our first Black police chief and added thousands of Blacks to the police department, the City Council and other offices of power. We’ve healed in so many ways from the wounds we suffered five decades ago. But we haven’t eliminated segregation.”
“We still have a long way to go to eliminate the burden that comes with being Black in Detroit and throughout America. Blacks refuse to allow ongoing discrimination today. Still, I remain an ardent advocate of Dr. King who always maintained that while protest was a viable, necessary response to oppression, that it had be operated within the confines of nonviolence,” Conyers said.
Retired FOX 2 staple and news anchor Al Allen, 71, said he and his family had just enjoyed a day trip to Canada on July 23, 1967, when upon their return, they saw smoke rising from the city as they crossed the Ambassador Bridge which links Detroit to Canada.
Allen called it “unbelievable.”
“Newark had just happened and Blacks were on edge. In Detroit, the new highways had divided once proud communities, wiping out businesses and destroying homes. Police felt like they were above the law and could do whatever they wanted,” Allen said.
“We didn’t need to hear about stories like Emmett Till. Many of us had come from the South hoping for a better way of life and better opportunities. But every day, in Detroit, Black men were disappearing — a lot of them for good,” said Allen, who during the late 60s worked for one of the city’s few and most popular radio stations, WJLB-AM.
“I was on the street, using pay phones to call into the station,” he said. “We discontinued all music and went strictly to news. Some say that things have gotten much better. But I still know many who feel like their backs are against the wall. We may have more Blacks running the city or leading departments like the police but the jobs haven’t returned. The middle class has all but disappeared. And I worry about the possibility of anger and frustration boiling over again — soon, if we’re not careful.”