For my two children, Jasmine, 27, a true diva and the female reflection of her daddy, and Jared, almost 23 and quickly mastering the guerilla warfare tactics needed to survive in a world that fears young, black warriors, the events that dominated the modern civil rights era and forever changed America are often difficult to appreciate. But for me those events informed by childhood and shaped me as I became an adult.
My children and their peers tend to view the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, the Freedom Rides, Emmett Till and other undocumented events that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Blacks in our fight for equal rights as narratives enshrined on the pages of dust-covered books, images captured in black and white photographs or feeds available for viewing on handheld devices.
When I talk about my memories of growing up in Motown, proudly describing it and all of its former splendor, I wonder if they believe me or think I’m embellishing like the griots of old. Nonetheless, I recounted the past as my parents had done with me about living within a system of segregation, fearful encounters with the Ku Klux Klan and how many of their own hopes and dreams were thwarted because of racism and prejudice.
One summer that forever changed my view of America was during 1967 when temperatures soared into the 90s while black communities across the U.S. exploded. Blacks were fed up with countless examples of police brutality and disgusted by blatant forms of discrimination in housing, education and employment. It was late July when a police raid on an after-hours bar on the city’s west side became the spark that ignited the flame resulting in violent showdowns in the city’s streets not seen since racial upheavals erupted in 1943.
An exhibit now on view at the Newseum here in D.C. focuses on the year 1967 and includes the story of the Detroit riots. But I didn’t need to look at photos or read headlines from newspapers to understand what happened. I was there.
I remember the men in my family saying that they’d had enough of Dr. King’s talk about nonviolence and peaceful protest. They said it was time to fight back. All around us buildings, businesses and homes were there one day and gone the next, destroyed by fire, bombs and ravaged by angry looters. Tanks lined the streets while helicopters hovered over our heads.
As for the women of my family, they mourned. They mourned as our beautiful Black community was slowly obliterated. They mourned as thousands were arrested and dozens died.
I was 7, snaggle-toothed and frightened — more afraid then I had ever been. I put my trust and faith in my parents, especially my daddy, to make things all right — to keep all of us safe.
Fifty years later, the resurgence of ages-old political rhetoric has raised its ugly head, reopening the door for division, fear, prejudice and the demonizing of “the other.”
We can ignore what we see, flippantly noting that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Or we can take a stand, like my folks did in Detroit during that summer of 1967, and refuse to allow unholy examples of history to find a new place to rest.