On a cool November night in 1966 we heard the first salvo of the summer riots that would change Detroit forever.
My friend Big Mac and I were two of the younger players during pickup games played on a rickety hoop and backboard hung on a light pole in a glass filled alley. We were not allowed to play during the early afternoon games because we were too small. So we waited our turn to dust the older boys who mistakenly thought they were better than us.
We were 7 at the time and I thought I was a mini-version of Dr. J. Big Mac was big and a bit clumsy but he had his moments of success when he got to play.
We leaned against a green garbage bin when one of the boys climbed on top of it. So we got a front row seat for his speech on things that were about to come.
“This mother fucker is gonna’ burn next summer,” he shouted.
This was the first predictor of riots that would devastate the city of Detroit in the summer of 1967. The spark came in the wee hours of July 23 when police raided an afterhour’s joint called a blind pig. That’s where black folks gathered to dance, drink and laugh after the regular establishments closed. My cousin Miss Boots went to blind pigs because some of the bars downtown would not serve her. So she partied at blind pigs, saying they were more fun any way.
But these places broke the law because they poured drinks well after the mandatory 2 a.m. closing time. That’s why police stormed the place. But in the process they caused a five day disturbance that swelled to 10,000 strong. Before the riots ended the United States Army and the Michigan National Guard were called to squash the disturbance.
More than 2,000 buildings were destroyed, 43 were killed, nearly 1,200 were injured and 7,220 people were arrested.
Why did this happen? It wasn’t just because of the police raid. Anger simmered in the black community for many reasons. Too many of us lived in poverty. We were angry how blacks were murdered and beaten during the civil rights movement.
Months earlier this young boy gave a fire and brimstone speech on what was to come and why.
He said black people were tired of white folks, that we were tired of being harassed by the police and shot for no reason. We demanded better jobs and better housing. It was time to teach “whitey” a lesson and to end oppression. If you closed your eyes you’d swear you were listening to Malcom X giving a lecture rather than a kid who lived down the block.
Do his word sound familiar? Black people’s complaints in the 60s sound like their complaints in 2020.
He turned to us during his speech.
“You little brother are going to have to be soldiers in our fight.”
The civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King played on television every night. We watched in horror as black people in the south were attacked by police dogs and penned against buildings by the powerful spray of fire hoses.
We stood in silence and listened to the boy preach. It was a preview of the 1967 Detroit riots that still cripples our city today. Most people talk about the revival of Detroit. Some of that is true, but too many of our neighborhoods look like a war zone more than 50 years later.
Abandoned store fronts from the riots remain. The United States government talks about rebuilding cities in Afghanistan and Syria. When are we going to rebuild Detroit?
We were not at ground zero of the riots, but we were very close.
A pungent burning tar smell permeated my neighborhood as thick clouds of smoke passed over head. Sheets of burning paper drifted in the air creating fears of secondary fires. My job every night was to grab a fire hose and drench our roof so debris would not set it on fire.
I was never afraid during the riots because I knew many of the looters and snipers. Many were friendly.
My cousin Juanita sat inside a two bedroom apartment about three miles away with one of her female friends when a loud knock startled them both.
“Yall gotta get out,” a man shouted through the door. “We about to burn this mother down.”
The woman who lived in the apartment pleaded for the men not to burn her home. Too late. A mob had already gathered outside. They wanted blood. There was no stopping them. In the only sign of humanity the men offered to help move the woman’s furniture to the curb before torching the three story apartment complex.
No one bothered her furniture in the street while she waited to move into a new place the next day.
A few days later a parade of couches and television sets were marched down Vancouver Street. Looters had burned a local furniture story to the ground. They also broke into Mr. Solomon’s party store. The next day they burned it to the ground.
I was on the front porch with my grandmother during the parade.
She hated the riots and grumbled about the devastation.
“They are burning their own community. Where are we supposed to shop now?” she said.
Two men placed a couch down about 30 feet from our front porch.
One of the dude was named James and I recognized him from my ventures through the neighborhood.
“Hey little brother we did not forget you,” he shouted to me. “I know you like Almond Joys. We got something for you.”
Perched on the couch was a box filled with 24 bars of Almond Joy candy bars. That was a box of heaven to an eight year old kid. I took two steps towards the candy bars when an angry voice demanded that I stop.
“You better get your narrow ass back on this porch boy. That is not your candy.”
My grandmother was very angry. When she used the terms “narrow ass” it meant I’d better pay attention and obey her or there’d be strong consequences.
I made one feeble attempt to get her to change her mind.
“But Mother Dear. They already stole.”
It did not matter. This candy did not belong to me.
I slowly turned around and sat back on the porch. The fight was over.
“Are you sure little brother?” James called out. “I’m just gonna’ give the candy to somebody else.”
No words came out of my mouth because I was choking back tears. I motioned for James and his friend to keep on moving down the street.
My grandmother had a strict policy about stealing.
Looters initially did not burn down black business. That is why family friend Mr. B and many other black business men spray painted “Soul brother” on their stores.
Mr. B owned The House of Hats on 12th Street about three blocks from the spark that ignited the riots.”
He did all he could to save his store, including spending nights in the dark with a pistol by his side. They left his business alone for two days. On the third night a Molotov cocktail crashed through his front window and looters broke through gates that were supposed to keep them out.
They confiscated silk pants and shirts. But they did not get everything because Mr. B came from the back room firing his pistol.
A few weeks later my aunt, cousin and I helped Mr. B unpack clothes from dozens of boxes to stock his new House of Hats on Grand River, a stone’s throw away from the Rivera Theater where we went to see Bruce Lee and Dolomite movies.
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