For five days in July, 1967, Detroit was an inferno of flames, a city militarized by the local and state police, National Guardsmen, and troops from the 82nd and 101st airborne units. “The Motor City is burning,” sang bluesman, John Lee Hooker, and his song was the soundtrack to the days of rage that engulfed a town many social planners had perceived as a model city. That perception was as nearsighted as that of Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and all but a few of his aides.
If Cavanagh had listened to Conrad Mallet, Sr., one of his top officials, Detroit might have been better prepared to deal with the upheaval, might have paid more attention to the turmoil simmering in the precincts of a city beset with high unemployment, poor housing conditions, and a police force known for its rampant brutality.
For example, the summer before, on the city’s Eastside, conflict between the neighborhood’s black youths and the police was narrowly averted, thanks to a torrential downpour.
But the rain did not come and dampen the hostility that erupted after the police raided a “blind pig,” an after-hours joint, at the intersection of 12th Street and Clairmount, on the city’s near Westside.
It is from this location that the book The Intersection—What Detroit Has Gained and Lost, 50 Years After the Uprisings of 1967 gets its title. Most of the pieces in the compendium’s eight chapters and 200 odd pages were written by Bill McGraw of Bridge Magazine and Lester Graham of Michigan Radio. The overall format shifts from magazine styled stories to incisive studies to extended commentaries, and concludes with a compelling article by McGraw, a former longtime reporter of the Detroit Free Press about a man who claims to have started the rebellion. No spoiler on this.
And to call the incident a rebellion is terminology promulgated by the city’s radical community, and in the pages of The Intersection, the definition of what happened in Detroit is either a rebellion, riot, uprising, insurrection or civil disturbance or unrest—no matter how the ravage was defined, it still resonates in a variety of ways, and this book is another insight into a quest for the truth.
Currently, in the works, is a major motion picture directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker. Her production is the source of much controversy from a coterie of Detroit activists and artists who have assailed the film they have not seen, which is slated for an August release. They contend the film has little influence from Detroiters—it is being filmed in Boston, features no Detroiters among the credits nor are they behind the cameras or employed as consultants.
Moreover, if the trailer is any indication, the tragedy at the Algiers Motel where three young black men were killed by the police, drives the film. As The Intersection notes—and it offers its own analysis—the conflict at the motel is but a bloody piece of the puzzle.
The book is a collective effort under the aegis and guidance of Bridge Magazine and the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, and that collaborative approach gives the project the scope and investigation needed to answer how Detroit has changed—for better or worse—since the rebellion.
In his Foreword, noted journalist Stephen Henderson dips into the question and posits this about the book: “The deep poverty and isolation that traps so many is on more minds now, and was deeply explored through stories and discussions. The tattered remains of the city’s school system and the victim of such cynical disinvestment are detailed through vivid example and narrative. And, the imbalance in the criminal justice system—the very ones that led police to the aggressive behavior that started the uprising—are still with us, documented so meticulously in these pages.” In effect, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
The Intersection is a fair estimate of the city’s conditions politically, economically, and culturally, and if it doesn’t have explicit remedies to the problems continuing to plague the city, there are chapters discussing possible avenues to improve the city and certainly the relationship between the majority black population and law enforcement.
No one book or research project can provide the answers to Detroit’s complexity of issues, and The Intersection is quick to acknowledge its shortcomings. “This book represents the culmination of our reporting in 2016, the year leading up to the 50th anniversary of what came to be known as ‘the Detroit riot’,” the authors write in the Introduction. “It’s also work that is not yet complete.”
Nor is the restoration, the revitalization of Detroit complete, but like The Intersection, some major steps have been taken and we await the promise both projects envision.
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