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Remembering the 1967 Detroit Riot, part 3: “Serving their interests and needs”

By: Brian Matzke | Date: July 17, 2017
Remembering the 1967 Detroit Riot, part 3: “Serving their interests and needs”

“Serving their interests and needs”:
The failures of Detroit’s public institutions

The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System
Detroit, 1907-81, Second Edition
Jeffrey Mirel

Faith in the City
Preaching Radical Social Change in Detroit
Angela D. Dillard

9226 Kercheval
The Storefront that Did Not Burn, With a New Preface
Nancy Milio

Grit, Noise, and Revolution
The Birth of Detroit Rock 'n' Roll
David A. Carson

Right up until the riot, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and other city officials promoted Detroit as a “model city” for urban renewal and positive race relations. But beneath the surface, demographic changes were undermining the institutions on which its status as a model city rested. By 1960, the population of the suburbs exceeded that of the city. This had two consequences: First, the city lost jobs while the suburbs gained, and second, the local property tax base plummeted. Detroit schools were a victim of these changes.

As Jeffrey Mirel writes in The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System , Detroit’s reputation as a model city for race relations was bolstered by its school board, which was committed to integration as well as to substantially increasing the number of black teachers and administrators, and mandating the use of multicultural materials throughout the curriculum. But these reforms masked frustration with both the pace of progress and the quality of the education that Detroit students were receiving. This is exemplified by the largely black Northern High School. Regarded as the outstanding high school in the city in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, in the postwar years, as its racial composition changed,
Northern became ‘primarily a custodial institution complete with police as an apparent part of the administration, and was only on the surface an institution where systematic learning took place.’ By the mid-1960s, Northern and, indeed, most majority black high schools in Detroit had essentially become ‘general track’ institutions dominated by the philosophy that the less teachers demanded of students the more tractable the students would be (300).
Standards were lowered, social promotion was the norm, and the college preparatory and trade-oriented curriculum dwindled. In response to this, in April, 1966, the students held a massive walkout to protest their inferior education:
The boycott divided Detroiters into two camps. The first argued that the board must be sensitive to the concerns of the community, recognize the legitimacy of the protesters’ demands, and fire the principle. The second camp declared that the board had to support [Principal] Carty, stand firm against ‘mob rule,’ and demonstrate that students do not run the schools. This polarization tended to fall along well-established political and racial lines (302-303).
The debate over the quality of Detroit public schools continued for the next year, and escalated to include “a new set of radical arguments that rested on the premise that the schools were fulfilling their fundamental mission, namely to miseducate black children” (308). Black nationalists like Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton built on these premises to urge black parents to take control of their schools. In their 1967 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation , they wrote that schools should be taken away from the educational “‘professionals,’ most of whom have long since demonstrated their insensitivity to the needs and problems of the black child” (quoted in Mirel 309).

In addition to unhappiness with the school system, inner city Detroiters had a tense relationship with the Detroit police. In the early 1960s, Cynthia Scott, known locally as “Saint Cynthia,” was a black middle-aged prostitute who worked on Twelfth Street. As Angela Dillard puts it, “Six feet tall and 198 pounds, Scott was a raucous local fixture who had tallied up a string of confrontations with the law for ‘soliciting and accosting’” (167). On the morning of July 5, 1964, two police officers began to harass Scott, leading to a confrontation that resulted in the officers shooting Scott twice in the back and once in the stomach, killing her. The officers' acquittal on wrongful death charges instigated a storm of protests, including a sit-in at Mayor Cavanagh’s office to demand the appointment of a black police chief. The killing became a touchstone for the city’s activists and the black community, and was a lingering grievance against both the police and the Cavanagh administration.

Because of these sorts of grievances, Dillard and some other historians refer to the events of July 1967 as a rebellion rather than a riot. In this light, the riot fits within a broader history of activism and resistance. Dillard’s book, Faith in the City , examines this broader history through the lens of the church, focusing on two black ministers of different generations who preached the social gospel in Detroit: Rev. Charles A. Hill, who was a progressive leader in the 1930s and 1940s, and Rev. Albert B. Cleage, Jr., who helped found the Black Christian nationalist movement and deployed a theology based on a Black Christ as a Black revolutionary. Cleage’s more radical theology and revolutionary politics spoke to Black Detroit’s growing dissatisfaction with the city’s institutions. Cleage’s church was near where Cynthia Scott worked, and he was a leader on the protests in response to her killing. After the 1967 riot, Cleage became “the titular head of the 700,000-member Detroit Black community” (288).

In addition to the church, there were other civic institutions which residents still trusted and valued, such as the Mom and Tots Center. The Mom and Tots Center was a storefront health center founded to serve the people of inner-city Detroit, run by the people of inner-city Detroit, “a ghetto health project,” as founder Nancy Milio puts it in her book, 9226 Kercheval . Milio, a nurse, explains her philosophy towards health care:
This book does say at least two things. First that health, as quality of life, as 'wholeness, unfolding,' must be mirrored in the process of undertakings intended to improve health. And that those who would involve others, especially the poor, in the process of healthful change, must themselves be involved: the one who would change others must himself be changed.
This philosophy found success in the community that she worked with. Milio describes the riot, and writes at length about watching the city burn--but the center did not burn. She writes:
That the Center remained when all the storefronts for blocks around it were damaged or burned meant to me that to some people around Kercheval, it was not part of the Establishment. They must have seen it, at least to some degree, as serving their interests and needs (142-143).
Additionally, Detroit still took pride in its music. In the 1960s, Detroit DJ and concert promoter Russ Gibb was instrumental in developing Detroit’s rock and roll scene. Gibb operated Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, and in that role he gave performers like M5, Ted Nugent, and Iggy Pop their start. On the night that the riots began, folk artist Tim Buckley was scheduled to play at the Grande Ballroom. Gibb, Buckley, and his percussionist Carter C. C. Collins all witnessed the rioting firsthand. When he noticed that the neighboring buildings had been set ablaze, Collins asked some of the kids nearby why the Grande Ballroom had been spared. The kids replied, “‘Cause, you got the music, man” (Carson 122).