Race Rioting Erupts in Detroit Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Detroit, Michigan, saw one of the most devastating race riots in U.S. history, setting off riots in other major cities and showing that reforms of the 1960’s had neglected a sizable segment of the African American population. When promised reforms, such as those of the 1960 and 1964 Civil Rights Acts, did not fully materialize, hopes were dashed and frustration led to increased anger and further impoverishment.

Summary of Event

On the surface, Detroit, Michigan, in 1967 was one of the success stories of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Under the administration of Mayor Jerome Patrick Cavanagh, Detroit had prospered, and so had many of its African American residents. Many blacks commanded high wages in Detroit’s factories and occupied high positions in the United Auto Workers union. Consequently, approximately 40 percent of the city’s 555,000 blacks owned or were buying houses, many of which were in integrated neighborhoods. Mayor Cavanagh had also attempted to reach out to the underprivileged in his city through his federally funded antipoverty agency, Total Action Against Poverty Total Action Against Poverty (TAAP), which provided $200 million for jobs, job training, education, and recreation. Detroit riots (1967) Civil unrest;United States African Americans;riots Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans [kw]Race Rioting Erupts in Detroit (July 23-July 30, 1967) [kw]Rioting Erupts in Detroit, Race (July 23-July 30, 1967) [kw]Detroit, Race Rioting Erupts in (July 23-July 30, 1967) Detroit riots (1967) Civil unrest;United States African Americans;riots Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans [g]North America;July 23-July 30, 1967: Race Rioting Erupts in Detroit[09380] [g]United States;July 23-July 30, 1967: Race Rioting Erupts in Detroit[09380] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 23-July 30, 1967: Race Rioting Erupts in Detroit[09380] [c]Social issues and reform;July 23-July 30, 1967: Race Rioting Erupts in Detroit[09380] [c]Sociology;July 23-July 30, 1967: Race Rioting Erupts in Detroit[09380] Cavanagh, Jerome Patrick Clark, Ramsey Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;racial uprisings Romney, George W. Vance, Cyrus

Blacks in Detroit had also attained a share in political power. The director of TAAP, the chief civilian assistant to the police commissioner, and two of the seven members of the board of education were black. In addition, Detroit in 1967 was the only city in the United States that had two black members of Congress. Because of his sensitivity to the political needs of minorities, Cavanagh was popular with many blacks in Detroit. Beneath the surface, though, Detroit was a city in turmoil. The unemployment rate among blacks was 11 percent; this was double the national average. The rate of unemployment was even higher among black youth; one out of every four young black males in Detroit, most of whom were the products of broken homes and inadequate schools, ended up on the streets after high school graduation, if indeed they graduated. The best future that most of them could hope for was work at poverty wages. In an eight-block area of Twelfth Street, the west-side ghetto strip where the 1967 riot erupted, only 17 percent of the residents owned their own homes, compared to 60 percent in the city as a whole.

Poverty was not the only problem with which many inner-city blacks had to deal. A survey taken just prior to the riots indicated that 91 percent feared being robbed and 93 percent wanted to move. Holdups were so common in downtown Detroit that they often went unreported. Even small children stole on Twelfth Street, where pawn shops thrived and the streets were clogged with litter and abandoned cars. White property owners contributed to the problem by taking money from prostitutes who worked in buildings that the owners had declared vacant.

Ironically, the improved economic conditions that some blacks were enjoying only served to aggravate the situation in the ghettos. The advances that African Americans had made in Detroit and in other major cities since the Civil Rights Acts of 1960 and 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had raised the expectations of many underprivileged blacks. When these hopes were not quickly realized, frustration set in, prompting many young blacks to listen to the revolutionary rhetoric of such Black Power movement Black Power movement advocates as H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael.

Like the Newark, New Jersey, insurrection a few days earlier, the Detroit riot began as the result of a minor police incident. On July 23 at 4:00 a.m., police raided a “blind pig”—an after-hours bar—on Twelfth Street. While the police arrested eighty people inside the building, a crowd gathered outside, cursing and throwing rocks and bricks, one of which broke a police car window. Instead of confronting the mob or pulling out altogether, the police followed Mayor Cavanagh’s “walk soft” strategy by doing nothing. As a result, the violence escalated. People began to smash windows and loot stores, setting fires as they went along. The rioters spread through the ghetto and far beyond, growing in numbers until they outnumbered the city’s four thousand police. In an almost carnival-like atmosphere, blacks took luxury goods that they believed had been unfairly denied them—color television sets, stereos, and expensive liquor.

The Detroit riot of 1967 is the subject of this cover of Time magazine.

(Courtesy, Time, Inc.)

After looking at the ruins the next morning, Governor George W. Romney decided that a show of force would be more effective than Cavanagh’s efforts to contain the rioting. Romney proclaimed a state of emergency, set a 9:00 p.m. curfew, and called in state troopers and the National Guard. The use of force, however, only made matters worse. As was the case in the Watts area of Los Angeles and in Newark, the National Guard in Detroit had little training in crowd control and tended to fire at anything, and anyone, that moved. In an effort to escape the bloodshed, thousands of people clogged the available refugee centers. As the riot raged through the rest of the day, offices, banks, stores, and hotels closed, leaving the city virtually paralyzed.

The situation was complicated by governmental red tape. On the morning of July 25, Governor Romney began an eight-hour telephone conversation with U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark to sort out the legalities involved in making a formal request for federal troops. When President Johnson finally received Romney’s formal request, he ordered the Pentagon to start airlifting “Task Force Detroit,” which consisted of forty-seven hundred paratroopers from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to Selfridge Air Force Base in Detroit. The troops, however, were forced to stay on the base for several hours, until an investigation of the problem was made by the president’s field team, headed by Deputy Defense Secretary Cyrus Vance. Because Vance’s team concluded that no troops were needed, nothing was done until one of Detroit’s black congressmen, Charles Diggs Diggs, Charles, Jr. , Jr., personally called the White House to demand troops. Vance finally shuttled troops to the ghetto at 1:30 a.m. on July 26.

During the nearly twenty-four hours that had elapsed between the time Romney requested the troops and the time the troops took up positions in the city, the riot had spread over 14 square miles of the city, reaching close to the exclusive Grosse Pointe suburbs. Instead of stopping the riot, though, the arrival of federal troops only shifted the riot back to Twelfth Street, where the violence had started. Because the west side was populated by the poorest and angriest of Detroit’s citizens, the riot was transformed into guerrilla warfare. Snipers shot at firefighters and assaulted a police station. A white woman who was watching from her window was shot and killed by a sniper. Altogether, there were about one hundred snipers.

When police and the National Guard retaliated against the snipers, they also placed innocent lives in jeopardy. In midmorning, the crew of an M-48 tank pummeled a building where a sniper had been sighted, only to discover twenty-five minutes later that the sniper had vanished; the only occupants were a terrified family of four who were cowering under the front porch. Several hours later, the police strafed the Algiers Hotel, where another sniper was reputed to have been hiding. When the shooting ceased, the police found three dead African Americans but no guns. In a similar incident, a dozen National Guards and policemen shot at a white Chevrolet convertible, resulting in the death of another unarmed black man.

The rage that had fueled the violence in the early days of the riot died out by the weekend. When the authorities were finally able to assess the damage, the cost in both property and lives was found to be tragically high. Property damage exceeded that of any other riot in the United States up to that time—more than $45 million. So many people had been arrested—more than four thousand—that some had to be detained in buses. More than one thousand people were injured, and forty-three people died. The dead included looters, snipers, a police officer, and a firefighter, as well as many innocent people who had been caught in the cross fire. Only eight of the dead were white, and three of those were looters who were shot by police. Without a doubt, the African Americans of Detroit paid the highest price for the riot.


Even before the Detroit riot had ended, black power advocates began to capitalize on the turmoil. Insurrections soon followed in other Michigan cities, including Pontiac, Saginaw, Kalamazoo, and Grand Rapids. Throughout July and August, the cry “Burn, Baby, Burn” was heard in cities across the entire United States as well. By the end of the summer, more than seventy U.S. cities had experienced race riots, including Rochester, New York; Chicago; Toledo, Ohio; and South Bend, Indiana. For the bitter, downtrodden residents of the ghettos, the war cries of dissidents such as H. Rap Brown rang louder than those of the advocates of peaceful change. Indeed, Martin Luther King King, Martin Luther, Jr. [p]King, Martin Luther, Jr.;racial uprisings , Jr., recognized this point when he refused to go to Detroit during the riot. “I am not a fireman,” he said. “My role is to keep fires from starting.”

Even President Johnson felt the fallout from the Detroit riots. Within a week after the violence in Detroit, a statement issued by the Republican Coordinating Committee blamed the president for vetoing the 1966 District of Columbia Crime Bill District of Columbia Crime Bill (1966) . The president was also criticized for waiting so long to send federal troops to Detroit. On the positive side, the Detroit riot made many members of Congress aware of the need for legislative action to improve life in U.S. cities. Shortly before the riot, Johnson had been forced to cut expenditures for model cities, the Teacher Corps, and aid to education in order to fund the Vietnam War. After the riot, Johnson’s “safe streets” bill, which provided $50 million for support for local police, had easy passage through Congress.

Advocates of gun control also received considerable support for their cause after the riot. On the other hand, the Johnson administration’s view of the problem destroyed any hope that social legislation would receive a boost from the riot. Essentially, Johnson viewed the riot as a law-enforcement problem. He believed that funneling more money to the black ghettos would be construed by many people as rewarding the rioters. Consequently, little important social legislation was passed during the remainder of Johnson’s term in office.

The Detroit riot can also be credited with generating an atmosphere of paranoia across the nation for the rest of the year, and the prospect was raised of white backlash. Hundreds of whites living in major cities across the United States began buying guns for protection. Even some government officials succumbed to the notion that the nation’s underprivileged posed a real threat. Even though the Justice Department insisted that there was no real threat of a conspiracy, both J. Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Michigan Crime Commission attributed the violence to planned efforts by organized groups. Some military analysts went so far as to blame China and Cuba for the trouble in Detroit.

The most important lesson to come out of the Detroit riot, however, was the realization that the disenfranchised factions of society could disrupt any city in the United States. The revolt in Detroit, like all revolutions, was born out of hope, not despair. By taking over Detroit, the rioters demonstrated to whites and middle-class blacks that the reforms instituted by King and Johnson had not filtered down to the poorest members of society. After the riot, the nation as a whole was forced to face a startling fact: If a riot could occur in a model city like Detroit, it could happen anywhere. Detroit riots (1967) Civil unrest;United States African Americans;riots Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Carol. Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Study of petitions to the nascent United Nations by African Americans seeking human rights in the decade following the Harlem and Detroit riots of 1943. Extremely useful for understanding both the causes of the riots and their immediate aftermath.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, Saul. Alternatives to Violence: Alienated Youth and Riots, Race, and Poverty. New York: Association Press, 1967. Even though this book was published just before the Detroit riot, it sets the stage for the turmoil in Detroit by examining the era’s discontent. The book also provides solutions for change.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“City at the Blazing Heart of a Nation in Disorder.” Life, August 4, 1967, 16-24. Probes the mystery of the riot by beginning with the progress made by Mayor Cavanagh toward achieving racial harmony. The color photographs that accompany the account of the riot underscore the horrors of mob rule.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dotson, J. “An American Tragedy.” Newsweek, August 7, 1967, 18-26. This day-by-day record of the unfolding of the Detroit riot of 1967 is an excellent account of the event. A well-illustrated article that personalizes the riot by providing eyewitness anecdotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farley, Reynolds, Sheldon Danziger, and Harry J. Holzer. Detroit Divided. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2000. A history and socioeconomic study of Detroit and race. Chapters include “Detroit’s History: Racial, Spatial, and Economic Changes,” “The Evolution of Racial Segregation,” “The Persistence of Residential Segregation,” and “Blacks and Whites: Differing Views on the Present and Future.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Isenberg, Irwin, ed. The City in Crisis. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1968. Anthology of articles pertaining to race riots in the United States. Noteworthy for the inclusion of three articles: a condensed version of “An American Tragedy, 1967: Detroit” (Newsweek), “The Hard-Core Ghetto Mood” (Newsweek), and Ronald G. Shafer’s “Rebuilding Detroit” (Wall Street Journal).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Widick, B. J. “Mowtown Blues.” The Nation, August 14, 1967, 102-104. Written by a shop worker in a Detroit auto plant, this article analyzes the causes and effects of the riot from a black perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“A Young Mayor Seeks an Answer in the Ashes.” Life, August 11, 1967, 21-22. Provides an interesting contrast between the idealism of Mayor Cavanagh’s liberal vision of Detroit and the harsh reality of the riot. The color photographs graphically illustrate the aftermath of the riot.

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Categories: History