Joshua Zeitz: Why Did America Explode in Riots in 1967?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Joshua Zeitz is a contributing editor of American Heritage magazine and the author of Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern (Crown).]

Around daybreak on Sunday, July 23, 1967—40 years ago today—Detroit police officers raided an illegal after-hours bar, located in the city’s West Side black ghetto, where revelers were celebrating the homecoming of two Vietnam War veterans. The officers began cuffing 80 black men and women and shoving them into police vans. As the roundup neared completion, a bystander smashed a bottle against a patrol car. That set off one of the most destructive urban riots in American history.

Five days later, after two U.S. Army airborne divisions had quelled the violence, 43 people lay dead, more than 7,000 citizens were in police custody, and swaths of Detroit were smoldering ruins. Jimmy Breslin wrote, “The civil rights movement is becoming a rebellion.” A young instructor at Detroit’s Wayne State University described the tragedy as “the colonized reacting to colonization.”

In the months that followed, everyone had an explanation. The Detroit News reported that military and police officials claimed to have “strong evidence to suggest a national conspiracy.” The president of the Los Angeles police association said the riots had been “stirred by traveling agitators, perhaps hundreds of them.” The Republican Coordinating Committee in Congress adduced “hatemongers . . . traveling from community to community inciting insurrection.” On the other hand, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner and vice-chaired by New York City Mayor John Lindsay, found the riot’s causes “imbedded in a massive tangle of issues and circumstances . . . which arise out of the historical pattern of Negro-white relations in America . . . men and women without jobs, families without men, and schools where children are processed instead of educated, until they return to the street–to crime, to narcotics, to dependency on welfare, and to bitterness and resentment against society.” In short, “white racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture.”

The 1967 Detroit riots were not one-of-a-kind. The year before, 38 American cities had broken out in violence, with seven deaths, 400 injuries, 3,000 arrests, and $5 million in property lost....

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