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Mayhem in the City: The Detroit Riots

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Mayhem in the City: The Detroit Riots

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Mayhem in the City: The Detroit Riots

Mayhem in the City: The Detroit Riots

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Forty years ago, a police raid at an after-hours nightclub in Detroit erupted into one of the biggest urban riots in modern American history. In the end, more than forty people were dead, two thousand were injured and nearly 1300 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer talks about that lasting negative impact of the Detroit Riots.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: We ask if abstinence education really works. And throughout the program, we'll bring back some of the best questions that didn't get asked at last night's YouTube debate.

But first, we're going to go back to July 23rd, 1967. A police raid in an after-hours club in Detroit erupted into one of the biggest urban riots in modern U.S. history. In the aftermath, more than 40 people were dead, 2,000 were injured and millions of dollars in property damage devastated huge parts of the Motor City. It was just one of 100 violent disturbances during the summer of 1967.

But along with Newark, two weeks earlier, Detroit is the one people remember, the one that foreshadowed the violence that was yet to come, the one whose effects are still being felt.

In a few minutes, we'll speak to a columnist for the Detroit Free Press about what's next for Detroit.

But first, Dennis Archer, former Detroit mayor, joins us from his home in Michigan to talk about Detroit's past and future. Mr. Mayor, welcome. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. DENNIS ARCHER (Former Mayor, Detroit): Thank you. Delighted to be with you. One observation I would make, however, and that is in 1967, I would define it as a rebellion rather than a riot. In 1943, there are about 42 lives lost in a direct race riot, where there were blacks against whites, or whites against blacks. In 1967, it was more property destruction rather than blacks against whites or whites against blacks.

MARTIN: And you think - is that the difference? I know there is a discussion about what to call it. And I think that there's been a lot of discussion in the Detroit papers about what to call it.

Mr. ARCHER: When you talk about beauty, beauty is on the eye the holder. To me, if you define a race riot, it's when you have one race that's opposed and fighting the other. In 1967, that was not the case.

MARTIN: And why don't you take us back? You were in your mid-20s when all this happened. You were a law student.

Mr. ARCHER: In 1967, I was in law school at the Detroit College of Law. I had just gotten married a month before on June 17th. And I was taking - picked up my father-in-law, who lived on Longfellow, between 12th and Woodrow Wilson. And we went out to play golf early that morning.

And when we came back home that afternoon, we saw the smoke. I couldn't imagine what it was. Trying to find out what was going on on the radio, was sort of silent. And I dropped my father-in-law off. It was not burning near where he was, where he was living, so I jumped back on he freeway, went downtown to find out from my wife what she might have heard on the radio and television. And we could see from the downtown skyline the smoke coming up from the west side of the city of Detroit. And, of course, that was the beginning.

MARTIN: Did you have any idea what was going on? Or did you think it was just a big fire?

Mr. ARCHER: Not a clue. I did not know until later, when I heard it on radio, saw what was going on by way of live television. That Monday morning, I went to work as a law clerk in the law firm of Keith, Conyers, Baltimore, Anderson. And that was Damon Keith, who's now a…

MARTIN: Federal judge. Mm-hmm.

Mr. ARCHER: …(unintelligible) Sixth Court of Appeals, Mike Wahls, who went on to become a Michigan Court of Appeals judge, Nate Conyers - John Conyers' brother - was practicing law before he left the firm, ultimately, to take on a Ford dealership.

And at the end of the rebellion, there were 7,200 people incarcerated. The judicial branch was asking for help from lawyers to help process those who were held for various charges. Forty-three people lost their lives. There were about 1,300 buildings that had - homes or businesses, where people don't even shop today, were destroyed.

MARTIN: In hindsight, people often say you had a feeling. People often say that they had a feeling something was brewing. Did you feel that way, or is that only something that came later?

Mr. ARCHER: No. I was in law school. I wasn't into the fabric of having an appreciation for community involvement and the like so that I could tell you that you could feel it, you could sense it. We had one of the best urban mayors in the United States in Jerome Cavanaugh. He had a very integrated staff - one of the first ones to do that - was very popular in the city, popular in the African-American community.

But you also had a police force that did not treat African-Americans with respect. You had others who felt disenfranchised, wanted a part of the economic growth and viability that was going on. And there was a lot of that kind of stuff simmering. And Damon Keith, at the time, was, I think, co-chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Committee. And all during that summer, there was no discussion - because it was a black law firm, there was no discussion about what people, you know, anything could ignite the city. John Conyers, at the time, was, you know, was in the United States Congress. He had a good feel for the pulse of the city.

MARTIN: I want to talk about the future of Detroit in the time that we have left. I just wanted to know, if you could just briefly tell us, what was it like living through that week? Did you have a sense of oh, my goodness, the world is coming to an end here. Is it ever going to be the same again? Or…

Mr. ARCHER: I did not have that sense because, ironically, I was out in Los Angeles visiting a friend, Steve Shamalt(ph), who left the city of Detroit and was going to go teach in the high school at Watts. And I went out to visit him in 1965, and Watts broke out. We saw that on television.

And so, it was like deja vu all over again. And so, no, I didn't have a sense the world was coming to an end, but I did have a sense of loss for the property, for the people's lives, for what had occurred. But I will tell you, going forward in the future, I just got through finishing chairing the Detroit Regional Chamber. It's the largest metropolitan chamber in the Unites States, with some 23,000 members.

I'm also an ex-official member of the Detroit Renaissance. These two business communities, together with the Metropolitan Convention Bureau, the cultural arts groups, the United Way and the civic group that grew out of the riots in new Detroit have all come together, six groups, to focus on rebuilding and growing the Detroit region.

And so there's money coming in. There is - the foundation community is weighing in. And we're talking about rebuilding the city of Detroit. And we've made some nice advances. But rebuilding further the city of Detroit, the region - because we recognize that it's a region. We're competing with the Baltimore region, with the Los Angeles region. But we're also competing with Tokyo, Bonn, Melbourne and the like, because we're in global competition. So I'm very optimistic about the future. If you come to downtown Detroit today, and if you take a look at the housing developments that are being built up in the City of Detroit, it is like if we build it, they will come.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. ARCHER: But we still have the vacant lots were people used to go shopping, where people lived. That is a stark reminder that we should never repeat that again.

MARTIN: Dennis Archer is the former mayor of Detroit. He served from 1994 until 2001. He joined us from his home. Thank you so much, Mr. Mayor, for speaking with us.

Mr. ARCHER: You're quite welcome. Have a great day and a great week.

MARTIN: Okay. You, too.

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