50th Anniversary Of Detroit 'Riots,' A Look Ahead NPR's Michel Martin is headed to Detroit for a show about the anniversary riots. But Detroit Free Press columnist Stephen Henderson says calling the events of 1967 a "riot" can be controversial.

50th Anniversary Of Detroit 'Riots,' A Look Ahead

50th Anniversary Of Detroit 'Riots,' A Look Ahead

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NPR's Michel Martin is headed to Detroit for a show about the anniversary riots. But Detroit Free Press columnist Stephen Henderson says calling the events of 1967 a "riot" can be controversial.


Next weekend, we'll be joining you from member station WDET in Detroit, where we will be spending a lot of time looking back at the Detroit riots. They began 50 years ago in the early morning hours of July 23 after a police raid on an unlicensed after-hours club. The riots lasted five days. And by the time they stopped, 43 people were dead. Hundreds were injured. Thousands had been arrested. And entire neighborhoods had burned to the ground. Events like that may have a spark, but that's rarely the whole story. So next week, we'll take a deep dive into the history of the riots with people who were there and people who've thought hard about them since.

We'll ask why they happened, what it was like to live through it all. And we'll ask if there are lessons for Detroit and the rest of the country right now. We're going to set the table though by calling our colleague Stephen Henderson. He is editorial page editor and a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. And he hosts the radio program Detroit Today on WDET And he is with us now. Stephen, thanks so much for joining us.

STEPHEN HENDERSON, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So let's start with language. I mean, if you look it up on search engines, you'll see Detroit riots. But I notice that in the traditional African-American press, they use the term rebellion. And on your show, you made the editorial decision to call it an uprising. Can you talk about that?

HENDERSON: Yes. Well, words matter, right? And those three words have all been used at various times to describe what happened here in 1967. I think they're all incomplete in isolation. In other words, if you just call it a riot, you're not right about many of the things that went on that week. If you just call it a rebellion, you are wrong about many of the things that went on that week. If you'd call it an uprising, I think that is for me the word that captures more of what happened than anything else.

Even those who were out smashing windows, stealing goods were rising up against economic conditions in the city. They were rising up against what they saw as systematic oppression across the city. And certainly, the people who were involved in the incident that started all of the things that happened that week were rising up against police brutality. And so I think for me at least, that's the word that I'm most comfortable using to describe everything that happened.

MARTIN: So we're coming in, as we said, you know, for a week, but you've been talking about the riots or the uprisings on your program a lot longer. Are people in Detroit interested in looking back on this moment? And what are they interested in?

HENDERSON: You know, it really depends on who you talk to. There are a lot of people for whom this is a pretty dramatic marking point between their relationship with the city of Detroit, a good relationship with the city of Detroit and a bad one. There are many families who will point back to 1967 and what happened there and talk about how that was the thing that made their parents decide, hey, we've got to go. We can't stay any longer.

And so for some of those folks, that is a sort of painful memory. For many other people, it's painful for other reasons. For African-Americans, it is painful because so much has happened since then that hasn't really changed our fortunes in the city. So many people still live in the same kinds of conditions that you found in 1967. I think one of the important things that has sort of developed in this conversation is not just a look back but a look forward.

MARTIN: As you started looking back at this particular event in history, is there anything you didn't know? Is there anything that surprised you as you started to dig into this particular set of events as this anniversary approaches?

HENDERSON: Yeah. I think I'm in a pretty common space for people my age. And by my age, I mean people who were born in the decade after. I mean, I grew up in a household where these were called riots because my family was a family that lived in a middle class African-American neighborhood that was was frightened by what happened, was worried that the looting and the burning might spread to their area of the city. They saw them as riots.

And I think as I've gotten older and been an adult working in the city, as you say, as a journalist, I've learned about what really happened. This was not just people lost their minds some day and decided to burn the city down, that this was something that was coming a long, long time and that, of course, the 50 years since has been filled with many of the same kinds of dynamics and issues.

MARTIN: Help me make the case for people who don't live in Detroit, may not have heard of this, you know, before. Why should people be paying attention to this upcoming anniversary?

HENDERSON: Well, there are a couple of reasons that come to mind. One is that this didn't just happen in Detroit. Between 1965 and 1969, these incidents, uprisings, rebellions, riots - whatever you want to call them - happened in many major cities. This was not a Detroit story then. It is not a Detroit story. In retrospect, it's an American story in that regard.

The other thing that comes to mind is think about the stories that we're talking about now, where white policemen - or any policemen, really - are killing African-Americans without justification. That story is directly related to what happened here in Detroit. The anniversary is an important impetus to do that. And I think we ignore that at our own peril.

MARTIN: Stephen Henderson. He's editorial page editor and a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. He's the host of the radio program Detroit Today. Thanks so much for joining us.

HENDERSON: Thanks for having me.


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