Eyewitnesses to Detroit's Chaos During the summer of 1967, the Detroit Riots brought national attention to a city fired up over poverty, racism and police brutality. For five days, looters roamed the streets, fires blazed, 43 people died and thousands were arrested. Two witnesses of the riots talk about its impact.
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Eyewitnesses to Detroit's Chaos

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Eyewitnesses to Detroit's Chaos

Eyewitnesses to Detroit's Chaos

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I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

July 1967, San Francisco's summer of love was in full bloom. But Detroit was a different story. Police raided an after-hours club in a largely black neighborhood. Partygoers had been celebrating the return of several Vietnam vets. Residents fed up with Motown's legacy of discrimination and poverty rioted. For five days, looters roam the streets and fires blazed. Forty-three people died and thousands were arrested.

Here to take us back to that time are two eyewitnesses to the chaos: Tim Myrick, author of "In the Waters of My Mind: Memoirs of My Family." And Dr. Patricia Gussin, author of the novel "Shadow of Death."

Welcome to you both.

Mr. TIM MYRICK (Author, "In the Waters of My Mind: Memoirs of My Family"): Hello. How are you?

Dr. PATRICIA GUSSIN (Author, "Shadow of Death"): Hi.

CHIDEYA: Doing great. Thank you. Now, Tim you were just a boy during what happened. Where were you and your family when the violent started?

Mr. MYRICK: Well, we - my family or my father just purchased a grocery store from his brother, Charles Myrick. The store is on the West Side of town on Broad Street, near Elmhurst. And that's when - right after that, right after the purchase, the riot started.

CHIDEYA: What did you remember feeling at the age of six and how aware were you? Could you make sense of what was going on? Did your father talked to you about what was going on?

Mr. MYRICK: Well, my mother and father made us very - all of us - my brother and my sisters - very aware of what was going on at the time. And there was also a level of attention hitting to the store after we pick up our produce or just going to the store from our home. Whether or not was that the story either be standing near or whether or not it will be looted. But it was a lot of tension, a lot of awareness of what was going on and we had to pass through a lot of the areas that were stricken by the violence so we saw and a lot of things.

CHIDEYA: What sticks with you from that time?

Mr. MYRICK: Well, the most poignant one was I was standing out in front of our store and the ground begin to rumble a little bit and I turned to my left and there was a tank that was rolling down on Elmhurst. And apparently they had been responding to a hostage taking or something in the apartment building on Broad Street and that the soldier pointed his - some machine gun right at me and I froze. I don't know what to do at the time. And I just froze and stood there and then suddenly my brother came along and grabbed me and threw me in the car and laid on top of me.


Mr. MYRICK: And we heard several shots come out and then another large bus of soldiers came along. They disembark and began to surround an apartment building and then another tank showed up. And my brother begin to, you know, get kind of heavy. He was nine years older than me. And I said to my self, Henry, you're getting heavy. He said, shut up, I just saved your life.

CHIDEYA: Mmm. Now, Dr. Gussin, what was your experience like? You were in medical school?

Dr. GUSSIN: Yes. I had just graduated from Michigan State in East Lansing and had moved to Detroit on the West Side with my husband and my two children. I had a three-year-old and a three-month-old. Of course, back in that day that was pretty unusual for a woman with kids starting med school. So, you know, I was pretty consumed with my family and starting up in school and that is right at the time that the riots took place. Now, I lived on the West Side. The riots were not immediately in my neighborhood. My next-door neighbor was a policeman, so I found out a lot about what was going on through, actually, through his wife. And on the other side of me my neighbors had attended the Detroit Tigers game that day. They were doing a double-header, which, of course, had to be called because of the violence. And then from then on there was a curfew for a very long time.

CHIDEYA: You turned some of your experiences and I don't mean directly, but just sort of the general feeling into a novel that includes race, that includes violence, rape. Is that a reflection of the fear that you felt at the time?

Dr. GUSSIN: Yes. I think it is. I mean, that was such that the riots had such a profound impact on society in America, certainly, on Detroit. And then also what always haunted me was the impact on a personal level - the people, the pain, the destruction. So what I did - I wanted to really, I really wanted to expose this in a very emotional way. So I created a character, a medical student much like myself, a couple of children like myself, a white woman. And I created her family, and then also a black family and the two families became - they became very intertwined. And it was the devastation of the riots that really started this whole thing off.

CHIDEYA: We don't have too much time left, but we do have enough to discuss the present. And I want to start with you, Tim. How do you think Detroit is doing? Has there been enough to recoup and do you think that this was an example of where race got in the way of a city's growth and healing?

Mr. MYRICK: I definitely think the race was a pinnacle issue with the riots. Detroit was the fifth largest city in the country at that time and now, it's barely the 10th - between the 10th and 11th polarization. Now, this is the most polarized area in the country. Unfortunately, things are still not what they should be as far as race, education, taxes, and equal opportunity for everybody. I think that the riots left - made people leave or forced people to leave in some instances and it includes business and, you know, with a dwindling tax-based. Your city services can't do all the things it can do to make your city a pleasant place to live. And it's difficult.

CHIDEYA: Patricia. Patricia, do you think race was the issue - is the issue?

Dr. GUSSIN: Well, according to the reporting at the time, this was really not a race riot per se. It was more of a rebellion of the haves and that have nots. And, of course, you were looking primarily at the black population, but in terms of eluding and the shooting and so forth, there were whites and blacks eluding and burning together. So it wasn't exclusively race but, of course, the impact on those left in the city was enormous and skewed totally toward the black population. I mean, to the point that, you know, it's almost like we have a third world country in some of the areas. And this is not just Detroit, but in a lot of the big urban cities.

CHIDEYA: Tim, super, super quick. What do you hope for Detroit?

Mr. MYRICK: Reinvestment, a new beginning, and that's what's going on right now but added more of an accelerated phase instead of a snail phase.

CHIDEYA: Well, Tim and Dr. Gussin, than you so much.

Mr. MYRICK: Thank you.

Dr. GUSSIN: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Tim Myrick is the author of "In the Waters of My Mind: Memoirs of My Family." He spoke with us from member station WDET in Detroit. And Dr. Patricia Gussin is the author of the novel "Shadow of Death." She joined us from member station WLIU in Long Island, New York.

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