Riots Rocked Detroit 40 Years Ago Today Just before dawn on July 23, 1967, Detroit police officers carried out what they thought was a routine raid on an illegal after-hours club. While they were waiting to transport all 82 African Americans to jail, a crowd gathered on the streets. They began to shout at the police, then throw bottles and rocks. So began the riot that would define Detroit for decades to come.

Riots Rocked Detroit 40 Years Ago Today

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Across the northwest side of Detroit, blacks broke the windows of stores. They looted and set fires. By the morning of July 24th, 16 people were reported dead and more than 11 square miles of the city were engulfed in flames.

Governor George Romney made a stark appeal for help.

Mr. GEORGE ROMNEY (Former Governor of Michigan): As governor of the state of Michigan, I do hereby officially request the immediate deployment of federal troops into Michigan to assist state and local authorities in reestablishing law and order in the City of Detroit. I am joined in this request by Jerome P. Cavanagh, mayor of the city of Detroit. There is reasonable doubt that we can suppress the existing looting, arson and sniping without the assistance of federal troops. Time could be of the essence.

COHEN: President Lyndon Johnson responded swiftly to Romney's request.

President LYNDON JOHNSON: Law and order have broken down in Detroit, Michigan. Pillage, looting, murder and arson have nothing to do with civil rights.

COHEN: The president deployed nearly 2,000 federal troops. For more on that day and the four days of rioting that followed, we go now to NPR's Celeste Headlee in Detroit.

Unidentified Man #1: Out of the way. Out of here.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

CELESTE HEADLEE: The memory of those five days in July is still vivid in the minds of people like Mary Anne Helveston, Grace Lee Boggs, Isaiah McKinnon and Pat Goodwin(ph).

Ms. MARY ANNE HELVESTON: Smoke was coming into our apartment windows. Helicopters were all over everywhere. For years, when I would hear a helicopter, I would remember in 1967 in Detroit.

Ms. GRACE LEE BOGGS (Civil Rights Activist): It was unstoppable. The anger, the rage, the frustration that had been building up was just too great.

Mr. ISAIAH MCKINNON (Former Chief of Police, Detroit Police Department): My God, why is this occurring? Why, why, why? We don't want this to happen to our city.

Ms. PAT GOODWIN: I didn't want to be anywhere around people who were looting, people who were shooting, people who really just seemed to be out of their mind.

HEADLEE: State police declared the situation under control by Friday, and officers were ordered to sheave their bayonets. Forty-three people had been killed, 350 injured, 2,500 buildings looted or burned, more than 7,200 people arrested. The youngest was 10 years old. And President Johnson once again spoke to the nation on television.

President JOHNSON: My fellow Americans, we have endured a week such as no nation should live through, a time of violence and tragedy.

HEADLEE: Experts say it was a tragedy rooted in a long history of racial hatred and political abuse. Whites rioted in the '40s trying to physically prevent blacks from moving into their neighborhoods. And a deadly race riot in 1943 claimed 35 lives, most of them African-American. Isaiah McKinnon says, at one point, the state of Michigan had one of the largest Ku Klux Klan memberships in the north.

Mr. MCKINNON: The KKK had candidates that ran for office here in Detroit. I mean, the KKK had long infiltrated the police department. Detroit wasn't this bastion of harmony.

HEADLEE: But what caused the uprising of 1967. Was it the loss of jobs to the suburbs, the largely white government, or anger over the Vietnam War?

Sociologist Max Herman of Rutgers University says there was no single cause for what happened in Detroit.

Dr. MAX HERMAN (Sociologist, Rutgers University): But if we're going to focus on one main factor, we have to point to the relationship between the police and citizens in the community.

HEADLEE: He says the Detroit Police Department was notoriously brutal and routinely harassed African-Americans. Ninety-five percent of the officers were white in 1967. Isaiah McKinnon was one of the few African-Americans on the force.

Mr. MCKINNON: I was almost killed by Detroit police officers because I was a black man. I was in uniform. I was going home, off-duty.

Dr. HERMAN: He was stopped at the border of Detroit. He was on his way home. And I think they used the N-word and said, you're going to die. And they took a shot at him.

HEADLEE: McKinnon went on to become the chief of police in the city. He stayed in Detroit after the riots, but thousands of others did not.

Ms. BOGGS: Detroit had been the largest (unintelligible) city north of the Ohio River.

HEADLEE: Civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs.

Ms. BOGGS: And all of a sudden one could see that there was a wasteland coming.

HEADLEE: The Motor City has lost more than a million residents since 1950. But sociologist Max Herman says the seeds of abandonment had been planted years before.

Dr. HERMAN: Those who moved out and voluntarily chose to do so will often say that the riots drove them out of Detroit, and for the most part, that's mythology. Industries were closing down, population was already being lost to the suburbs.

Ms. GOODWIN: Detroit became a black city. Detroit became more of a poor city than a middle-class city.

HEADLEE: Local urban planner Pat Goodwin says other cities may have experienced the same social unrest and abandonment but it was worse in Detroit.

Mr. GOODWIN: They maintained that diversity of income levels and that diversity of make-up that Detroit didn't have.

HEADLEE: And Attorney Mary Anne Helveston says while other cities bounced back, Detroit has languished.

Ms. HELVESTON: I had no idea at the time that it would take so many years for the city to be turning around. And finally it may be happening now, 40 years later, but it was something no one expected.

HEADLEE: Before you roll eyes, remember the city recently hosted the Super Bowl and baseball's All-Star Game. Major corporations have built headquarters in the city, and in fact the only place in the state of Michigan where the population is growing is downtown Detroit.

Max Herman says optimism for the city's future may be fueling interest in the past.

Dr. HERMAN: People finally feel that there's some revitalization occurring in the city, that now it's a little safer to look back on 1967 not in anger but as a means of understanding where we've come from and how we can move forward.

HEADLEE: There's no official memorial for the 1967 uprising in Detroit, and the city has planned no events to commemorate the 40th anniversary.

Celeste Headlee, NPR News, Detroit.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) The Motor City is burning, ain't a thing I can do.

COHEN: You can see photos from the 1967 riots at

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.