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On This Day: 12th Street Riot Devastates Detroit

Last updated: February 13, 2023

On July 23, 1967, race riots left an irrevocable mark on the racially divided city when a police raid sparked widespread violence. It remains one of the country’s deadliest riots.

Police Raid Sparks Detroit Race Riot

Detroit, like many urban areas in the 1960s, was a place of racial tension and social unrest. The black community had trouble finding jobs and housing and faced harassment from Detroit’s police force, which was 95 percent white.

The anger towards the police department boiled over in the early morning hours of July 23, 1967, when police officers raided an underground drinking club, or “blind pig,” at 12th Street and Clairmount Avenue, located in a predominantly black neighborhood.

Police had intended to arrest just a few people at the unlicensed bar, but found 82 people inside attending a party for two returning Vietnam veterans. They attempted to arrest everyone at the scene, and the crowd that watched became increasingly hostile.

Just a few hours later, widespread looting and gunfire began, and hundreds of policemen faced off with a mob of thousands. Michigan Gov. George Romney called in the Michigan National Guard to put down the riot, but they could do little to stop it. President Lyndon Johnson sent in 4,700 paratroopers during the second day of rioting.

The violence would not be contained until July 27. “After five days of anarchy,” writes PBS, “more than 40 people are dead, hundreds are injured, and damage estimates hit $50 million.”

Time called the riot “the bloodiest uprising in half a century.” Accessing the damage to his city, Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh commented,  “It looks like Berlin in 1945.”

Background: Racial Tension in Detroit

Sources in this Story

  • Time: Cities: The Fire This Time
  • PBS: Eyes on the Prize: Riots in Detroit, July 1967
  • Rutgers University: Detroit Riot of 1967
  • PBS: Detroit Race Riots 1943
  • PBS Thirteen: A Walk Through Newark: The Riots
  • Detroit News: Panic in Detroit: Forty Years Later

The 12th Street Riot was caused by a number of issues that created unrest in the black community. Blacks had difficulties finding housing due to discrimination and a series of urban renewal projects that destroyed black neighborhoods. When blacks did move into a neighborhood, whites would move out, creating rapid demographic turnovers that “brought with it the attendant ills of social disorganization, crime and further discrimination,” writes Rutgers professor Max Herman.

The most direct cause of the rioting was police brutality. Cars of four police officers, known as the “Big Four,” harassed blacks, used racial slurs and randomly stopped blacks on the street.

Detroit resident Tiuana Davis recalled the actions of the police in a 2007 interview with the Detroit News: “A car would just pull up, jump out, rush the man who just got off the bus, who’s walking home, grab him, throw him down, they would rush this person down, lay him on the grass and handcuff him. And you can hear the gentleman that they’re holding on the grass saying, ‘What did I do? What did I do?’”

Professor Herman also credits the start of the riot to the increasing influence of black militancy in Detroit, led by the Rev. Albert Cleague. Weeks before the riot, Black Panther H. Rap Brown “foreshadowed the course of future events,” writes Herman, “stating that if ‘Motown’ didn’t come around, ‘we are going to burn you down.’”

Historical Context: Race Riots

Historic Race Riots

Detroit had a long history of racial violence. In 1943, wartime tensions combined with deplorable living conditions in Paradise Valley, the East Side Detroit ghetto where some 200,000 black residents lived, sparked a riot that left 34 people dead.

In the 1960s, racial violence became common in all parts of the country. In 1965, a riot in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts killed 34 and injured more than 1,000. In the summer of 1967, 125 cities had race riots, according to PBS Thirteen. Less than two weeks before the Detroit riot, Newark, N.J., had a six-day riot that left 26 dead and over 1,000 injured.

The Effect of the Riot on Detroit

The week’s violence would leave a lasting mark on the city of Detroit, which became further divided down racial lines. Metro Detroit had become one of the most segregated areas in the nation by 2000, according to census figures.

In 2007, on the 40th anniversary of the riot, the Detroit News examined how the riot shaped modern Detroit. “The unrest … became a symbol of Detroit as a deeply divided city and continued to fuel white flight to the suburbs,” the Detroit News wrote.

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