Jewish leaders recall racial tensions in Detroit
Racial tensions in Detroit, from police mistreatment and economic disparity to discriminatory housing practices, had been smoldering long before the spark that ignited the riots in Detroit on July 23, 1967, when Detroit police raided a blind pig at 12th Street and Clairmount in what from 1930-32 was a temporary home to Congregation Shaarey Zedek.
It took more than a week for the U.S. Army, the Michigan National Guard, the Michigan State Police and the Detroit Police to restore order. Some 1,300 buildings had been burned and 2,700 looted. Many, but not all of the 78 Jewish-owned stores in the area were looted. Some 5,000 people were left homeless by the fires.
When the smoke cleared, the period of violence had claimed 43 lives, mostly black, and injured more than 700. Over 7,000 individuals were arrested, with property damage estimates exceeding $75 million.
Members of the Jewish community were actively involved in civil rights and justice issues during the years before and after the 1967 riot, also known as the “Great Rebellion” among African Americans. Four of those leaders sat down with the Jewish News to discuss their memories.
Before The Riot
Violence was nothing new on 12th Street, once home to the notorious Purple Gang, a ruthless group of Jewish men who thrived on the illicit alcohol trade that flourished in Detroit during Prohibition. In the heart of the Jewish community, the street once boasted shop after shop of Jewish-owned businesses.
The racial makeup of the street began to gradually change from the 1950s on. As housing restrictions began to ease, middle-class black families began to move in from the east side. For a few years, there was a peaceful coexistence among black and Jewish neighbors.
However, with urban renewal, Black Bottom, the home to many poor African Americans in Detroit and once home to the Jewish community, was razed. Those blacks now followed the Jews over to 12th Street, sometimes referred to as the “golden ghetto,” which had begun to deteriorate in the years before the riot. The area had the highest crime rate in the city.
Former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin describes the constant tension between the police and the local African American community. Levin had left his position as general counsel for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission the year before to help create the Detroit Defender’s Office, where he became appellate defender, handling the appeals of indigent people convicted of crimes.
“You had a nearly all-white police force, and the housing situation was segregated in fact if not in law,” Levin says. “Neighborhoods were strongly segregated. It was a fact of life just as the tension between the black community and police was a fact of life.”
The riot began a few doors away from where Levin used to practice law on 12th Street and Clairmount. Although shocked by the extent of the damage and the deaths, Levin says he can’t say the riot was a total surprise “because the racial tensions that had always been significant had not been resolved. I’m not sure they’ve been resolved to this day.”
In 1967, Detroit’s police force was 93 percent white. “As the black population increased, the percentage of black police did not,” says U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn, who served on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and the Police Commission in the years following the riot. “There were a lot of programs that singled out African Americans. Police harshness built up resentment. Police seemed like an army of occupation and, on a hot summer night at the corner of 12th and Clairmount, it just erupted.”
Jewish attorney Bruce Miller was active in civil rights issues long before the 1967 riot as part of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, where he later became general counsel. He became involved in two areas: discrimination in local labor unions and police brutality. He successfully garnered the first state censure against a Detroit police officer for brutality and went on to create a Citizens Review Board for the Detroit Police Department.
He understands the anger black Detroiters felt during the times leading up to the riot. “There certainly was a lot of tension. It was a case where there appeared to be no redress for any wrongs,” he says.
A Minor Breakthrough
Miller describes the case of police brutality against prostitute Barbara Jackson, which happened years before the riots. “She had picked up a married Canadian guy at the Purple Onion on Beaubien,” he says. “She took him across the street to a whorehouse where she was waiting for a bedroom to come free.”
While she was waiting, a police officer knocked on the door. “No one had called for him. He was probably there to pick up his white envelope,” Miller says. “When he came through the door, the Canadian guy panicked and started yelling how Jackson had enticed him. Jackson was lippy and the police grabbed her and arrested her.”
Miller continues, “As she was getting out of the car in the garage near the precinct, one of the officers grabbed her by the hair to pull her out. All he got was a wig and that infuriated him. As he was bringing her inside the police station, he mashed her face — literally ground her face — against the brick wall. She was a mess.”
Miller did something dramatic. He took Ms. Jackson downtown and parked her on Mayor Jerome Cavanagh’s doorstep “so the mayor would know firsthand what police brutality looked like.” The move got plenty of media coverage. “The mayor never forgave me,” Miller says.
Miller also filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Commission. It took years, but Miller eventually succeeded in getting the police officer who brutalized Jackson censured.
“They got a black mark on their record, and that was it,” Miller says. “That doesn’t sound like much but that was the first time, to our knowledge, that a police officer had ever been reprimanded for that kind of conduct. It was a breakthrough.”
Discriminatory Police Department
Renowned civil rights attorney Bill Goodman was visiting his parents the day the civil disturbance started.
As a young lawyer, he had joined his father Ernest Goodman’s law firm, Goodman, Eden, Millender and Bedrosian, which was the first racially integrated law firm in the United States and concentrated on constitutional and civil rights issues. He had also spent some time in the South, working on civil rights cases at a small firm in Virginia. When he returned to Detroit, he handled police misconduct and abuse cases.
Goodman said that as he drove home from his parents’ house in Southwest Detroit, he could see all sorts of people streaming out of storefronts carrying things and people being arrested.
“The riot, or as I prefer to call it the Uprising or Rebellion, because it really was that, was the result of police oppression of the African American community,” Goodman says.“It was clear to know that was what it arose from: an all-white police force policing a large and growing African American community and doing so in a way that was blatantly discriminatory.
“Young kids were being detained. Cops were picking up everybody based on skin color and nothing else. They were shooting people,” he continues. “I ended up representing a kid named Albert Wilson who was shot in the back and paralyzed because he was in a store — at worst, he was looting the store, but you don’t shoot someone for that. He was shot by an unknown Detroit cop who just left him on the ground to die.”
“They arrested scores of people and locked them up in a detention center and in tents on Belle Isle, charging them with misdemeanors,” Cohn says.
Goodman said people were held at Belle Isle for days and days and then brought in on buses to Recorder’s Court.
“These were people who had been guilty of nothing more than a curfew violation — somebody who had happened to be out late at night,” he says.
Goodman joined with colleagues and friends in the National Lawyers Guild and gathered in Recorder’s Court. “We waited for names to be called and for people to be brought up and volunteered to represent them,” he says.
When they were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people, they assigned clients to other lawyers as well.
“My firm was asked to provide volunteer lawyers,” Cohn says, “so I spent a full day in court representing the rioters.”
The rioters he represented all pled guilty to vandalism and most were sentenced to probation. “Everybody had sympathy for the rioters,” Cohn says. “We realized the anger that was there and the social dislocation that occurred.”
After The Riots
Cohn took a seat on the newly formed police commission after the riot, where he supported a program of quotas for the police department.
“For every white, hire a black, for every female, hire a male,” he says. “I resigned from the American Jewish Committee because they were opposed to quotas. But I believe that if you didn’t have a police department that reflected the makeup of the community, it would be looked upon as an army of occupation.”
Levin turned to politics to make a difference in justice. He was elected in 1969 to the Detroit City Council and took office in 1970.
“A number of people had urged me to run as someone who could get support from both the black and white communities, also because of my work in poverty law, they thought I could be part of the healing of Detroit,” Levin says. “Being Jewish was a big plus when I ran for City Council.”
He came in third out of nine city council members. Four years later, he became president of the Detroit City Council. During his tenure, hiring factors in the Detroit Police Department changed significantly, creating a work force that more closely resembled the city’s population.
He had very strong support from the Jewish community. “There have always been very strong connections between the Jewish and black communities,” he says. “I think there still is a strong connection. The Jewish community has always strongly supported civil rights.”
Goodman’s experience during the Rebellion, he says, led him to his life’s work of helping to maintain civil rights and constitutional liberties for countless Americans. He spent many years in New York as the legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, where he represented Vietnam veterans who were victims of Agent Orange, the wrongfully convicted and detainees at Guantanomo Bay, to name just a few. He returned to the Detroit area in 2007, opening Goodman and Hurwitz in Detroit with Julie Hurwitz.
Miller continued to pursue a strategy to encourage structural reform as chairman of the Legal Redress Committee of the NAACP. “I decided not to bring lawsuits because then they could always buy their way out of it,” he says. “That would have diverted attention from the issue itself — structural reform in the police department. Getting discipline, no matter how small, was better than getting dollars.”
Miller continued with the NAACP for a while until there was a change in leadership with the rise of the black militant movement. “I was always an integrationist, so I didn’t fit in,” Miller says.
Jewish Community Response
Before the riots, the Jewish and black communities’ relationship was largely in the purview of the Jewish Community Council (now the JCRC), Cohn recalls. “As a result of the riots, concern about the relationship among blacks and Jews as well as the general population became the responsibility of the Jewish Federation itself,” Cohn says. “A special committee was appointed by Federation’s board of governors. Alan E. Schwartz was chairman of that committee, and I was a member. We tried to set up a dialogue.
“The African American community complained there were no black doctors on the staff at Sinai Hospital. They talked about employment. Black physicians got their staff positions quickly,” Cohn continues. “We looked at ways to enhance the betterment of the underprivileged, mainly the black community.”
The day after the riots started, a group of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders met to establish the Interfaith Emergency Council. Shortly after, civic leaders formed New Detroit, a private citizen’s council focused on urban renewal. Max Fisher was the only Jewish person tapped to join the committee. Within months, Jewish leaders Stanley Winkelman, Mel Ravitz, Alan Schwartz and Norman Drachler also joined.
More than half the Jewish businesses in the Seven Mile-Livernois area and 12th Street neighborhood fled the city, including Stanley Lipson who owned Sam Lipson’s Variety Store on 12th Street, which was looted and burned. Ironically, Lipson had long attempted (unsuccessfully) to form a biracial merchants’ association. It’s unclear why his attempt failed.
Could It Happen Again?
In the wake of civil uprisings in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md., largely sparked by police violence against African Americans, one has to wonder if another riot could happen in Detroit.
Not likely, according to Levin. “The city is on an upswing,” he says. “There is positive momentum and such incredible good will in the city, a feeling that we have a real turnaround. Young people are moving into the city who’ve overcome racial and other divisions that existed in our society.”
Not that Levin thinks everything is rosy. “I don’t want to suggest that there are not problems. There are. We still have huge black unemployment in the city, especially with black youth. There’s still a problem with criminal justice in the black community, as it relates to marijuana arrests and incarceration.”
Miller doesn’t think the problems Detroit faces today are a function of racism. “I think you have a very depressed community within parts of the city that are really not part of the community anymore. They are not anchored to society or any social norms,” Miller says. “The cops have the difficult job of maintaining order in the community, and they don’t have respect for these people, but that’s not essentially racist.”
Cohn agrees. “I doubt seriously that this could happen again. If it did, it wouldn’t be because of black-white relationships but rather a frustrated underprivileged class. But everyone is so much more alert now.”
By Jackie Headapohl, Managing Editor
Historical data was taken from Harmony & Dissonance: Voices of Jewish Identity in Detroit by Sidney Bolkosky (Wayne State University Press, 1991); Metropolitan Jews by Lila Corwin Berman (University of Chicago Press, 2015); Hurt Baby Hurt by Walter William Scott (Ghetto Press, 1970); and The Great Rebellion: A Socio-economic Analysis of the 1967 Detroit Riot by Kenneth Stahl (2009).