Even as smoke drifted over thousands of charred homes and buildings after days of deadly insurrection and looting in Detroit, President Lyndon B. Johnson called upon experts to determine the root cause of racial disorders that swept scores of U.S. cities in the summer of 1967.
Those experts, sitting on what came to be known as the Kerner Commission, reached this haunting conclusion: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate but unequal.”
A police raid at 12th Street and Clairmount on Detroit’s west side had ignited a firestorm of long-suppressed rage. Rage at a nearly all-white police force notorious for brutalizing and humiliating people of color; at a political structure that marginalized the voices of African-American residents; at schools and neighborhoods that kept integration at bay, and at a future with little prospect for black advancement. So it was that a confrontation at one Detroit intersection led the city to another: decades of economic policies, political campaigns, crime initiatives and social movements, mixed with no shortage of heartache, all meant to reverse the tide of history.
Today, and throughout this year, the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC) will explore whether the social and economic conditions that sparked the tragic events of 1967 have improved in Detroit. In the wake of recent unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore and other American cities, such questions are hardly academic.
We begin today with an exploration of power and whether, nearly a half-century since the uprising, ordinary residents have more of a voice in the city’s destiny as Detroit attempts to rebuild after a shattering municipal bankruptcy. In future installments, we will tackle other conditions that helped to ignite the violence of 1967 – racial attitudes, police-community relations, poverty, housing, etc. – and track what progress Detroit has made, or not made, since 1967.