I grew up in a vibrant Detroit, the proud and thriving automobile capital of the world. And in 1967, as I studied for my undergraduate degree at Wayne State University in the heart of the city, I had no idea that a raid on a nearby after-hours club that summer would ultimately signal the collapse of many of the city’s neighborhoods and eventually ignite massive white flight. I thought our country’s involvement in Vietnam would remain the focus of protest that year, not our own angry citizens burning down the inner city.
In 2017, media attention on the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riots, revolution or uprising (depending on who you ask) is forcing residents to reassess what brought on such rage. The violence lasted five days following the original police raid on July 23 – and Stephen Henderson, the editorial director of the Detroit Free Press, and others are questioning if the city has really learned the lessons of those violent days. While it is clear that change is coming to some areas of Detroit –focusing for now heavily on the vibrant downtown and some midtown neighborhoods, including around Wayne State University – many angry black residents still live in neglected areas and continue to question whether their lives will ever improve.
On Sunday the 23rd, I joined college friends to watch the local ABC-TV premiere of the Detroit Free Press documentary on those five days – “12th and Clairmont.” I found that the focus on the home-made films submitted by those swept up by the violence gave an authentic voice to the complex emotions behind the turmoil and lingering anger. Now a movie is premiering here called “Detroit” by award-winning filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow that details the particularly brutal deaths of three black teenagers in the Algiers Hotel in the course of those five horrific days. I hope the local Free Press documentary and the nationally distributed film will give Americans a greater understanding of that ominous year in Detroit – and an appreciation for the on-going struggle facing not only the Motor City, but cities across our nation. Let’s continue to listen to the anger, learn and move forward.
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