This year marks a somber anniversary for many urban communities around the United States. It’s the 50th anniversary of 1967 rebellions that occurred in cities across the nation, including Newark, Oakland, and Minneapolis-Saint Paul.
As a native Detroiter, I’ve heard stories most of my life of the “67 riots.” As an adult with the lived experience of growing up in the City and understanding the time historically through the memories of my family, I characterize the four days of violence and fear that began on July 23 as a rebellion.
I believe the enormity of the occurrence has been embedded in the collective DNA of many of us, even those of us who were not directly involved. I have siblings that were youngsters during that time who have vivid recollections of the dawn-to-dusk curfews, looting at businesses on the commercial strip, and the National Guard patrolling their neighborhood.
I’ve also lived with the aftermath of the once vibrant commercial corridor on 12th Street, the epicenter of the Detroit rebellion that never recovered. My parents and family elders would talk about the activity on 12th Street — now Rosa Parks Boulevard — and how the sidewalks were sometimes so crowded with people you had to step off the curb to get around them.
As an adult, I understand the decline of Detroit and other urban cities was not the result of the rebellions, yet somehow they came to define Detroit. I talk about how those perceptions and stereotypes impacted me in my 2014 TEDx talk, Connected Fates.
I believe we as residents internalize those myths. I grew to know better.
Detroit is a large city — 147 square miles — that yes, had pockets of disinvested and blighted neighborhoods, but for the most part had strong, intact neighborhoods. In fact, growing up, most of the people I knew lived in single family homes on tidy, tree-lined streets. The automotive industry and other supporting industries created the largest numbers of middle class families in Detroit, a majority of them Black.
Disinvestment in urban communities began in earnest after World War II as a result of federal programs like the GI bill that perpetuated and funded housing discrimination. Police brutality and lack of economic opportunity contributed to the rebellions. The subsequent and exponential population loss, dwindling tax bases and shifting political attention in Detroit and other similar communities resulted in decades of decline, and lack of opportunity for citizens.
I’ve come to learn more about Newark and its rebellion through numerous conversations with educator, historian and author Junius Williams. I’m currently devouring his book, Unfinished Agenda: Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power.
As a newcomer to New Jersey, I felt a certain kinship with Newark. Perhaps because it, too, like my hometown, is an older industrial city that became home to thousands of Southern blacks fleeing the Jim Crow South as part of the Great Migration, and looking for a better way of life for themselves and their families. It was considered a place of opportunity, but many found a still harsh reality and oppressive conditions.
Williams has created RiseUp North, a multimedia website to collect and share stories of the resistance movement in Newark and other Northern U.S. cities. As the nation appears to be speeding backwards toward policies and ideologies that separate us, the website reminds me that we are more similar than different, and the country has the capacity for great change. But the struggle is not over.
Ironically, the 1967 rebellion likely contributed to my family’s stability. My father was able to buy a small grocery store in Detroit as white merchants started to move their businesses to the suburbs. He opened the business in 1969 and operated it for more than 40 years before he retired. As a result, my parents were able to purchase a home in a working-class neighborhood and raise me and my five brothers and sisters.
The film Detroit premieres this week.
But in the meantime, I encourage you to view a colleague, friend and native Detroiter, Bruce Harper’s documentary Summer 67. The film debuted on Detroit Public Television on July 25, and will kick off a series of community conversations and engagement throughout the rest of the year.
The retelling of these stories, remembering the lives lost, and the neighborhoods and people forever changed are important commemorations this year.
As Detroit and Newark are characterized as the next “Brooklyns” de jour, we must remember those that came before, sacrificed and perhaps never received the return on their investment.
Sharnita C. Johnson directs the Foundation’s Arts grants, which foster a diverse and vibrant arts ecosystem, create broad-based public support of the arts, and support communities engaged in creative placemaking in New Jersey.
Prior to joining Dodge, Sharnita managed a $25 million grantmaking portfolio in education, health and family economic security at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Michigan.