History repeats itself…
In the summer of 1967, I was eight years old. My parents were still married and both sets of my grandparents were still alive. I had just returned from a two-week stay at Camp Grace Bentley on Lake Huron. It was a weekend.
It had been a hot summer. We lived in Redford. 19720 MacArthur. But our mailing address was Detroit. My sister was at my grandparents house in Detroit and Finkell and Wyoming. Wisconsin Street, a beautiful, tree-lined street just south of the Lodge Freeway. They had lived in that house since 1935. They were my mother’s parents. My sister was seven and the apple of my grandfather’s eye. It was July 23rd. Just another night in the fourth-largest city in America. It was a Saturday night, the Motortown Review was playing at the Fox Theater. Martha Reeves and the Vandella’s were out with their new single, “Jimmy Mack.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eX2ktVn5b-c Motown was cracking out the hits like the Big Three were cracking out cars. Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels had a hit record too, “CC Rider/Jenny Take a Ride.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Pvn4NlY5mI
You could hear those songs on Keener 13 or the Big 8, CKLW “The Motor City.” Even though the station was across the border, in Windsor, its 50,000 watt, clear-channel signal meant you could hear it from Maine to the Great Plains, from Hudson’s Bay to Key West. People from California with powerful radios sets could pull it in. It was the fourth rated station in Cleveland, just on the other side of Lake Erie. It came to be known as the “Summer of Love.”
Except it wasn’t. Two years earlier, some eight months after Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, the Watts section of Los Angeles broke out in riots. Then Harlem, Cleveland, Chicago, Wichita, San Francisco and Oakland. But they said it “couldn’t happen here.” Well, it did.
Police raided a Blind Pig, celebrating the coming home of a family member from Vietnam. Several people were arrested. Then someone threw a Molotov cocktail and a kid threw a brick. Then, by daybreak on that Sunday morning, crowds began gathering. At the beginning, “there was equal opportunity rioting,” remembered the late Neal Shine. The Tigers, in the heat of the last true pennant race, played a doubleheader against the Yankees. One of the New York writers, looking out beyond left field, remarked “your city is burning down.” After the games were complete, the legendary radio announcer for the Tigers, Ernie Harwell, was given a police escort down Michigan Avenue to the Dearborn border and a cop told him “the city’s in bad shape.”
That, it turned out, was an understatement. Five days later, forty-three people were dead (actually, 44, a National Guardsman was killed when his commander mistook him for a sniper, but was never recorded), property destroyed, lives ruined, a city changed forever. My grandparents came to stay with us in our small house on MacArthur, “only for a while.”
Nothing would ever be the same, it never is after something like that happens. I have no idea what happened to the people who were arrested following the riots but I know the story. The Tigers were supposed to host the Orioles the next three games. They didn’t. The series was shifted to – Baltimore.
What happened in Baltimore over the last two weeks is still under investigation. No one can answer how Freddie Gray went into a police car, arrested for seemingly nothing except being black, came out of the police car paralyzed and died a week later. No one knows what sparked the rioting that has turned the city into 1967 Detroit all over again. But, then again, we do know.
If you are a black man, you are marked. Marked and doomed. Unless you are very lucky. In the 1990’s it was revealed that crack cocaine was designed to eradicate black men from America. If you are black, you have probably spent time in court, jail or prison. I am no fan of Fox News, but Shepard Smith told it better than anyone on Monday:
“I also don’t know where we are. We’ve got a major American city that has decades of turmoil within this neighborhood,” Smith said. “Decades! You’ve heard the stories from Doug McKelway a little while ago of people being arrested for nothing, a violent crackdown for years and years, of them feeling powerless and hopeless and nobody listening to what they were saying. One quarter of the youth locked up. Clearly there is a big problem. Then all of a sudden an African-American man is taken into a vehicle and he comes out of it and dies. And you get nothing from authorities except a suspension. And those who would do harm take an opportunity to do harm. And here we are. But it is what has happened between all of that and today that has led to this. There is no escaping that reality.”
White America has always seen colors. Of course, the voices from the canaries, like Donny Trump, millionaire, and Bill-O-the-Clown weighed in, attacking President Obama for not doing enough. Trump, who’s “thinking about running” for President (for the thousandth time), said “Our African-American President should go to Baltimore.”
The President didn’t go to Baltimore. Instead, he did his best President Johnson (“Law and order have broken down in Detroit, Michigan. Rioting and looting have nothing to do with Civil Rights.”) calling the rioters and looters “thugs.” Which, to some, is the new epithet for the N-word. But it goes much deeper than that. A young girl put it bluntly, via NBC:
“I really feel like nobody cares about us, nobody cares about me,” the 10th-grader said in between tears at Empowerment Temple AME Church. “It’s so hard to get through school…I want to make my mother and grandmother proud of me.”
You know what missing? Her father. Yes, a black man, who probably is in a Maryland prison, or in a prison somewhere. This is what gets to the crux of the matter. After the 1967 riots, black men were taken in to training and each was given an alarm clock. They had no idea how to use it. A civic organization called Focus: Hope, was formed to bring both blacks and whites together and provide job training for low-income Detroiters. It is still around, nearly 50 years later. But people’s memories are still long and the city still divided. A city, that, in 1960, was 85% white and a population of nearly 1.8 million is now a shell of its former self: 83% African-American and maybe 700,000 living within its 125 square miles.
Baltimore, a medium sized city in a much more concentrated area, faces an uncertain future, as do many other American cities. The aftermath of what happened will be talked about and debated, yet life goes on in the neighborhoods where nothing ever really changes. The TV trucks will eventually go away, the programs designed to help the people who need it will fall woefully short and another generation will lose out to racism and hate, distrust and disillusion, drugs, arrests and death. There will be a Focus: Hope-like organization in Baltimore to spring up to try and help those who need it. Some will succeed, others won’t.
It sucks. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, there was talk that America was “post-racial.” And then, of course, it never happened. People started calling him names and saying how he wasn’t American, wasn’t born here, was a secret Muslim, that he was rounding up all the young people to “re-educate” them. The “Tea-party” started. People started wearing Gadsen shirts and buying flags saying “don’t tread on me,” without knowing the history behind it. They started pulling out obscure names from the past, like Bill Ayres and Saul Alinsky – “Who the fuck is Saul Alinsky?” Bill Maher asked. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtLEPPgbNyM
Today, a baseball game will be played in Baltimore. With no people in the stadium. An old college professor of mine, Walt Schneider, once predicted this would happen. Thirty-three years ago. The Orioles will then play Tampa starting Thursday. In Tampa, as the home team. Camden Yards is usually sold out, while The Rays fail to get 15,000 fans a night. Surreal is too mild a word to use at this point.
My grandparents never moved back to their house. Six weeks after the riots, my parents and I took a ride to Jamestown, North Dakota, where I would spend the majority of the next seven years of my life. Far away from home. My parents got divorced before my first year was over. My dad moved to Canada and got remarried. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Richard Nixon, history’s yard waste, got elected President. My grandmother got sick and died in 1968. The Tigers lost the 1967 pennant on the last day of the season, but in 1968, they won the World Series, providing the city with a fleeting hope that maybe things would get better. Jerry Green, the great Detroit News sports columnist, said to then-owner John Fetzer, following the Tigers improbable come-from-behind victory over St. Louis, “You might just have saved the city.” They didn’t.
Things change, yet nothing changes. Just the names and faces. A blind pig, an arrest of a man for seemingly nothing. A rock is thrown, police over-react, people over-react. Wash, rinse, repeat. Nothing is ever learned.