Vol. 3 | Detroit 1967: The Division of Labor | Marsha Music

Detroit 1967: The Division of Labor
Marsha Music

My late father, Joe Von Battle, had a record shop that was destroyed in the ’67 Rebellion. In his profound loss and accelerating alcoholism, he was a broken man, often literally insane from drink. Our home in Highland Park, a tiny, lush city-within-the-city of Detroit, virtually rocked on its foundation with the mayhem within.

In 1968, as I began high school, a Black labor radical named General Baker was working at Dodge Main, a massive industrial complex in Hamtramck (the other city-within-the-city of Detroit), with other Black workers in the lowest paid, dirtiest, and most dangerous jobs.

There had been a growing intolerance by many Black workers for both the flagrant discrimination practiced by the auto companies, and the measured response - or no response at all, as far as Baker was concerned - by much of the UAW leadership. A year after the upheaval in ’67, Dodge Main workers mounted a wildcat strike, sanctioned by neither management nor the union; with Black workers facing off against not just the White owners and management at Chrysler, but the union leadership as well – White and Black.

In the aftermath, the workers on the wildcat strike were discharged, and when Baker and a co-worker were not rehired, he, Ron March, Chuck Wooten, and a band of Black workers formed DRUM – Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. DRUM was conceived in the heat of the ’67 Rebellion and - after a year long gestation of increased Black worker frustration and militancy - was born in the Dodge Main strike of July ’68.

In addition to General Baker, Ron March and workers at the plant, activists such as Kenneth Cockrel Sr., Mike Hamlin, Luke Tripp, John Watson, John Williams, Chuck Wooten, and others coalesced at a house a block away from my high school, on the corner of Cortland and Third, and I’d listen to them tell their stories. They talked about the extreme heat and working conditions at the plants, and General Baker led meetings, ran printing presses, and told tales of Detroit factory life. With my own father failing in despair, Baker became my surrogate father - though I didn’t realize his role until I was good and grown.

I was fourteen years old in that year after the ’67 Rebellion; I hung around the office/house with other students and folks from the plant, and, more than once, down through the years, General would tell how during the rebellion in Detroit the year before, auto factory employees, along with police and hospital personnel, were among the few Blacks allowed to pass police checkpoints in order to go to and from home on the streets of Detroit, after the curfew imposed on the city during the days of martial law.

This was a startling real-life affirmation of all that Baker had theoretically known, a visible confirmation of his ideas about the importance of Black labor in the auto and truck plants of Detroit. It informed his thinking a year later, in 1968, while in the midst of the wildcat strike over working conditions at Dodge Main, where DRUM was formed. 

The unrest in the streets in ’67 was an explosive resistance to the discrimination and abusive policing that was endemic in the majority White city – but it also reflected a deep schism in Black Detroit. The developing fissure was signaled by the eruption at Northern High School, in 1966. Black students, weary of inequality and bold-faced discrimination by the school board, rejecting the trepidation of most of their parents and the admonishments of the school’s “Negro Leadership,” walked out of school in an unprecedented rebellion, enlisting help in setting up a ground-breaking Freedom School in a nearby church.

That same year, protests against police brutality by young people on Kercheval Ave. on Detroit’s East Side escalated into an intense, one-day rebellion that was a precursor to ’67, and came to be called the Kercheval Mini-Riot. Here too, these young people - including General Baker - were rejecting not just the status quo, but the restraints of older, traditional Black leadership - in a rending of the fabric of Detroit’s traditional social activism. Many community organizations and coalitions of Black self-determination emerged in the months directly following the ’67 Rebellion, and I became involved in the movement of Black Students - even in the exemplary schools of Highland Park, there was systematic discrimination.

During and after ’67’s Rebellion, many Blacks from the higher paid, more stable sections of Detroit’s working class, and the city’s burgeoning professionals, expressed anger and open contempt towards the looting and turmoil in the street. Divisions among blacks in this country are not new, from separations between the house and field enslaved; to differences articulated by Du Bois and Washington, to tactics enlisted on the ground in the Civil Rights Movement, but discounted by many in the political and religious leadership; to the demonstrative founders of the early “sanctified” church, ridiculed by followers of mannered, formal black Protestantism.

Detroit’s Black community - segregated as it was over the decades - in old Black Bottom, the old West Side, Conant Gardens and other enclaves, had been compelled to act as a monolith, in a united front against segregation and discrimination. The destruction of Black Bottom was two decades before 1967; the destruction of Hastings St., just seven years prior to the unrest. The thousands who were dislocated as a result of the razing of these areas were dispersed, yet segregation limited the places to which Blacks could move; so that decades-long social formations within the new neighborhoods remained relatively the same.

The unfair treatment of Blacks in segregation was effective glue, holding the layers of community together, differences kept “within the family.” The explosion of the street-born wrath of 1967 was untethered from the legalist strategies of the NAACP, the UAW, and the vestiges of the cotillion ball/brown paper bag culture (where one’s skin-tones, relative to same, determined admittance to upper class Black events and social activities). A contemporary aphorism, suggesting a positive by-product of segregation, “we used to look out for one another when we had to live together,” is a common admonishment for a lack of harmony and engagement - often across classes - within the Black community today.

There were notable exceptions to this class division - in the professional class, Judge George Crockett, attorney brothers Milton and Richard Henry and later, Kenneth V. Cockrel and others, distinguished themselves by not turning away from battles regarded as unsavory by the Black upper strata.

It is often said that - although there were incidents of racial encounters and assaults - the ’67 Rebellion was not a “race riot,” i.e., Blacks against Whites; race conflict was not the general character of the unrest. In fact, there were many anecdotal accounts of Whites engaged in looting and street fighting, alongside their Black neighbors, and I remember eyewitness reports to that end during those turbulent days, from relatives and family friends on the front lines. Later, television and newspaper reports gave little coverage to this spontaneous accord - far be it that Whites be identified as fellow mutineers. The role of Whites with Blacks during the rebellion was diminished in mainstream post ’67 narratives - though many witnesses today remember it well. There are also many stories of Blacks protecting Whites from harm during the turmoil.

It is a common truism that the Rebellion was an expression of the “have-nots against the haves,” what with many Whites looting alongside Blacks, and many Blacks looting not just White, but many Black businesses. However, make no mistake - it was not an uprising of the poor - for in Detroit in 1967, the Black working class was doing increasingly well, despite impediments due to discrimination. Many of the looters were working folk; but those at the bottom of Detroit’s economic and social rungs were trapped in lower paying jobs, subject to destabilizing, periodic unemployment; with a tantalizing, but unreachable carrot of equal opportunity dangling in view.

Many - Black and White - opine derisively about how Black people “burned down their own neighborhoods,” but as a practical matter, Blacks actually owned few commercial properties in the neighborhoods where they lived; most rented from White and Jewish owners who often lived outside the city. Moreover, there is - even today - deep suspicion among some in the community that the police themselves ignited buildings. The venerable Ed Vaughn, a former state senator and former owner of a Black nationalist bookstore, publically relates the story of when - at the urging of Mayor Cavanagh - he reported the suspicious burning of his bookstore to the police. They laughed, and threatened to burn it again - and the shop was, in fact, torched the next day.

There was little evidence that residents literally set their own homes on fire, but much anecdotal recounting of the inability - or even refusal - of authorities to contain the infernos in the commercial areas, that resulted in the ancillary residential destruction. A friend, now a Detroit business owner, says that the homes on the side-street on which the family lived - the massive houses and huge, brick, two-family flats of the West Side - began burning, but a police officer told the shocked crowd, “Let ’em burn!” The homes burned seven houses deep, east of 12th street.

Working-class Blacks often found themselves heaving against the mainstream Black leadership of the traditional civil rights organizations that stood between them and discriminatory powers in Detroit. The infamous photos of looters and protestors loudly deriding a young Congressman John Conyers’ futile attempt - standing atop a car - to convince the crowds to go home, is a symbolic case in point. His bullhorn-wielding effort to keep the peace was pilloried by the people in the streets during those tense moments, and ridiculed by some grassroots folks for years (though more recent history has been kinder to his effort).

Such a demonstration was a signal - the declaration of an upheaval against traditional Black leadership. This schism was in its nascent, volatile form in 1966, during the Northern Student Movement, escalated during The Kercheval Incident, and reached its nadir on 12th Street in ’67. As the rift grew wider, the contradictions reached completion by the actual leaving of the city by much of the Black middle class.

There is an oft-repeated trope that “all the Whites left Detroit after ’67.” This is a deeply embedded fallacy, as Whites had been leaving the city in droves since after World War II - driven out with the movement of industry, discriminatory government policies and real estate blockbusting. With the movement out of the city by Whites, and the post-Rebellion loosening of the strictures of segregation in some areas, contrary to the common narrative of “White Flight,” the most significant post-1967 departure was not of Whites, but of Black middle-class Detroiters.

Soon - in the population and tax revenue-challenged municipality - educational decline, crime, and drugs drove more blacks across 8 Mile. In another round of migration in the 1980’s, many blacks found that they were driven to the inner-ring suburbs by spatial, racial limitations that disallowed them from moving into the remaining majority White communities within Detroit.

The irrevocable split of Detroit’s Black community into overtly discordant and even acrimonious classes is a division that expresses itself today. The chaotic, unorganized unrest in ’67 – marked by rioting within the rebellion, as I say – was the public revelation of the chasm between classes; the parting of a Black Detroit Red Sea. As the working and unemployed folks in the streets hurled themselves against the admonishments of Black leaders, contempt and even animus towards the Black masses was publically voiced by the middle and upper classes during - and long after - the conflict.

In the aftermath of the Rebellion and for these decades afterwards, there developed an open identification of many middle and upper-class Blacks (and even working folks) with the White Detroit establishment, in its condemnation of the unrest and the people who wrought it; there was often great shame expressed about the destruction that the unrest visited upon the community (with little distinction between what was alleged to be wrought by the looters and that which may have been caused by authorities). Even today - among not just Whites, but many Blacks as well – there is a vociferous refusal to acknowledge any social causes of the unrest, and an adamant insistence that the ’67 unrest was no “Rebellion,” only a criminal element engaged in a senseless “riot.”

I have heard it said that before something can unite it must be divided, the knowledge of that division a precursor for discerning points of unity – within and across race and class lines. General Baker died (in 2015), knowing that this prerequisite had been met; the affirmation of the importance of Detroit workers in ’67 when they, raw and unruly, took to the streets. A year later, at the Hamtramck plant, DRUM burst from the loins of that Rebellion. With 1967, Detroit’s Black community announced a formal separation with itself.

The post ’67 Rebellion period brought more intense activism - to meet the intense reprisals from especially police - a mock trial, “The People’s Tribunal,” was convened by activist Dan Aldridge and Lonnie Peeks, and held in the community, an examination of the Algiers Motel murders, with Rosa Parks as a juror among others. Opposition to inequality and abusive policing sparked the 1974 election of Mayor Coleman A. Young, and there was a loosening of the restrictions that had kept Blacks on the bottom of the auto industry – and union leadership.

Many White and Black civic leaders united immediately post-Rebellion, in a “rebuilding” refrain, condemning ’67’s destruction and violence; though there was little rebuilding of the destroyed areas - many of which remain vacant and empty today.

A stratum of Black leadership surfaced - entrepreneurs, upper level civic professionals, church leaders, etc. - disparaging the Rebellion, and collaborating in a phalanx of “New Detroit” initiatives, acting as apologizers for and condemners of, the violence. This layer of Detroit leadership likewise functioned as soothsayers of a sort - warning of turbulence and repeats of the unrest; helping to usher in monies distributed for programs ruefully known as “riot insurance.” There was fear in the inner sanctums of White spaces of power, of the possibility of repeat of the conflagration; with layers of community jobs, and public and private organizational positions, designed to assuage the fearful brows of industry, retail and civic titans.

Today, in 2017, the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Rebellion in Detroit has provoked many questions regarding the possibility of such a conflagration happening again. This is not the same Detroit as in those years, but in many ways, the disparities are much worse than they were then - a city that, at the time, was on the cusp of its status as the greatest middle-class haven for Blacks in the country.

In contemporary Detroit, with unprecedented numbers of water shutoffs, foreclosures, and a decimated school system, and an economically challenged community surrounding more affluent pockets and a bright and shiny Downtown, the possibility of another rebellion in some form is troubling to many. Especially with the leaving of the city of much of the Black middle class, and few moving back to replace them, the need for diversity expressed by some in high places is doubtless not just a desire for equality, but for that comfortable layer of Black Detroiters to act as seers, buffers - and protection from the have-nots.

In today’s Detroit, new public and private organizations may replicate this form of social shield. But the chasm between today’s haves and have-nots is greater in a way that would have been unthinkable in the Detroit of ’67. The real protection against another mass Rebellion is not the palliatives of mid-level leadership, but a real confrontation with systemic problems - to start, a revisiting of causes addressed by the post-Rebellion Kerner report, commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson - never acted upon then, and unaddressed, even today.

The rupture in the body of Detroit Black leadership - exemplified by the Northern High students, the Kercheval youth, the rebels of ’67 and the activists that emerged pre- and post-Rebellion - may finally be understood as a precursor to a greater level of unity, as new generations examine the complex role of class and race in Detroit.

Marsha Music, 9.4.2017