12th Street and Clairmount, July 23, 1967

“Are we going to let these peckerwood motherfuckers
come down here any time they want and mess us around?”

                                                                     -- William Walter Scott III, 19,
                                                                    shouting from the rooftop of a car,
                                                                    just before he hurled a bottle at police
                                                                    at 3:45 a.m., July 23, 1967.
                                                                        (Quoted in the Detroit Free Press)

"It wasn't just the temperature
And it wasn't just the season."
                            -- "Black Day in July"

     By the summer of 1967, Detroit -- once the fabled "Arsenal of Democracy" for its Second War industrial output -- was a seething cauldron.
     To call it racial unrest was a grotesque understatement, one which somehow deflects and minimizes the blame. Despite half-hearted attempts at reform, the city remained essentially run by a white oligarchy, including the police force.
     Especially the police force.
     What prompted Bill Scott's outburst, one which galvanized the black crowd gathered outside his father's illegal after hours drinking and gambling club (known colloquially as a "blind pig") was the forcible arrest of his father, sister and 80 others who'd been partying to welcome home a pair of Vietnam veterans.
     "You don’t have to treat them that way,” Scott yelled. “They can walk. Let them walk, you white sons of bitches."
     A five-day firestorm ensued, touched off in part by that bottle hurled at (but missing) a police sergeant, one in which 43 Americans -- black and white -- would die, hundreds would be injured, more than 1,000 buildings would be razed. And by the time it was over, Detroit would be the only U.S. city to have been occupied three times by federal forces (1863, 1943, 1967).
     It was, and remains, an almost iconic statement about all that seemed wrong with mid-century America. Segregation. Poverty. Despair. Anger. Disbelief. Racism. Bigotry. Ignorance. Corruption.
     Of course, there were other cities that erupted into flames around the same time, and for much the same reasons, but somehow the Motor City caught the eyes and attention of people far away.
     The accompanying song, written in 1968 by Canadian Gordie Lightfoot, is pretty much a savage indictment of both the elite white power structure -- and everything it stood for -- and the willful blindness of those who claimed not to know there was anything wrong. "Black Day in July" got little air time, perhaps for obvious reasons.
     It is, however, a song I learned to play very early on, even before I moved to Windsor, a mile across the river from Detroit, in 1974. I used to drive around the city occasionally back then on one errand or another, and the area around 12th Street (now Rosa Parks Boulevard for the civil rights heroine) and Clairmount still bore the scars.
     When Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States Jan. 20, 2009, I wrote on Open Salon that perhaps all could finally stand up and say "Civis Americanus Sum", a probably incorrectly declined echo of the proud and ancient boast, Civis Romanus Sum: "I am a citizen of Rome". That somehow the past was just that -- the past.
     I was naive. Nothing much has changed. "The hands of the have nots/Keep falling out of reach" ... and the cauldron continues to seethe.

Detroit Free Press:
Encyclopedia Britannica:
"Detroit: An American Autopsy", by Charlie LeDuff

Views: 109

Comment by Steel Breeze on July 23, 2017 at 6:01am

R&L.....i could tell a few stories bout being accidently caught in the middle of Chi-towns riots after MLK's shooting,and also the demo convention,but i won't.......i now look at them as a warmup for what i had coming.....good post Boan....

Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on July 23, 2017 at 6:06am

FOR Airing pls

Comment by Safe Bet's Amy on July 23, 2017 at 7:10am

Ya see, stuff like this is EXACTLY why I am an advocate for EVERYONE to be forced to take Minority History Class (so as to include Native American History) in high school.  We done, Bo.

Comment by Ron Powell on July 23, 2017 at 8:01am

Very well said..


Comment by koshersalaami on July 23, 2017 at 8:35am

Never heard his song. You're right, it didn't get airplay. Excellent post. Amy's right about minority history, or maybe a history of civil rights (not minority specific) in America, including current issues. That would be a very interesting curriculum to design. 

Comment by JMac1949 Today on July 23, 2017 at 11:39am

R&L, as I remember Detroit was only one of dozens of "uprisings" in the 1960's and white on black race riots that have occurred since the Civil War were much more deadly.  The New York draft riots in June 1863 with 120 dead were among the first and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 with 300 dead  was the most deadly in American History.

Comment by Boanerges on July 23, 2017 at 12:11pm

Actually, Steel, that would make a helluva post. It's certainly one I'd like to read, especially about the Chicago Police Riot.

Sure, Jon. Thanks for asking.

Couldn't agree more, Amy. We in Canada delude ourselves into thinking we're tolerant of minorities, including, but not limited to, First Nations. We aren't -- and education is the best way to deal with that appalling misapprehension.

Thanks, Ron.

Agreed, Kosh. One could really have a lot of fun -- and maybe stir up a lot of debate -- with such a course. The song is one of Lightfoot's social conscience offerings.

Yep, I knew about those (although not in any detail), JMac. For some reason, during the 60s, MoTown seemed to stand out. Detroit's on something of a rebound, at long last, and I understand there is now a park at 12th and Clairmount.

Comment by older/exasperated on July 24, 2017 at 1:31pm

We had the East St Louis riots during that time I was on my way to Vietnam in a year. I grew up in Southern Illinois and it was like living in the south with segregation and whites only places I could never figure it out. But after Vietnam I embraced others of all race, religion and ethnic background and spent my life changing attitudes towards others. It is appalling in this day and age the outright hatred and bigotry that consumes many people and still seeing it condoned by our politicians and elected officials. Thanks for this it needs to be said. Say hey to TPR and send her my best..................o/e

Comment by Boanerges on July 26, 2017 at 2:33pm

I know you get it, O/E -- and I know of some of the people around you. You do realize that you aren't necessarily the norm, right? What bothers me most right now is that it's not just being condoned, it's being orchestrated, just like it was in the 60s. Will Detroit burn again? God, I hope not. I haven't been there in years now, but by all accounts, the city and people are working hard at improving things.

One thing I can tell you: In all the times I was there, either as a reporter or as a more or less normal human being, I never felt I was the object of hatred.

Anyway, best to M. and the crew. (And WTF are you doing corresponding with a part of that (#$)(@ Librul media elite? Surely Vietnam would have taught you THAT lesson as well.)


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