“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.