Last Updated 24 Jan 2023

1967 Detroit Riots and the Influence of African American Culture on Events

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Detroit, a staple name of a powerhouse city in the heart of Michigan that rings a bell to almost every person in the United States. Known for it’s manufacturing businesses and being dubbed, “The motor city”, “D-Town”, “Motown”, and of course, “American’s Comeback City”. The African American culture within this city was deeply engrained and rooted in numerous things, from underground rap, jazz, festivals and fashion. The culture also had a much bleaker outlook at times, being home to, “one of the most violent urban revolts in the 20th century” (Wang, Blackpast.org/aah/detroit-race-riot-1967). The riots lasted over four days, saw over forty deaths and plenty more injured, and still leaves deep divides in the community to this day.

Detroit’s African American culture, or way of life in 1967 was one of immeasurable love for the fine arts, church, and music, alongside distaste in things such as, racial tensions and deep police mistrust. Within the 1960s, Martin Luther King was incredibly well known, and in 1963 had participated in the, “Walk to Freedom” march in Detroit, and gave what was, according to the NAACP, “A speech that was a forerunner of his I Have a Dream speech” (NAACP, www.naacp.org). Looking at Detroit in a larger picture, we get the depiction of obvious westernized touches, that of European origin, but it is influenced by a fair amount of multiculturalism that included African, Caucasian and Latino people. Another large part of African American culture is the psychological aspect of being “black” first, or being “American first”. As is detailed James Jones from an interview with Kalb and Jesse Jackson, “Are you a black man who happens to be an American running for the presidency, or are you an American who happens to be a black man running for the presidency?” (https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu, 2018). This showcases a culture tick that is akin to a social construct in a few ways.

Looking directly at the 1960s in Detroit, we have two entirely different cultures within the same zone and the same ethnicity. As mentioned above, in June of 1963 Martin Luther King had not yet given his “I have a Dream” speech, but had in fact walked with and gave a smaller precursor speech in Detroit. This renewed African Americans within that area with a sense of vigor and importance, one that was generally missing in the black communities at the time, (Wynn, 2018). Two years later was 1965, this marked the first year that newborn African Americans would not have grown up in a truly segregated America. They had no sense of mistrust with police as of yet, no reason to fear them, or know of the horrors of segregation and slavery, they had never experienced it. African American culture has been one that is handed down and shared smoothly through each new generation. “Black youth were more likely to derive values and identity from such traditional community institutions as family, church and school” (Kitwana, 7).

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Hip hop historically played a massive role in African American culture throughout the U.S and especially in Detroit where rappers the level of Eminem and beyond called home. As is said by Kitwana, “It is important to distinguish this worldview from hip-hop culture, the youth-oriented lifestyle that birthed rap music” (Kitwana, 9). Alongside such music was the prevalence of Jazz and Blues in Detroit’s heartland, with artists such as Ben King, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker. This was commonly referenced to as the “soul music” for African American culture.

Looking specifically at the events that unfolded in 1967, there were numerous places that served as unlicensed, after hours bars. These were highly illegal in the time of 1967, and were named “Blind Pigs” which was coined several decades prior in the prohibition era. (https://www.detroitnews.com, 2018). Police raids were common on these areas and served as a high factor in African American’s culture of distrust with police. On Sunday, July 23rd, police decided to raid a “Blind Pig” and expected very few people to be within the establishment, and when they entered, they noted over 75 people celebrating the return of two local GIs from the Vietnam War. Several onlookers gathered as police decided to arrest all 82 participants and some onlookers had qualms about the treatment of those being detained and hurled a brick at the officers, (Walter P. Reuther Library, 2018).

In an event that lasted over four days, confrontations between African Americans and police escalated to the point that the sitting president, Lyndon B. Johnson sent U.S Army troops in to the city to bring a halt to the violence. The Britannica states, “The deeper causes of the riot were high levels of frustration, resentment and anger that had been created among African Americans by unemployment and underemployment, persistent and extreme poverty, racism and racial segregation, police brutality and lack of economic and educational opportunities” (Britannica.com, 2018). This gives a look inside the deteriorating cultures between police and African Americans in the 1960s and how they were volatile to begin with.

Police mishandling of African American issues in America was not something that was new to the lives of those in Detroit. As mentioned previously this was right at Martin Luther King’s peak, and there was an understanding of police brutality at this point. One of the main issues seen as the riots got under way was a massive amount of looting, burning and general rowdiness throughout the night from African Americans as a whole. On the other side Caucasian people were doing something very similar, beating African Americans and in some case having near death experiences. After all was said and done, there were over 43 deaths. The striking part of that statistic alone is that 33 of those deaths were African Americans, whereas only 10 deaths were attributed to Caucasians. Britannica mentions, “Many other people were injured, more than 7,0000 people were arrested and more than 1,000 buildings were burned in the uprising. The riot is considered one of the catalysts of the militant Black Power movement” (Britannica.com, 2018).

In the years following the Detroit riots the culture in Detroit among African Americans changed drastically, as the Black Power movements got underway, Detroit had formed “The League of Revolutionary Black Workers” (https://www.aaihs.org, 2018).A group whose main focus was the supporting of different labor rights and African American liberation. This occurred at a close time to the Black Panther purging of members. The Black Panthers originated in 1966 on a college campus in Oakland, California (www.archives.gov, 2018). While being on nearly the opposite side of the world, after the Detroit riots of 1967, the Black Panthers became an integral part of Detroit’s culture.

The culture in Detroit for African Americans is one of pride and anguish over previous grievances now. Even after the events that unfolded in 1967, there was another, albeit small riot that occurred in April of 1968. This riot was sparked due to the death of Martin Luther King Jr, and didn’t last more than a day. However, after this concluded and the Tigers baseball team won the 1968 world series, it was seen as a time of comradery between both African Americans and Caucasians. The Detroit Free Press stated, “Media outlets and politicians seized on the peaceful nature of the celebration and the images of black and white fans partying together only 13 months after the 1967 rebellion had so destabilized the city. It was ironic that the Tigers were widely seen in a racial-healing role…” (Detroit Free Press, 2018).

While there is still an essence of poverty and unemployment in Detroit, it is nowhere near as gouging as it was in the 60s. African American Culture to this day is still largely shaped by things like hip hop and the church. African Americans have been deeply engrained in church life since the early 1800s, (http://oxfordre.com, 2018). A large pulling reason for the increase to religion by African Americans was, “the focus on baptism in the Holy Spirit and enthusiastic worship that sometimes involved speaking in tongues” (http://oxfordre.com, 2018). As we read and discussed in our class, music can be used as a form of communication and expression in many cultures, this holds true in the African American cultures as well. Even things such as a bebop music (a kind of modern jazz), (Britannica.com, 2018). As stated in “The Journal of African American History”, The music, style and philosophy of bebop musicians critiqued the ideological justifications used to naturalize an economic system that perpetuated racial and social inequities” (Macias, 50). Within the music that was so deeply engrained in Detroit, we find a lot of their behavioral patterns being consistently expressed through music, from songs such as “F*** the Police” by N.W.A to much calmer melodies. When a part of the culture you communicate through gets removed from your city, there are few ways to find a new outlet. Macias continues on to say, “It is a testament to black Detroit that so many talented singers and instrumentalists were raised in musical homes, grew up in nurturing communities and played gospel music in church” (Macias, 65).

Culture is more than just the way of life for a group people, it is an ever-changing globule of different events, different moods and most importantly, different factors. A city that was quite literally burned to the ground only 13 months prior, was then seen as a bastion of comradery between white and black men alike after something as simple as a baseball team won the World Series. The ramifications of the Detroit riots are still present to this day, due to so little rebuilding resources being allotted to 12th street. Ft.com states, “Where bakeries and bars once thrived on the crowded commercial thoroughfare of 12th Street, there is now nothing but vacant lots” ( www.ft.com, 2018). However, the shocking figures of 33 out of the 43 deaths being attributed to African Americans is something that is still all too real in society today. Multi-culturalism is one of the most important things we can achieve in the world, and especially at a time like now, wherein there is such discord among so many differing types of people. By looking at what makes us similar, instead of what makes us different, we can achieve a culture that is truly empowering for everyone.

Citations

  • Macias, A. (2010). The Journal of African American History. DETROIT WAS HEAVY”: MODERN JAZZ, BEBOP, AND AFRICAN AMERICAN EXPRESSIVE CULTURE, 95(1), 44-70. Retrieved December 5, 2018, from https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.tmcc.edu/stable/10.5323
  • The Black Panther Party. (n.d.). Retrieved December 5, 2018, from https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/black-power/black-panthers
  • State, W. (n.d.). July 23 - August 4, 1967. Retrieved December 5, 2018, from https://projects.lib.wayne.edu/12thstreetdetroit/exhibits/show/july23_aug41967
  • Kitwana, B. (2008). The hip hop generation: Young blacks and the crisis in African American culture. New York: Basic Civitas Books. (Google Scholar Source)
  • Ulbrich, C. E. (2011). Riot or rebellion: Media framing and the 1967 Detroit uprising. Detroit, MI. (Google Scholar source)
  • Steinberg, S. (2017, July 19). Blind pig raid on 12th Street lit fire that scarred Detroit for decades. Retrieved December 7, 2018, from https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/detroit-city/1967-riots/2017/07/18/blind-pig-raid-lit-fire-scar-city/103813436/
  • Tarr, D. (2018, July 19). 50 Years Since Detroit's Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. Retrieved December 8, 2018, from https://www.aaihs.org/50-years-since-detroits-dodge-revolutionary-union-movement/
  • Weisenfeld, J. (2017, June 08). Religion in African American History. Retrieved December 8, 2018, from http://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-24
  • Waldmeir, P. (2017, July 20). The riots that shook America: Detroit 50 years on. Retrieved December 8, 2018, from https://www.ft.com/content/1866ae02-6c1c-11e7-bfeb-33fe0c5b7eaa
  • Jones, James. (2011, December 1). Cultural Psychology of African Americans. Retrieved December 8, 2018, from https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1023&context=orpc

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