Remembering the Detroit Riots and Dr. King

mcneir | 1/19/2012, 8:59 a.m.

For my two children, Jasmine, 21 and Jared, 17, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a figure they can only imagine from television and other forms of media. Visions of Detroit when Motown was booming and the car industry was attracting families from the South by the thousands to grab their piece of the American pie and dream are things that neither of my children can envision. Thats because today Detroit is a shell of the city that it used to be. Unemployment is at record levels some estimate that one-in-four homes are abandoned. The spirit of Detroit as I remember it from my childhood is no more. Depression has taken over where once there was exuberance and optimism. About two years before Dr. Kings death, he visited Detroit and participated in a march down Woodward Avenue the street that divides the east side from the west side. My father-in-law, the Rev. James Jenkins, walked with King. We still have the photograph in our family album. I was only five or six at the time, but I remember the excitement that took over the Black community when Dr. King arrived. I recall how proud my mother and father were and how good it felt to be able to say, I am Negro and I am proud. [It would be many years before we would begin to use terms like African American or Black]. Then on July 23, 1967, the police raided an after-hours bar on the citys west side. What happened next continues to be disputed but as police and citizens began to face each other in violent showdowns on our streets, Detroits Black community found itself in flames. Five days later we would make history, surpassing the violence and property destruction of Detroits 1943 race riot. Governor George Romney, the father of todays hopeful Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, called for the Michigan National Guard. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in Army troops. And we mourned. We mourned as our community was obliterated. More than 2,000 buildings, businesses and homes were destroyed; 7,200 men, women and youth were arrested; 467 mostly-Black citizens were injured; and 43 were reported as dead. King spoke to our people, especially our ministers, urging us not to retaliate with violence. But I remember some members of my family, including my father, saying they had had enough. He knew what racism was and how oppressive whites could be he had lived through the Ku Klux Klan in a small Alabama town just outside of Selma. My mother prepared me and my older sister, Pearl, for the worse. I remember being frightened petrified, in fact. One entire square block, West 7 Mile Road and Livernois, was completely destroyed. None of the stores survived. Tanks lined the streets just outside of my home. My father called for the men of our family to gather at our home strapped and ready. They obeyed. I knew my Daddy wouldnt let anything happen to me. After all he was a Navy veteran, a former football player from Tuskegee and was all of 250 pounds. Nothing could happen to us while he was in charge, right? Still, I was only seven and I was afraid to die. by D. Kevin McNeirkmcneir@miamitimesonline.com