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1967 Detroit Riots

‘Detroit’ tells story of the ’67 riots only without black women

Black women were central to the history of the uprising as it happened, but remain hidden figures in the film


DETROIT — As soon as I turned right onto 12th Street, her shoulders tensed. She was suddenly uncomfortable. She shifted in her seat.

My mother is a tough woman. She is a survivor, in every sense. She survived childhood sexual abuse from an uncle, a violent rape at gunpoint by a stranger, an alcoholic mother, divorce, poverty.

And this street, 12th Street, now named Rosa Parks Boulevard, was also on the list of awful things my 60-year-old mother has survived. She has not been here in more than a decade. And she only went back then because while pursuing her bachelor’s degree, a classmate needed footage of the ‘hood for a school project. She knew just where to take him.

My mother’s discomfort made me wonder if I was making a mistake bringing her back to where she lived through one of the most violent rebellions in 20th century United States.

Firemen fight to control blazing buildings after racial riots in Detroit, Michaigan, on July 25, 1967.

AP Photo

She was 10 years old in 1967 when the Detroit riots broke out on 12th and Clairmount — less than a mile from where she lived. It began as a violent early morning police raid on an illegal after-hours bar, known as a “blind pig,” on July 23. It would grow into a full-scale rebellion that when it ended five days later left 43 dead, nearly 1,200 injured, 7,231 arrested and much of Detroit’s poorest neighborhoods in ashes.

The 50th anniversary of the riot has conjured up somber reflection and plenty of raw emotion, but it’s also the subject of a Hollywood movie, aptly titled Detroit, which is being released nationwide on Aug. 4.

Already, the movie has drawn criticism. Some Detroiters — count me among them — are understandably skeptical and fearful that a Hollywood depiction of such a tragic event only will further demonize a city that, frankly, always has had a negative reputation. Worse, we fear our story won’t be told right, and a huge opportunity will be missed to make people connect the violent turmoil that took place 50 years ago with the massive racial problems of then and now.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m going into it with an attitude because apparently there is a significant perspective missing from the film.

The perspective of black women.

Their role, their pain, their strength, the way they nurtured a torn community both before and after the riots won’t be found anywhere in this film. Terrified white girls? Represented. Black women? Nope.

Some Michigan National Guard equipment rolls out of Detroit, Aug. 1, 1967, after civil unrest subsided, but a woman weeps quietly as she heads for a funeral. Tanya Lynn Blanding, 4, was killed, apparently by a police or National Guard bullet, during the height of the burning, looting and killing.

AP Photo/Alvan Quinn

Now to be fair, Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow is telling the story of the Detroit uprising and the racial tension that divided the city through the lens of the Algiers Motel murder, where three white police officers murdered three black teens and severely beat others that were there.

The officers mistakenly raided the hotel looking for snipers, but instead found black teens partying with white girls. It’s believed that the presence of the white girls with black boys is what drove the officers to torture and then kill the teens in cold blood. Those officers were eventually forced to stand trial on a variety of charges. Their cases took years, and eventually they were all exonerated.

Sound familiar?

Ironically, the forensic serologist who was assigned to analyze the blood found at the Algiers Motel crime scene was Mary Jarrett Jackson, a black woman who later became the first woman to serve as deputy police chief in the Detroit Police Department.

“Sure, the movie was focused on the torture at the motel, but to decide that black women’s role in the uprising was only that of a mother crying in the hospital or as beautiful arm candy at the bar is irresponsible,” Danielle Young, a writer and producer at The Root, wrote in her review of the film. “Black women have always carried oppression and the movement on our backs — from the Middle Passage, to slavery, to ‘freedom,’ to Jim Crow, to Black Lives Matter. We’re the caretakers and the rabble-rousers, but in Bigelow’s American history, we’re not even the backdrop.”

Ira Madison III, an entertainment writer for The Daily Beast, echoed Young’s criticisms.

Madison wrote: “To truly condemn these officers and achieve justice for the grieving families — as well as a ravaged city that still has not fully recovered — you must include the stories of the black women who sustain the movement; who grieved for their sons so profoundly that they held mock trials in their churches (one of which saw Rosa Parks famously act as a juror) to prepare them for the verdict and educate the community on what happened that night. Detroit is a triumph when Bigelow documents a single night of horrors, but when she has to conjure up the souls of the men and women who awoke the next morning, the spirits of Detroit are silent.”

Growing up, my perspective of the riots was shaped by the most important black woman in my life.

“It’s still kind of scary,” my mother said. “I’m kind of trembling right now.”

We are on her old block now, 12th Street and Elmhurst, and looking at what’s left of her old walk-up apartment. The building she lived in has been gutted and probably should be bulldozed. Weeds and debris are spread everywhere. The upstairs of the building is half gone, and there appears to be significant fire damage.

The building where Jemele Hill’s mother used to live during the riots at 12th and Elmhurst.

I try to imagine what this place looked like 50 years ago, before the riots started. There had been a Bible Community Mission church and a hardware store below my mother’s apartment. But I can’t see this place ever even being livable. It looks as if the riots just happened yesterday.

We head toward what used to be her front door, which is now boarded up. Next to it is a dilapidated, filthy, empty storefront that has no windows. The place is full of trash. We see a small opening that someone has created beneath the busted-out front door of the empty storefront. It looks as if someone has made a makeshift bed — nothing more than a tattered blanket with various trash on top of it.

Perhaps a pillow?

“You see, someone has been living in here,” my mother said, shaking her head.

Some people block out traumatic experiences and events. Not my mother. She remembers every detail.

She points out where she first saw armed guards during the riots in 1967, where she saw the tanks rolling down the street, and the different checkpoints setup by the National Guard.

She even remembers where she got beaten up for being a light-skinned black woman with sandy red hair and where her and her brother used to eat free breakfast before school.

“There was a hardware store there,” she said, pointing to a boarded-up doorway a few feet away from us. “During the riots, me and your Uncle Norman tried to sneak in there to loot, to see what we could get. But your grandmother threatened to beat our a–.”

A group of young men slowly cross 12th Street and are staring at us. My mother, ‘hood senses on full alert, stops talking and eyeballs them for a moment.

Jemele Hill’s mother stands in front of the building that she lived in as a 10-year-old when the Detroit Riots broke out.

Jemele Hill/ESPN

I ask her a question to distract her, because I know she already is thinking we shouldn’t be there.

At what point did you realize a riot was happening?

“I was by myself and the power went out,” she said. “I didn’t know how scared I was. I crawled under this little table and I was in the dark. We didn’t have anything to eat. We were living in a war zone.”

To this day, my mother hates the dark.

The riots technically began in the early morning hours of July 23, when residents and folks in the neighborhood started throwing bottles at the police as they hauled away people from the blind pig spot they raided and put them into a police paddy wagon.

The situation escalated into the next day. My mother was home alone for several hours during that first full night of the disturbance. My grandmother was waitressing at a nearby soul food restaurant as news of the riot spread.

As my mother tells it, my grandmother rushed home, but the police initially wouldn’t let her through the barricades. They finally let her through and escorted her to her home.

A woman and children stroll past the remains of homes July 25, 1967, which were burned by rioters in Detroit on July 23. The houses were a short distance from 12th street, center of the riot activity.

AP Photo

“I just remember being so scared,” my mother said.

For three days, the three of them crouched together on the floor with only furniture to protect them. They listened to news updates on a transistor radio as the uprising engulfed Detroit’s West Side.

“We went without electricity for two or three days,” my mother said. “We would hear people looting below us, and we had to put furniture up against the door because we didn’t know if they were going to come through our front door. We couldn’t open up the windows because bullets were flying. And it was so hot in there. And, thank goodness, your grandmother knew how to cook everything from scratch because we really didn’t have any food.”

Even now, my mother wonders how seeing such a violent rebellion at a young age affected how she has responded to her own personal traumas.

“I really do think I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said.

At 10 years old, my mother had no understanding of why or how the riot started, but even at such a young age, she knew race relations were bad.

She recalls how white police officers patrolled her neighborhood with an utter contempt for the residents who lived there.

She brings up “The Big Four,” the four-man undercover police units who had a well-earned reputation for terrorizing black people on 12th Street — especially young black men — under the guise of keeping the streets safe.

A Michigan National Guard bayonet sharply sticks out from a truck touring the damaged, riot-torn west side of Detroit while men walk past.

Getty Images

“They were literally taking black people off the streets and kicking their a–,” my mother said. “It was supposed to protect the neighborhood, but they actually made it worse. More black people got arrested. It was very racist. Jails were full of black people in Detroit. It was similar to today. The Michael Browns, Trayvon Martins, that was occurring right then.”

The Big Four’s encounters with African-Americans were often violent and at times, deadly. In 1962, a prostitute named Shirley Scott was shot in the back while fleeing one of their patrol cars. In 1964, Howard King, a teenager, was severely beaten for allegedly disturbing the peace.

“It comes back to the flash point of ’67, which was the terrible relationship that existed between the Detroit Police Department and the African-American community,” said Detroit Free Press editorial page editor Stephen Henderson, a native Detroiter who also conducted interviews with residents about the Algiers Motel incident for the filmmakers of Detroit. “That’s what triggers what happens in those five days, but that’s not what starts it. The police were an instrument of inequality and oppression that black people had to face here all the time.”

Will Detroit tell that story?

I asked my mother what her expectations are for the movie.

“That the truth will be told is my expectation, as near to it as possible,” she said. “I just hope they portray the cultural climate truthfully.”

There was documentary on the riot that aired on local television in Detroit called 12th and Clairmount and my mother wasn’t a fan of it.

“It made it seem like the blacks were the ones against the whites,” she said. “And it wasn’t like that.”

It wasn’t until a week after my mother and I spent the day in her old neighborhood that I told her the reason I was writing about her. I told her that because a movie about her city failed to include any black women in it, she deserved to be heard. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

When I broke the news to my mother that black women weren’t represented in the film, she gave me a blank stare — seriously, I’m not just saying that for effect — and then she blinked rapidly several times.

“They didn’t even give anybody a momma role?” she said. “We know all those boys [at the Algiers Motel] had mommas somewhere. Nobody?”

I shook my head.

She sighed.

“Well, I’ll still go see it.”

Jemele Hill is a Senior Correspondent and Columnist for ESPN and The Undefeated.