The 1967 Detroit Riots From A Rooftop In Walled Lake
(Note: Last week marked the 44th anniversary of rioting in Detroit so severe that the effects there are still being felt. This is an account from the rural suburbs.)
The night sky to the southeast glowed a smoldering orange the color of embers, and from the roof of a neighbor’s house, the glow bounced off low clouds causing the reflection of flames to dance like the Northern Lights. The night air was thick and stagnant and smelled like a garbage fire suddenly doused with water. It was the summer of ‘67 and Detroit was burning.
And we were over forty miles away.
It had started in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, outside a bar in the black section of Detroit. It spread rapidly, both on the street and in the news. But for the first 48 hours it remained a stubborn but distant “city problem”. It had nothing to do with us. It was simply a disturbing set of images in the newspaper and on the evening news.
But by the third night it began to escalate to new levels of destruction. We were shocked as we watched on TV: row after row, block after block of homes being destroyed. It didn’t make sense - black people seemed to be killing and destroying their own. The police forces were being overrun, the National Guard was called in, the President became involved. There seemed to be no end to it. In the suburbs, white families were becoming uneasy.
• • •
At the height of the rioting, on the third or fourth night, I was hanging out at a little local miniature golf course/pizza joint with some friends when a car came tearing into the gravel parking lot with lights flashing and horn blaring. The owner of the car pulled to a stop and ran into the snack shop screaming something terrifying and unintelligible. Moments later the owner's voice came over the loudspeaker informing us that “the niggers are burning their way out Northwestern Highway and are heading for Walled Lake!” The golf course was closing, he ordered, and he shut down the lights.
What followed was one of the strangest nights I’ve ever experienced. Word spread like wildfire – by phone and word of mouth - and by the time I got home, fathers were shouldering the family shotguns and climbing to the rooftops to defend their homes and their families from the hoards of savages advancing from the city like an army of ants.
Battle plans were devised, ammo was gathered from gun lockers and closet shelves, units were deployed in station wagons and pick-up trucks, and daughters were locked in basements. All night long I laid awake in bed to the sounds of angry, frightened voices, squealing tires and occasional gunshots from outside my window. And when morning came, it revealed a small battalion of fathers and older brothers on the roof tops of our neighborhood, lying in wait for whatever came next.
Well, of course nothing came next. Although the riots lasted for five days and caused the destruction of entire sections of downtown Detroit, it never came even remotely close to Walled Lake. It turns out that what DID happen was that someone robbed a hardware store out on Haggarty Road, hoping to go unnoticed in the melee. A single, isolated robbery fifteen miles away caused a rumor that had spread faster than a shock wave out through the obviously nervous and terrified suburbs.
It was anger, fear and misinformation that created the environment for the riots to begin in the first place. It was anger, fear and misinformation that caused them to spread. And it was anger, fear and misinformation that fanned them through the suburbs like a wildfire traveling at the speed of a rumor.
And it produced a night exactly like the one that many of the fathers in our neighborhood – mostly World War II veterans - had been preparing for all their lives. Damn the ideals, families were at stake. At least that's what it seemed like to a sixteen year-old. That’s how thick the night air was during that week in the summer of ’67 when Detroit was burning.
Photos Detroit News
© Jeff L. Howe, 2011, all rights