The Fire Last Time

By Kevin Boyle
Sunday, July 29, 2007

On a sultry Sunday 40 years ago this week, the Detroit police raided an after-hours bar at the corner of 12th and Clairmount streets, in a poor black section of the city's west side. A crowd gathered to watch, the way it always does when it's too hot to be indoors and there's nothing else to do. In their rush to finish the operation, the cops got a bit rough with some of their prisoners, pushing and shoving and wielding their batons. A few onlookers started tossing insults at the officers, followed by bottles and stones. On the edge of the crowd, a teenager launched a trash can through the window of Hardy's drugstore, while someone else set a shoe shop ablaze. Within an hour, the melee had escalated into a riot -- a rebellion, some said later -- that raced like wildfire across the central city.

June 24, 2007, was another sultry Sunday in Detroit. Maybe it was the heat making tempers ragged. Maybe it was the perverse pride of an entrepreneur defending the business he built. Whatever the reason, when Dier Smith ripped off a local drug dealer, the man responded with stunning force. As Smith raced down Calvert Street, the dealer drew out his AK-47 and opened fire. Smith escaped, but the hail of bullets hit three bystanders: a young woman, her female friend and the friend's son. The adults survived. The little boy, 16-month-old Keith Wallace, didn't.

It's a short walk from Calvert to Clairmount, an easy stroll along seven blocks of boarded-up stores and weed-choked lots where buildings used to be. Between those two streets, though, lies a catastrophic failure of national will. As terrifying as the rioting was -- and a city wreathed in flames is one of the most terrifying sights imaginable -- it also created an extraordinary moment of opportunity. For the first time in the nation's history, Americans were forced to face the racial divisions and economic inequalities that ran through their cities. Four decades later, the divisions remain. The tragedy is that the nation's determination to confront them has long since slipped away.

Detroit was neither the first nor the last great urban upheaval of the 1960s. Los Angeles's Watts neighborhood had burned in 1965, West Side Chicago in 1966, the inner cities of Tampa, Cincinnati and Newark earlier in 1967. After the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in the spring of 1968, rioting broke out in more than 100 other cities, including Washington and Baltimore. But Detroit was the worst, a week-long conflagration so fierce it killed 43 people, injured hundreds and destroyed huge swaths of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods. Standing alongside 12th Street's smoldering ruins on the riot's final day, Detroit's mayor thought the area looked "like Berlin in 1945."

I was 6 years old that summer, living in a lower-middle-class white neighborhood far from the riot's epicenter. To this day, though, I remember the fear that descended over my home and my block: how parents rushed their kids inside long before dark; how we could hear gunfire and the constant wail of sirens in the distance.

A lot of whites fled to the suburbs in the riot's aftermath: about 80,000 in 1968 alone. (The city's population dwindled from 1.6 million in 1960 to fewer than 900,000 today.) After the riot, my family didn't join the rush -- not for 11 years, anyway. By then I was 17 and, against all reason, that sprawling mess of a city was in my blood. I've never shaken the addiction. Although I left Detroit to pursue an academic career, I've spent much of my life writing about its tortured racial history. To do that, I've come back time and again: to talk to people, to dig in archives, to drive the streets, to think. I suppose I just want to understand what happened that week in 1967, when I was introduced to the larger world around me, to the city I still think of as my home.

In retrospect, Americans should have seen the riot coming. Since the 1920s, not just Detroit but all of the nation's major cities had restricted blacks to the oldest, most decrepit neighborhoods available. Segregation inevitably spawned discrimination: Schools in African American areas were overcrowded and underfunded; city services were delivered sporadically; policing was frighteningly oppressive.

Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the urban black economy tumbled into crisis, as decent-paying factory work started to disappear. From 1947 to 1967, Detroit alone lost 120,000 manufacturing jobs. In the city's ghetto, unemployment skyrocketed. Poverty intensified. And under the strain of it all, life on the streets became more dangerous. There were 112 murders in Detroit in 1946. In 1966, there were twice as many, a sure sign of a horribly strained social fabric.

As if that weren't bad enough, the crisis of the inner cities struck as much of the nation's economy boomed, creating a dazzling world of color TVs, backyard barbecues and cars the size of luxury liners. Poor blacks could see it all on display in the new suburbs that necklaced central cities. But suburbia was white man's territory, and it was fiercely defended. Just a month before the Detroit riot, white thugs killed a young black man, a Vietnam veteran who had the audacity to linger in a suburban park after dark. So African Americans had no choice but to stay on the far side of the urban color line, struggling to make do while white America made good.

No wonder Clairmount Street exploded in the summer of '67. And no wonder the riot's signature act wasn't battling police -- though that's how it started -- but looting and burning stores.

Policymakers didn't understand -- not at first. "What happened?" a shaken President Lyndon B. Johnson asked on the day he appointed the Kerner Commission to investigate the riots. It would have been easy for his appointees to equivocate, to blame the violence on black hoodlums or radical agitators. Instead, they gave the president a searingly honest answer. "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal," they reported in March 1968, a month before Washington's inner city burned. "Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American."

But Johnson's appointees also believed, in classic American fashion, that the nation could right itself. "The movement apart can be reversed," they insisted, though doing so would be extraordinarily difficult. The federal government had to shatter the institutions that fostered neighborhood segregation. City schools had to be integrated and dramatically improved. Inner-city housing had to be rehabilitated. Welfare programs had to be made less bureaucratic and far more generous. And together, the public and private sectors had to create millions of entry-level jobs in poor neighborhoods.

For a few years, policymakers tried -- imperfectly, half-heartedly, sometimes stupidly -- to break down the ghettos' walls. Congress passed legislation that banned discrimination in housing. The Supreme Court ordered city school systems to desegregate, even if that meant busing kids from one end of town to another. And the Nixon White House took a small, innovative program called affirmative action and extended it nationwide. It wasn't enough, not close to enough, to pull the urban poor into the mainstream of American society. But it was a start. The percentage of Americans living below the poverty line declined in the early 1970s. And partly because of affirmative action, the black middle class began to expand, a transformation of profound importance.

Then, in the late 1970s and '80s, the national commitment to the urban poor unraveled, destroyed by a furious white backlash and a resurgent conservatism that vilified big government and sanctified the free market. With that shift in American politics, hope gave way to neglect. It has been 30 years since the federal government really invested in America's inner cities. The only time anyone talks about segregation is when the Supreme Court prohibits another school district from employing the mildest of racial remedies. The welfare state has been eviscerated, not expanded. Even progressives prefer to focus more on the needs of the middle class than on the burdens of the poor.

And on the streets of Detroit and in other urban cores, life grows inexorably grimmer.

To be sure, Detroit has its glittering new ballparks and trendy loft apartments, lures the city has laid to draw the well-to-do back from the suburbs. As attractive as they are, though, downtown developments don't address the tangle of problems that beset Detroit's dispossessed.

Half a century after deindustrialization began, the city continues to hemorrhage jobs. Detroit now has an unemployment rate higher than any other major metropolitan area, with joblessness exceeding 50 percent in its poorest sections. One-third of Detroit's people -- and half of its children -- live below the poverty line. Its infant-mortality rate is only a bit better than that of the West Bank. Despite the continuing success of the African American middle class, neighborhoods are still profoundly segregated, far closer to apartheid than to anything approaching racial balance. The school system is almost completely segregated and frighteningly ineffective: Only 22 percent of Detroit's kids graduate from high school. The drug trade flourishes, fueled by young men who see it as the best (and maybe only) entree into America's consumer paradise. And the body count climbs. More than 20,000 Detroiters have been killed since the summer of '67, 203 of them in the first half of this year.

Inner-city Detroit isn't alone in its misery. Cleveland's poverty rate is higher. Memphis's infant-mortality rate is worse. Though Detroit is the most segregated city in the United States, Milwaukee, Newark and New York don't trail far behind. Public schools in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington -- in most major cities, in fact -- remain largely segregated, Washington's at a rate comparable to that of Detroit. And after a decline in the late 1990s, the brutal, senseless violence that policymakers pledged to stop 40 years ago is again on the rise in poor neighborhoods across urban America.

It's not the violence of '67, of course. Nowadays there are no thick black curls of smoke rising above 12th and Clairmount, demanding the nation's attention. Today's violence is hidden away: a petty crime on Calvert Street; a burst of automatic fire; a little boy -- a baby, really -- lying in a pool of blood. And except for the family and friends who are left to grieve his loss, no one gives a damn.

Kevin Boyle teaches American history at Ohio State University and is the author of "Arc of Justice: A Saga

of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age."

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