DETROIT -- On the 20th anniversary of the nation's worst urban rioting this century, Michigan State University issued an alarming report: The same racial and economic inequalities that existed here in 1967 "are still prevalent today," it said, and "the possibility of history repeating itself might be only one spark away."
The report caused no great stir here. Detroit, the nation's sixth-largest city, has become brain-dead to bad news.
"In many ways, conditions are worse than they were 20 years ago," said the Rev. Charles Butler, whose congregation includes Mayor Coleman Young. "The gap between blacks and whites has widened. Unemployment is higher. There is less availability of jobs. There are far more broken-up families. Housing is, in many instances, less accessible."
The same could be said of other cities that were wracked by racial rioting in the 1960s, according to urban experts. But the message is particularly disturbing here.
Once the symbol of U.S. industrial majesty, Detroit has come to symbolize America's urban travails. Its riot was the most destructive of a troubled era, surpassing earlier episodes in Watts and Newark and later riots in Washington and elsewhere. Forty-three people were killed and 7,000 were arrested in the Detroit riots, and $50 million in property was damaged.
No city assembled more public and private muscle for the recovery effort. Among members of a New Detroit Committee were Henry Ford II and the presidents of Chrysler Corp., General Motors and the United Auto Workers union.
Perhaps no city had more frustrating results. "The most obvious failure is that after 20 years we do not have a new Detroit," said Stanley Winkelman, a clothing chain executive and a former chairman of the New Detroit Committee. "The city, despite the efforts of business and government, is barely holding its own economically."
There is, however, a different Detroit.
It is smaller and poorer than the city of 1967, but in some ways more responsive to blacks. It has a black mayor, a black police chief, a black school superintendent, a black majority city council and a police department not openly at war with the city's blacks.
Now the largest black-majority city in the nation, it is a city of contradictions, surrounded by prospering suburbs and buffeted by shifting economic tides.
One of the world's most modern auto plants is in its borders; another is under construction. But it doesn't have a single major downtown department store.
This Detroit has the highest murder rate in the nation, and one resident in three receives public assistance. Yet young white professionals flock to fashionable high-rises along its riverfront. It also has the second-highest number of black households in the nation with incomes over $35,000, following only Washington.
"Detroit is definitely better off than it was," Mayor Young said, surveying this Detroit from his downtown office.
George Mister, owner of George's Party Store, agreed.
"We've had some big changes down here," he said from the front door of his grocery. "Used to be that people were piled on top of one another here. This whole area is better off now. People are spread out."
Mister's place is at Clairmount and old 12th Street -- once the heart of a red-light district, a center for gambling, prostitution and drugs in one of the city's most densely populated neighborhoods.
The old pool halls, beer joints and pawn shops that once lined the street, now renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard, are long gone, replaced by grassy boulevards, a new shopping center, a community center and rows of subsidized town houses.
The riot erupted across the street from Mister's place on July 23, 1967, during a 3:30 a.m. police raid on an after-hours drinking establishment, known locally as a "blind pig."
A crowd gathered that hot, steamy night, as reports circulated about police officers beating a man and kicking a woman. As police shoved patrons of the blind pig into paddy wagons, a bottle smashed on the sidewalk. More bottles followed, smashing store windows and setting off waves of looting and burning. Within an hour, dozens of stores in a 16-block area were plundered and set afire by roving bands of blacks and whites. The late UAW President Walter P. Reuther declared that Detroit had become "the very first city in America to achieve integrated looting."
Before the rioting ended six days later, 1,442 separate fires were reported, 2,000 people were injured, 5,000 people were left homeless, and federal troops were called in.
Mister and his uncle, Booker Hurd, were lucky.
Their grocery was the only store in the neighborhood untouched by looting or burning, Mister said. "People kept saying, 'Leave George and Booker alone.' Everyone liked my uncle. They called him Mr. Booker," Mister recalled. "After the riot, we were the only thing left standing here. We had so much business we would hardly keep anything on the shelves."
The two men prospered in the ensuing years, but the riot changed life in their neighborhood and much of Detroit in unforeseen ways, changes that accelerated with the decline of the auto industry and the city's economy.
Living was relatively good in Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s. Jobs were plentiful and wages among the highest in the industrial world. It was a place where an unskilled factory worker could afford a home, a car and a boat.
"Before the rebellion, a black man in Detroit had a certain stability, a false sense of security," said the Rev. Albert B. Cleage Jr., founder of Shrines of Black Madonna. "He now has no security whatsoever. The whole atmosphere in the black community has become one of escapism. People use drugs and every kind of hustle and scheme to get by. The dope industry has taken over the excess people from the auto industry."
"We're rioting internally. We've let drugs take over our community," said the Rev. James Holley, pastor of Little Rock Baptist Church. "We're killing one another."
One to die was Booker Hurd, 64, the black grocery proprietor who had survived the riot. On Sept. 13, 1983, Hurd was shot and killed by a young robber as he closed up for the night. The robber, later found to have been on drugs, then set the place afire.
After debating whether to move, Mister reopened. He now carries a pistol on his hip; a shotgun rests behind the counter, which is screened from customers by bullet-proof glass.
Detroit, a city of almost 1.9 million in 1950, was in decline long before 1967. The riot simply accelerated an exodus that had begun a quarter-century before with the construction of expressways that split neighborhoods and made commuting from suburbs easy.
Almost 500,000 whites moved from the city between 1967 and 1984; the number of retail stores dropped from 11,496 to 5,431, according to the Census Bureau. Among the closings was J.L. Hudson's downtown department store, which was second in size only to New York's Macy's.
Detroit's population is now less than 1.1 million, two-thirds black. Parts of the city are a virtual wasteland, barren and decaying. Abandoned houses pockmark every block in some neighborhoods; store after store is boarded up on many retail streets; whole blocks have been leveled.
"We lost 800,000 people in a period of 40 years," Young said. "No other city has lost people at that rate. That's almost as much as the combined population of New Orleans and El Paso. It should come as no surprise that there are abandoned buildings."
Young and others argue that the 1967 riot was essentially a rebellion against a repressive, predominantly white police force.
Young won election as Detroit's first black mayor in 1973, defeating a former police commissioner. Now in his fourth term, he considers reforming the police department one of his greatest achievements.
Young, one of the nation's most powerful black politicians, has lured millions of dollars of government and private development money to the city. He remains popular with black voters and white businessmen, but increasingly finds himself governing a weakened city with a shrinking tax base.
"Economic conditions are worse here than anywhere. Plus, expectations are higher," said a frustrated Young, adding later, "I can't walk on water. I can't make loaves and fishes."
Nearly two of every three residents in a recent Detroit News poll said the quality of life in the city is worse than 10 years ago. Some blame this on Young.
"If whites folks were doing to us what the black folks are doing, we would have raised hell a long time ago," said Holley. "It doesn't matter if you get white folks stabbing you in the chest or black folks stabbing you in the back. You die just the same. That's what we have here. You have the field blacks controlled by the plantation blacks."
Forty-six percent of blacks surveyed in the Detroit News poll said they thought the riot helped the civil rights cause; 28 percent said it hurt. When the newspaper polled 63 business and political leaders, 71 percent said the riot furthered civil rights.
But there is a widespread feeling that economic and civil rights gains of the 1960s and 1970s have eroded, hurting blacks.
MSU's report, titled "The State of Black Michigan," said 9.8 percent of blacks and 2.9 percent of whites were unemployed in Detroit in 1967. The gap between races narrowed considerably by 1976, when 15 percent of blacks and 11.3 percent of whites were out of work in the city. By 1985, however, 30.7 percent of blacks in Detroit were unemployed, compared with 13.3 percent of whites.
In retrospect, black and white leaders acknowledge that they were too optimistic about the city's prospects 20 years ago.
"Basically black people in Detroit feel much less hopeful than they did in 1967. The rebellion and riot came out of an unsophisticated hope that things could change very quickly," said Cleage, who was described as a black militant in news accounts after the riot. "There is no one you can blame. The whole economic system in America fell apart."
"We deluded ourselves into thinking we could rebuild Detroit very quickly," said Winkelman. "The big lesson from these 20 years is you have to dig at it very hard and keep going. Leadership is what worries me now. We had some good corporate response from the riots. Now we have new CEOs. They pay lip service, but I don't know if they have the same commitment."