On this day the 1967 Detroit Riots begin in sweltering heat. They were among the most violent and destructive riots in U.S. history; by the time the bloodshed, burning and looting ended after five days, 43 people were dead, 342 injured, nearly 1,400 buildings had been burned and some 7,000 National Guard and U.S. Army troops had been called into service.
The epicenter, Detroit’s predominantly African-American neighborhood of Virginia Park, was a simmering cauldron of racial tension. About 60,000 low-income residents were crammed into the neighborhood’s 460 acres, living mostly in squalor in sub-divided apartments.
The Detroit Police Department, which had only 50 or so African American officers at the time, was viewed as a white occupying army, as 40% of city residents were black. Accusations of racial profiling and police brutality were commonplace among Detroit’s such residents, and the only other whites in Virginia Park commuted in from the suburbs to run the businesses on 12th Street, then commuted home to relatively affluent enclaves outside Detroit.
The entire city cooked in a state of economic and social strife. As the Motor City’s famed automobile industry shed jobs and moved out of the city center, freeways and suburban amenities beckoned middle-class residents away, which further gutted Detroit’s vitality and left behind vacant storefronts, widespread unemployment, public health crises and impoverished despair.
50 years later, Forbes Magazine had dubbed Detroit “America’s Comeback City.” With every city, town, village and patch in the country now suffering the medical and economic ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, they must all stage comebacks.