Saturday, July 22, 2017

Detroit 1967... 50 Years Ago Today

The world health organization recognizes that the formative years for a child spans up to 8 years and is a big determining factor for cognitive, social, emotional and physical development.  Where I to rate those years for myself I would have to say they were pretty good overall… I had a solid loving family with a mother who perhaps may have been a bit to protective… I grew up to be self sustaining albeit a bit over sensitive.  In today's media I am bombarded by images of children as victims of violence, war, often fleeing as a refugee and I recognize I have no idea what the impact that is having on their lives.  Little kids should never live in war zones… Todays anniversary of the Detroit Riots has dredged up old memories of events from the mid to late 60’s that have stayed with me to this day and even the relative safety of a domestic war zone has left lasting impressions on a little boy on the cusp of being 7.   Fifty years ago today I was that little boy.

My memory of those years are very rich and complete… I once described to my mother my trip home from the hospital after my birth in some detail which amazed her and it was no different for days like the JFK assassination, MLK, RFK they are also so clear to me…perhaps as they effected my mother so intensely.  The TV was a literal title wave of scary events happening and the first hit close to home was having my uncle and godfather/name sake Paul Christopher Cushman injured in the Vietnam war in 1966.  I watched as many did the nightly coverage of the battles on CBS and wondered what he had been through.  In January 1967 America had lost the Apollo 1 crew in a fire and college campuses were beginning to erupt everywhere protesting the war, I literally quaked every night watching the live news feeds from that days fighting and the numbers of men who would not be coming home and I wondered would they send me when I reached draft age or earlier?

I didn’t have long to wait, on the morning of July 23rd at 3:45 am the war came right to this six year olds front door.  Detroit like many other urban centers that year was a powder keg of racial tension at the apex of the modern civil rights movement in America.  A blind pig (after hours drinking and gambling) at 12th street (now Rosa Parks Boulevard) was raided by the police… the owner Bill Scott riled up by the already building crowd outside picked up a bottle from the alley and lobed it at the head of the residing sergeant standing in the front door of his establishment… the bottle missed but shattered near the officers and that began one of the worst riots in US History.  We lived within the 250 block zone placed under marshal law by the military and were included in the curfew.   The effects of the riot radiated across the whole city and within the next 5 days 43 people had been killed, 342 injuries and almost fifteen hundred buildings, homes and businesses had been burned to the ground. By the end of the first day the national guard had locked the city down for a battle that really no other city has experienced since. While there are those who would debate the difference between riot and rebellion this was a rebellion ignited by a riot.

Scott's Blind Pig (illegal afterhour bar)


Bill Scott

For me the little boy it was alarming to see the national guard, hear the gun battles and see the city a glow from fires that burned huge swaths of my city to the ground. From 1964 to 1969 there had been 15 race related urban riots but Detroits eclipsed them all in size and destruction.  Today some think of the scenes in Ferguson and think that was a riot but indeed that was more akin to civil unrest and could have escalated into so much more. The LA riots of 92 had more deaths and injured, over 1 billion dollars in property losses… the national guard was not even engaged until late in the third day… since that event in 1992 LA has rebuilt and has little to show for anything ever happening. 

That was not Detroit fait in 1967.  By July 28th the riots had ended but in all reality Detroit was on life support and really never fully recuperated.  To be honest Detroits decline began at the end of World War 2 when GI’s returned and flush with benefits choose to build homes in what would become the suburbs, but the riots and destruction became a turning point for the city.  I remember my birthday 2 days later being a sullen event and this frightened now seven year old boy became even more sensitive to the darker issues of life.  In mid August there was a full on revolt at my school as a new African American Teacher Mrs. Wilma Floyd was starting and was set to be my second grade teacher. My mother was called into an emergency PTA meeting (which I attended)…The simple fact was there was a boat load of parents aching to have her removed before she started… My ever vocal mother was there to call out the bullshit and after a prolonged week of debate I started second grade with Mrs. Floyd at the head of my class… I loved her but my first go at second grade was a disaster.  I had receded into myself and felt little or no need to even try school… I passed with nearly all D’s and again the ensuing fight from my mother to not just be passed on for future failure, I repeated grade 2 the next year.

1968 was no better of a year, Vietnam raged on, thousands of Americans were dieing , MLK was killed, The disastrous Democratic convention happened ending with Bobby Kennedy killed, there was not much for anyone to pin their hopes on until Christmas 1968 when Apollo 8 showed the earth from the moon for the very first time and the world stopped and collectively began the arduous process of pulling up its collective socks in a moment of reflection.  Mrs Floyd took a different tact with me during round two by making me a grade 2 subject matter expert and I spent more time helping kids in my class than doing my own work… I wasn’t dumb the year before I was disengaged and like the summer of 1967 she changed my life for ever this time for the better.

By 1969 we had landed on the moon and it seemed like there really wasn’t anything we couldn’t do.  When I go through my life I realize we are all the sum of our life experiences and while the world has seen many conflicts and corruption since that summer most kids in North America have never really faced troops and tanks rolling past their homes, never experienced the red and orange glow of their city as it was burned to the ground.  I would not wish that on any seven year old or child for that matter but the experience has left me with a deeper perspective that has reflected through my life.

I think you have good intentions and I agree with you with the ongoing struggles with black racism in this country and the world but I wish you could see that you are no better by blaming all white people and creating hatred in people's hearts. “Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn't matter which color does the hating. It's just plain wrong.” 

― Muhammad Ali

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