Fifty years ago next month, a police raid on a Detroit after-hours bar exploded into five days of violent unrest.
The city is still grappling with what happened in the summer of 1967.
A new exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum called Detroit 67: Perspectives digs deep into what happened during those few days. It also looks at the history surrounding the uprising, and how it’s shaped the city ever since.
Michigan Radio’s Sarah Cwiek talked with the Detroit Historical Society’s Rebecca Salminen Witt about the exhibit, which has been in the works for more than two years.
“One of the first things that they realized was that to do this subject matter justice, we had to do our business as a historical society a little differently,” Witt said. “We needed to reach out into the community, get their stories, get their perspectives, understand how they felt about it and what they remembered about it.”
The DHS started gathering oral histories of the riots well in advance of the exhibit. It's collected nearly 500 so far.
“The things that we chose to highlight in the exhibition itself are the things that came up over and over again in people’s memories, because we knew those were the significant stories that had to be told," Witt said.
The exhibit starts with a series of terms and definitions. It gets right to the heart of one of the lingering controversies surrounding the events of 1967: what to call it? A riot, a rebellion, an uprising, or one of any number of other words? Witt says it depends on individual perspective, but the events themselves were also complex.
“The reason we have so many [words] there is because throughout the days of the uprising in 1967, any one of those may have applied at different times,” Witt said. “And that’s why you hear people call it so many different things.”
Another part of the exhibit looks at Detroit’s history in the 50-year run-up to 1967.
It highlights another bloody event in Detroit’s history: the 1943 riots, which Witt calls “Detroit’s real race riot.”
When people call it a race riot in 1967, they’re wrong,” Witt said. “We did have a race riot. It happened in 1943, with different races rioting against each other. In 1967, the races were rioting together. And so that’s a pretty essential difference.”
Another area is set up like a typical 1960s American living room because “many people experienced the uprising from their living room,” Witt said. A row of TVs takes you on a quick trip through the images broadcast during the days of the riots.
“There was a media blackout for a couple of days,” Witt said. “And so you see a lot of children’s programming, and just kind of random things that would have been on TV at that time, and then it starts progressing, and you start to see the news reports picking up.”
Witt says those broadcast images shaped people’s impressions of what was going on.
“The fact that there were very few images of any white people looting was a significant thing,” Witt said. “There were absolutely white people looting. They just didn’t show it on TV.”
There are many other dimensions to the exhibit, including companion events around Detroit in the coming weeks.
Witt says the hope is for the larger project to continue beyond the upcoming 50th anniversary, building on relationships built with community partners over the past two years.
“We think there’s some great promise," Witt said. "There is enough good things happening in the city of Detroit that people want to get together and talk this through, and become a different kind of community. If this exhibition helps power that initiative forward, it will have been a real success.”
Detroit 67: Perspectives opened to the public Saturday, June 24 at the Detroit Historical Museum.