Forty-five years ago this week, Detroit erupted into five days of racial violence that left 43 people dead, more than 450 injured, and thousands of buildings burned and looted.
Many people are still trying to get a handle on what that event really signified—and what to call it.
Dan Krichbaum clearly remembers the scene from 1967 as he drove from Ann Arbor to southwest Detroit, where he headed a small Methodist congregation.
“You could see the black clouds just in the sky as you looked at Detroit from the freeway,” said Krichbaum, who now heads the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. “It was just an amazing sight.”
What you call what happened in 1967 depends on your point of view. Many people call it “the riots.” Others call it a “rebellion” or “uprising.”
Kirchbaum calls it a “civil disturbance.” He says just calling it “the riots” suggests black Detroiters had no reason to be angry.
“The wording is important,” Kirchbaum insists. “I think the history books will finally record it as a civil disturbance.”
Kirchbaum says how we talk about 1967 still matters, because Detroit is still grappling with so many of the issues underlying that violence today.
There’s no doubt the 1967 unrest left lasting scars that the city has never recovered from. But it also drove a greater desire to understand and deal with the region’s deep-seated racial and social polarization.
In 1968, two Detroiters, Eleanor Josaitis and Father William Cunningham, started a non-profit group to address the racial discrimination and lack of opportunity underlying the violence. They called it Focus: HOPE.
William Jones is the CEO of Focus: HOPE today. He says while some things have changed for the better, many Detroiters remain trapped without a sense of opportunity.
“Within the city of Detroit, even though it’s shrunk, there’s still an enormous amount of talent that remains untapped,” Jones said. “And we’ve gotta figure out how to take that human capital, and provide it with the necessary means to be productive.”
Since its inception in 1968, Jones says Focus: HOPE has provided more than 12,000 people with in-demand jobs skills.