Detroit Riots of 1967: Lessons for Today
July 25, 2013
The city of Detroit has declared bankruptcy (Globe). In the summer of 1967, I was in Detroit, with a group of beginning early childhood teachers from around the country. It was a very hopeful time. We were studying how President Johnson's "War on Poverty" would help children and families who were living in poverty in the inner city. A focal point of the "war," Head Start, was in its infancy. It offered new hope, part of a comprehensive set of programs and services designed to help "lift" children and families out of poverty. There was much optimism about the future for Detroit's poor. Officials described Detroit as a "demonstration city" that had quickly and effectively implemented all available programs and resources provided by the federal government to fight the War on Poverty. The deterioration of inner city Detroit had been halted, and many in high places were hopeful that the downward spiral had even been stopped, even reversed.
Then, late one steamy summer night, I woke up to the smell of smoke. I looked out my window and saw the glow of flames in the distance. I heard sirens and an occasional gunshot. The devastating Detroit riots of 1967 had begun. Over the next few days I got a small taste of what it means to live in a war zone. We were housebound. We regularly saw troops and heard the rumble of tanks and machine gun fire. We turned on no lights at night and developed extensive procedures for evacuating in case of fire.
A few days after things calmed down, we were taken on a "tour" to see the rubble. I was devastated at what I saw, as was the city. I volunteered at an early childhood program that had survived. The children were clingy, angry, hungry, electively mute, teary. It made me teary too, and discouraged. All the hope I had gained from listening to Detroit officials was dashed. I gained a whole new level of appreciation of how complex the goal of combating poverty and its effects really is. I deeply hoped that the country would wholeheartedly take on the challenge. Little did I know that the riots brought Detroit to a place of no return -- decades of decay, insolvency, and failing schools that disproportionally affected its poor and vulnerable children.