Six Days in July: The 1967 Detroit Riots

The film record of how WWJ-TV News covered the events of this critical week in Detroit history.

The Detroit riots in late July of 1967 were the bloodiest and costliest civil disturbance in U.S. history.

This WWJ-TV (which later became WDIV) special titled “Six Days in July” focuses on the coverage of the 1967 riots in Detroit and the response from officials and the community.

Newsmen Ven Marshall and Dick Westerkamp anchor the report.

Synopsis by: John Steckroth

Day 1 -- Sunday, July 23, 1967

Raid sparks riots on 12th Street

Detroit police raided an unlicensed after-hours drinking establishment or "blind pig" at the corner of Clairmont and 12th streets early Sunday morning. The building had been under surveillance for several weeks. The blind-pig was hosting a welcome-home party for two returning Vietnam veterans. The police arrested all the patrons in attendance.

A group of bystanders gathered and their curiosity turned to hostility. Bottles began flying, store windows were broken and the contents of trash cans were set fire. Buildings soon caught fire and the entire west side appeared to be in flames. Looters began taking merchandise from store fronts and the crowd's size and momentum grew. 

"When our police department moved in, the crowd just overwhelmed them and we were attempting to protect firemen when they were fighting fires," Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh said on Meet the Press the following week.

Officers try to regain control as crowds grow on 12th Street during the first day of the Detroit riots on Sunday, July 23, 1967. (WDIV)

Police set up a command headquarters at Herman Kiefer Hospital, just several blocks away from where the rioting started. Every police officer and firefighter in Detroit was called to duty.

Cavanagh held a news conference to provide an update to the situation. Several officers had been injured by the throwing of bottles and stones. Cavanagh asked Michigan Governor George Romney to send in additional state police officers. Romney sent 300 officers and ordered 600 Michigan Army National Guardsmen into Detroit. They assembled on the field of Central High School.

Several other news conferences were held as the situation worsened. A curfew was put into effect from 9 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. and a public state of emergency was declared. Looters were arrested throughout the night.

Day 2 -- Monday, July 24, 1967

Federal troops called into Michigan

The second day of the riots began with fires burning across the city's west side. The fires never stretched east of Woodward Avenue. Many of the buildings were looted before they were set fire. BBC journalists compared the helicopter views of city to the aftermath of the London Blitz during the second world war. Strong winds kept the fires spreading throughout the afternoon.

The governor had committed the entire Michigan National Guard to Detroit by 3 a.m. It was the first time in U.S. history that an entire state guard was sent into one city. It still wasn't enough.

Romney wired President Lyndon B. Johnson officially requesting that federal troops be dispatched to Michigan. and advanced elements of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions began arriving at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. Johnson addressed the nation.

“The federal government should not intervene except in the most extraordinary circumstances,” Johnson said. “The fact of the matter, however, is that law and order have broken down in Detroit, Michigan. Pillage, looting, murder and arson have nothing to do with civil rights. They are criminal conduct, and the federal government and circumstances here presented have no alternative but to respond.”

Day 3 -- Tuesday, July 25, 1967

Brief lull in violence leads to deadly night

The frightened and confused residents of the city began inventory their losses and hope that the violence would end. Newsman Dwayne Riley took to the streets to talk to the victims. One man he spoke to had a wife with second-degree burns. A woman said her family was forced from their home as fires spread down the block. 

Massive cleanup efforts were made as ruble and glass was removed from some city streets during a lull in the violence in the early evening. 

Federal troops were patrolling the east side while the Michigan National Guard patrolled west of Woodward Avenue. Sniper activity broke out all over the west side. A woman was killed in the Harlan House Motel. Several people were killed at the Algiers Motel. Even cars were taking sniper fire on the Lodge Freeway.

Helicopters flew over head helping to locate sniper locations. 

"It made no difference what street you drove down, be it a major street like Woodward or Jefferson, or it was a tiny side street, and it made no difference in the racial composition of the neighborhood, you could be driving in a perfectly quiet area and suddenly gunfire was everywhere," newsman Robert Lyle said.

A total of 26 people were killed Tuesday.

Paratroopers keeping order in Downtown Detroit on Tuesday, July 25, 1967. (WDIV)

Day 4 -- Wednesday, July 26, 1967

Some store owners begin price gouging

Bullet holes could be found in buildings all over the city. Over a thousand people were injured and hospital were full of victims who had suffered burns, gunshots, stab wounds, and assaults.

Some donated food while some store owners were price gouging. The governor condemned the profiteering during a news conference.

"I've just heard very disturbing reports that some of the merchants and others are beginning to take advantage of the hardship in the area and are beginning to charge excessive prices for milk and bread and the necessities of life," Romney said. "I can't think of anything more reprehensible than to profiteer of the expense of those who have suffered from this tragedy."

A Universal Newsreel describes the state of the city on the fourth day of the riots. 

Day 5 -- Thursday, July 27, 1967

Rains bring brief peace to the city

Rains came early Thursday which finally brought quiet to the deserted streets of the Motor City that troopers continued to patrol. The last of the violence continued later in fairer weather.

The demand for blood was so great that the city's supply was exhausted. Hundreds of people donated blood to fill the shortage. Thousands of people were left homeless. Food was donated from across Metro Detroit. Four schools were designated as centers for relief. 

Several sniper incidents continued through Thursday. The curfew was briefly lifted but reinstated as troubled areas of the city were flooded by spectators from across the metro area.

Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) sat for an interview discussing the state of the city and his thoughts about riots.

“It’s not an accumulation of a couple of years or since World War II,” Conyers said. “I think that were going to be able to look into this and find that when you take 250 years of slavery and put 102 years of second to tenth class citizenship according to where you live, created, in America, a special negro culture, segregated at all times except for a few general exceptions and a little tokenism type progress, that you began building up this kind of resentment.”

Conyers was first elected to congress in 1964, representing Michigan's 1st District, which was later renumbered to the 14th district in 1990 and later the 13th district in 2013.

“Most of the people (that were arrested), as I can determine, are not generally known in the community,” Conyers said. “I’ve described them as the economic ‘have-nots’ in our community.”

Conyers took to the streets on the first day of the riots, using a bullhorn in an attempt to encourage African Americans to go home. He told the crowds that nothing could be achieved through violence, but the people were too frustrated and enraged to listen. Protesters shouted 'No' and began throwing rocks, bricks and bottles.

Congressman John Conyers, Detroit Democrat, uses a bullhorn as he tried to encourage African American in Detroit's riot area to go home, July 23, 1967. He was met with shouts of "No, no." As Conyers stepped down a rock hit the street a few feet from him. (AP)

Day 6 -- Friday, July 28, 1967

Riot aftermath

The Superior Beauty and Barber Supply on 12th Street burned down at about 5:30 a.m. Friday. Firefighters were blocked by sniper activity. They believed the sniper had caused the fire. The building was destroyed but the residential area behind it was saved by firefighters.

Romney wired President Lyndon Johnson asking for assistance:

“The catastrophe which has struck the city of Detroit is a disaster by any reasonable definition of that term. Entire blocks have been leveled by fire and pockets of destruction exist throughout the city. Losses due to fire and looting have been estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars and these estimates may well prove to be conservative...”

The public bathhouses on Belle Isle were used as a temporary jail. The courts extended hours and additional judges were brought in to hear cases. Funerals were held for Detroit police officer Jerome Olshove and firefighter Carl Smith of Ladder Company 11. 

A total of 43 people were killed in the riots. Some 1,700 stores were looted and nearly 1,400 buildings were burned.

Michigan National Guardsmen watch as fires burn on 12th Street in Detroit on Friday, July 28, 1967. (WDIV)

Meet the Press -- Sunday, July 30, 1967

NBC’s Meet the Press was filmed in Detroit on Sunday, July 30, 1967 and Cavanagh was the guest answering questions about the riots.

Bill Matney, of NBC News, asked Cavanagh why this happened in Detroit. Cavanagh said that it was more than just a local problem. He said that the city was confronted by thousands of people that felt alienated from society.

Martin Hayden of the Detroit News asked about an incident in which a police inspector in charge of two squads said the politicians were holding police back from effective control of crowds. Cavanagh denied the allegations.

“I don’t know of any politicians, downtown or anyplace else, that gave any kind of instructions to our police officers,” Cavanagh said.

Haynes Johnson of the Washington Star Syndicate asked about the chances of similar riots across the country. Cavanagh said that Congress was indifferent to the issues that many Americans faced.

“What will it profit this country if we, say, put a man on the moon by 1970 and at the same time you can’t walk down Woodward Avenue in this city without some fear of violence,” Cavanagh said. “We may be able to pacify every village in Vietnam over a period of years but what good does it do if we can’t pacify the American cities.”

John Steele of Time-Life asked if more money were available to the city for programs to help the people of Detroit, would the riots have happened. Cavanagh said that unfortunately funds may have made a difference. He said that the government should be able to provide the opportunity for employment.

Matney asked about the redevelopment of the city and how civil rights would be addressed.

“Underneath the surface, this was in fact a race riot and a race revolution,” Cavanagh said. “It is our plan to involve as best we can some kind of participation, as full as we can get it, from the residents of the neighborhoods involved.”

Gov. Romney blames riots on racism and welfare state

Romney addressed the state of Michigan after the riots had been contained. He began the address with goals for the city and for the people of Michigan.

“Unless we take the proper course, this nation in the years ahead could be plunged into civil guerrilla warfare,” Romney said.

Romney gave a number of causes for the riots, saying that racism on both sides were a factor. He said that too many people were left out of society and blamed the welfare state, saying it had “rewarded illegitimacy and penalized family life.”

“In too many ways, we have substituted government, money and professionals for our personal responsibilities as neighbors and brothers,” Romney said. “The greatest human progress is produced by those who find ways to more fully serve others. The greatest human problems are overcome only when we care enough to help another.”

Mayor Cavanagh discusses root causes of riots

Cavanagh sat for an interview to discuss the causes of the Detroit riots.

Cavanagh stated that this type of riot could have happened to any major city in the country due to a national sickness afflicting Americans.

“The public resources in this country are either in the state government or principally the federal government,” Cavanagh said. “The state governments traditionally have ignored the needs of the urban areas, not just in this state but practically every state in the union, and the federal government has only dealt with these things in a very half-hearted manner.”

The mayor was asked about how much of the sniper activity was organized and he said there would be investigations into the shootings, but that it did not appear to be organized.

“Our priorities in this country are all out of balance,” Cavanagh said. “We had made really no national commitment on the part of the public or the congress, or the private sector for that matter, to really start to rebuild our cities, not just physically but socially as well.”

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