Deferred Freedom Agenda

Against the Current, No. 129, July/August 2007

The Editors

ON THE NIGHT of July 23, 1967, Black Detroit exploded. Although only one of dozens of large and small “ghetto rebellions” in U.S. cities that summer, the Detroit uprising was the one that most shocked white America and the political establishment, highlighted the limitations of the struggle for purely formal civil rights, and brought America — or at least those of its citizens who were willing to look — face to face with the nation’s real condition. Neither the city police nor the National Guard could suppress it; it ended only when federal troops (including many Back Vietnam veterans) came in.

Forty years later, many African-American activists in Detroit will tell you that 1967 initiated a political transition, whereby white corporate power saw the need to protect its fundamental interests by nurturing a Black elite to replace the discredited white-dominated one in running the city’s affairs. The city today is an 85% African-American city — with a growing Latino minority especially in southwest Detroit — confronting an interlocking set of crises extending from the global economy, to ruinous national policies, to a fractured and less than functional local political leadership.

Journalists will generally opine that the 1967 rebellion triggered the massive “white flight” from Detroit and its industrial decline; careful historians like Thomas Sugrue (Origins of the Urban Crisis) and Heather Ann Thompson (Whose Detroit?), however, have shown on the one hand that the city’s population decline and “deindustrialization” began before ’67, and on the other that the full-blown white abandonment of Detroit dates from the loss of white political power with the 1973 election of Mayor Coleman Young.

The rebellion itself had multiple causes. It was triggered immediately by one too many cases of arbitrary white police brutality, a raid on an after-hours club on a hot summer night. But the real reasons ran deeper. Housing segregation prevailed even after decades of block-by-block integration battles. The Black community remained largely cut off from access to political power, despite a liberal (white) mayor. And perhaps most significant: Despite the apparent prosperity of the city and despite a United Auto Workers leadership that said all the right things about civil rights and put itself strategically at the head of every march, a virtual apartheid system prevailed in the auto plants, with African-American workers systematically herded into the hardest and dirtiest jobs and virtually shut out of the Skilled Trades.

In this context, the right to order coffee in a restaurant or sit anywhere on the bus — issues that had touched off a real revolution in the Jim Crow Deep South — were pretty well irrelevant in the northern ghetto. Add to this the fact that many young men in Black Detroit had been to Vietnam, shipped their weapons home, and shared the growing rage over this racist and failed imperialist war.

The war was very much part of the context of the rebellion, as was the deepening radicalization and international consciousness of the militant generation discussed by Gloria House in this issue of Against the Current. At the same time, the national Civil Rights movement — as Mark Higbee’s review essay also in these pages indicates – had achieved its greatest victories but was now posing deeper challenges to priorities and privileges and power, challenges to which the nation and liberal supporters of the earlier southern struggle would fail to respond.

Trauma and Pride

Specific factors triggered the Detroit 1967 explosion, but rebellions among people of color living in impoverished, de facto segregated cities were a feature of the period — Harlem, Watts (Los Angeles) and Newark being among the most prominent. The Detroit rebellion, then, was in some sense inevitable although its timing had many chance components.

Make no mistake, it was a more traumatic event for Black Detroit than for anyone else. More than 40 African Americans died as white police indulged their hardly-hidden desires to gun down Black men at will. It’s important to emphasize that violence against people during the rebellion was almost entirely that of police against the community.

The economic impact was devastating. To this day, the question remains murky of who carried out the widespread arson that left hundreds homeless. Miles of what was Twelfth Street, now renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard, remain bare of commercial activity four decades later.

It is not surprising that the ghetto rebellions very rarely occurred in one place more than once. Detroit was not among the dozens of cities that exploded in looting and fires a year later, when Martin Luther King was murdered. No one wanted to undergo that experience a second time. And yet — the rebellion evoked a sense of pride in a community that refused to continue being silent in the face of injustice and oppression.

At a recent conference to mark the anniversary — the contribution by Gloria House in this issue was presented there — people watched archival footage of buildings and stores burning, recalling the businesses they had frequented as children or how they had walked miles through the streets to check on extended family members. Confusion and fear along with the pride of rebellion all came back — because those in attendance recognized that many of their own life opportunities, in terms of access to professional or political careers or better jobs and housing than their parents and grandparents, derived in considerable part from the fear thrown into the establishment when Black Detroit stood up.

Out of the 1967 rebellion came not only initiatives from the top like New Detroit, or the political ascendancy of Coleman Young with all its contradictions. There also arose within a couple short years the Revolutionary Union Movements in the auto plants, ultimately the political formation called the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, confronting the apartheid-like jobs reservation system in the plants and the UAW bureaucracy. A period of wildcat strikes, heat walkouts and general militancy on the shop floor would continue until the devastating stagflation recession of 1974-’75 threw the struggle for a big loss — opening a new chapter of Detroit’s long crisis beyond the scope of this discussion.

In some sense, however limited the analogy, the struggles of Black Detroit and its allies from 1967-1973 can be seen as the city’s Intifadah. Like its Palestinian counterpart, the uprising did not achieve liberation, but it offers a powerful glimpse of the possibilities for oppressed people seizing control of their own destiny. The July 1967 events won’t be duplicated in today’s different conditions, nor would anyone want to; but in the United States and internationally (think of Bolivia, for example, also covered extensively in this issue), new kinds of insurgencies are absolutely necessary.

Detroiters today confront myriad issues, including obscene cutoffs of water and heat to thousands of households unable to pay rising bills, and an ongoing threat to the city’s control of its historically superb water system. City workers, regrettably, have not stood together in the face of severe cutbacks; last year, however, saw a major successful teachers’ strike and in recent weeks bus drivers walked out to force action on safety issues. The city loses roughly 10,000 people yearly, despite the growth of a vibrant Latino community, with African-American professionals and many working people moving out of the city to suburban Detroit. Much of this flight is motivated by the city’s failing school system.

Unfinished Agenda

What then is “Freedom’s Unfinished Agenda” today? Martin Luther King, becoming more radical in the wake of the ghetto rebellions, spoke of a “true revolution of values” that would be required to overcome poverty, racism and war and complete the civil rights agenda. We can see today that without such a transformation, the very gains of the civil rights struggle are at risk.

The right wing in power has figured out how to undermine the Voting Rights Act and is assiduously pursuing that project with Voter ID laws, stealth purging of voter rolls, and intimidation and prosecution of those who mobilize the oppressed to use their votes effectively (such as the prosecution and frameup of Reverend Ed Pinkney in Benton Harbor, Michigan). Among the biggest blows is that prisoners are denied the vote even once their time is served.

Racial and ethnic profiling, once on the way out, is back with a vengeance since 9/11. Affirmative action, a critical practical tool for overcoming discrimination won by the civil rights struggle, is becoming outlawed. Labor rights have been gutted, and unions weakened, to the point where — something no one could have imagined in 1967 — there’s serious discussion of making Michigan, where the United Auto Workers was once considered a juggernaut, into a “right to work” state where closed union shops would be abolished!

There’s also a new and old factor, as Malik Miah discusses in his column on “fear-mongering” and “backlash,” as immigrants take the place of Black people as scapegoats for white working people’s problems. Add to this the international dimension — the fact that United States military spending now matches the rest of the world’s combined, the disaster in Iraq, the ravages of corporate “free trade,” and the imminence of catastrophic climate change and environmental destruction in this century — and it’s clear that the “true revolution of values” could not be more urgent.

Revolutions in values, however, require revolutionary social movements as their most essential condition (even if the two do go together). Values will change for the better with, and only with, the advance of the global justice movement. And at the heart of that movement must be the oppressed seizing their own destiny. The 1967 rebellion, a product of its time that also shaped its time, partly opened a door toward freedom, but the challenge to walk all the way through remains for Black Detroit, for America and for the world.

ATC 129, July-August 2007