'Detroit': The Real Story Behind the Movie

With the opening of Kathryn Bigelow’s 'Detroit,' we look back at the real-life events that gripped the city 50 years ago.
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Detroit Riots

An aerial view of widespread fires started during the Detroit Riot in July 1967.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Detroit Riot (which some refer to as an uprising or rebellion). Before the release of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, an upcoming film with a dramatic take on these events, here's a look at what actually happened and some of the people who were involved:

A riot takes hold

In the early hours of Sunday, July 23, 1967, Detroit police raided a "blind pig" (the name for establishments that served alcohol after the legal closing time) on 12th Street, a section of the city whose black population had endured years of police harassment. A crowd gathered as police waited to transport more than 80 arrestees. Around 5 a.m. someone threw a bottle at a police van, and soon people were looting a nearby store. The riot grew from there.

'Detroit' movie

A scene from the movie 'Detroit' depicts the unrest that took over the city. 

Police initially tried to surround rioters and de-escalate with limited force, but couldn't cope with the size of the crowds. In an attempt to ease tensions, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh had directed that looters not be shot, but unfortunately this contributed to people — both black and white — stealing more. Fires also spread, but the firefighters who tried to combat them were attacked.

Later on July 23, Martha Reeves, of the group Martha and the Vandellas, learned the city was on fire and had to tell concert attendees the event was over. Smoke was visible after the Detroit Tigers finished an afternoon double header, but baseball player Willie Horton didn't head to safety as advised — 12th Street was close to where he'd grown up, so he went to plead with rioters not to destroy their own neighborhood. On the radio Sunday evening, Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg asked people to remain calm, nonviolent and off the streets; she would stay on the air for 48 hours to spread this message.

Politics in play

During the day on July 23, U.S. Representative John Conyers tried to convince crowds around 12th Street to stop the violence — the response he got was to be pelted with projectiles, and police advised him to leave the area for safety. As rioting spread through the city, Mayor Cavanagh asked Michigan State police for help; National Guard assistance was later requested as well. When Governor George Romney rode in a helicopter over Detroit that evening he noted, "It looks like the city has been bombed."

Officials set up a 9 p.m. curfew that was largely ignored, and fear spread with reports of snipers that night. The National Guard were mobilized late on July 23, but were mostly untrained for the upheaval they faced. Given the level of unrest  — the first deaths were recorded early on Monday, July 24 — Romney and Cavanagh both wanted federal forces. However, political concerns made this step more difficult.

Cavanagh was a Democrat, as was President Lyndon Johnson. Romney was not only a Republican, he was a leading contender for his party's presidential nomination in 1968. This meant that Johnson, in addition to worrying that sending in federal troops would undermine his civil rights record, may have balked at the thought of aiding a rival, while Romney didn't want to burnish Johnson's reputation.

The Johnson administration said Romney needed to make a written statement that the situation was out of control before they would send troops. Romney countered that doing so could invalidate insurance policies. Valuable time was lost wrangling before Romney sent a telegram that said, "I do hereby officially request federal troops to restore order in Detroit."

The Army arrives

The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions started to arrive in the afternoon on Monday, July 24. Yet there was another delay: An official from the Johnson administration, Cyrus Vance, witnessed a period of relative calm when he toured the streets in the late afternoon, so it wasn't until around midnight, after rioting worsened once more, that Johnson gave approval for federal troops to move in.

The Army paratroopers were disciplined and battle-tested, and order began to be restored — at a price. Some suspected looters were shot; those arrested were given extremely high bail. On Tuesday, July 25, still wary of snipers, National Guardsmen, having seen a flash when a cigarette was lit, shot at an apartment building. The gunfire gravely injured one woman and killed a four-year-old girl inside.

Detroit Riot

A Michigan National Guard armored personnel carrier stands guard along with five tanks and a small fleet of helicopters in an attempt to quell the rioting in Detroit in July 1967. 

House to house searches were conducted; police and the National Guard also raided the Algiers Motel. Witnesses would later say they had been beaten and terrorized, and by the time authorities left the motel on Wednesday, July 26, three black men had been killed by shotgun blasts fired at close range. The police would claim a gun battle had taken place, but no weapons were found at the scene.

Recovery and examination

The riot ended on Thursday, July 27. In total, 43 people — 33 black and 10 white — were killed. In addition, hundreds were injured, more than 7,000 arrested and many black residents saw their neighborhoods destroyed. Rosa Parks, the civil rights fighter who'd refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, was among those affected — Parks and husband Raymond lived just a mile from the epicenter of the riot, and Raymond's barber shop was one of many looted businesses.

After the violence, Representative Conyers and other leaders tried to rebuild Detroit. Parks, who worked for Conyers, took testimonies from those who'd been impacted by the violence. In addition, she served on the jury for a "People's Tribunal" held about the events at the Algiers Motel. Parks and her fellow jurors rendered guilty verdicts in the mock trial; in real life, the officers were acquitted.

Though Parks didn't approve of the violence, she thought the riots were "the result of resistance to change that was needed long beforehand." Most of Detroit's black population had experienced mistreatment at the hands of a police force that was almost entirely white; black residents also suffered from a lack of opportunity, segregated schools and inadequate housing. Fifty years later, too many of these problems remain.