Detroiters Remember the 1967 Rebellion
— Kim D. Hunter interviews Ed Vaughn
July, 1997 marked the 30th anniversary of the historic Detroit rebellion. Kim D. Hunter, a Detroit writer and poet and an advisory editor of Against the Current, conducted this interview with Ed Vaughn, an eyewitness observer, on the event, its causes and its impact on history.
There are a number of important works on the background and aftermath of this critical event in Detroit's history. Among the best recent works, Thomas J. Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996) will be reviewed in future issues of this journal. The classic history of the period and of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Dan Georgakas' Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, is being reissued. Also forthcoming from Cornell University Press is Motor City Breakdown: The Politics of Race on the Streets and Shopfloors of Postwar Detroit, by Heather Ann Thompson.
ED VAUGHN, a long-time activist and businessman in the Detroit African American community, is currently a state representative and a candidate for mayor against the incumbent Dennis Archer for this fall's election.
"Against the Current:" Many people felt Detroit in 1967 was a great place for African Americans to live. There was low unemployment. Many Blacks owned homes and were in some positions of power. How does this mesh with Detroit having one of the deadliest, most intense civil disturbances in U.S. history?
"Ed Vaughn:" The undercurrent of discontent was always there. We [the grassroots community leaders] were trying to tell them [the white power structure] that the police department was an army of occupation. People were being beaten, even killed.
The Negro "leaders" were echoing what the corporate and white leaders said. The grassroots community leaders were ignored, as were such efforts as GOAL [Group On Advance Leadership]. Forums 65-67 began around Vaughn's Bookstore. We had the city's only gathering of Black nationalists, Pan- Africanists, and militants and community activists.
The forums were community meetings where people would come in on Thursday nights air their grievances, try to deal with community problems. We could see from those meetings that there were real problems in the city.
We also sponsored the Black Arts Convention in `65 and `66. [The poet] Nikki Giovanni was there. Dudley Randall was there. He founded Broadside Press after the Convention. We brought in H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael [now Kwame Toure] and don l. lee [now Haki Madhubuti].
ATC: You were at a Black Power conference in Newark, New Jersey when the disturbances began. How did the events in Detroit cause you to reflect on the event you had just attended?
E.V.: The Forum [leadership] was in Newark. In fact, we were detained. Jersey City was going up in smoke. We could see it from where we were.
We were surrounded by white police officers. I was thankful when their chief finally arrived; the other officers were jumpy nervous. The chief seemed to have sense enough to allow us to leave.
There was a mini-skirmish in Newark. Then on Sunday we heard on the radio that it [rioting] had broken out in Detroit. We were detained again in Toledo on our way home.
ATC: How did media coverage mesh with your personal experiences of the event?
E.V.: They [the media] just referred to it as a riot. Down on the ground it looked like a rebellion. But the media and the power structure had a lot of things wrong.
I have been accused of starting the rebellion. Paul Lee's [Detroit-area researcher and specialist on Malcolm X] research into U.S. Senate records shows they labelled me as being responsible for starting the riot.
They really thought I was powerful. I wasn't even in town, didn't know about it until I heard it on the radio.
I remember also these Red Squad [a now-disbanded police unit for surveillance on political dissidents] guys coming into the book store. They were undercover but very conspicuous. [They were] all white but they stood out from the [other whites].
They were trying to drum up charges against me for selling Mao's "Little Red Book." They always asked me if it was legal to sell the book, didn't I know I could get into trouble, ridiculous stuff like that.
ATC: If the events of July `67 were an attack on the power structure, then why were people destroying their own neighborhoods and not the General Motors Building or Burroughs?
E.V.: First of all, they [African Americans] were not destroying their own homes and businesses. They were burning white and Black-owned business on the main thoroughfares that were negative, price gouging and mistreating the community. Some white businesses were not burned because they were seen as being positive and community oriented.
The heavy winds on Linwood caused some houses to catch fire. The very few Black-owned businesses that were burned were owned by folks considered to be mean and negative to the members of the community. I remember distinctly asking about one business [that was Black-owned and burned] and being told that the owner treated people poorly, disrespectfully.
Graffiti on my store [on the other hand] said "Long Live the African Revolution." The police burned my place, not just my place but Superior Beauty [a Black-owned hair care chain in Detroit] as well. I have no doubt.
ATC: A few years later a rather notorious undercover police unit was created ostensibly to "Stop Robberies and Enjoy Safe Streets." Was STRESS part of the legacy of July `67? [This unit achieved notoriety for gunning down young Black men on the street, and ultimately for fatally shooting up an apartment with out-of-uniform Wayne County police inside. It was finally disbanded after the election of Coleman Young in 1973-ed.]
E.V.: No question. They were already doing it [before `67]. The perception was that Black criminals were running amok. The "Big Four" [the term referred to four police, usually fairly large, in an unmarked car] were terrorizing the [African-American] neighborhood before STRESS came along.
That's what I was saying before, the police were an army of occupation. They started it [the "law and order" crackdown] formally, officially after the riot so people would think they were cracking on the criminal element. Things didn't start to turn around until the [Coleman] Young [mayoral] administration.
ATC: What was your take on the Kerner Commission's Report in the aftermath of the rebellion?
E.V.: I thought it was a good report, "two nations, one Black and one white, separate and unequal." The Commission came up with some good ideas that were never really instituted. There was no follow through.
The poverty programs were full of bureaucratic bungling and reeking with corruption. Agencies that were supposed to help the Community were set up as fronts. [Undercover] Agents from various government units were in these programs. Millions were pumped into the Black community but the money never trickled down.
What it [the money] did do was to create a Black bureaucracy and poverty pimps being orchestrated by paid agents as informers. Even in spite of that, progress took place: There were great experiences with the Black Star Cooperatives. We had a supermarket, a gasoline station, a clothing store and other facilities, community based facilities.
ATC: Why haven't those efforts carried on, what's happened to them?
E.V.: There were three basic problems: We were underfunded, we lacked experience, and some of our employees didn't have the same vision and level of commitment as the folks who started those enterprises.
The lack of experience showed when we thought we could simply take our clothing into the market place and have it sold like any other merchandise.
Well, we took our clothing, daishikis and other African clothing to New York. Unscrupulous garment dealers on Seventh Avenue copied our designs in Brooklyn sweat shops. We were wondering why we got no orders. They were selling them to major chains across the country.
Our designs were in New York, Atlanta, L.A. and Chicago. People who knew our work would come to us and say how great it was how well we were doing. But they didn't know we were being ripped off. Internally, we got ripped off by a few employees who didn't have the same level of dedication and awareness as we did.
But the community stuck with us to the very end. The outgrowth of all of this was the establishment of the Shrine of the Black Madonna Cultural Centers. It now has three locations in Atlanta, Houston and Detroit. The church really was the leadership arm for independent cooperative efforts. We can't say they all failed. We went to another level.
ATC 70, September-October 1997