Ashes and Embers of the Detroit Riot

05/25/2011 12:10 pm ET

"Today we stand amidst the ashes of our hopes." -- Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh, July 1967

My grandmother worked at the (now demolished) landmark Hudson's department store in downtown Detroit, and was waiting for a bus when she left work on a July evening in 1967. The bus to Royal Oak, which is north of 8 Mile Road, the reputed border between Detroit and its suburbs, never came. Woodward Avenue was strangely deserted and she smelled smoke. Then the Michigan National Guard drove by, and she knew something big was happening.

This week is the 40th anniversary of the Detroit riot that started at 12th and Clairmount Streets on July 23 and "ended" on July 29, 1967. Forty-three people died, hundreds were injured and thousands arrested in what was the largest-scale civil unrest in Detroit history.

I'm a native Metro Detroiter now transplanted to D.C. The other day as I took a cab from NE to NW Washington, the seventy-something African-American cab driver told me his memories of the 1968 riot here, which started the same day Dr. King was assassinated. He remembers giving local residents around 14th Street NW taxi rides to other neighborhoods to get their errands done, because their grocery stores and laundries had been burned out.

I wasn't born yet when either event took place. I know that one man's "riot" is another man's "uprising," and I know about the mutual bitterness and fear that lie on either side of 8 Mile Road.

History is carried through individuals.

Republican George Romney (father of current presidential contender Mitt Romney) was governor of Michigan at the time of the riot.

Democrat John Conyers, then as now a member of Congress, tried to disperse the crowds with a bullhorn, but failed.

Part of 12th Street was renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard in 1976. My grandmother is buried in the same cemetery as Rosa Parks, in Detroit, the city they loved.