50 years ago, in 1967, America reportedly witnessed 159 “race riots” in New York, Newark, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta and other cities.
In Detroit, Michigan the high rate of black unemployment triggered by a long-standing practice of police misconduct/racial prejudice and stereotyping directed toward the black community resulted in black Detroiters saying “no more.” On July 23, 1967, a five-day “race riot”/“rebellion” reportedly resulted in 43 deaths, 1,200 injured, more than 7,200 arrests and widespread looting of white and black storefront businesses. During the unrest, three young black teens were shot to death by three white Detroit police officers at the long gone, but historical infamous, Algiers Motel.
This past week a Hollywood-made feature-length film, “Detroit,” opened in movie theaters in Detroit and throughout America. The screenplay was written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, a team that was responsible for the films “Foot Locker,” depicting the early 21st-century Iraq war, and “Zero Dark Thirty,” the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden.
My wife and I saw the film on its opening might in New York. The film was numbing. It told the story of black migration from Southern cotton fields to promised northern factory jobs and racial freedom during the early 20th century. Soon thereafter they discovered that the dream was for many deferred and for some it became a nightmare. The film particular depicts the enormous racial and class overtones to police practices and racial bias in the legal system.
To the film’s credit, it did not resort to superficial racial stereotyping. It demonstrated that there were white police officers, detectives and two young white women who did not demonstrate racial prejudice and opposed the excessive reaction to the black rebellion. The film did not present the Detroit black community as monolithic but revealed many different personalities and individual characteristics of blacks swept up in the unrest.
The logical questions that arise from looking back at the summer of ’67, Detroit and the Algiers Motel incident is how could this have happened in the U.S. and have “things” change for the better?
It happened because 50 years ago, individual and systemic racial and class bias was inherent in our nation. This ugly phenomenon notably was visible in the interactions between local police department officers and the black community ― most particularly with young black man. The high unemployment rate of blacks, the lack of real political power and the barriers to higher education institutions were contributing factors to a racially segregated America that fueled the anger and rage that precipitated civil unrest 50 years ago. The 1968 Kerner Commission report that was commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson concluded that our nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal” and that if conditions were not changed we faced a “system of apartheid” in our major cities.
Half a century later, in 2017, although we as a nation have made incremental progress towards a more racially equitable and just society, the black unemployment, increased voting rights restrictions and redistricting gerrymandering leading to the dilution of political power, attacks on affirmative action in colleges and graduate school programs, the deaths of young black men by overwhelmingly white police officers have given rise to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. We still do not understand the meaning of Dr. King’s message “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
As a nation, of concerned citizens/residents, documented or not , we need, more than ever, to remember are dreams. That we are a nation that was created in opposition to a tyrannical King George III and founded on the fundamental principles of free speech, press, religion; the right to protest injustice; due process and equal protection under the law. Our country, to its credit, has been and must continue to be aspirational ― not to be complacent about what is but what we must strive to be ― even in the face of organized opposition. We need to continue the journey to achieve justice, inclusion, equality, fairness, safety and opportunity for all people who make up our great nation.
“Detroit,” the movie, and it’s story reminds us of the unfinished business and the challenge for all of us if we are to fulfill the promise of America.
*Mr. Siegel is a civil rights lawyer.