The ’67 Riot, the DIA, and Me

One of the Diego Rivera murals at the DIA

One of the Diego Rivera murals at the DIA

I don’t remember the Detroit riots of 1967. Which is odd. My earliest memories are from around age 4, and, whilst I was still a child, I was plenty old enough to remember what happened in those dreadful days of 23 – 28 July 1967.

I hadn’t planned to write about The Riot. It will always be “The Riot” to me, though sadly Detroit has other race riots in its long and sometimes bloody past. I guess, like a good teacher, or your first bully, you never forget your first riot. (1)

Except I have … sort of. Whilst I have no direct memories of it, I do have a family story. Plus one quite clear memory of the following summer, when I related the events of that momentous – to Detroiters, at least – year, to the sad happenings of the previous one.

Whilst we lived in the area referred to as Downriver, and not Detroit itself, my parents still felt a strong connection to the city. Mom was born there, Dad grew up there, and they met there, at the university where all three of us later attended.

The family story goes like this: we, that is, both parents and all three kids, spent the day of 23 July at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). This wasn’t unusual: my folks were big on taking their children to various sites around the area: the zoo, the Detroit Historical Museum, to a play or a film, for a walk, etc. (2) So the DIA wasn’t an unusual place for the five of us to spend a weekend afternoon. Nor, I suppose, was it an unusual place for most of the people – black and white alike – who were also visiting the museum that day.

We managed to get home without seeing, or hearing, anything unusual. It wasn’t until one of us – probably Mom – switched on the telly, that we realised the riots had started, that very day.

Not only that day, but whilst we were at the museum. In fact, the starting point was only a few city blocks away.

Which goes to show that, based on my sample of one riot, and one museum, people in art museums don’t tend to riot. They just look at the paintings, and the sculpture.

This major event of my childhood may go some ways to explaining why, when I really make myself think about people caught up in wars – especially, the anything-but-civil wars which have plagued this Earth for decades now – I find myself thinking about the more mundane aspects of life.

The lives, for example, of the average Joe/Mohammed/Maria. No matter where you go on this weary old world, we all want much the same things. Food. Shelter. Love. Security. Security for those we love, and the ability to do what we need to, to provide that.

So I find myself thinking of a man or woman -it could be any man or woman, anywhere. They don’t want to fight with their neighbours. They want, what you and I want: to go to work, then come home, kiss their significant other(s), and feed the cat, or dog, or rabbit.

Maybe cook a meal for the family, read the kids “The Hobbit” or “Harry Potter” or whatever is the current bedtime choice. Have a bit of a natter with their mates. Maybe flip on the telly, and watch a bit of footy (3) or “Doctor Who” (4)

A few summers ago, a lovely young idiot (5) of my acquaintance bumped into me, whilst we were both in town. He made a flippant remark about the then-ongoing riots in London and elsewhere. I wasn’t best impressed. Because, someplace in the hellish places in the back of my mind, I do remember The Riot.

People didn’t just lose businesses in ’67 Detroit. They lost lives. Forty-three, to be exact. Nearly two thousand people were injured.

And the city burned. Around 2,000 buildings were destroyed, one way or another. And whilst the Tigers winning the pennant at the “World Series” the following year went someway toward the emotional healing of Detroit, it didn’t bring back the dead.

My birth city and I have been through a lot, separately and together. We both have the scars to prove it.

And we’re both still here. Speaking of here, here’s Gordon, singing – and signing – me out.

Til we meet again, Detroit. I’ll always love you. x


The copy of Rodin's "The Thinker", outside the DIA

The copy of Rodin’s “The Thinker”, outside the DIA

(1) “You never forget your first teacher” was the slogan of a series of public service adverts which ran in the UK quite a few years ago. And it’s true, but I think for many people, it’s their first bully/ies which truly shape them.
(2) Thanks, Mom. Cheers, Dad
(3) Whilst not a fan myself, I can’t deny the near-universal appeal of football (aka “soccer”)
(4) Also near-universal in its appeal. Why yes, I am a fan. Why do you ask?
(5) He’s actually quite an intelligent person. His stupidity was confined to this occasion.



About Sheila N

Enough about me. Art by Tom Brown.
This entry was posted in Art, Nostalgia and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The ’67 Riot, the DIA, and Me

  1. Tina Stevens says:

    I assume you’re referring to Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Black Day in July’? (sorry, didn’t listen). Actually, the riots made international news. Mark was in Paris on a high school trip and read about it in the International Herald Tribune. Also that there had been riots in Saginaw as well. I was 10 at the time, but remember hearing about it on the news and within bulletins. I remember it scared me and wrote to then President Johnson about how to make it stop (I did get a reply, but don’t have it, just general stuff).

  2. sjn25 says:

    Hi Tina, yes, it is “Black Day in July” by Gordon Lightfoot, which I didn’t remember, but is a great song about a terrible time. I’m sure it did make international news, as well as national…interesting story, Mark’s reading about it whilst in Paris.

    Your memory of writing to President Johnson is both touching, and sad. Just shows on this touched the children of the time, including those who didn’t live in the immediate area(s).

    Did not know about Saginaw…scary stuff indeed.

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