Perceptions of the 1967 Detroit Disorders: The Riot and the Rebellion

Saturday, January 6, 2018
Atrium (Marriott Wardman Park)
Aya Beydoun, Wayne State University
In the aftermath of the events of July 1967 in Detroit, a debate was formed begging the question: riot or rebellion? The factors that build a "riot" or a "rebellion" often converge, they lie on the lines of violence, incentives, and ultimately, disorder. However, each word holds a strong connotation- one that makes the difference between senseless public violence and justified opposition against oppression. Through extensive research within Detroit’s archives in the Walter P. Reuther Library, and a collective commentary from acclaimed secondary sources such as author Sydney Fine, research has shown that there is no simple answer to this question of terminology, other than, it’s complicated. Notably, the complexities of the events of July 1967 in Detroit were evident among the rhetoric of many people at the time, yet ultimately, such awareness was simplified by the media and politicians into the two terms that are generally used today to describe the events: “Riot” and “Rebellion”. Initially, the complex nature of the events created a lot of fluctuation in rhetoric, as seen in records from the mayor’s office, the Kerner Report, and the correspondence of progressive whites and black Detroiters. However, this question soon developed to follow the narrative curated by the media and politicians- eventually simplifying the events into these two terms- neither of which is completely sufficient in labeling ’67.

An analysis of arguments for “riot” or “rebellion” shows that each has significant, factual support, with the case for “rebellion” playing to the historical, systematic oppression of black people in the United States and heightened tensions in the post-civil rights era, and the case for “riot” highlighting the utter destruction and innocent victims of the event. Overall it seems to be one cannot justify the ‘rebellion’ argument, however the impact of the common use of the term ‘riot’ has caused society to ignore the grounds of the riots, the perpetuated stereotypes and the overlooked solutions to grievances that exist to this day within black communities- as seen in the eerily familiar nature of the discounted Kerner Report. The riots were ultimately ineffective in their goals because of this narrative that was painted in their wake, and given the current political client, especially with the rise of the black lives matter movement, it is vital to understand and acknowledge both arguments, because we need both sides to understand a complete history and to move ourselves forward.

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