It’s been 50 years since I stood atop the six-story Wyeth Brothers Drug company roof, on the Windsor Ontario side of the Detroit River, and watched in alarm as the fires of racial hatred consumed the Motor City I knew and loved for five long days. It was the most disturbing experience of my life at that time. It was as if the Vietnam War, the first “television war” brought into our living rooms each evening, had come home to the United States, Canada and the watching world.
I was just twenty-one and working the nightshift as a summer janitor at Wyeth Brothers while attending the University of Windsor. Can you imagine the technicolour horror of the spreading flames; the too-young national guardsmen, uncertain and white with dread; the armoured personnel carriers invading neighbourhood streets; the serial pounding echoes of .50 calibre machine guns that could take down a brick building; the smells, sights and sounds from Huey helicopter gunships stirring the smoke into towering black whirlwinds as they hunted rooftop snipers targeting white police, firefighters and emergency workers?
Well, now you can, sort’ve.
The Detroit Free Press has funded and promoted a 50-year documentary entitled, “12th and Clairmont”. This was the neighbourhood where the riot broke out when white Detroit police raided an an illegal ‘blind pig’, where friends and family were drinking and celebrating the safe return of two Black veterans from the Vietnam War. Almost two hundred Blacks were arrested. A beer bottle was thrown through the back window of a police cruiser and racial chaos erupted into five long days and nights of arson, looting, shooting and violence.
I had been immersed in Motown culture for all of my early life: concerts by Diana Ross and The Supremes; blues clubs featuring B. B. King; hockey games starring Red Wings legend, Gordie Howe; major league baseball at Tiger Stadium with my idol, Al Kaline.
The riot changed Detroit forever, with the burned-out neighbourhoods, the so-called “white flight” to the suburbs, the widespread unemployment, the deterioration of the education and social systems and, most telling, the drop in population from 1.4 million in the mid-sixties to 700,000 today.
I didn’t deal with it well. Attending the most integrated Windsor high school of the time, and at last, writing and publishing my coming-of-age novel, The Colour of Pride, helped me immensely. How sadly ironic that the racism and rise again of white supremacy, re-invigorated under the incompetence and divisiveness of the Trump administration, is dangerously reminiscent of the those times and values.Share on Social Media