Intense Conflict Between Cops and Detroit's Black Community Sparked a Riot


In 1967, 39-year-old Detroit Mayor Jerome P. Cavanagh, had a national reputation for bringing a progressive approach to problems. The Democrat was seen as an advocate for the black community.

He also faced a serious problem: His police department had a terrible reputation for brutality and disrespect among blacks, about 40 percent of the city's population.

"My job was to teach the police they didn't have a constitutional right to beat up Negroes on arrest," said George Edwards, a liberal labor activist who had served on the Michigan Supreme Court and quit as Cavanaugh's first police commissioner after butting heads with the department over reforms, veteran journalist Bill McGraw reports in the first of three installments on the Detroit 1967 riot -- or rebellion as some say.

In 1967, officials thought Detroit's progressive reputation could save it from the civil unrest ripping apart other cities. They were wrong, the story says.

Still, some positive signs of change surfaced, McGraw writes:

Carl Stokes was elected mayor of Cleveland in 1967, the first African American running a major city hall. Thurgood Marshall became the first black Supreme Court Justice. The award-winning film "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" addressed racism and interracial dating.

In Detroit, amid this whirlwind of barrier-breaking transformation, underneath the sometimes delusional optimism of city fathers and mothers, pressure continued to mount around the relationship between the overwhelmingly white police force and the city's 630,000 black citizens.

"At its core was the basic attitude that the police were not there to serve the citizens of the black community, but to beat them back,” Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, recalled in his autobiography. "Not to protect them, but to discipline them; not to comfort them, but to contain them."

Specifically, one of the big issues in the black community was the police force's notorious "Big Four."

One almost universal focus of the anger of black men in the 1960s was a unit known as the Big Four — a big car with big guns in the trunk, a uniformed driver and three well-dressed plainclothes officers who responded to dangerous calls, and, according to innumerable accounts, harassed and brutalized African Americans.

There were many black critics of the department, but white city leaders mostly supported the police or stayed silent, McGraw notes. 

► See the full article.

Read more:  Detroit Free Press

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