For some Americans, the summer of 1967 was the “Summer of Love.” To others, it was just the opposite: a “long, hot summer,” characterized by more than 150 separate riots responding to racial injustice in American cities.
The season arguably peaked when federal paratroopers were called in to put an end to the five days of looting and arson in Detroit, which started in the middle of the night precisely 50 years ago this coming Sunday, after police raided a popular but unlicensed African-American watering hole on Detroit’s 12th Street on July 23, 1967. “At week’s end, there were 41 known dead, 347 injured, 3,800 arrested. Some 5,000 people were homeless (the vast majority Negro), while 1,300 buildings had been reduced to mounds of ashes and bricks and 2,700 businesses sacked,” according to TIME’s cover story on the events.
Wally Terry of TIME’s Washington bureau, who had been sent to the Motor City shortly after returning from Vietnam, said that he felt “more danger in Detroit than I ever was over there” — and artist Robert Templeton, who would create TIME’s cover, was the target of thrown bricks as he drove around the city “using the steering wheel as an easel.” Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh likened the city to Berlin in 1945.
“We have endured a week such as no nation should live through: a time of violence and tragedy,” President Lyndon B. Johnson declared in a special address to the nation. And the media agreed: America was facing “a national crisis,” the editorial leading off LIFE magazine‘s cover feature on the riot declared.
But, behind the scenes, the national political calculations about the riot were complicated. President Johnson and Michigan Governor George Romney clashed over when and where to send federal troops to back up the relatively inexperienced Michigan National Guardsmen, who would later be held at least partly to blame for how the crisis escalation.
TIME speculated that the reason for the disagreement had perhaps less to do with Detroit and more to do with the upcoming presidential election:
While LBJ (who would not end up running in ’68) said he believed that the only response to the uprising could be “an attack — mounted at every level — upon the conditions that breed despair and violence,” one fact that made the riot baffling was that Detroit’s anti-poverty measures were hailed as a model for cities nationwide; all in all, nearly $30 million was being poured into Head Start, recreation, family-planning programs, and job programs. Detroit didn’t even make the Congress of Racial Equality’s list of 12 cities “where racial trouble was likely to flare up,” TIME reported.
But, as African-American comedian Dick Gregory put it at a national conference of Black Power leaders in Newark right before the Detroit riots, “How in the hell are you going to make a list of 400 years of them misusing you?”
Fifty years later, the Kathryn Bigelow’s new movie Detroit will zero in on a different aspect of those tumultuous five days: the death that took place at the Algiers Motel in an ambush led by Guardsmen who heard snipers were hiding out there. The film is due to be released Aug. 4.