Detroit's Great Rebellion of 1967

During the summer of 1967, rebellions broke out in several U.S. cities, including Buffalo and Newark. But the largest of them--known as the Great Rebellion--happened in the heart of American capitalism at the time: Detroit, the capital of the auto industry. The uprising began on July 23, sparked by a police raid on an after-hours party for two Vietnam veterans who had just returned home, and continued for five days. As many as 100,000 people were estimated to have taken part, in some cases fighting pitched battles with the police and federal troops.

What sets the Great Rebellion apart is what happened before and after--the years of radical organizing that shaped Detroit's Black working class. In their 1975 book Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin tell the story of Black autoworkers, radicals and revolutionaries organizing in the 1960s. They describe the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), an organization of Black workers based at Chrysler's Dodge Main assembly plant born out of a wildcat strike less than a year after the rebellion, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, which sought to unite together Revolutionary Union Movements (RUMs) of Black auto workers in Detroit.

On the 50th anniversary of the Great Rebellion, Dan Georgakas talked to Elizabeth Schulte about the background to the explosive uprising and what happened afterward.

In the streets during the Great Rebellion of 1967In the streets during the Great Rebellion of 1967

CAN YOU describe the backdrop to the Great Rebellion in 1967? What was life like for the Black working class in Detroit at this time?

MOST PEOPLE are familiar with the general conditions of the 1960s and the various national problems that Black Americans faced. In Detroit, that took expression in three major areas.

The first was the horrendous police department, which harassed the Black community on a regular basis.

The second was that the automobile industry was beginning to automate, sending jobs out of the country and so forth. The first wave of layoffs involved many more Black workers than whites because of the strict seniority system. Most of the old white workforce was protected by seniority, and the younger Black workforce was not.

The United Auto Workers union was indifferent. On top of this, the UAW had not gotten African Americans into the skilled trades, and the union hierarchy had not been integrated at a significant level.

This led to economic distress and concerns. In Detroit, unlike other cities, working-class culture was very strong--it connected to education, to religion, to all facets of Black culture. So as workers lost their jobs, the whole community felt it. It wasn't just a single person or neighborhood.

What else to read

Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin's Detroit: I Do Mind Dying is the most detailed history available of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the radical movements that preceded it.

For further reading and films on Detroit, Dan Georgakas also recommends:

-- Herb Boyd, Black Detroit (Amistad division of HarperCollins, 2017). A populist history of Black Detroit from 1701 to today. Places the League of Revolutionary Black Workers into a historical context of black liberation struggles in Detroit.

-- American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. This 2014 video by Grace Lee (not related to Grace Lee Boggs) features a 99-year-old Boggs eloquently evaluating her radical activism in Detroit from the 1950s onward.

-- Heather Ann Thompson, Whose Detroit? (Cornell University Press, 2001). A powerful narrative dealing with the negative reactions by the UAW hierarchy to the emerging Black liberation movement.

-- Julius Thompson, Dudley Randall, Broadside Press and the Black Arts Movement, 1960-1995 (McFarland & Co., 1998). Gives a taste of the intense Black culture of Detroit. Randall founded Broadside Press in 1963. It became the leading publishing of Black poetry in the U.S.

The third area was housing. Detroit was a very segregated city, and housing had not changed very much since the rioting of 1943, which was the most extensive in American history up until to that point. It was a race riot in the sense that Blacks fought whites, and whites fought Blacks.

The rebellion in 1967 was much more economically based. Of course, racism was critical, but it was a rebellion against the system--and that's why we call it the Great Rebellion.

Once it begins, it doesn't spread from the Black communities to the white communities, with a lot of Blacks and whites fighting--it goes to commerce. It goes toward the General Motors building. It goes toward merchants. Without diminishing the racial dynamics at play, a major factor in the rebellion was economics.

Detroit had a rich cultural history, particularly before the rebellion. For instance, there was a poetry rebellion in Detroit involved in leading the national struggle to get Black writing into anthologies.

A major outcome of that effort was the founding of Broadside Press by Dudley Randall in 1963. Broadside would become the biggest publisher of Black poetry in the U.S.

This was also a boom time for jazz and popular music, including the Motown Sound. It was a period of firsts in Detroit--the first integrated literary magazine with Black editors, writers and staff. The same occurred in theater.

There were forums, some organized by leftists and some not. The most famous leftist one was the Friday Night Socialist Forum. Some 25 to 200 people would go there.

James Boggs, a well-known activist in the union and the community, gave talks. The C.L.R. James group also gave talks. These forums were cauldrons of intellectual energy in which a significant number of people were saying, "We can do things. Things are going to change."

Did that cause the rebellion? No, but it gives you a sense of the culture.

I worked for a magazine called On the Town, which was Detroit's Jet. It was Black-owned with 80 percent of its pages about music, and the other 20 percent espousing radical politics. Issues were dropped off in bars and record stores with direct contact with a popular audience.

CAN YOU say more about the police brutality?

IT'S HARD to speak of "police brutality" at this point, because the police were never anything but brutal.

The spark for the rebellion was a police raid on a party at an after-hours joint--which was illegal, of course--to celebrate two Vietnam veterans who had come back from the war. It was a tough neighborhood with tough guys. Their response set off the Great Rebellion. No one had predicted it.

WHAT ABOUT the Vietnam War, which was being fought by so many Black workers? What kind of impact did that have?

IN DETROIT, the Black community was not in favor of the Vietnam War. Part of this came from a strong Garveyite tradition in Detroit.

People were also listening to what Malcolm X had to say, even if they weren't Muslims. One of the phrases attributed to him was "Tojo and Hitler did more to integrate the factories than the UAW." It was a pretty sophisticated view of the Second World War. Reactions to the Vietnam War were ever stronger.

Of course, there were patriots and people who went to war because it was the best alternative economically, but in general, the war was very unpopular.

YOU POINT out in your book that this wasn't the first riot in Detroit over the years, but this one was different in that it was between "Blacks and state power." Could you talk more about this?

GENERALLY SPEAKING, the 1943 rioting was over racial attacks. It began as a people-versus-people thing and continued that way for a long time. The police were, of course, on the side of the establishment, which was white. Most of the casualties were Black. State power was exerted, but this was a race riot in the classic mode.

What happened in 1967 was that the police attacking an after-hours place encapsulated what was happening in the city every night. State power was pushing hard on a Black community--but that community wasn't passive, but dynamic, full of ideas and energy.

WHO TOOK part in the rebellion? In Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, when you write about looting, or "shopping for free," you describe it as integrated and systematic.

THAT ASPECT was spontaneous. Once the big stores got their windows broken, people drove up in their cars and helped each other load up. There's television footage of this--of Blacks and whites cooperatively getting things out of the stores as fast as possible.

That wasn't the dominant theme, but it happened. The number of whites eventually arrested for shooting at cops was significant. You didn't have anything like that in 1943.

Something else that happened was the police shooting up John Sinclair's poetry workshop after he hoisted a "Burn, Baby, Burn" poster. Whatever Sinclair's faults and virtues, the police were using the Great Rebellion as an excuse to go after people they never liked.

DRUM WAS founded a year later. What impact did the revolt have for other organizing that had been going on for a while--namely shop-floor organizing by Black workers in the auto industry?

DRUM ERUPTS out of a wildcat strike in 1968, which wasn't out of the blue.

Chrysler's Dodge Main plant was a factory that had had problems before between Blacks and whites, and problems between rank-and-file unionists and union officials. There was considerable radical involvement in the wildcat. The three most important organizers were General Baker, Mike Hamlin and John Watson.

It's worth noting that General Baker, along with Rufus Griffin and Glanton Dowdell--who would become stalwarts of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers--had been charged with trying to start a riot in 1966 and had gotten five years of probation for carrying concealed weapons

They were all Marxists, and following the uprising, they put into effect a project to publish a newspaper called Inner City Voice, which would explore the problems in the Black community and serve as an agitational/educational tool. Part of what they did was begin to agitate inside Dodge Main about the conditions of work.

The individuals who formed the core of DRUM had studied Marxism with Marty Glaberman, leader of the local C.L.R. James group. No one idea sparked them, but they dove into the treasure of socialist thought.

The essay that most influenced them was Lenin's pamphlet on the importance of having a newspaper. The whole idea throughout their evolution was that we must have popular organs to reach the public, because the other side was going to distort and demonize them.

That was a very strong urge, which led them to buy their own printing press. Their idea was to print their own books, print their own newspapers, print their own pamphlets, have their own bookstores and tell their own story, rather than let the mass media misrepresent them.

DESCRIBE THE Inner City Voice. What did the articles look like? How did DRUM get its message out?

THE ARTICLES were very populist. They said here's a problem in Detroit, and they talked about fixing it. The articles stressed that fundamental change meant changing the system, not merely reforming it. The subtext was that we would like to get to socialism, but we're not going to get there tomorrow so let's do this and get a victory.

One of the things they had in mind, and this was characteristic of DRUM, was that you must win victories for your constituency.

The workers who wildcatted to form DRUM didn't necessarily self-identify as being socialists, but they were militants who knew their leaders were Marxists. As long as the leaders were delivering, they asked: What's next?

While the Black radicals were moving toward creating RUMS in their own workplaces, there was also plenty of white radical activity.

When DRUM and the League came into existence, an allied group, mainly of whites but integrated, had a bookstore and a book club, with a couple hundred members that backed the things DRUM or the League were doing. So there was that component, which is often not discussed.

DRUM was a Black nationalist organization, but the leadership wasn't Black nationalist in the narrow sense of separatism. Yet one of the problems they always had was what to do with the whites who wanted to help them. Their solution is indicative of what they hoped to achieve in the long run.

Here's a personal example. Marvin Surkin and I approached Watson, Cockrel and Hamlin about writing about what they were doing as a chapter for a book on the politics of daily life--or, better, writing a book about themselves. They said they were too busy making a revolution to write anything significant and urged us to write it instead.

I replied, "A Greek and a Jew writing about the Black liberation movement?" That didn't concern them. They trusted me because I had worked with Watson and Cockrel for years, and if I vouched for Surkin, he must be okay, too.

They only asked that we quote them and other activists as much as possible, but we could voice any independent judgments we thought were sound. They provided us with interviews and organizational documents and correspondence.

The League made the film Finally Got the News with the idea that it would go around the country, explaining the ideas of the League so that League reps wouldn't have to visit other cities. In this instance, the League leaders acted as producers, while the actual filmmakers were white.

The League wasn't interested in having branches outside the city. They had a practical and an ideological reason: They had limited personnel who were needed to organize in Detroit. Nor did they have the resources to find out if some of the people in other sites wanting to join included crazies, factionalists or agent provocateurs.

They said that if people want to emulate the League, they could view the film. Locals knew the conditions in Birmingham, Alabama; in Richmond, California; in Mahwah, New Jersey; better than some visiting Detroiter.

The locals needed to make up their own agenda. They should develop their own leadership and their own base. If enough of these units became strong, then all could come together in a Black Workers Congress.

WHAT WAS the reaction of the city and police after the rebellion?

AFTER THE Great Rebellion, the Detroit police department got worse. They created a squad called STRESS (Stop The Robberies and Enjoy Safe Streets). STRESS cars patrolling Black neighborhoods were brutal--they had a high rate of people they killed.

Ken Cockrel defended some of the people who were abused by police and also some of the radicals who became vigilantes in 1972. Their mandate was to rid neighborhoods of drug dealers by whatever means necessary since the police were doing little. They eventually got into a gun battle with police in what became a celebrated case. This kind of activism illustrates the tough-mindedness of Detroit.

Forces championing what they called law and order (whiteness and injustice) sought to expand STRESS by winning the mayoralty. Standing against them in 1973 was Coleman Young, who had roots in the Communist movement of the 1940s. He fought with the UAW over racial issues and had not cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The tough-talking Young was thus a blend of street cred and political savvy. He won the election to become the city's first Black mayor. During his first years in office, Young delivered some reforms, but he slowly turned into a Black Boss Tweed in alliance with auto executives.

WHAT LESSONS should we take from this history for the struggle today?

FROM THE beginning, the League said, it was going to organize workers. In Detroit, workers meant auto.

Workers may mean something different in other places. We now have numerous workers in the service industry. The principle remains the same. Why organize workers? Because workers can change society. This was the League view, and I agree with it.

If workers cease to work, society stops. John Watson was very clear about this. He said that there are not enough Blacks in the U.S. to make a revolution, but if every Black worker went on strike for one day, the country would stand still. You could say the same thing about Latino workers, women workers and other components of the working class.

The place of work, the point of production, is where workers have the most power. If you go to court, you can win, but it's hard. If you go to electoral politics, you can win, but it is even harder to accomplish anything. If you halt production, you have a power that the capitalists must immediately address.

The League didn't think of itself as a union of victims, but as a rebel force declaring, "This is the change we're going to make." If you only tell people what's lousy, they say yeah, what's new? What's going to make me go out and give 24 hours of my life to change?

I think that remains a critical challenge for the movement. Yes, present injustices must be abolished, but what takes its place?

My favorite talking point about this is explaining how automation under socialism ceases to be a problem and becomes a liberating force that minimally could cut the workday in half with much higher compensation.