The untold stories of women and girls in deadly Detroit

PUBLISHED: 14:55 22 August 2017 | UPDATED: 14:55 22 August 2017

The flames of riot left so little for their victims. December 28, 1967 - Michigan, U.S.

The flames of riot left so little for their victims. December 28, 1967 - Michigan, U.S.

Zuma Press/PA Images

A new film, Detroit, depicts the deadly five days in the combustible city over the summer of 1967 when disorder saw the National Guard sent in and dozens left dead.

Residents of the riot-torn area, some holding empty cardboard boxes, line up outside building where food and clothing is being distributed.Residents of the riot-torn area, some holding empty cardboard boxes, line up outside building where food and clothing is being distributed.

The movie Detroit, which tells the story of the 1967 Detroit rebellion, has received mixed reviews since its release. Some praised the film for tackling a complex, little-known story, while others criticised it for its representation of the city, the historical events and actors involved. In many respects, the film is limited, with the voices and perspectives of women and girls lacking.

I moved to Michigan in the fall of 2013 to begin teaching theatre for social change and performance studies at Michigan State University. As a Chicago native, I knew little about the history of Michigan and Detroit.

I began researching the 1967 Detroit rebellion to answer my own questions about what had happened. When I began to review the wealth of materials found in oral history collections and newspaper archives, I was struck by the lack of any sort of perspectives from the women and girls who witnessed and participated in the uprising.

In photo after photo, women and girls appear alongside men and boys. Of the over 7,000 people arrested from July 23 to July 28, 1967, between 10 and 12% were women or girls. (The youngest was 10 years old.) Forty-three people were killed, including two white women and one little girl, Tanya Lynn Blanding, shot and killed by the National Guardsmen who opened fire on her building.

Karen Malloy, 18, said on July 31, 1967 said that she was beaten and threatened with deathKaren Malloy, 18, said on July 31, 1967 said that she was beaten and threatened with death

Who were these women and these girls? What were they doing on the street? What roles and responsibilities did they take during and after the military occupation, and later, when industry and investments fled the city?

Those questions inspired me to develop a new play called AFTER/LIFE, which focuses on the experiences of women and girls in Detroit before, during and after the rebellion.

Rather than beginning that story with the raid on the unlicensed after-hours club on July 23, 1967 – as the film does – I decided to focus on the activism that emerged following the police murder of Cynthia Scott in Detroit four years earlier. Long before 1967, the issue of police brutality was at the forefront of Detroiters’ minds, with women and girls going on to play prominent and important roles in the rebellion and its aftermath.

The history of police brutality in Detroit is long and complex, but at no time have men or boys been the exclusive targets of their violence. In the early morning hours of July 5, 1963, police stopped Cynthia Scott and a male companion as they walked down John R Street near Edmond Place.

Scott was a young, African-American woman with a history of engaging in sex work to survive. According to several witnesses who spoke to the Detroit Free Press, despite Scott’s repeated assertions that she was with her boyfriend and that they had the right to walk down the street, Detroit police moved to arrest Scott on suspicion of prostitution. She broke away and officer Theodore Spicher shot her three times. She fell face down on the pavement dead.

Witnesses contested Spicher’s official statement that she had pulled a knife on him before he shot her. Local activists took up the case as a rallying cry. The Illustrated News, a grassroots circular published by civil rights leaders, carried a two-page story accompanied by detailed pictures of community members picketing the police headquarters.

Segregation in 1967 Detroit meant there were few opportunities for blacks to live, work or socialise freely. Racist public policies called for the overpolicing and underprotection of Detroit’s black communities. Underground bars called “blind pigs” filled a vital need for safe places for adults to relax, mingle and exchange ideas.

In the scorching hot, early morning hours of Sunday, July 23, 1967, Detroit police raided the “blind pig” run by William Walter “Bill” Scott II at 9125 12th Street. As the police slowly loaded the 80-odd partygoers into paddy wagons, neighbours gathered on the street to watch. A rumour circulated through the crowd that the police had manhandled at least one woman.

For Scott’s 19-year-old son, William Walter Scott III, a lifetime of frustration over police misconduct fuelled the first bottle he threw. The chaos spilled into the street, the police pulled back and looters broke into local stores. The disturbance would escalate as the crowds – and the response by law enforcement – would turn increasingly violent and deadly over the next several days.

In 1967, women worked in many of the businesses that were impacted by shoplifting and arson. Some of the women I spoke with – who were girls at the time – recalled that older women, including their aunts and mothers, discouraged shoplifters from taking items from the grocery stores and dry cleaners where they worked on 12th Street.

I learned from interview subjects that in other instances – recognizing that the food and goods would rot or be destroyed – women encouraged people to take what they could carry for themselves and their families. Many understood that 12th Street, one of the most vibrant corridors for black businesses, was being destroyed, and that it would take some time for these much-needed jobs and services to return, if they ever would.

Despite the fires and rampaging police and National Guardsmen, black women took to the streets and put their lives on the line. For some, this meant taking food and other items they needed for friends and family; for others it meant personally ensuring family members made it out alive.

During performances of AFTER/LIFE, patrons were asked to share their memories. One man recalled that his mother piled her children into a car to evacuate them out of the city. Another woman told us that her mother faced down a National Guardsmen’s rifle and bayonet to get her children home. Teaching their children to load weapons, to hit the floor and duck for cover to avoid getting shot by the police, and to be forever wary of men in uniform – all of these things became a necessary part of mothering during the rebellion.

As police and National Guardsmen escalated their attacks on black Detroiters and local businesses came under fire, black women also worked to de-escalate the violence. Oral histories and archival materials reveal that they carried sandwiches and lemonade to guardsmen and police who were deployed without provisions in their communities. Most importantly, women activated longstanding community organising networks to provide food, water and shelter to those Detroiters who had been displaced by the violence. Women in positions of influence, from Grace Episcopal and New Bethel Baptist churches to the Temple Beth El synagogue, rallied together.

This vital, “behind-the-scenes” work would have been impossible without a concerted effort on the airwaves. Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg, a prominent black radio host, convinced her station managers at WCLB-AM1400 to interrupt their regular programming and allow her to go on air. For the next 48 hours, she would urge calm while giving her majority-black listeners the latest updates, including how local, state and national leaders were responding to the crisis and where they might get help.

Some of the hardest tasks fell to women such as Margaret Gill, Rebecca Pollard and Viola Temple, the mothers of the teenage boys killed by police at the Algiers Hotel. Along with June Blanding, whose four-year-old daughter, Tanya, was murdered by National Guardsmen while she slept, these women organised immediate aid for the victims and led the longer-term charge for justice.

Women also played key roles in a “People’s Tribunal,” which was organised to hold the police and National Guard accountable. On August 30, 1967 at the Central United Church of Christ (later the Shrine of the Black Madonna), Rosa Parks, a veteran of civil rights organising, sat as the lead juror in the mock trial that drew hundreds of spectators and ultimately found the police guilty of murder. While the tribunal would have no impact on the formal, criminal proceedings, it provided a necessary and important space for the community to tell the truth, express its anger and frustration, and receive a measure of social justice.

Fifty years later, Detroiters are engaged in a large-scale act of commemorating the 1967 Rebellion. Art and history museum exhibits, panel discussions, book releases and performances have been staged across the city by grassroots organizations and cultural institutions. Men continue to figure prominently in the coverage.

Curators at the Detroit Historical Museum acknowledged as much when they posted a sign in their exhibit that asked patrons, “What’s missing?”

Their answer: the perspectives of people of colour and women. As long as our stories about the 1967 Detroit Rebellion overlook the knowledge and experiences of women and girls, they will continue to circulate half-truths and false representations of the city, the causes of the uprising and the world Detroiters inhabit today.

Lisa Biggs is assistant professor in theatre and performance studies at Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, Michigan State University; this article also appears at www.theconversation.com

Support The New European's vital role as a voice for the 48%

The New European is proud of its journalism and we hope you are proud of it too. We believe our voice is important - both in representing the pro-EU perspective and also to help rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.

  • Become a friend of The New European for a contribution of £48. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish)
  • Become a partner of The New European for a contribution of £240. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish) and receive a New European Branded Pen and Notebook
  • Become a patron of The New European for a contribution of £480. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish) and receive a New European Branded Pen and Notebook and an A3 print of The New European front cover of your choice, signed by Editor Matt Kelly

By proceeding, you agree to the New Europeans supporters club Terms & Conditions which can be found here.



Supporter Options

Mention Me in The New European



If Yes, Name to appear in The New European



Latest Articles

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

We have a number of set phrases in English which we use in a rather automatic and semi-obligatory way at particular times and in specific social situations – such as ‘good morning’ and ‘good evening’, ‘happy birthday’ and ‘happy new year’.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Scotland's three biggest parties have all experienced sudden jolts in recent weeks. MAURICE SMITH reports on the tectonic plates shifting once again north of the border

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A fitting 48 times the hapless foreign secretary, currently backtracking from his bungled attempt to topple Theresa May, outraged with his thoughtless comments and ill-judged actions

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Lib Dems have stepped back from the Brexit cliff-edge.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Despite its devastating impact, Hurricane Irma passed with only a handful of deaths yet received wall-to-wall media coverage. On the other side of the world, floods have left a far higher death toll, yet reporting has been sparse. LIZ GERARD asks what is behind this apparent hypocrisy and what it says about us

Monday, September 18, 2017

Sir Vince Cable is to set out his bid to scupper Brexit by declaring “I am a proud saboteur”.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Imagine a town studded with watchtowers like San Gimignano in Tuscany, but set high on a plateau, 100 miles from the nearest centre of population.

Monday, September 18, 2017

A top Brexit Whitehall official has been moved out of the Department for Exiting the EU amid rumours of a rift with David Davis.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The venerable Dr Johnson described patriotism as “the last refuge of the scoundrel”.

Monday, September 18, 2017

It might not have grabbed the world's attention yet but, says AURORA TORRES, the over-exploitation of sand is a looming crisis for the globe, causing environmental destruction, putting communities at risk and sparking illegal black markets

Monday, September 18, 2017

The lights are going out in comments sections all over the world.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Home Secretary Amber Rudd today accused her Cabinet colleague Boris Johnson of "back-seat driving" as the row over his Brexit intervention deepened.

Monday, September 18, 2017

I couldn’t make it to the March For Europe last Saturday; perhaps this dereliction of duty means my Remoaner licence has now been revoked and I must now be demoted to Regrumbler or Rewhiner.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Angela Merkel may be on course for victory but her campaign for the German chancellorship is not the stately procession it might seem from afar. TONY PATERSON joins her on a decidedly bumpy election trail

Monday, September 18, 2017

Thousands of anti-Donald Trump posters inspired by Second World War public information designs have been plastered across Washington DC.

Friday, September 15, 2017

“Trees are sanctuaries,” wrote the German author and poet Hermann Hesse. “Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.”

Friday, September 15, 2017

BONNIE GREER on the conviction that you can have your cake and eat it

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A legitimisation of radical right-wing ideology is taking place around the world. The world was shocked by the events in Charlottesville, America, and by Donald Trump’s failure to condemn racist violence.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

RICHARD PORRITT with the week's big stories

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Mancunian musician Mark Reeder arrived in Berlin in 1979 and never looked back.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Britain will "soon regret" leaving the EU, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has warned in his annual state of the union speech.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Right, so where are we now then?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un are playing a very dangerous game of nuclear poker, argues Paul Connew. But does either leader have the cards that could avoid destruction?

Monday, September 11, 2017

When Muslim feminist SEYRAN ATES opened a liberal mosque in Berlin this summer she was met with a barrage of death threats and fatwas. But she says she is undeterred in her campaign to use enlightenment values to defeat extremism – in all forms

Monday, September 11, 2017

Many of the materials we use derive their names from the towns they were first made in. PETER TRUDGILL explores the stories behind some of the best-known

Monday, September 11, 2017

Theresa May’s insistence that she is sticking around as PM may have been met with scepticism and incredulity, but PR agent MARK BORKOWSKI argues her reboot may yet work

Monday, September 11, 2017

His stricken condition fuels macabre speculation, but Michael Schumacher’s real legacy is the remarkable run of Grand Prix dominance which began 25 years ago. ROB BURNETT reports

Friday, September 8, 2017

Writer, April 17, 1885 - September 7, 1962

Friday, September 8, 2017

For comedian MITCH BENN, Theresa May’s attempts to extend her political life put him in mind of his favourite film, Blade Runner. Here, he goes on the trail of Downing Street’s replicant

Sunday, September 10, 2017

An estimated 50,000 passionate Remainers marched on Parliament yesterday demanding the Government reverse its Brexit strategy.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Tony Blair today made an explosive intervention in the Brexit debate, calling for tough new immigration rules which would allow Britain to stay in the EU.

Monday, September 11, 2017

British identity is fragmented like never before, with the rise of pop-up populism dividing people into “them” and “us”. Author PETER POMERANTSEV takes a deeply personal journey through Britain to find out what it means for the country

Friday, September 8, 2017

A refusal to confront its past leaves France facing an uncertain future, argues MARTIN EVANS

Friday, September 8, 2017

Al Jazeera may have its flaws, but its persecution is seriously bad news for the world, says PAUL KNOTT

Friday, September 8, 2017

If you’re looking for a phrase to describe the change in newspaper print circulations this year, it might well be “the bigger they are, the harder they fall”. The latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) demonstrate that only the Metro managed to increase its print circulation year-on-year, with every single other national title recording a fall.

Friday, September 8, 2017

It’s not just back to school for the nation’s children, this week, but also for politicians and British business.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Modern Germany has a very different political and media culture to our own, and some of that was on display in Sunday’s ‘TV-Duell’ between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her SDP challenger Martin Schulz.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

STEVE ANGLESEY picks out the worst Brexiteers of the week

Thursday, September 7, 2017

RICHARD PORRITT on the week's big stories

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Britain's chances of being ready to begin EU trade negotiations by the next round of trade talks in October are "in the neighbourhood of zero", former European Council president Herman van Rompuy warned today.

Podcast

Trending

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter