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Chapter Seven

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July 1967

Detroit, Michigan

 

 

 

Father moved the family to Detroit in 1960 after accepting a job with Dr. Eder’s and Langburg who had a very busy and lucrative dental laboratory on the cities southwest side. My sisters had all married by then and only my brother Tony and I were living at home. In 1961, I left home as well and began running wild in the streets of Detroit, hardly ever going home to visit my parents. Many times Father tried to get me to come home, to become part of the family again. To my shame, I never returned. I married a few years later and moved about 30 miles North. My contact with Father and Mother grew more infrequent. Often lonely, I would lay in my bed, my wife sleeping, listening to the rain hit the roof, recounting each moment I had shared with them.

 

1967 A City Burns

 

 

In July of 1967, all hell broke loose in Detroit when police attempted to arrest some black men on the near east side of the city called “ Black Bottom.” It was a section of the city where black businesses thrived and many of Detroit's black residents lived and socialized. Detroit's all white police force, at the time, had a reputation for harassing and falsely accusing black citizens of a variety of violations, mostly unfounded. The black community had been harassed and arrested for many years leading up to that night in 1967 and when police used force to try and arrest several men who were intoxicated on 12th Street, a fight pursued. The police called in other police officers and soon the confrontation escalated into a full blown rebellion.

For many hours, businesses and homes were burned and looted. Members of other police forces were called into the city to help repel the grim of a hot July. By the next day, the rebellion had spread and every news station on radio and television reported on the melee around the clock. I was far away from the violence, living in Union Lake, Michigan, but my parents still lived in Detroit, a few miles from the fracas, so I telephoned home to inquire of their safety.

My Mother answered the telephone and assured me that she was alright but had not heard from Father since the night the rebellion was first reported. She said he had taken his shotgun and was going to go to James Jones house to sit with them during the night. He had promised to call, but many telephone lines were either down or being used by emergency personnel so she had not heard from him.

“ Well, I’m coming home to be with you until he gets back” I said. Before she could say no, I hung up the phone and was soon on my way to Detroit.

It took a long time to get to where my parents lived because of the roadblocks, fire trucks, police, etc. that had most of the roads barricaded . I arrived to a peaceful neighborhood and breathed a sigh of relief. When I sat down with Mother, she was very happy to see me and yet very concerned about Dad.

“Who is the man he went to stay with?” I asked.

“ James is an elderly black man, I think about 75” she began, “And your Father and he have been having a bible study for the last year or so. Your Father was worried about him so he went to sit with him to be sure he would be alright. You know your Father, he always thinks he is everyone's protector.”

I knew that all too well. Father would never tolerate one of his friends being in danger without standing beside him in his time of peril. That old gangster mentality of brotherhood and the loving knowledge of Gods protection had given my Father courage beyond good reason, and yet, somehow you just knew that as long as Father was on your side, your chance of winning, or surviving whatever you feared were much greater with him than without him.

“What's Jones's address?” I asked my Mother.

“Oh, not you too Johnny. You should wait for your Dad to come home....you shouldn’t go to that neighborhood, you could be hurt.”

Mother was right. What was I going to do? I didn’t have a gun and even if I did, I would never have used it. Still, just thinking about Father sitting in the middle of all that with old Mr. Jones, alone, gave me the courage to continue pestering my Mother until she gave me the address.

I drove to a point where I was no longer allowed to enter with a car and began walking along the street to where Jones lived, about six blocks away. I could see the smoke spiraling into the hot July afternoon and hear the pop of gunfire several blocks to the East, The street was deserted. Even the dogs had fled. I walked along cautiously and nervously, noticing every movement, every shadow, looking ahead and behind me in a never ending twisting motion, jumping behind a tree or a parked car each time I heard a shot that was louder than the last. A door from a house opened and a voice yelled out, “ Get off the street boy, get the hell off the street you damn fool.” I ran as fast as I could as the shots grew louder, the smoke thicker and the sirens played like a thousand ships at sea. Suddenly, I came to the address. There was Father and Mr. Jones sitting on the front porch stoop, drinking coffee and reading the bible. “My God, are you guys crazy?” I screamed!

Father looked up and smiled. “Are you? What the hell are you doing here.”

Father and I embraced for a long time. It felt good to be hugged by him again.

The riots lasted nearly a week. Father called Mother from a payphone that he found, still working, about a half block away, in front of an abandoned Fire Station. He assured her that he and I were doing fine and would be home when things cooled down. We sat each day and night with Mr. Jones and when things finally quieted down and the smoke had disappeared and the shots were no longer heard, we shook Mr. Jones hand and began our journey home. My car had been burned up and the tires were all missing, but it didn‘t bother me because Father and Mother were okay, Mr. Jones was safe and being in the company of my Father once more made it all worthwhile.

That following October, my parents came to visit me in Union Lake, along with my brother Tony and his family. We ate and talked and laughed and cried and told stories. It was a magnificent time.

The following year, the Detroit Tigers won the World Series and the city seemed to unite again. The police force was integrated, there were Afro-Americans on the city council and Detroit began rebuilding, more magnificent than before. In that same year however, old Mr. Jones passed away. Father delivered the eulogy and everyone in Jones’s neighborhood came. As always, Father smiled from ear to ear.

 

Father eventually retired in the late seventies. Mother and he moved back to the South, once more surrounded by the mountains they loved. Sometimes, late at night while laying in bed listening to the rain hit the roof, I still hear his voice... calling me home again.

 

 

Pictures and story of the 1967 Detroit Riots

Life with Father conclusion