A new film, using home movies and unseen archive is being curated from the raw film footage of the infamous Detroit riots of 1967. The film will be called ’12th and Clairmount’ is named after the inter-section where the rioting first erupted. Bella Caledonia feature columnist, Stuart Cosgrove describes the origins of the disturbance in an exclusive extract from his bestselling book ‘Detroit 67’.

By midnight on Tuesday, July 26, Detroit’s skyline was scorched red with burning gas fumes. The writer John Hersey described it as “a night of hallucinations,” a moment when all the worst visions of urban crisis came frighteningly to life. They said it couldn’t happen to Detroit, but it had. A ball of confusion swept through the Motor City, and the local music scene came face-to-face with forces it was powerless to contain. Sixties soul would continue its bittersweet journey for many years to come, but something happened in the brutal month of July that changed Detroit’s image forever and weakened its once majestic grip on music.

Four-year-old Tanya Blanding would normally have been in bed by midnight, but the relentless screech of sirens and the rasping flames kept her and her family awake. It was already several hours after curfew when a tank occupied by the Michigan National Guard took up position in front of the Blandings’ second-floor apartment at 1756 West Euclid. The young family had obeyed the public service announcements; their curtains were drawn and the room was in semi-darkness. Only a very small flicker of light could be seen from the street below. It was a fatal flicker. Tanya Blanding’s teenage uncle had lit a cigarette in the darkened room, and a National Guardsman below thought it was a gun discharging. Believing he was about to come under sniper fire, Sergeant Mortimer Leblanc fired the first shot, and his colleagues followed suit. Bullets tore through the window and ripped into the apartment walls. Tanya was killed instantly when the gunfire burst through her soft chest as she crawled upward toward the window. Her twenty-one-year-old aunt, Valerie Hood, had her arm nearly severed at the shoulder as the room filled with chaotic screams. Tanya Blanding was the youngest and most tragic victim of a riot that had brought Detroit to its knees. In an unscripted instant, marred by mistake more than malice, a beleaguered white Guardsman from the Michigan suburbs had killed a black child from the ghetto. The Detroit police issued a statement shielded by the language of bureaucracy: “The little girl’s death was regrettable.”

The dramatic events leading up to Tanya Blanding’s death had begun three nights earlier in unremarkable circumstances on the vacant premises of the Economy Printing Company, a bankrupt business in a run-down industrial building at 9125 Twelfth Street on the intersection with Clairmount. Undercover officers from the Detroit vice squad had attempted to enter the premises of what was known as a “blind pig,” the local colloquialism for an illicit drinking den or speakeasy. It was a term that dated back to Prohibition, when the infamous Purple Gang controlled Detroit’s illegal liquor trade. The derelict printing company offices were being used as a makeshift community center run by the United Community for Civic Action, and the building that had once housed low-cost industrial printing presses had been transformed into an unlicensed blues and soul club. It was one of a network of illegal drinking dens clustered near the Strip, a neon-drenched red-light district on Twelfth Street. In their book Nightmare in Detroit, social historians Van Gordon Sauter and Burleigh Hines described the scene: “The side streets off Twelfth…are lined with dingy, fading apartment buildings where only twenty years ago Jewish families were plotting an exodus north to escape the growing Negro enclave. Now the area is all black.…Twelfth Street is vibrantly alive. The sound of the street is Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding and the Miracles, rolling from car radios and transistors and jukeboxes. The smell of the street is $1.95 ‘Soul Food Specials’—pigs’ feet, mustard greens, baked yams…but the feel of the street is energy.” Extant photographs show an area cluttered with makeshift shops, liquor stores, and record shops.

Law enforcement required that the vice-squad officers were to not only gain entry but also provide evidence that illegal liquor was being sold on the premises, so most blind pigs in the vicinity were well fortified. At first the officers masqueraded as out-of-towners, claiming to be members of a Cincinnati basketball team, but the doorman rumbled their story and refused entry. Rather than argue, the vice officers discreetly moved on, returning hours later. It was in the dying hours of early morning, around three forty-five, when officers Charles Henry and Joseph Brown returned to the illegal soul club and tried again. Both officers were black and had been on attachment as undercover vice officers for many months, so they were familiar with the rituals of the area. One officer befriended three women near the entrance and managed to gain entry by pretending to be part of a bigger group of revellers.

“The side streets off Twelfth…are lined with dingy, fading apartment buildings where only twenty years ago Jewish families were plotting an exodus north to escape the growing Negro enclave. Now the area is all black.…Twelfth Street is vibrantly alive. The sound of the street is Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding and the Miracles, rolling from car radios and transistors and jukeboxes. The smell of the street is $1.95 ‘Soul Food Specials’—pigs’ feet, mustard greens, baked yams…but the feel of the street is energy.”

Law enforcement required that the vice-squad officers were to not only gain entry but also provide evidence that illegal liquor was being sold on the premises, so most blind pigs in the vicinity were well fortified. At first the officers masqueraded as out-of-towners, claiming to be members of a Cincinnati basketball team, but the doorman rumbled their story and refused entry. Rather than argue, the vice officers discreetly moved on, returning hours later. It was in the dying hours of early morning, around three forty-five, when officers Charles Henry and Joseph Brown returned to the illegal soul club and tried again. Both officers were black and had been on attachment as undercover vice officers for many months, so they were familiar with the rituals of the area. One officer befriended three women near the entrance and managed to gain entry by pretending to be part of a bigger group of revellers.

Soul music seeped through the brick building: the Soul Twins’ “Quick Change Artist,” Buddy Lamp’s “Save Your Love,” and a big local hit, the Parliaments’ “I Wanna (Testify).”The vice-squad officers expected to find about twenty-five drinkers hidden away in the building, but they stumbled on a much bigger party, with a hundred or more people celebrating the return of two servicemen recently demobilized from Vietnam. Officer Charles Henry successfully bought a drink, and in doing so he had entrapped the club in an illegal act.

Usually those arrested in the neighborhood would be secreted down a back alley and hustled into waiting paddy wagons away from the busy intersection, but the rear doors of the building had been bolted in violation of fire regulations, and the arresting officers were forced to improvise. Sergeant Arthur Howison of the Tenth Precinct’s cleanup squad assumed control and, in what proved to be a fatal overreaction, tried to arrest seventy-three customers and the illegal bartender. With no hidden way out, the drinkers had to be accompanied downstairs and out the front exit onto the noisy crossroads at Twelfth and Clairmount. According to the owner’s son, “Some people refused to leave and were dragged out after the occurrence of a few fights.”

Detroit 67 by Stuart Consgrove

Detroit 67 by Stuart Consgrove

In the ensuing chaos, the club’s jukebox was smashed by the police in an attempt to silence the music, and one youth was handcuffed and beaten down the two flights of stairs into the street outside. It was by now the early hours of Sunday morning. Backup was thin on the ground. Standard police paddy-wagons could only hold fourteen people, so six or more were required to arrest the crowd. One got lost on the way, and others were slow to respond. But rather than disperse some of the revellers, Howison insisted that they stay in line. Knowing that their worst fate was a small fine, the throng of half-drunken revellers raised their voices, mocked the police, and exchanged jokes with passersby. A crowd of two hundred soon gathered, and the atmosphere became increasingly intimidating. While a squad car slowly ferried the first group to the Livernois station, the crowd grew in self-confidence. “Just as we were pulling away,” Sergeant Howison said, “a bottle smashed a squad-car window.”

A rumour spread that a man had been bayoneted by the police. It was untrue but just one of many hundreds of rumours that were to disorientate the authorities in the dramatic days to come. Bricks were thrown and then a salvo of beer bottles. Some saw an opportunity to resist arrest and used the hail of missiles to escape the law. Riot spread like a virus across the city and by the time the disturbances were brought under control by 7,000 National Guard and U.S. Army troops, 43 people were dead, 342 injured, and nearly 1,400 buildings had been burned.

Detroit’s most famous musical destination, Motown’s Hitsville studio escaped largely unscathed, except for damage to a front window caused by a tank shell fired across West Grand Boulevard. But Detroit’s wooden-porch image as the home of soul music had been damaged to the core, and the family myth that had been so crucial to the Motown story was brutally displaced by darker visions of a charred city under martial law. Like many who tried to make sense of the mayhem, the writer Suzanne Smith was perplexed by Motown’s survival: “Whether through race pride or pure luck, Motown studios, the city’s most famous black-owned business, escaped physical damage and looting. Motown’s survival was quite remarkable considering its close proximity to Twelfth Street.”

“Detroit’s most famous musical destination, Motown’s Hitsville studio escaped largely unscathed, except for damage to a front window caused by a tank shell fired across West Grand Boulevard. But Detroit’s wooden-porch image as the home of soul music had been damaged to the core, and the family myth that had been so crucial to the Motown story was brutally displaced by darker visions of a charred city under martial law.”

Motown escaped but deep damage was done to the reputation and creative energy of Detroit’s soul scene. The Great Rebellion, as it was soon to be dubbed, had given voice to the voiceless, but it had also hurt Detroit to the core. The nightclubs, the bars, and the independent studios that had been the makeshift foundations of Detroit’s soul scene had been burned to the ground, ransacked, or destroyed—put out of commission one way or the other. The generation that had shaped one of the greatest periods in the history of popular music had seen its city devastated like never before. For the Supremes and others within Motown, the riots were to become a metaphor for ruined harmonies and wrecked friendships. In a broader sense, the disturbances were also a requiem for Detroit’s great industrial achievements and its now declining manufacturing base.

Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, who had risen to civic stature along with Motown, surveyed the worst-affected areas in the days after the disturbances and vowed to rebuild the Model City. But it was clear even then that he was surveying not only the destruction from the riots but the debris of his own crumbling political career. Cavanagh told one newspaper, “It looks like Berlin in 1945.” It was yet another dramatic exaggeration in soul music’s greatest city.

Stuart Cosgrove’s book is available here.