Newark and Detroit: The Long Hot Summer of 1967
by Bob Schwartz
The last post about James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) skipped a beat about what happened next. What happened in America was the race riots between 1964 and 1966 (including Watts in Los Angeles), culminating with the so-called Long Hot Summer of 1967. During that summer, among the many cities affected, the two disturbances that stand out are Newark and Detroit.
Baldwin did not overstate any prophetic intention in his book. Instead, he simply opened with this epigraph, from which he took the book’s title:
God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!
Newark, July 12-17, began with the arrest of a black cabdriver for passing a police car. The riots left 26 dead and hundreds injured.
Detroit, July 23-27, began with a police raid of a black drinking club. The riots left 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.
There are at least three reasons we don’t hear much or talk much about that summer in the context of Ferguson.
We are abysmally ahistorical. If it isn’t in the latest Twitter feed, it may already be old news. Things that happened forty or fifty years ago might as well be from the Middle Ages.
We want to highlight and not overshadow the clear progress that has been made. Progress to be sure, as reflected in the photo of a black President talking to a black Attorney General about the events in Ferguson.
We are afraid. Afraid that the progress we have made may be as illusory as it is real. Afraid that we solved the easier problems, leaving us with stubborn, intractable ones that are beyond comfortable solutions. Afraid that we may not be as good as we think we are. Mostly afraid that history is TMI, telling us way more than we want to know, showing us images not from the distant past but from tomorrow.
Hello. I found a disturbing photo of a young Black kid shot dead by police from that 1967 Newark riot. It was from LIFE magazine. It totally reminded me of what happened in Ferguson recently. (The photo is on a recent blog post of mine.)
It’s so great that we have these archives of photojournalism. If people don’t read history (which they mostly don’t), at least they can look at picture.
The photo is disturbing, and reminiscent. But let me put a tiny best light on the situation now. Whatever was going through the minds of most all white Americans in 1967 when they saw that photo, the reaction from many to Michael Brown is different and better. Maybe it doesn’t seem like much to say that the reach and depth of disgust and outrage is greater, but it is. A dead kid is still a dead kid, but the force behind making sure it doesn’t happen is much stronger. Small progress, but progress.