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Murder in the Motor City: Police Violence and the 1967 Rebellion.

Fri, October 9, 8:00 to 9:45am, Sheraton Centre, Chestnut West


It has been nearly fifty years since the flames of rage and frustration consumed one hundred blocks of Detroit. In just one terrifying week in the summer of 1967, forty-three people died, seven thousand people—mostly young African-American men—were arrested, and nearly twenty thousand armed policemen, National Guardsmen, and paratroopers patrolled the streets. As hundreds of businesses burned and citizens’ dreams were shattered, the slow and steady march of tanks with mounted machine guns announced the re-imposition of order with frightening clarity. In an effort to understand what caused the uprising in Detroit and several other cities in the tumultuous 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson convened the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, which argued that nearly all the riots were rooted in a history of racial inequality and police violence.

This paper will use the murder of three young African American men by white policemen on July 26, 1967 at the Algiers Motel and Manor House to help understand and reinterpret the history of the 1967 Detroit riot. Investigating this case offers opportunities to explore not just the history of racial violence but also the ways in which ordinary men and women experienced, interpreted and survived it. Additionally, by focusing on the testimonies and experiences of the targets and subjects of urban police squads, especially African American men and women, I hope to better understand the racial, gender and class implications of urban policing and police brutality—and what role they all play in, as Tom Sugrue’s classic work puts it, “the origins of the urban crisis.” By narrowing my focus to one case that began in the middle of one long, hot riotous night, I hope to capture the essence of the frustration and despair that fueled the rebellion and exposed the dark underside of the so-called “Model City,” where racial violence, inequality and segregation was every bit as virulent as in Mississippi or Alabama. Maybe it was even worse.


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