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Constructing Historical Narratives: Michigan Radio series on the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids

August 6, 2018

A few weeks ago, it was the 51st anniversary of the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids, a riot that last three days.

Since the 50th anniversary, there has been an increased level of interest in what took place in 1967, not just in Grand Rapids, but in cities like Detroit and Newark, which also experienced riots that were ignited by ongoing structural racism that impacted the black community.

There is no correct way to construct a narrative about what happened in 1967, but it is important how that narrative(s) gets told. Too often there is a tremendous amount of historical amnesia and historical denial about institutional racism and white supremacy. The narratives we construct about the past often informs how we act in the present.

Michigan Radio did a three-part series on what happened in Grand Rapids in 1967 and what it means for the city today? The three-part series, which ran during the week of the  51st anniversary, consisted of interviews with 5 people – an academic, a cop, a probation officer and 2 members of the black community, both of which are involved in the NAACP.

The three-part series begins with an interview with Matthew Daley, an Associate Professor of History at Grand Valley State University. This interview was entitled, Racial discrimination, segregation provided “tinder” for 1967 Grand Rapids uprising.

Daley tries to give the 1967 riot some context, talking about how the city was deeply segregated that the time. The GVSU history professor also talked about employment issues and the increased number of African Americans that were moving to Grand Rapids, especially after WWII.

When asked about the spark that led to the riot, Daley said that there a great deal of mistrust between the black community and the cops. Daley also acknowledged things like Red Lining, School de-segregation and the lack of job opportunities for blacks in the city.

Daley also acknowledges that Paul I Phillips had warned city leaders about the possibility of a riot, but does not comment on the specifics. Here is a more detailed explanation from the Grand Rapids People’s History Project

At a meeting on July 12, 1967, the head of the Grand Rapids Urban League, Paul I Phillips, communicated to Mayor Sonneveldt, the City Manager and the Grand Rapids Chief of Police that according to the national Urban League office, Grand Rapids was on a “dangerous list” of cities with racial tensions. Despite the comments from the Urban League, Mayor Sonneveldt, the City Manager and the Chief of Police “positively denied that riots were possible in the city.”

The Michigan Radio reporter then asks Daley about the difference between the Detroit Riot and what took place in Grand Rapids in 1967. Daley said that in Grand Rapids there was less looting, but more property damage. Another major difference was that unlike Detroit, where the National Guard was called in, Grand Rapids relied on the GRPD, other area police departments and members of the Michigan State Police.

Daley also talked about a task force that had been created prior to the riot, which consisted mainly of young people who were tasked with building relationships with people in the southeast part of Grand Rapids and offering resources to people who were experiencing poverty and other forms of structural racism.

The GVSU history professor also talked about the area that the riot took place in, along with the number of arrests and injuries.

Unfortunately, there was no discussion about media coverage of the three-day riot, how the white community responded to what was happening, nor the major report that came out a few months afterwards, called Anatomy of a Riot.

In addition, it would have been important for Michigan Radio to interview George Bayard, with the Grand Rapids African American Museum, which produced a documentary on the 50th anniversary of the riot and those whom the documentary featured, some of which were witnesses to what happened in 1967.

The interview with Daley concludes with some of his observations about what changed afterwards. Daley said the riot forced the city’s leadership to make some adjustments, that the city adopted a model government approach, school segregation was dealt with and that Grand Rapids did try to take more steps to address the problems. Daley also talked about the development projects that have happened, but failed to mention how this has impacted the black community in particular and no mention of the current gentrification that is impacting the black community, specifically along Wealthy St.

More White Voices

In part two of the series, Michigan Radio interviewed two white men about what they remember about the 1967 riot. That interview was entitled, Two officers – one white, one black – remember the 1967 Grand Rapids riots. 

Dan Groce was a probation officer at the time and Victor Gillis, now a retired Grand Rapids Police Captain, talked about what they remembered.

Early on in the interview, Gillis said, when the trouble began in Detroit, there was a naive assumption that Grand Rapids did not have those kinds of problems and that the riots would stay on Michigan’s east side. 

What is problematic about this interview is that while both men have certain recollections about what took place, it allows them to construct a certain narrative about what took place, specifically a white narrative and a narrative from two men who worked  within the larger Prison Industrial Complex. Both men can even acknowledge the mistakes that were made by the system, but that just re-enforces the idea that the system is fundamentally good and just needed to make some adjustments. Instead of interviewing people who were part of the system of oppression, it would have been more important to provide an analysis of that system, both in 1967 and how state violence continues through today.

Part three of the Michigan Radio series on the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids was entitled, Two Generations of Grand Rapids leaders reflect on how the City’s changed since 1967In Part three, the reporter interviews Ellen James, a founding member of the Grand Rapids Community College Board of Trustees, and Tavian Moore, president of the Greater Grand Rapids NAACP Youth Council.

While it was important to have the two African American voices in this story, the question of how the City has changed since the 1967 riot was not really answered. There was no substantial investigation of indicators – housing, employment, education, incarceration, poverty, etc – to see what the condition of the black community was during the 1967 riot and what it looks like now.

James and Moore do acknowledge that there is black representation in places now that didn’t exist in 1967. They also acknowledge that there is still plenty of work to be done, particularly when it comes to police abuse, citing the example of Honestie Hodges. Moore believes that the black community was able to get the GRPD to adopt policies that would limit the kind of police violence and intimidation that has occurred in recent years. Unfortunately, there is no explanation of verification provided by the Michigan Radio reporter.

The narrative created by this three-part series on the 51st anniversary of the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids offers a limited understanding of what happened then and where Grand Rapids is today in terms of racial justice. A great deal more needs to be done in order to construct more narratives about this history, particularly narratives that come from the black community. We cannot rely on mainstream media to provide these critical narratives, nor can we allow mainstream media to construct narratives that offer up simplistic explanations about the past, which we know will not do justice to the present.

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