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Remembering the 1967 Riot in Grand Rapids: What is past is present – Part I

July 18, 2022

This week we will be posting a series of articles on the 55th anniversary of the riot/uprising in Grand Rapids, which took place from July 25th through the 27th in 1967. Most of the content for these articles is from pervious postings on the Grand Rapids People’s History Project site, in the Civil Rights/Black Freedom Struggle section. I am interested in this history for several reasons, but mostly because of what we can learn from the past and how it can impact the present and the future.

Fifty-Five years ago hundreds of people participated in what the news media referred to as a race riot in Grand Rapids.

On July 25th, 1967, Grand Rapids police officers arrested several Black youth, when they pulled them over believing they were in a stolen vehicle. One source says that the officers may have used excessive force in dealing with the Black youth, according to an eyewitness account.

News reports on the first day of the uprising never mention the police abuse. Instead the headlines read that, “gangs threaten a riot” and “S. Division beset by young mob.” In fact, most of the Grand Rapids Press coverage focused on the property damage and police arrests, but never on the motives of those who took action.

The first editorial on July 26 at least acknowledges that people in Grand Rapids may have acted in part due to the riot that began on July 25th in Detroit. However, the Press editorial then uses harsh words to condemn those who participated in the Grand Rapids uprising.

The editorial says that, “The great majority in the Negro Community is law-abiding.” This statement alone reflects contempt for anyone who acts outside officially sanctioned behavior.

The editorial goes on to say that, “the lawless behavior of a few Negro citizens has made a mockery of civil rights and that everything that has been done up to this point to improve the Negro’s social and economic standing has been a waste of time, money and effort.” It is as if the civil rights movement consisted of what the White government did for Black people, as if the Freedom Struggle didn’t really exist.

Lastly, the editorial says, “there must be no compromising with the forces of disorder.” The Press editorial writer makes his bias known by saying that anyone arrested should be treated as a criminal and nothing else.

The Grand Rapids Police, along with other area cops and the Michigan State Police made it a point to arrest anyone they could get their hands on who was either engaged in actions they deemed unlawful, even those who violated the curfew that was put in effect on the evening of the 25th.

According to a report put out by the Grand Rapids City Planning Department, there were a total of 320 arrests made over a two-day period. The report, Anatomy of a Riot, stated that 49% of those who were arrested had a prior arrest record, thus the implication that those involved were prone to “criminal behavior.”

The area where the uprising occurred was 131 to the west, Hall street to the south, Wealthy to the north and Lafayette to the east.

Besides the data contained within the report, Anatomy of a Riot spent a great deal of time making pronouncements about living conditions of the Black community, but in a contemptuous way. The report acknowledges high unemployment rates and that many of the households are led by females. “These are families without an adult male to give support, love and guidance to the children.”

What the report does not really address, nor the news coverage, was the legitimate grievances of many of those who took action between July 25 and July 27.

It is important to note that this uprising in Grand Rapids was not an isolated incident. In 1967, there were 40 “riots” across the US and numerous since 1965, including Watts and the uprisings in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. King. However, because the bulk of the uprisings took place in 1967, the federal government did commission a study to investigate the cause(s) of the “riots.”

The report, known as the Kerner Report, does acknowledge the grievances of those who rose up. The report identifies three levels of intensity, each with their own list of grievances:

First Level of Intensity:

1. Police practices

2. Unemployment and underemployment

3. Inadequate housing

Second Level of Intensity:

1. Inadequate education

2. Poor recreational facilities and programs

3. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms

Third Level of Intensity:

1. Disrespectful white attitudes

2. Discriminatory administration of justice

3. Inadequacy of federal programs

4. Inadequacy of municipal services

5. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices

6. Inadequate welfare programs

As was mentioned before, most of the news coverage focused on what the GR Press often referred to as lawless behavior, such as property destruction and looting as is evidenced by the photos they printed.

However, it should be noted that most of the fires that were set were of vacant or deteriorated buildings that were owned by White people. One could certainly argue that these buildings were targeted as a means of protesting against the constant exploitation of the Black community by White landlords. A former pastor in the neighborhood where the uprising took place told this writer that there were several houses and an old barn near his church on Buckley street that were set on fire and that these were buildings clearly targeted because of how the landlord treated the Black tenants.

Another interesting aspect of the 1967 uprising in Grand Rapids, was the role played by a group of Black Youth who were part of what was called Operation Task Force. This was a program operating out of the old Sheldon Complex, made up of mostly Black high school student athletes who were tasked with walking the neighborhoods and talking to people to get a sense of what people’s needs were.

When the uprising began, these students in the Task Force were asked to help “calm down” the Black youth who were enraged. Ironically, some of these students were physically assaulted by police officers who did not known that the students were actually cooperating with them. Several GR Press articles were printed over the two-day period about the task force, with one headline reading. “Negro Youths calm crowd.”

On July 27, the Grand Rapids Press ran an interesting story, one that reflected the dominant culture’s fear about urban Blacks. The July 27 story was based on calls the Press writer made to people in communities near Grand Rapids, communities that were almost exclusively White.

A woman from Ionia said, “We heard they were coming here on Tuesday. We all had our guns ready if we had to.” Another White woman in Lowell was quoted as saying, “I think it is terrible. They are destroying their own property – hurting their own cause.” A resident of Saranac stated, “It is a terrible thing to say, too, but authorities should open fire on them, do something drastic to wake them up.” A man from Holland agreed with serious force being used against those rioting. He stated, “The troops should have orders to stop them anyway necessary.

These statements clearly demonstrate the entrenched White Supremacist attitudes of the day. According to the Anatomy of a Riot report, there were calls from people on the west side of Grand Rapids who wanted to “volunteer as vigilantes” during the uprising. In fact, the report notes that some White people were arrested during the uprising, because they were in violation of the firearms ban that was put in place.

In the aftermath of the 1967 uprising in Grand Rapids there were calls for increased funding for urban youth programs and some concerns about housing conditions, especially of the properties owned by White absentee landlords. Years later there was a new condo project built in the heart of where the uprising took place, between Jefferson and Lafayette, but within a year they built a brick wall around that development to keep out undesirables.

Today, the Sheldon Complex is gone, replace by a government social services facility and the newly gentrified area around the Wealthy/Division area. These new development projects have forced Black and Latinx people experiencing poverty out of the neighborhood, which is one tactic in minimizing the possibility of any future uprisings.

In Part II, we will look at some of the TV coverage of the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids.

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