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Detroit Riots of 1967

Burning of Buildings during the Detroit Riots

In the summer of 1967, the Detroit riots destroyed the city, which lead to hundreds of buildings being destroyed, even more people  arrested, and dozens killed and injured.  The National Guard was mobilized to help control the riots, and was effective.  The city was left with a hefty cost to repair all the damage.  This is important because it describe recent conflicts in the state of Michigan, especially since it a great example of domestic military history, which many people don’t  know or care about.

The Detroit riots happen in of one of the poorest, rundown parts of the city, and areas with the highest percentage of African-Americans.  Members of the community were throwing a party for two Vietnam veterans who were coming home from combat at a local bar called the “Blind Pig”.  The police also came to the party, uninvited, and arrested all 82 of the attendees for drinking and the sale of alcohol at an unlicensed business.  As the day rolled on, firemen rushed to the scene to put out the flames from rioters setting fire to buildings and vehicles.  8,000 National Guard troops were called to help control the riots.  An additional 360 police officers gathered at the Detroit Armory.   800 more state Troopers had been told to help manage the chaos. The first gun-shot victim was a 16 year old African-American, after violating a curfew on its first day. People of all races were seen looting and burning down businesses. Civilian snipers took to the roofs and targeted police and the Army.  What really started to settle things down was the 4,700 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne division, ordered by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In total, 33 African Americans and 10 Caucasians were killed, 1,189 people were injured with more than 7,200 arrested.

To some people, the Detroit riots was an event that started as misunderstanding.  The police arrested just over 80 party goers and rumor spread of police abusing victims, and more than 200 people began to investigate.  Then someone threw a bottle through the back window of a police car and a trash can into a business’ front glass display.  Throughout the morning, the riot grew and grew, causing additional forces need to help control the chaos. 2,500 buildings were burned, about 100 blocks were left in ashes as firefighters left to go elsewhere. Stores were looted. A curfew was put into place from 9:00pm to 5:00am.  After all was said and done, the total cost of the riot was $32 million, or $176-$644 million in 2015 dollars.

The origin of the battle started at the corner of 12th street and Clairmount Avenue. Which happened to be the middle of Detroit’s poorest and oldest part of the city.  It quickly spread all along 12th street, and into surrounding areas in the city.  Flames quickly engulfed 100 square blocks.

On the night of July 22, 1967, the raid of the “Blind Pig” took place and it all snowballed from there. The people viewing the arresting through the bottle through the police car window at 5:00am, on the 23rd.  Around 5:20am, addition police arrived on scene.  By 1:00pm, police experienced violence from the rioters. By 3:00pm, even more police arrived on scene, and by 5:30pm, Mayor Cavanaugh asked for the help of the National Guard, to which 8,000 soldier reported.  The first troops arrived in the city by 7:00pm, then a curfew was proclaimed. As the night wore on, deaths, shootings, and lootings were reported.  The next morning, 800 state troopers went to help control the chaos. Later, the 82nd Airborne Division supported the police with 4,700 paratroopers. Snipers had been a big problem until the end of the violence on the 27th of July. On August 1, the soldiers left the city.

From the Account of 2LT Willard Nieboer

As a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant, Willard Nieboer was assigned as a medical platoon leader in HHC, 3-126 Infantry Battalion, out of the Grand Rapids area National Guard.  When the Detroit riots broke out, the unit had to gather quickly and took of a few days to mobilize. Unfortunately, 2LT Nieboer was visiting family in Alberta, Canada.  The trip was cut short, and he travel back to Michigan as quickly as he could, and as he was arriving, the force was mobilizing to the eastern side of the state.  Luckily for Detroit, the 1-125 Infantry Battalion from the Flint and Detroit areas were at Camp Grayling, a few hours north of the conflict, so they were easily mobilized and arrived in a timely manner.   Along with the National Guard, extra state and county police were on site trying to contain the rioters. 2LT Nieboer compiled three major factors, “that contributed to the chaos,” as he puts it.  They were politics, the rushed need for troops on the ground, and the fact that the National Guard was not issued ammunition to begin with.  In order for federal troops to help counteract the protest, Governor George Romney had to indicate the rebellion to President Lynden B. Johnson. However he did not want to do this, and the action was debated. In the end Johnson won, and the 82nd Airborne was sent to the area and the National Guard was federalized under GEN. John L. Throckmorton.  With the federalization of the Guard, ammunition was issued and soldiers were able to take back some ground. Rioter snipers had been a big problem, but with the aid of .50 caliber machine guns, the issue was resolved quickly. Another problem was soldiers disappearing for extended periods of time, and their company commanders not knowing their positions.  Luckily for them, the Salvation Army was in the area with food and drinks for those resisting the rebellion, so they didn’t have to worry about their soldiers getting hungry or dehydrated.

When 2LT Nieboer finally arrived and found his unit on the 27th, he was “put in charge of a mounted patrol. Each patrol had a 1/4T Jeep with driver, patrol leader, and a police officer, followed by a 3/4T truck with 6 guardsmen,” as now MAJ (r.) Nieboer writes [2].  Most of the Guard lived in either armories, tents, and schools scattered throughout the city, the young Lieutenant was quartered in a big school, right around the highway for easier access to be able to get to other parts of the city. Desks were arranged so that cots could be set up and patrol shifts were set up.  Light and noise discipline was ordered to prevent a sniper to locate the soldiers.  After a while, cooks set up a 24/7 service to feed everyone, before and after a shift.

Six days after the raid of the “Blind Pig” from which the riots snowballed, some of the active duty troops were taken out of the action, leaving the Guard and local police.  When all major protesting had been resolved, the National Guard was also removed, which left the local police to maintain the peace, and peace remained.  “My DD 214 (release papers) says that I was released from federal duty on Wednesday, August 2, 1967.  The riots were over!” [2] Even though 2LT Willard Nieboer had been released from federal duty, and his unit had returned to the Wyoming Armory, they still stayed prepared for a few more days for safety precautions just in case something else were to arise. However, Detroit was done with rioting, and extra force was not needed.

The National Guard was taught a few important things during the riots. That “there has to be an orderly mobilization, and for years afterward we had mobilization exercises to make, refine and test mobilization plans, find glitches and redraw them,” as MAJ (r.) Nieboer puts it [2].  As a leader in the Army, you always have to be prepared and have a plan in your mind, and be ready to make quick decisions based on ever changing situations. Everything has to be taken into consideration. Not only what to do what the force is assembled, but what will happen when you arrive on site. Will you have enough ammunition and food? What about shelter and transportation, and everything that goes into maintaining a vehicle.  The individual tactics must be evaluated, not just the overall strategy of the mission.

Detroit’s Scar

Officer Isaiah McKinnon, an African-American police officer, was trying to return home after a grueling 12 hour shift trying to stop the rioters from burning down the city and stealing from the local stores. He got pulled over by two other officers, who happened to by Caucasian, for being out past curfew.  He still had his uniform on, and tried to explain to the other two that he was on the same side, but all efforts were in vain.  One officer even took his gun out and shot a few rounds. Officer McKinnon got back in his vehicle as quick as he could and got out of the area.  Even with all the persecution that McKinnon received, he remained on the force, and climbed up the ranks and made it from rookie to Chief.  He views “the disturbance was a riot, and he and his predecessors have taken steps to keep anything like it from happening again,” [3].

Many of the African American residents of Detroit view the riots as a movement against the “racist white authority,” [3].  When the head of the police, who is an African-American, describes the rebellion as a riot, compared to a protest against white supremacy, it will make people think twice about blaming those who are racist, when a African-American person says that the act is not racist.  When those who were effected directly by the thievery and arson are asked today how they feel, they would agree that they see more eye to eye with the police now then in 1967.  Building good relations with authorities after a tragedy like the Detroit riots will help maintain and prolong the peace. However, total peace may not be achievable due to rival gangs and cartels in the drug trade.

Then and Now

It has been almost 50 years since the raid of the Blind Pig, and there has been a lot of recovery made by the city of Detroit.  Yet much of the devastation still remains from the looters and arsonists who leveled entire blocks without thinking twice.  In the short video clip below by Philip Cherner, ABC News shows what happened in the summer of 1967, and how Detroit has repaired itself, or what it has left behind. In the first little video from 1967, you see collapsed buildings, smoldering from the extreme heat of the flames that have moved on the neighbor building with firefighters frantically trying to put them out. There is a column soldiers or police marching along to go back up those resisting the rioters, armed with rifles incase things go too far out of hand. There are patrol units driving by in the 1/4T and 3/4T trucks loaded up with soldiers who are starting or ending an eight hour shift of trying to reestablish peace back.  There are images of street corners and the foundations of houses and their brickwork completely destroyed.  Then some more recent images shown of a little more recovery that was done to clean up the mess, but there still is a lot of work to be done to return the Detroit suburb to its pre-riot state.  Then, a picture of a street lined with burnt buildings and a street lamp on some intersection is shown.

The photographer, Philip Cherner, went back to that area to find what had happened, and he had a problem finding the place.  All that was left was that street lamp. The rest of that side of the street had been completely demolished and turned into a field.  There may have been nothing that could have been done to save those buildings, and turning them into a field was the best option available at the time. Blazing, roaring fires that were too dangerous to attempt to put out can also be seen in the video, and so firemen watched from the sidelines helplessly as they could do nothing but watch as buildings crumpled to the ground. It is described as “living in a battle zone,” (2:08) [1]. Soldiers were walking around, armed to repel any opposition that came their way and they had a tank to reinforce them. It just really shows how bad it got within the course of a couple of days, and how fast the issue escalated.



Only lasting five days, the Detroit riots was one of the Nations worst riots in its History in terms of deaths, injured, arrests, and total damage costs. It is something people today hope to never see again, and Detroit has taken certain precautions to prevent another rebellion, like training in the police sector and making sure enough force is available to slow down and halt advancing rioters quicker and more effectively.


Primary Sources

  1. Cherner, Phillip. Detroit Riot-Then and Now. ABC News, 11 Aug. 2007. Web. 15 Nov. 2015. <>.
  2. Interview with Maj. Willard Nieboer (ret.), October 21, 2015.
  3. Meredith, Robyn. 5 Days in 1967 Still Shake Detroit. N.p., 23 July 1997. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.

Secondary Sources:

  1. Wang, Tabitha C. Detroit Race Riot. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
  2. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
  3. Starting Point of the July, 1967 Racial Riot. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
  4. Riots of 1967. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.