Detroit 1967: A Legislator Opens Fire, Another Arrested, Romney Tested
The 50th anniversary of the unrest that convulsed Detroit and several other Michigan cities in July 1967 is days away.
I decided to go through the Gongwer News Service archives to see how the state reacted in the immediate aftermath of an event called a riot by some and a rebellion by others as racial tensions in Detroit, and other cities, but especially Detroit, exploded. A shout-out here to Lauren Gibbons of MLive, whose story about what happened in other Michigan cities, particularly the incident involving then-Rep. Arthur Law, prompted me to open up the box in our archives marked “1967” back when we published our report on legal-sized paper and quotations were printed in italics.
A news blackout of the unrest, which reports have said lasted 24 hours from the time the violence began in the early morning hours of July 23, meant that the first coverage of the incident did not occur in Gongwer until July 25, presumably after the newspapers hit the streets in Lansing that morning.
Governor George Romney declared states of emergency on July 25 for Flint and Grand Rapids as the unrest spread. Detroit already was under one. Mr. Romney also put those cities under what was described as “virtual martial law,” with the order also applied to East Grand Rapids and Wyoming.
One of the points of contention during the day was whether Mr. Romney had the situation under control.
President Lyndon Johnson had dispatched federal troops to Detroit and said he did so only after receiving “proof of (Mr. Romney’s) inability to restore order.” Mr. Romney told reporters he “requested federal troops in the morning and that was my consistent position all the way through.”
Mr. Johnson’s comments drew criticism from state Rep. Philip Pittenger (R-Lansing) – yes, there apparently was an elected Republican in now-totally Democratic Lansing in 1967 – that he had put the problems of Detroit “into the business of politics.”
The Department of State Police moved to protect the Capitol as “riot jitters” unnerved Lansing. Nine state troopers armed with automatic weapons and shotguns took up posts in the Capitol after 5 p.m. Among what Gongwer reported were “riot rumors” that swept the city during the day was a threat the Capitol would be burned down.
But it was an incident in Pontiac, not Detroit, that most directly enveloped the Legislature in the unrest. Pontiac also saw violence.
Rep. Arthur Law (D-Pontiac), a 61-year-old grocer who spent 18 years as a Pontiac city commissioner or mayor before winning election to the House in 1958, shot and killed a 17-year-old boy after a firebomb hit his small grocery and liquor store in his hometown.
Once the fire was extinguished, Gongwer reported at the time, Mr. Long and his 27-year-old son, Charles, waited in the darkened store. About 4 a.m., a window was shattered and Mr. Long said then, whether to Gongwer or multiple reporters was unclear, it looked like eight to 10 men were attempting to enter the store. He walked around the end of the meat counter and opened fire with a shotgun. The 17-year-old was struck and killed.
Mr. Law said his store had been broken into so many times his insurance had been cancelled, and he recalled a violent hold-up at the store in 1951 as well as a man firing shots at his son two years earlier (his son shot and killed the man).
“I shot several times – how many I don’t know,” he said. “It’s hard to describe the fear. I’ve been afraid for years for my wife, my son. You can’t let fear guide your life. I was desperate enough and I wasn’t going to be pushed any further. It was a hell of a thing, a terrible thing. I don’t know what I’m going to do now.”
Mr. Law continued, “It’s not pleasant to do what I did. But the fact is I did it. I did it because I felt it was necessary. It didn’t make me happier but if I had to do it over again, I presumably would do the same thing.”
Mr. Law’s actions drew a furious response from Sen. Basil Brown (D-Detroit), who represented the area in Detroit where the unrest began. He sent Mr. Law a telegram.
“My observation of the situation in my district has prompted me to ask you this question: What was contained in your place of business and what property interests were you protecting when you decided to execute an unarmed 17-year-old boy who, according to news reports, had illegally and unlawfully broken a window at your place of business. Your answer may help me to determine the extent of the vicious hatred I have seen demonstrated in the last two and one-half days in my senatorial district.”
Mr. Law was easily re-elected in 1968.
The other legislator directly caught up in the unrest was Rep. James Del Rio (D-Detroit), a 43-year-old former mortgage banker, real estate broker and insurance executive elected to the House just two years earlier in a special election. Police arrested Mr. Del Rio during the unrest, claiming he attempted to interfere in the arrest of a suspected looter.
House Speaker Robert Waldron (R-Grosse Pointe) said he was “reviewing” whether a special House committee chaired by Mr. Del Rio to investigate Detroit’s Total Action Against Poverty Program would continue.
Mr. Waldron later set up a special committee to look at police-community relations, especially how adequately local police, the State Police and the National Guard were recruiting African-Americans to join.
And as the Legislature prepared for a special session in October, there was conflict over how to respond to the unrest. Sen. Charles Kuhn (R-Birmingham) called for “anti-riot legislation” to be the main focus while Democrats urged adding open housing legislation to the agenda.
On September 20, 1967, Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh appeared before a Senate committee and said long-time indifference by state officials helped spawn the unrest in Detroit. Mr. Cavanagh came under heavy questioning from senators about he and the police chief responded to the violence.
Mr. Romney eventually embraced calls for an open housing law to ban discrimination on the basis of race and other factors but encountered resistance from legislators urging anti-crime legislation instead. Sen. L. Harvey Lodge (R-Waterford Township), a former county prosecuting attorney, warned that failure to pass anti-crime legislation could lead to “vigilante groups ready to march at a moment’s notice in defense of their homes and to protect them against arson, destruction and violence.”
Mr. Kuhn said Mr. Romney’s open housing legislation “rewards the rioters.”
One of the first housing bills passed the Senate on October 19. It was designed to aid families displaced by what supporters called “urban renewal” projects.
Sen. Coleman Young (D-Detroit), who would win the mayor’s office six years later, said, “Most people equate urban renewal with Negro removal.” But Mr. Young also had some interesting comments about a last-minute amendment needed to win the votes for passage. Language was removed banning relocation that would perpetuate or promoted segregated housing.
“I’d have traded off a few more sections if I’d have been pressed,” he said. “It really didn’t mean anything to begin with.”
The fair housing act, a separate bill, failed to clear the Legislature during that 1967 special session. But in 1968, the Fair Housing Act – co-sponsored by some familiar names like Mr. Young, then-state Sen. Sander Levin, Mr. Brown and then-Majority Leader Emil Lockwood – was signed into law. It passed the Senate on the same day the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.Back to top