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The Detroit Riots, from a Child's Perspective

June 1, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

In one of the worst riots in US history, some 43 people lost their lives and thousands more were injured or arrested.

In the summer of 1967, simmering tensions between the police and the black community in Detroit, Michigan exploded into five chaotic days of looting, arson and violence. In one of the worst riots in American history, some 43 people lost their lives and thousands more were injured or arrested.

Similar violence broke out in dozens of other cities across America that summer, most notably Newark, New Jersey. But the events of July 1967 would leave their particular mark on Detroit, a once-thriving city that would fall on hard times in the decades to come.

READ MORE: 1967 Detroit Riots

The day before the riots began, Detroit native Sheila Coffee spent hours dancing at her cousin Gwen’s wedding reception. She was 10 years old, and she and another young cousin had been the flower girls. That night, Sheila slept over at her grandmother’s house on Monterey Street, just around the corner from where the reception had taken place.

When she woke up the next morning—July 23—Sheila went outside to sit on the porch. Right away, she could tell something was not right. “I saw people just coming down the street with arms full of merchandise, all kinds of things, and smoke all in the air,” she recalled recently in an interview.

Sheila and her grandmother turned on the TV to find news of the riots on every station. Early that morning, police officers had raided an illegal bar and gambling joint—known as a blind pig—on 12th Street, close to the house where Sheila lived with her parents and three brothers. After a crowd gathered at the corner of 12th and Clairmount, one of the onlookers threw a bottle at a police officer. As the police fled, thousands of people flooded the streets, looting stores and setting fire to many buildings.

Much of what was happening confused Sheila. She would learn a lot of new words in a short time: Martial law. National Guard. Curfew. Her parents always made her come in at night as soon as the streetlights came on, and her grandma explained that the citywide curfew was a little bit like that. Except everyone—not just the kids—had to be off the streets between 7 pm and 7 am.

READ MORE: How Columbia’s Student Uprising Was Sparked …read more


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