My Detroit Rebellion Journal – 1967

My father, Rev. Albert B. Cleage & me.

I wrote this after the Detroit riot in July of 1967.  I was 20. I had been in Idlewild, MI at my Uncle Louis’ cottage with my Aunt Gladys and some of my cousins when it started. I ended up at my Grandmother Cleage’s house where my father, several uncles and cousins were also gathered. Her house was on Atkinson, about three blocks from the 12th street corner where the riot started. Aside from a little editing for clarity, these are my memories from 1967.


 The fire siren that night in Idlewild went on and on and on. Gladys got a phone call that a riot had started. We left that morning. The sky was pink with smoke as we drove into the city.

During the riot, when it got dark, we turned off the lights, put on black clothes and waited. The shots that had been going all day got louder, closer, smashed together. We sat on the porch and watched the tanks go up and down the street full of white boys wearing glasses, aiming their guns at us.

One during the day went by in a yellow telephone repair truck. He rode in the elevated stand, pointing his rifle. We looked back at him.

Lights from helicopters whirred over us. Troops went down 12th, down 14th. The street shook. Afraid to sleep because somebody might shoot through the window, we stayed up until the sky got light. My cousins cleared out the furniture in front of the windows, so they could shoot.

Should they let them get in or shoot before they reach the porch? They lay there on quilts, looking out the window. Seeing soldiers and armored trucks in flowerpots and dump trucks. Dale asked how the gun worked. Ernie shows him by the hall light.

The guns sounded like they were in the alley. I sat on the landing. Thorough the window it was dark and unreal outside. Blair came up, scared, so we went in the basement and turned on a program about Vietnam, but then off to a horror movie nobody watched.

Daddy came down, with a drink, to use the phone and dictate demands to the papers. Ernie showed us how to bolt doors if someone tried to come in the window.

They tried to get Grandmother down to watch TV, but she wouldn’t. She stayed upstairs, watched TV and came out only at times to turn lights on and silhouette everybody hiding guns as the soldiers were pulled back.

On the police radio: Fifty policemen wounded in one hour. They were run out of the Clairmont Square again. A woman turns in her sniper husband.

Dale was left on the porch when they flashed light on the porch and summer-salted in. Bullets were so close I was afraid and went back inside.

Grandmother turning on lights with armed flower pots aiming at us.

Turning Vietnamese guns up loud to drown out theirs. Jan and I, sleeping on the hard scratchy rug. Ernie wanting just a ring to show he was there. Dale taping, taking pictures to show his children. Jesus painted Black.

All that Sunday cars full of white folks went down Linwood past the Church. Windows rolled up. Sightseeing. Long, slow lines, car after car, windows shut tight. Troop Jeeps going by pointing guns.

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19 thoughts on “My Detroit Rebellion Journal – 1967

  1. Lord. How many days was this, Kristin? I'm trying to imagine what your grandmother was thinking.

  2. My grandmother didn't seem to be bothered by it as much as the rest of us. It lasted almost a week, as I remember. Just checked and it lasted 5 days.

  3. It's times like that which still make me wonder what in the world were people thinking? …actually they weren't thinking at all….what a horrible time it must have been for her….your picture is great!

  4. What a gripping narrative. This is social history, this mixture of image and words : both caught with the clarity of an instant. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

  5. It's so shocking to read such a vivid first-hand report. It's almost as though I was experiencing it myself.

  6. What a vivid eyewitness account of a frightening event. At a relatively young age it must have seemed terrifying.

  7. I feel the same way as Sheila@A Postcard a Day. An amazing narrative. So sorry you had to experience something so terrifying.

  8. It was frightening – but it was a defining moment as a Detroiter. A "what were you doing when Kennedy died? moment. So much during those times was terrifying.

  9. Thanks for sharing an insider account of what many remember as a scary time. I can't imagine being so close to the riot area and the fear you must have felt.

  10. The insanity of neighbor against neighbor. I fear this will all happen again.

    I recall being in DC in '69 having gone back to Pennsylvania to close up my deceased grandparent's home. The plan was to spend a few days in DC area and we were driving around heading for the home we lived in in the '50s. A cop pulled is over and asked what we were doing there. We explained and he shook his head. He told us, "You get out of here. You're heading right toward the riots. Get off the streets." So we found a motel and I recall my mother and I stood on the balcony watching police cars and fire trucks going by like a steady stream for hours. It was the one year anniversary of Martin's murder.

  11. That sounds like something that wouldn't happen in this country, but it did and it could happen again.

  12. quite an account of the event you've given us here. reminds me of "la crise d'octobre", back in 1970, with the army all over the city, bombs, kidnapping and such…

    only mankind is capable of this craziness.

    i almost expected you to show us a pixture of kids playing with toy spacemen, or such… since you got something for every occasion…

  13. I'm glad you wrote the account. It's hard to imagine being in the middle of that.

  14. @ticklebear – i thought of going with the helmet theme and putting a photo of my husband with his hard hat and the machine they used to use to test the asphalt which resembled the one posted but I just didn't feel it.

    Yes, your posting about Montreal in 1970 reminded me of the riot in detroit too. you just never feel quite the same after.

  15. A very striking memoir that resonates today with reports I've read on the uprisings in the Middle East. Civil strife is always a challenge to understand, and the turmoil of 1967-68 is still having an effect. Thank you.

  16. This is an extraordinary personal narrative. You take us right into the middle of that time, into the terror of it, made all the more real by the observer's recounting of what happened as it was happening. "Dale asked how the gun worked." Wow. So much in that one sentence. This needs to be in a book. This is history, as close as it gets to the way it truly unfolded. Rich and wonderful and terrifying. Thanks for sharing this!

  17. That's a very moving story Kristin, and resonates remarkably with the feeling I got after reading the accounts of the riot in the novel Middlesex, albeit that was not from a black viewpoint. Thank you for sharing a very personal moment.

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