With the bankruptcy of Detroit, a city that was once a thriving factory town on the strength of the auto industry, many are attempting to discern the roots of Mo-Town’s slide into something resembling Rome after the barbarians were through with it.
The Walter P. Reuther Library describes an event that many think was the tipping point for Detroit, that being the race riots that took place in the city between July 23 and July 27 in 1967. It was the worst case of civil unrest since the New York Draft Riots on 1863, killing 43 people and putting 2,509 businesses, many owned by African Americans, to the torch. It took the deployment of units of two regular Army divisions, the 82nd and the 101st Airborne, to finally put down the insurrection.
The Detroit riots are thought to have spurred a flight to the suburbs, first of whites, then of middle class African Americans, along with businesses, to the safety of the suburbs. As the tax base of the city declined, the politicians who ran Detroit desperately tried to spend their way out of the problems that were afflicting the city. But spending more than was being taken in year after year with no discernable effect on the declining viability of the city had, it is supposed, the inevitable outcome.
Positing a somewhat different theory, Bill McGraw of the Detroit Free Press, writing on the 40th anniversary of the riots, claimed that the riots, rather than being a cause of Detroit’s decline, was simply a symptom. The decline started in the 1950s and only was only accelerated by the 1967 riots.
The radicalization of Detroit’s African American community, according to McGraw, led to the election of Coleman Young, the city’s first black mayor and a radical leftist. A retrospective on the nearly 20 year tenure of Young in Time Magazine lays the destruction of Detroit at his feet, particularly because of his championing of ill-considered and expensive public works projects like the Renaissance Center and a monorail system called “the people mover.”
Patrick Mallon, a Detroit native, is even blunter in his assessment of Mayor Young in a piece written a few years back in the Free Republic. He suggests that Young was a demagogue who exacerbated racial and class divisions for his own political purposes. He also places the responsibility for the destruction of Detroit on a white judge, Stephen Roth, whose court ordered busing of white students from the suburbs to Detroit inner city schools had the perverse effect of driving whites even further away from Detroit.
The bottom line is that while the decline and fall of Detroit had a number of causes, it could be argued that the 1967 riots proved to be a seminal event that made that process all but unstoppable.