'You're going to die tonight': Detroiters recall smoke, soldiers and bullets of 1967 riot

The Detroit riot started after a raid at an after-hours bar known as the Blind Pig on July 23, 1967. Before those thick black smoke clouds cleared and the fires finally died, there would be hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, 43 people dead and thousands arrested and injured.

Black officer was shot at by other police during riot that left 43 dead and led to arrests of 7,000

Maurice Wilson, 65, points to where U.S. army tanks rolled through his Detroit neighbourhood in the summer of 1967. He said the days of the riot were filled with smoke, shooting and soldiers. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The sound of gunshots filled Detroit's 12th Street as a tank burst through the thick black smoke rolling down the road.

"There was a lot of boom, boom, boom," said resident Maurice Wilson. "Before the soldiers got here, it was nothing but smoke … there was shooting, a whole lot of shooting."

That was back in 1967, when Wilson was just 15, too young to be scared of the unrest enveloping Detroit. But to this day, he clearly remembers the soldiers, the shooting and the smoke.

A police raid at an after-hours bar, known as a Blind Pig, on July 23, 1967, was the spark that ignited a fiery, five-day civil disturbance. Before the clouds cleared and the fires flickered out, 43 people were killed and hundreds more were injured. Thousands were arrested. Looting was rampant and whole blocks were destroyed, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. 

"The Vietnam War was going on, but it was like we were the ones being attacked," said Wilson, now 65. "We were having it right in our backyards."

In this July 1967 file photo, a National Guardsman stands at a Detroit intersection during the riot that left 43 people dead. (The Associated Press)

Wilson grew up two streets over from the Blind Pig and still occupies the same house today. With a garden-gloved finger, he points around the neighbourhood he has lived in all his life, like a general noting enemy positions.

"The tanks were up there by the freeway," he said, before swinging his arm to indicate a rundown home. "They had soldiers shooting out with a sniper back there."

'I couldn't believe this was happening in my city'

Fifty years ago, Isaiah McKinnon was one of only a few dozen African-American police officers on the front line as the riot roiled his hometown.

His day started with a 6 a.m. call from his sergeant saying rioting had begun and he needed to report for duty. McKinnon hung up. He thought the other officer was kidding. 

"He called back and said, 'Ike, this is serious, we're not kidding. Get to work right away.'"

Isaiah McKinnon was one of only a few dozen black police officers in Detroit in 1967. During the first night of the riot, fellow officers shot at him despite the fact he was in uniform. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

As the rookie policeman drove to the station, he saw people breaking store windows and looting. Soon, he was in a car with three other officers with the impossible task of holding back the tide of animosity and anger that had boiled over onto the streets of Detroit.

"It was chaotic, it was frightening and it was a situation where you said to yourself, 'God I hope this stops soon,' because it was really out of control," he said. "I couldn't believe this was happening in my city." 

McKinnon worked for 18 hours non-stop, fighting back that fear and trying to protect people from the panic all around them.

Multiple fires burn in a section of riot-torn Detroit on July 24, 1967, just west of the downtown area. Five days of violence would leave 33 blacks and 10 whites dead, and more than 1,400 buildings burned. More than 7,000 people were arrested. (The Associated Press)

But as he finally headed home to rest for a few hours at the centre of the storm, the young black officer found himself in need of protection from his fellow officers.

McKinnon was still in uniform when he was pulled over by two white officers. He called out, telling them he was an officer, but they ordered him out of his car.

The older officer pointed his gun right at McKinnon and said, "You're going to die tonight."

"At that moment, time froze," he remembered. "I could see his hand pulling the trigger."

McKinnon dove into his car, pressing the gas with one hand and steering with the other as bullets flew past.

Hope for the future

Years later, McKinnon became Detroit's police chief and eventually acted as deputy mayor. He said when he thinks back to that night and the days of rioting, he recalls a lesson learned from his father.

"They were not police officers, they were vigilantes, they were rogues. Anybody who goes out and does that kind of thing doesn't deserve to wear a badge," he said. "My dad always says, 'Son there's good and bad in every race.'"

It's important to remember the rebellion had its underlying causes, he added. For years, black people were blocked from restaurants, schools and jobs, and frustration and anger built up until it burst onto the street.

Thomas Gordon Park now sits on the site that once housed the bling pig, an after-hours bar that was raided in 1967, sparking the Detroit riot. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Change has been slow, but it is coming, said McKinnon. Detroit is changing, too.

"I want people to remember that Detroit was and is a great city," he said. "We've gone through some terrible times, but we shall rise again. We shall."

Today, 12th Street has been renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard. A park where children laugh and play sits at the site of the Blind Pig.

Throughout the neighbourhood, evidence of revitalization is everywhere. Boarded-up buildings are being given fresh coats of paint and broken masonry is being torn down.

Signs or revitalization can be seen all around the neighbourhood near the corner of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Clairmount Avenue where the riot began back in 1967. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Wilson said life is coming back to 12th Street. As he pulls weeds around white and red flowers, he looks down the road, now clear of smoke and soldiers, and sees signs of something he never expected.

"For a moment there, I thought there wasn't going to be any future the way Detroit was going down, down, down," he said. "Now I have great hope for it, great hope."


Dan Taekema is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: