50 years after the 1967 Riot in Grand Rapids: What we know and what can we learn?

On July 25th, 1967, Grand Rapids police officers arrested several Black youth, when they pulled them over believing they were in a stolen vehicle. One source says that the officers may have used excessive force in dealing with the Black youth, according to an eyewitness account. This incident was the spark that led to the 3 day riot in Grand Rapids, which lasted from July 25th – 27th

However, the riot did not occur in a vacuum. The African American community had been exploited and denied equality for decades in Grand Rapids. We know that housing segregation was systemic, with the financial red-lining of blacks and organized white resistance to blacks moving into their neighborhood. 

We know from reports conducted by the Grand Rapids chapter of the Urban League, that housing an unemployment conditions were appalling, based on reports from 1940 and 1947.

The civil rights movement in Grand Rapids responded to these forms of white supremacy and institutionalized racism in a variety of ways. We know that blacks organized a march a week after the racist church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, that left four blacks girls dead. 

Black students were also resisting institutionalized racism and school segregation in the 1960s, which culminated in what was referred to as the Mustache Affair in 1966

Thus, the riot in the summer of 1967 was just waiting to happen, considering the harsh realities that the black community was facing in Grand Rapids.

We have looked at several aspects of the 1967 riot and encourage people to familiarize themselves with what happened and what we can all learn from the three-day riot.

We have written about the local news coverage of the 1967 riot. Here is a story we did 5 years ago, which looks specifically at how the Grand Rapids Press reported on the riot in 1967. 

We have also come across some channel 8 archival stories from the 1967 riot, with a posting of the video footage you can watch here that includes reporting from Detroit, which was rioting at the same time.

In addition, we posted another story about the how the channel 8 reporting centered white voices and white perspectives and ignored black voices and the black point of view. 

We also have a posting that looks at some of the archival photos from the 1967 riot, photos that were taken on behalf of the Grand Rapids Press. These photos tell a certain story from a certain perspective, what we call the White Gaze. 

Several months after the 1967 riot, the Grand Rapids City government published a report called, Anatomy of a Riot. We posted an article that provided some analysis of the report by the City of Grand Rapids, which is very instructive, both in terms of the data and the recommendations that make up part of the report. 

One additional piece we wrote recently, was based upon an article that the Grand Rapids Press wrote 20 years after the riot. This article is based on the reflections of two men who were part of a federally funded task force, which used high school and college students to work in areas that were considered susceptible to rioting. The story from 1987 doesn’t provide much context for the 67 riot, but there are some useful points that are made by the two people that were interviewed. 

Again, we encourage people to become familiar with the history of the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids African American Museum is hosting a photo exhibit at their downtown location and will hold an event at GVSU’s Grand Rapids campus on July 25.

In addition, it is important for all of us to learn from this history and to come to terms with the systemic racism and white supremacy that continues to be deeply entrenched in Grand Rapids. We need to ask ourselves what are the similarities between the conditions for African Americans in Grand Rapids in 1967 and 2017. Are the conditions really any better 50 years later?

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WOOD TV 8 footage of the 1967 Riot in Grand Rapids

(Thanks to the Grand Rapids Public Library for directing me to this archival material.)

Last week, we posted a 1987 story from the Grand Rapids Press  about the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids, where two men who were part of a task force were interviewed about their memories of those three days in late July of 1967.

Today, we are posting footage from channel 8 that includes at the beginning a story done by reporters in Detroit during the 1967 riot in the Motor City, followed by footage with no commentary, an interview with the Grand Rapids Chief of Police and an interview with a Grand Rapids Business owner, whose store was attacked during the riot. The footage seems to go back to Detroit briefly, with the channel 8 reporter commenting, then followed again by footage in Grand Rapids without any commentary.

There is some footage of people who had been arrested, but no one who was arrested and no one from the Black community was interviewed about what started the three day riot nor what conditions the Black community were living under prior to the riot in late July of 1967. The video footage lasts a total of 11 minutes and 8 seconds and is a good indication of how the riot was reported on by commercial media at the time.

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A Retrospective on the 1967 Riot in Grand Rapids, Twenty Years Afterwards: From the Grand Rapids Press

(This is the first of a series of postings that deal with the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids, which took place 50 years ago between July 25 and July 27.)

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In July of 1987, the Grand Rapids Press ran a story in their Flair section, 20-years after the 1967 Riot in Grand Rapids. 

The story features two men who spent the summer of 1967 working as part of a federally funded Task Force, the United Community Services Youth Program. The jobs of the young men who were hired were to attempt to resolve conflicts and keep things from getting out of hand. They worked out of the Franklin/Hall Complex.

The two men featured int he story, one white and one black, were Richard Donley and William Pritchett. They, along with the other young men who were part of the Task Force, were hired because they were athletes and had some size. Both Donley and Pritchett were very up front about this fact, saying they settled disagreements with “sheer size.”

The Flair Section article, in many ways, is an attempt to humanize what happened in 1967. However, the article does a great disservice to readers in that it doesn’t provide any real context from the reporter. For instance, early on in the article it states

Against a background of American cities exploding into violence all summer, Task Forces members headed for Grand Rapids streets.”

Such a statement doesn’t really reflect the dynamics of what happens during a riot. Just like the quote we began with from Dr. King, riots occur primarily as a form of protest. People are tired of the living conditions that they are subjected to and there is usually an incident that triggers the uprising. In the case of Grand Rapids, the riot was triggered by the GRPD pulling over a car of black youth and then used “excessive force” during the interaction. This is based on several eye witness accounts from neighbors who saw how the police treated the black youth. However, this was just the spark that set off the powder keg waiting to erupt. We know that for decades that African Americans living in Grand Rapids we experiencing high levels of poverty, unemployment and living in exploitative housing conditions, based on the research by the Grand Rapids Urban League conducted in 1940 and 1947. Indeed, the 1940 report states the following: 

There was one acknowledgement in the GR Press article from William Pritchett, that living conditions were a large part of why people rose up. Pritchett said, “Everybody wanted to get involved, it looked like, to show that they weren’t happy with what was going on, the way things were going.

However, citing only Pritchett and Donley (and one GRPD officer) makes it impossible to get any real sense of why people rose up when they did. We do know that people targeted absentee landlords and white-owned businesses, but since there is no one who was part of the uprising cited in the article it only reflects the perspective of those who were hired to prevent it from happening.

It would have been instructive for the Press reporter to do a follow up to a 1967 report put together by the City of Grand Rapids, entitled, Anatomy of a Riot. This report, while rather paternalistic, would have been useful in determining if the recommendations from the report were accomplished and if the conditions of African Americans living in the southeast part of Grand Rapids had improved or not between 1967 and 1987.

There were a few useful comments made in the 1987 Grand Rapids Press story. Some of those involved in the riot were signing the song Downtown, as a way of taunting the cops. Pritchett then said, “That’s where the city drew some real stern battle lines. If they come across Wealthy and Division, that corner there, then there’s going to be bloodshed. We’re not letting them get downtown under no circumstances. If they want to tear up the blocks between Hall Street and Wealthy…..

Another thing that the two men shared had to do with the fact that there was a curfew, not just in Grand Rapids, but in East Grand Rapids as well. “Blacks who had nothing to do with the rioting were afraid to travel through white areas to their jobs,” Pritchett recalls.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the riot in Grand Rapids, it is important that we take a more honest look at what happened and what continues to happen in terms of the conditions that African Americans face in Grand Rapids.

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3000 march in Grand Rapids after Birmingham Church Bombing – 1963

On Sunday, September 15 of 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church was the site on a White Terrorist bombing, resulting in the deaths of four African American girls – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair.

In addition to the four deaths, there were at least 22 other people who were injured from the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Eventually, there were four white men who were charged with the crimes, but legal proceedings didn’t begin until 1977, which only convicted one of the men who planted the bomb. Two of the other men were not charged (and subsequently found guilty) until 2001and 2002. The fourth man involved in the murder of the four girls died in 1994, before having been charged.

It is important to note that the 16th Street Baptist Church was a major place of organizing, especially in the spring of 1963, with student organizers and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference using the church as a base for their work. A powerful documentary of the church bombing, entitled 4 Little Girls, was directed by Spike Lee.

Grand Rapids marches in response to Birmingham church bombing

One week after the bombing that took place at the 16th Street Baptist Church, demonstrations and marches took place all around the country as a sign of collective morning against this act of terror.

The Grand Rapids Press reports that an estimated 3,000 marched from the Southeast part of Grand Rapids and ended up downtown in front of city hall.

You can see how the headline read, which reflected that even though the violence the march was commemorating was against black people and primarily organized by black people, the participation by White people merited the focus of the headline.

Those who organized the march had lined up people in rows of seven, mostly by organizational affiliation. The march was a silent march, only a few speeches and prayers were offered at the end, when the marchers had reached city hall.

Two things stood out to this writer, when reading the Grand Rapids Press article. First, the Rev. W. L. Patterson, with True Light Baptist Church, made this comment to the white people who marched that day. He said, “You have marched with us today, but please march with us tomorrow because we need jobs and places to live right here in Grand Rapids.”

Patterson’s comment made in clear that what the black community was asking the white community was for them to stand with them in the struggle for economic equality and housing justice, which the black community had been struggling to achieve, based on reports from the Urban League in 1940 and 1947, which we have cited in previous postings.

The second comment cited in the article that stood out was a comment from Rev. Hugh Michael Beahan, a Catholic priest. Beahan stated, “Those of us who are accidentally white must be a little careful about our righteous indignation. We should see if our hands are clean – maybe too clean because we never lifted a finger.” Essentially, Beahan was calling out his fellow white community members for not doing anything to fight against segregation, institutionalize racism and white supremacy.

The Grand Rapids Press article also states that the march was quiet and “never came close to getting out of hand.” Such an observation reflects the inherent bias of the Press reporter. You can read the entire article at this link.

 

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The Mustache Affair in Grand Rapids, as reported on by the Commercial Media in 1966

(Special Thanks to the Grand Rapids Public Library and the Grand Rapids City Archives for assisting with finding the material sources here.)

Chapter 4 of Todd Robinson’s important and insightful book, A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan, focuses on what he calls the Mustache Saga.

The Mustache Saga is really about students, particularly black students asserting themselves around changing school policy and developing greater political and cultural consciousness.

In the mid-1960s, the black community in Grand Rapids and across the nation, was organizing for more rights, more freedom and more power. It is within this context that the Mustache Saga takes place.

The Grand Rapids Public Schools were faced with greater segregation and other inequities in the local school system. The Grand Rapids Press ran a piece as early as 1962 about dropout rates amongst African American students, with the article placing all of the blame on those students and parents. (See pages 1 & 2 in the document GRPS Mustache Saga

Beginning with the 1966 school year, we begin to see students engaged in their own forms of resistance, that were both political and cultural. Responding to an increased crackdown on dress code and appearance, some students protested these standards growing mustaches.

This resistance culminated on November 15, with a student walkout, involving at least 400 GRPS students from South High and joining them were several GVSU students, along with adults from the black community. (see pages 3 – 9

The Grand Rapids School Board spent most of their meeting on November 16, 1966 discussing the matter. You can read the proceedings from that meeting at this link

One other example of local media coverage of the Mustache Saga was an editorial from WOOD TV 8, which also ran on November 16, 1966. The editorial was condescending towards students and demonstrated a clear racial bias on the matter. We are posting the editorial since it is important to read in its entirety.

Lastly, it should be noted that this student led resistance to GRPS school policy was part of the growing anger and frustration that a growing number in the black community were experiencing, which eventually erupted in July 1967, after GR police officers abused and arrested black youth. That incident led to 3 days of rioting, which we have written about. This July will be the 50th anniversary of the race riot in Grand Rapids.

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A Legacy of Pride and Struggle in the Grand Rapids LGBTQ Community

This week Pride celebrations are happening all across the globe. These celebrations are rooted in the Stonewall riot that took place in the summer of 1969.

Pride celebrations have evolved over the years and many believe that it has become more of opportunity for corporations to target “gay consumers” and for the more privileged sectors of the LGBTQ community to minimize the past and current realities of those whom the Stonewall riot owes its legacy, specifically the trans and queer communities of color.

The history of the LGBTQ community in Grand Rapids is presented in the 2011 documentary we produced. The film involved interviewing over 70 people, collecting archival material and conducting an analysis of the way in which commercial media reported on this struggle.

The first Pride Celebration took place in 1988 in downtown Grand Rapids at the Monroe Amphitheater (now Rosa Parks Circle). Someone filmed the event and preserved the historic event, which you can watch below.

While the LGBTQ struggle in Grand Rapids was in no way as radical as it was in New York or San Francisco, the struggle has been very real here and it is important to honor the sacrifices that people made to fight against the hyper-religious and homophobic climate that existed and still exists in West Michigan.

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Student Protests and an Unruly Audience: Earth Day 1970 in Grand Rapids

Earth Day activities were planned across the country on April 22, 1970. Grand Rapids was also included in those communities that celebrated Earth Day.

Based on articles from the Grand Rapids Press, there were three separate activities that received attention in Grand Rapids. 

In the afternoon, there was an event with song and signs on the Calder Plaza, with the featured speaker being Rep. Guy VanderJagt, a Republican from Cadillac. The comments by VanderJagt, as reported in the Grand Rapids Press, spoke of the urgency to take action. However, the representative from Cadillac framed the environmental urgency in terms of how much people would be willing to pay in taxes to get clean air and clean water.

There was also a large community event, with an estimated 1,500 people in attendance at the Civic Auditorium in the evening. The event featured images on the big screen, musicians and speakers.

Senator Philip Hart got the biggest applause from the audience, according to the Press. Hart spoke about not separating humanity from nature and that the “drive to save the environment” will outlast recent crusades such as those of civil rights and the war on poverty.

At one point the image of Vice President Spiro Agnew appeared on the screen, which received a lot of boos from the audience. Representative Gerald Ford spoke, and he too received boos, shouted comments about the war in Vietnam and sometimes loud stamping of feet.

Ford’s comments, according to the GR Press, were limited to personal sacrifices, consumer dollars and taxes. Ford also suggested we “reduce pollution from the internal combustion engine.” He claimed that President Nixon, along with the private sector, would be creating a “virtually pollution-free automobile within five years.”

There were a whole list of other speakers, including representatives from business, the faith community and non-profits.

The other major activity that people took part in on Earth Day in Grand Rapids in 1970, was a protest organized by students from the Grand Rapids Junior College.

Students chose to protest at a meat factory, because of the pollution the business was emitting as a result of how the company cured the meat. The factory had been the target of complaints from neighbors for years because of the pollution.

The owner of the business was cited as saying that he was in the process of addressing the air pollution, but didn’t know what kind of timetable there would be to address the issue.

This last action, organized by students, is more reflective of the kinds of actions people were taking across the country, which focused attention on corporate pollution or structural pollution. In fact, in its early years, Earth Day actions were either to engage in collective projects that would promote ecological integrity or to confront those most responsible for environmental destruction, the corporate/industrial sectors.

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