(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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