The Human Relations Commission and the racial tensions of the 1960s in Grand Rapids: Part II

Last week, we posted Part I of a look at the Human Relations Commission and the racial tensions of the 1960s. In Part II, we want to look at the racial tensions that was known to the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and the 1967 race riot in Grand Rapids, once again using the documentation in Clingman’s book, which is linked here.

Prior to the 1967 race riot, the head of the Human Relations Commission, Alfred Cowles, gave a speech to the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, where is said that he didn’t think that things were bad in the black community. Cowles also stated at the time, “that the local minority situation in housing, employment and public accommodations was generally good but some problems still existed in the field of education. Cowles made similar comments on WOOD TV 8 in 1964.

In addition, Cowles felt that the most dangerous group in town was the Black Muslims and even compared them to the KKK. Other members of the Human Relations Commission did not share Cowles concerns about the Black Muslim and no formal action was taken.

After the Watts riot in 1965, WOOD TV 8 produced an hour long documentary that mostly included interviews with the Black community and asking them if the conditions were similar in Grand Rapids as it was to Watts before the riot in Los Angeles. Those interviewed expressed complaints about housing, employment and police brutality, but Cowles generally refused to acknowledge these complaints. Here is what Cowles said after the 1965 WOOD TV 8 documentary:

Aflred Cowles was replaced by Eugene Sparrow near the beginning of 1966, but Sparrow was not prepared to say that racial tensions would lead to a race riot.

At a meeting on July 12, 1967, the head of the Grand Rapids Urban League, Paul I Phillips, communicated to Mayor Sonneveldt, the City Manager and the Grand Rapids Chief of Police that according to the national Urban League office, Grand Rapids was on a “dangerous list” of cities with racial tensions. Despite the comments from the Urban League, Mayor Sonneveldt, the City Manager and the Chief of Police “positively denied that riots were possible in the city.”

Two weeks later, at 11pm on July 24th, 1967, the black community rose up against the injustices they had been facing for decades in Grand Rapids, and began to riot.

Clingman doesn’t provide a great deal of new information that we haven’t already shared about the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids. He does mention that there was a meeting during the riot at the House of Styles between City leaders, older members of the Black leadership and a few young African Americans who Clingman refers to as “young militants.”

One result of that meeting was the creation of the Negro Leadership Council (later renamed the Black Unity Council) that did include some of the “young militants.” Three days later the riot was over.

Clingman ends the chapter on 1967 with these observations:

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2 Responses to The Human Relations Commission and the racial tensions of the 1960s in Grand Rapids: Part II

  1. Pingback: GR Press Editorial on the GRPD and community relations is the same old establishment mantra | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

  2. Pingback: Constructing Historical Narratives: Michigan Radio series on the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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