Fifty years ago I wrote this letter about the Detroit riots which had begun on a quiet Sunday morning, July 23, 1967. Our family lived in the heart Detroit then where Burton served as pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church. Look back with me as we approach the 50th anniversary this coming Sunday. Excerpts from the letter written after Detroit burned:
“The word ‘Detroit’ has become a synonym for devastation. We can hardly bare to look at the heart-tugging pictures of the children among ruins or listen to the reports of our ‘All-American City.’ Millions around the country spectate and speculate and do not understand. A burned Detroit is horrible; a burned Detroit without receiving the message people are crying out with their very lives is a tragedy.
“Sunday night the words of Compline, “fear and terror of the night,’ became real. We smelled the thick smoke, even though the media had guarded news of the riot half a day to avoid panic. We heard one hundred blocks were now engulfed in flame. Then a curfew was imposed on the city. By morning it was 175 square blocks and still spreading.
“Concordia College in Ann Arbor opened their doors to house ‘refugees,” but going meant leaving others on our block who refused to leave their homes and possessions for fear of looting. Should we go or stay? Going meant my husband need not worry about his 8 ½ month pregnant wife and 4-year-old son so he could move more freely about the neighborhood. We convinced only 5 women with 7 children to leave. I then understood the reluctance of people to leave home in other disasters. We made our way through side streets because the expressway was under gunfire.
“Being away meant frustration that we could not fight the fires or bandage the broken. We returned in a few days. The riots continued. Being able to say we have been through the biggest riot in American history was not the point. I need to write to you because even more difficult is realizing that the National Guard and the federal troops called in had their guns aimed at us, the people of Detroit. Law enforcement was protecting the stores. There were endless editorials in the days after, blaming the rioters. One man even said that the riot was started so that the federal government would pour money into the area. Thereby this man planted seeds of more hated and division in the hearts of Americans. Such words merely harden the hearts of hardened, self-righteous Americans, making us unable to repent for the sickness we, too, have caused.
“Let’s try to imagine what may cause looting, what makes it especially tantalizing in a materialistic age. It is not a matter of the “good” and the “bad,” of the “lawful and the “lawless.” The rioters took goods from stores at the price of sweat and blood of store owners. However, we buy items from another country at the expense of work of underpaid people there. We get a ‘good deal.’ We exploit secretly and have our prestige promoted. The price Detroiters paid for one ‘bargain day’ was jail. We have never paid that price for our daily exploitation.
“The ‘we/they’ continued. Before the ashes were cool, ‘sight-seeing tours’ from the suburbs began. I was sickened to see traffic jams through our burned-out streets, causing the governor to again place a curfew on Detroit.
“The U.S. president announced the riots are over and the troops have left, when we still see them on our streets. The real question of justice is in front of us. How we handle these five thousand rioters, many of whom the police admit are innocent, is the challenge before us. Men become more bitter while their families wait in hunger.
“Another question is whether or not this was a race riot. In the same sentence newscasters say it certainly was not and then use the term ‘race riot.” Whether or not blacks shot at whites or whites shot at blacks or whether they looted and burned together, the riot is a reality, the reality of frustration, resentment, hatred; it’s really a rebellion. Not just a few would start over 1000 fires. It feels hopeless until we remember that God loves the countless homeless, the 5000 in jail, the 37+ dead, the 2000 injured. May God bend all our knees in repentance. May God enable us to build again.
“What about next month, next year? The patterns of exploitation will resume. Food and clothing and blood donations have poured in. But who will work for new hospitals in the city where poor shed blood every day? Poor people still find themselves unable to get a loan to buy a home, unable to find a place to rent. Unable to find a job and equal educational opportunity. Now that we’ve talked a little and prayed a little and given $5.00, do we understand any better?”
That letter was written fifty years ago. Today, do we understand any better?