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The beautiful people of Detroit

A look back at a story from 1967 that dove into racial violence in the U.S.


 

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HER NAME IS Dorothy Shipp. She’s 22, a cashier in a Detroit fish restaurant, and her current delight is that friends call her The Negro Twiggy because she's very slender . . . like the women of the Masai warriors. She has a domed forehead, wide-apart khaki-colored eyes, thick lips, a flat nose and hair that, without the agony of the hot comb, would be like a bushy halo. She says she used to be a wallflower because she didn't look anything like the girls Negro boys really fancied, but that somewhere in the past year things changed and now she's got more suitors than she can handle. “I used to be too Negro, but now the fashion has come around to me. The boys think I’m . . . well, more beautiful than I was,” she explains.

Actually, Dorothy had been getting better and better looking for a year or so, but with the Detroit riots in July she finally blossomed. By any reasonably objective standards she’s always been gorgeous, but the U.S. Negro, in the absence of a powerful black culture, long since fell heir to the peaches-and-cream mythology of Madison Avenue. Even in the black ghettos, the whiter the girl, the prettier.

But on July 23 white Detroit police raided an illegal Negro club on Twelfth Street a few blocks from Dorothy’s home, and all hell broke loose. It was officially called “civil disobedience,” but Negroes call it “the war” or “the revolution.” Before it ended, 43 were killed in fires or gun battles; 386 were injured; 477 buildings were gutted or damaged and city economists trying to measure the cost gave up at half a billion dollars.

When it ended, the Negroes who took part felt elated: “It was like we was all having a great party, a carnival,” said one. The Negro middle class viewed-with-alarm and deplored it, but also felt good: the black man had stood up to Whitey in the streets and, baby, had actually won! To the Detroit Negro, to all U. S. Negroes, the credo of the black nationalists suddenly had a new meaning. Black and Beautiful. A year, two years ago that would have been a contradiction in terms, but the war produced a new Negro who’s learning, slowly, to be proud of his blackness. The U.S. nightmare is that to do so he must attack white society.

And right now Dorothy Shipp is beautiful, baby, beautiful.

Don Meeks met a lot of people when he went back to Detroit, but he said it was Dorothy who made him finally remember just how dehumanizing it was for a Negro to live in a U.S. city ghetto. Dr. Donald Meeks, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatric social work at the University of Toronto, had for five years been lost in the relatively color-blind university worlds of Boston and Toronto, where he had been permitted for days at a time “to regard myself as just another human being.” But he was born in Detroit and was a social worker there, and now, in September, five weeks after the end of the war, he was back among the poor Negroes, hearing one of their women talk proudly, and yet with puzzlement, of her new beauty and, unconsciously, of all the agonies of racism that led her suddenly to become at this time and in this place Black and Beautiful.

It is Meeks’ thesis that the riots were an eruption of the frustration the Negro feels at being denied the right to pride in his own race and his own humanity. If this is true, then the U.S. is a powder keg, because Detroit was hailed as a racially “model” city, and yet still the Negro exploded. His targets were the symptoms of this denial; the bullying and brutality of the police; the inadequate slum-clearance schemes; the white property sharks who gouge Negroes wanting to own their own homes; the white tradesmen in the Negro slums who overcharge because their customers are Negro. And if the Negroes themselves are to be believed, there'll be another war unless things improve.

The road back for Don Meeks began with his very unscientific statement on arrival at the U.S. border: “I hate this city. God, I’d forgotten how I hate this city and the way it makes me feel.” Within a few hours, at a nightclub called The Drome, he was confronted with the first evidence of the new Negro pride in being Negroid: the four musicians all wore their hair natural, not artificially straightened. While their leader tried to play jazz on the bagpipes, the pianist, Oliver, and Meeks agreed that this was “undeniably a rejection of white values.”

On the way back to the hotel, the elderly Negro cabbie said Detroit was a violent city anyway, but that he wasn’t worried now “because I got this and I can use it.” He suddenly whipped an ugly .38-caliber revolver from beneath the dashboard and waved it casually at Meeks' head. Next morning, as we drove out to inspect a duplex Meeks has owned since he worked in Detroit, the radio provided two footnotes to the war. One was the news that Detroit policemen are buying their own ex-army carbines for riot control because the city doesn't have enough heavy weaponry. The other was a report that the New Detroit Committee, set up after the riots to bring racial peace to the city, was scouring America for a top police expert to show Detroit's police how to mend their ways. “There’s general lack of confidence in the police,” said the report. Negroes say that since the riots the random brutality of “The Man” — the police — has ended.

To reach Meeks' duplex in a comfortaby middle-class area, we drove through all-Negro territory, which is generally unlovely and dirty besides. It’s the older part of the city and. as in other U.S. cities, the streets are corridors of architectural anarchy that seem to have been abandoned by the sort of good civic administration that collects garbage daily, sweeps gutters, repairs sidewalks, mends roads and enforces building ordinances. You walk on a litter of discarded gum wrappers, empty cigarette packs and other flotsam, and driving, your car jounces and jiggles over potholes and eruptions in the asphalt. There’s even a summer’s growth of crabgrass poking through cracks in the sidewalk of the three-mile tenderloin strip of Twelfth Street where the Beautiful People finally went to war in July.

Meeks’ upstairs tenant, an attractive woman teacher, greeted us with what was to become a familiar litany: No, she said, the riots were not racial; whites looted as well as Negroes. Later, she said the troubles weren’t ended. There’d been 33 fires set by Molotov cocktails since the riots supposedly ended. “It's been building up for a long while.” she said. “The Negro doesn't have freedom. The only place you're treated like a human is among your own kind." A pause. Then: “You know what they say: the only truly free people are a white man and a black woman.”

As Meeks put it, this instant insistence the riots were not racial is part of a denial syndrome among Negroes who. even the poorest of them, have something to lose if the schism between the races widens. These people find it reassuring to accept the explanation that the riots were an outbreak of senseless violence by slum people, white and black. Even Ralphie, the sniper-revolutionary, whose contribution to the war of emancipation was to sit on a roof with a 30.30 and try to kill anyone in a uniform, claimed the war wasn’t racial. “There was Whiteys looting, too,” he said. And besides, he was shooting at either color.

Ralphie is among the more beautiful of the Beautiful People since there's no obvious taint of white blood in his face. Among Negro nationalists, that's something to be proud of. He's a laborer and thinks he can't get a better job because he’s black. By all accounts, he may be right, but he's also one of the southerners who have flooded north in recent years to what they thought was the Promised Land. Reality is trauma enough, but it's compounded by the inadequacy of the southern Negro's education. Ralphie thinks Detroit is worse than Birmingham, Alabama, because at least in Birmingham the bastard Whiteys don’t try to disguise their hatred. He himself hates enough to kill and is smart enough to keep his mouth shut, which he did that afternoon he first met Don Meeks in the gloomy, cluttered front parlor of a Negro near-slum. But his soul brothers swore Meeks and I were also brothers, for all that one was white, and then the story came, slowly, in fragments.

"There was three of us but the butt of the rifle was stickin’ out of the blanket and this dude seen me leaving my place ... My friend got himself killed; the cops cut him to pieces with machine guns after he got a couple of them, but they left him lying and I went and got the watch off his wrist ... I come back in the morning without the gun, but this dude sees the watch and he snitches . . .

“Eight cops hit my building. Four go in to My Lady [wife] who's eight months gone, man, and stick this gun in her face and say, ‘Git back against the wall, go on, git,' and all that . . . I was in the street when they come, so I hit the wind and when I got back My Lady told me about it . . . They bothered My Lady all week ... I phoned and told them to come and get me. but they kept leaving it for hours and come when I was out . . . Man, I was in all this nonviolent things down in Birmingham, only they was only nonviolent one way . . . Finally The Man [police] arrives and took me to the station, but I kept telling them they were crazy and they had to let me go because they couldn't prove nothing . . .

“I had just about enough of this turning the other cheek, my checks are all worn down to the bone . . . Did I kill? Well, now, you tell me, but I sure didn't go out catching fish . . . Sure I was afraid. I figured I was going out there to kill and get killed and I thought about that and I got scared. But The Man was out there killing innocent folks, and I wanted to show Whitey we ain’t gonna stand no more . . . Yeah, lotsa innocent people got hurt but it's hard; the police and the national guard, they’re the enemy, and when you hear a footstep you’re going to try to get that footstep just in case it’s one of them ...”

By now he had been talking for 45 minutes, most of the time fingering a carved wooden caricature of a Negro face hung on a leather thong around his neck. The thing has eyes of glittering red glass: red for hate, they say. Black nationalists wryly explain that it's a Tiki to “guard against evil spirits" — white ones presumably — and no one would tell us whether there's any deeper significance: we were only probationer soul brothers. Ralphie said that to be a soul brother you pretty well had to be black, though lots of Negroes couldn’t rate either. “I used to hate being black, but now” — he held his forearm up before his face — “now the only thing I hate about myself is that I ain’t blacker. I wish I was so black I shined like ebony in the sun.”

The question, “Was the rioting in Detroit organized?”, hangs ominously over the U.S. Ralphie, who might have been able to give us some sort of an answer, refused to do so. beyond: “Organized? Well, you’re an intelligent man, d’you think you just go out there blastin'? You need some training to be a sniper, man.”

Our hostess, the wife of a Ford auto-company employee, said she thought the looting was organized, because she went out to see if she could join the fun and found men with cars calling out the names of stores they were about to go and loot. She joined one raiding party which stripped a furniture store after a white stranger smashed the windows for them, but she felt cheated: she could only carry two splendidly ornate table lamps, one worth $112 and the other $162. “I should have guessed it was coming, the rioting,” she said. “Ever since Watts people have been talking about ‘wait until the revolution’ and ‘wait until Detroit blows up.’ ” She said she didn’t need the lamps; neither did many of the looters she knew need what they were taking. “It was a chance to get back at some of the stores,” she said. “It was like hitting someone who’s put you down. Made you feel good.”

For both whites and Negroes in the U.S. it’s comforting to think the Detroit uprising was the product of outside agitation. If it was, then both can reassure themselves that North American society doesn't contain within itself the self-germinating seeds of its own destruction. Meeks’ pilgrimage was punctuated with stories of mysterious outsiders in out-of-town cars seen around Negro neighborhoods before and during the war. Reportedly, men no one seemed to know led looting parties, carried acetylene torches to open safes, bore maps significantly marked with red ink. A Negro shopkeeper told Meeks how three men from out of town told him four days before the riot that he’d be well advised to paint SOUL BROTHER on his windows. Harry Mackey, a former Toronto Argonauts football player and now an auto-company personnel officer, said the riot was not only well-organized (“They took out the places owned by people they wanted to get like a dentist takes out teeth — scientifically”), but that he'd also got the latest word: if Whitey didn’t change his ways the lid would blow again. An old friend of Meeks’ in the real-estate business swore he had evidence to show goods looted from Detroit stores were being sold in east Kentucky within three days of the outbreak of war.

All of this prompted Dr. Meeks to suggest privately that the new American Wish-Dream might be that Chairman Mao was responsible for all the long, hot and horribly violent summers in recent United States history.

The “outsiders did it” theory is, predictably, most firmly held by middle-class Negroes: the people who, having wholeheartedly espoused white values and standards, are now most bewildered by finding they are beautiful as well as black. As Yvonne McIntyre, a 37-year-old school-attendance officer, explained, “Our mothers did us a disservice by bringing us up to believe you must think of people as individuals, not as races. But that isn’t and never has been possible in the U.S. What we have to learn is to not be ashamed of being Negro. If a man calls you a black s.o.b. be mad because he called you a s.o.b., not because he called you black.”

To be ashamed of your color is becoming a considerable sin among the Beautiful People. Some stores looted and burned in the war were Negro-owned. One dress shop owned by a Negro called Mrs. Hawkins was stripped and wrecked, and a young mother, wife of a well - paid auto worker, said she took a skirt and some underclothes because “the store was cool [acceptable] until Mrs. Hawkins got some money and turned snow.” She explained that turning snow meant “she changed her disposition entirely toward her own people; you’d have thought she was white.”

Nearby, the hardware store of Morris Richman, a Winnipeg-born Jew, was barely touched. His windows were smashed; some paint stolen. Someone wrote the names ANTHONY and JIM on his step with cans of stolen spray paint, and someone else sprayed SOUL BROTHER on a window. Richman told Meeks, an old customer, that “they didn’t burn me either because they didn’t wanta blow the Negro fur store next door, or because they think I’m okay — maybe if I was one of them I’d have done the same. It’s bad enough being a Jew in this town, let alone a Negro.”

The more influential of the Negro middle and upper classes were shocked out of a comfortable complacency by the war. Don Meeks’ old friend Dr. Larry Jackson, a psychiatrist, sat in his elegant dining room in his elegant house in an elegant and mostly white neighborhood and said, “The middle-class Negro is as much at fault for the riots, and in some ways more so, for abandoning the people whom he could have some empathy with. We could do something and we haven’t. We achieve status and some of the brutal things of the streets don’t happen to us any longer and we forget that society’s treatment of the Negro is really as big a danger to us as it was 10 years ago when we were fighting to get off the streets.

“It wasn’t just the hoodlums kicking up. The people involved were also responsible, thinking people whose actions were deliberate, born of desperation, perhaps, but deliberate. There was method to the madness that was going on. And because it happened and the sword of Damocles didn’t fall, their appetite is whetted because it enabled them to strike out at society, which they feel is the aggressor, and yet survive. Now that it has happened, people are surprised Negroes put up with what they did for so long. This business of the police, for instance. Negroes rob and assault one another just as whites do, but the police don’t really care. They only concern themselves with policing the Negro community when it spills over and might offend or endanger the white society.

“The riots have united the lower strata of Negro society and the upper strata want to participate in the revolution. Not in the streets, but through the leadership we should be providing. The riots have made middle-class Negroes into Negroes again, not just a middle class. We have to take the message along that things are desperate and we’re no longer going to be fobbed off with token gestures to our humanity and equality, like permitting Larry Jackson to be Dr. Jackson, psychiatrist. We must take what happened in the streets, the riots, and use it as a lever to make people aware that it can happen again. It’s our job to articulate across a table the sort of things our people were articulating in the streets with Molotov cocktails. Outside agitators? There are enough people in this city now who are unhappy to make them unnecessary.”

Even the quiet, cultured voice of Negro moderation of Larry Jackson is warning it can and will happen again unless . . . And down at Lynwood and Grand Boulevard near the core of the Twelfth Street Negro slum and standing in the entrance to his Congregational Central United Church of Christ where paintings of Christ and Mary as Negroes adorn the walls, the Reverend Albert Cleage came on like Rap Brown and said the people, his people, are in revolt not only against Whitey, but against the established, turn-the-other-cheek civil-rights organizations as well.

Albert Cleage is leader of a riot-spawned organization called the City Wide Citizens’ Action Committee, which is dedicated to fight for a Negro takeover of the administration of Negro neighborhoods — and that, in effect, means Detroit itself. He is 56, and has, he says, been preaching that Black Is Beautiful for years, only since the riots more black people are listening. His congregation has increased by between 30 and 100 every Sunday since the riots ended. “There's just about as much hatred among black people [he insists on the word black; not Negro] for whites as there is among whites for blacks. And I tell you the white-man’s face in the U.S. is the face of hatred.”

What rebellion can do

Cleage is a hard man to see: he has a policy of “no dialogue” with the U.S. press because it’s white-oriented. But we were from Canada and Meeks was a brother and a psychologist to boot, so Cleage spent 15 minutes explaining that the white man wanted to annihilate the black man, and that the rebellion had made whites sit up and take notice the way nonviolence never had. The black people were all aware of this, he said, which may have been why an action-committee meeting the previous week drew an audience of 3,400.

Cleage shook my hand when I left, but some of his followers refused because I’m white. He had said that no white man, however sympathetic, could be a soul brother because his skin color meant he was bound to enjoy the fruits of a white society which repressed the black.

That sounds fanatic, and yet as Meeks pointed out, it’s simply a logical extension of America’s white-imposed apartheid - by - consent. One reason why Detroit’s riots were alarming is that it has long been hailed by white liberals and middle-class nonviolent Negroes as a racially “model city.” But there are two Detroits. The 600,000 Negroes, one third of the population, form a Negro Detroit that exists alongside, but apart from, the white Detroit. Each has parallel social structures, which come together only at either end of the social spectrum where either affluence or misery are the common denominators. Otherwise, each race is presented to the other as a stereotype: “Whitey” and “nigger” are as much cliché images as Uncle Tom ever was.

Detroit around the downtown core is Negro territory. As Meeks drove out of town, I remembered a Negro couple in racist Birmingham, Alabama: he was black, she looked white; their son of seven looked white, like his mother; their daughter of four looked black, like her father. When the mother drove her children downtown, the girl insisted on lying down in the back of the car. She said that if “they” — whites — could not see her black face, “they'll think you and Paul are white and they won’t bother you.” With Dr. Meeks at the wheel going through the land of the Beautiful People, I felt it was my turn to lie down in the back of the car.

As Dorothy Shipp put it, “I don’t exactly hate the white man: we’re not strong enough to be able to actually hate him yet. But even when the white man isn’t treating me like an animal available to him whenever he fancies, even when he’s nice, he still makes me feel a bit leery. I don’t know why. Some of my good friends are whites, but ...”

Beautiful, baby, just beautiful. ★

God is black

Glanton Dowdell, 44, wears a .50-calibre machine-gun bullet about his neck as “a charm against evil spirits.” White, ones, of course. Dowdell, an artist and father of five, is grave, secretive and co-leader of the all-black City Wide Citizens’ Action Committee set up after the riots to secure a new deal for Detroit Negroes. He painted the black Virgin Mother and Child in the committee’s headquarters, the Central United Church of Christ, where in August they staged a “people's tribunal” to try in absentia three white police-1 men accused of murdering Negroes during the riots. The verdict: guilty. Dowdell, whose followers wear the bullet-charm and greet one another with a complicated, ritualistic handshake, said that “if justice isn’t done — if those cops get away with anything — there* will be another rebellion. You must realize the police have treated the black man as though he were less than human, and so the cops, in this case, are a symbol of all the black man has, to hate in Detroit. If the white power structure permits anything less than, justice it will demonstrate all their promises are empty, worthless.” Dowdell claimed the riots made him a black nationalist; that the bullet-Tiki has no special significance beyond its value as a charm; that his committee is peacable. To meet Maclean’s, he had a bodyguard, who refused to shake hands with whites.

Pretty racist

“When a white man behaves to me as though he thinks all colored women should stand at stud for him, then I feel insulted, but it doesn’t cheapen me. It cheapens him.” Christine Walker, 29, a very attractive and highly articulate social worker, is an unashamed racist. “I’ve never dated a white man,” she said. “Apart from what my friends would think, it would be impossible for him to convince me that his interest in me was sincere; that he thought of me as an equal and not a prospective partner in some sexual fantasy.

After all, his father raped my mother, otherwise I wouldn’t be the color I am.” She’s coffee-skinned. She is also uncomfortable in the presence of white women “because deep down they have a standard of beauty I can never acquire.” Chris said she never felt attractive until two years ago “when the climate seemed to change and I had a boyfriend who wasn’t ashamed of being Negro and made me feel both attractive and proud of what I am.” She is very contemptuous of Negroes who marry white women, “like Harry Belafonte — I can’t stand that man.”

"I'll die like a man”

“Looters got 10 suits of mine outa the cleaners. Well, I seen a man in a bar wearin’ one of ’em. He’s a $50 fella wearin’ a $250 suit, stands out a mile, so I takes him to the parkin’ lot and gives him good reason to take off that suit and go home in his shorts and shoes. Musta been cold, that fella.” The “good reason” Nathaniel Folmar gave was a flourish of the revolver he is licensed to carry: he says it’s useful in his job as road manager for pop singing groups, including The Supremes. Just before his house was gutted by a looters’ fire, Nate stacked his furniture on the sidewalk. He saw two men, Negroes, steal his color TV. “I get my shotgun and I catches up with one fella in an alley after he put my TV in a truck. He keeps denyin’ what I seen him do with my own eyes, so I blasts him and takes him bleedin’ down to The Man (police). What happened to him? Don’t know.” Nate’s other brushes with The Man, often while driving, have usually been explosive. “They can’t treat me the way they like,” he says. “I’m a man and I’ll die like a man, and they better know it.”

The man who cried

Alfred Neely, 40, father of six, is so articulate he sounds like a lawyer, or a New Frontier politician. He is an auto-plant press operator. He dropped out of university after one year, and completed his education in jail, for drug peddling. He said there was “a carnival atmosphere during the riots, as if it were a holiday on which total anarchy had been declared.” Then he tried to explain how it is to be black. “In school, the white boy would be told by the white teacher to read how Charlemagne, blond hair streaming, went off on a white charger to save the world. I’d have to stand up and read how Little Black Sambo was scared of the woods. I’m intelligent, more so than many men whose orders I must take or who call me ‘boy’ downtown. You cannot even begin to know what that means. Sometimes I wish God would tear the intelligence out of me. I’d be happier stupid.” And then, in front of Horst Ehricht’s camera, he wept.

Odd man out

Harry Levy, hardware wholesaler, did a lot of business in the Detroit ghetto until the riots. Then so many stores he supplied were gutted that he lost 27 accounts, mostly of men who won’t reopen in Negro neighborhoods. ‘‘It can’t be much fun being a Negro here,” he said. “But I don’t think they had any call to go tearing the place apart. Trouble is, they want too much too quick. They move into a neighborhood, but they’re not satisfied with having just a few of them in there; they take over the place. My neighborhood, now, used to be all Jewish. Then they moved in and now it’s 90 percent Negro and the synagogue has closed. I drive my kid miles to another one. I want my kid to grow up among his own kind and maybe meet a nice Jewish girl and settle down. He won’t do it where I am, so I’m moving. D’you blame me? Well, I bet they do.” In fact, Negroes complain whites move out when ther move in, and sell their homes to other Negroes at big profits.

Haircut or humiliation?

This auto worker is enduring The Process, a sort of permanent wave in reverse designed to straighten his crinkly, cottony Negro hair into a lifeless shank so it can be molded and teased and cemented into an imitation — probably not a good one — of a white-man’s hair style. Psychologists probing the collective U.S. Negro psyche say The Process is probably the most demonstrable symbol of the emasculation of the Negro male: denied the right to pride in his own race, he is conditioned into aping whites. The Process takes from 45 to 60 minutes. First, thick oil is rubbed into the hair to form a film over the scalp which, hopefully, will protect the skin from the agony of being seared by the straightening cream — a thick, white, glutinous paste containing lye. The cream, temporarily at least, kills the hair and makes it straight, listless, malleable. After the lye cream has been rubbed into the hair for several minutes, it is washed out and the lank hair is then patted and pushed into the desired shape. A Tony Curtis, perhaps? A sleek Fred Astaire? Negro hair cannot be tortured into a Bobby Kennedy or a Beatle cut. But wavy hair and coiffs over the forehead are popular, and to get them the barber uses roller curlers. In the final stage of The Process the man sits beneath one of a row of hair driers, much as women do in a beauty salon. The Process costs from seven to nine dollars, sometimes more, and if tended carefully will last up to a month. To protect this expensive investment in “whitening” themselves, young Negroes often wear bandanas tied around the hair. These are called “do rags” and to the black nationalists are as much a symbol of the white-man’s degradation of the Negro as The Process itself. John Jordan, the barber in this picture, is proud of his ability to use The Process to produce about two dozen hair styles. He says he and his three barbers all went away to school to learn how to manipulate Negro hair into the latest styles. But The Process is on its way out among the Beautiful People. Five years ago, Negro university students began wearing their hair in bushy “natural” styles, which later became a trademark of the Black Power nationalists, Black Muslims and others who aggressively espoused the Black and Beautiful credo. Now, since the riots, there is a slow but perceptible reduction in demand for The Process among John Jordan’s customers. “Earlier this year about 10 percent of our customers started wearing the natural,” he said. “But those who take pride in their appearance are coming back to The Process. A lot only want the natural for the summer because in the heat they sweat and sweat washes out the treatment so the hair gets kinky again. That’s why people who work in factories or down the mine or do athletics can’t wear The Process.”

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