Mostly my fear of Detroit began in 1967. I remember dark TV footage of snipers on rooftops, reports of the governor sending in the Michigan National Guard, images of the US army’s temporary camps — sent in to get the riot under control. People had 6 or 7 p.m. curfews, banned from being out of doors after that. Innocent people died — either by snipers, crossfire, or intentional shootings by the riot squads. A woman was shot as she stood by a window to light what she didn’t know was her final cigarette, and a 4-year old girl was accidentally shot by an army sharpshooter who was aiming for her father because he stood in plain view just inside another window. I remembered images of the view through that window into that hotel room and images of people looting shops.
But that was far away, and not really real, until a year later, in April, 1968, four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. when 125 U.S. cities had already broken out into riots that my hometown, Kansas City, Missouri shut down due to sniper fire and an 8 p.m. curfew. This was a new level of terror for me and for most of the city’s citizens. I was living downtown at the time, having left university to work at a job in the city. What I saw on the first day from the bus was my beloved Country Club Plaza and my favorite park, Loose Park were both taken over by the army and I was banned from the streets. Afraid to stay in my own apartment, near downtown, I went to my parents’ house and hid under the covers with the rest of my family in the “white” north, across the river from the fires burning in the streets and the bullets that took down disenfranchised black citizens.
My second semester at college I met some people, including my boyfriend and one of my professors, who were involved in organizing a Civil Rights Rally in this town. I knew that this was the most important event to happen in this town of Springfield, Missouri, possibly ever. What most impressed me was that a black man, one of my professor’s friends, who was active in organizing it, was doing it from a wheelchair! This was astounding to me, a 19-year-old white girl in 1967.
I’d grown up with my own bedroom, but my six brothers had to share a regular bedroom, and a makeshift one, in the basement. We had very little money, most of which came from my mom’s job at the cable factory. But, and this is a big “but,” we lived north of the river and I may have never seen a black person, or for sure, ever been near one or spoken to one, until the fall of 1966. As my mom and I carried my stuff into my dorm, I was still “color blind,” and the fantasy continued into my dorm suite, as all 5 of my suitemates were white. It wasn’t until I began going to classes that I walked near, or even saw up close, fellow students of color.
That first semester, one of those boys actually spoke to me and I spoke back. He was handsome. He called me in my dorm room and we had long conversations. After discussing a possible date, and then, simply a meeting, he was the one to end it — he couldn’t be seen with a white girl, he’d been fooling himself — he’d be beaten up, or worse.That was my first taste of racism and so a year later, I saw the importance of a Civil Rights Rally in Springfield, Missouri and later, felt the crush, had an inkling of what was being unleashed, and what was being fought for on those rooftops, in the darkness,
in the light of those fires.