It was one of the few times we were permitted to watch television during dinner. My mother set up “TV tables” in front of the black-and-white television set in our small living room. She served us trays of “swanky franks” (hot dogs wrapped in bacon and topped with cheese), somewhat overcooked. While smoke wafted from the open door of the oven broiler, she stared at the television, apparently unable to move and with tears in her eyes. On that hot July evening in 1967, we ate our dinner in silence as we watched the city of her childhood burn.
Seven years old at the time, I will never forget the images of tanks rolling through the streets of Detroit, of block after block of burning buildings. Sirens whined, tear-gas canisters exploded, and people shrieked off camera. It was a chaos I had never experienced in my segregated hometown. Until the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles, the Detroit riot was the deadliest in American history; forty-three people were killed and almost 1,200 injured. President Johnson had sent in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions of the U.S. Army, but to my young eyes they were all just guys in uniforms. To this day, Detroit has never fully recovered. Whole city blocks vanished, and many buildings were simply abandoned to decades of decay—hulking wrecks that still await a proper demolition.
The only comparable images I’d seen were from the distant jungles of Vietnam, but this was from only a few miles away—from the city where my grandmother still lived. I’m not sure if it was the physical violence that scared me most or seeing my parents suddenly so bewildered and frightened. After the riots our family continued to venture into Detroit on special occasions—for baseball games and the St. Patrick’s Day parade—but the fear never went away. Whenever he was afraid that one of us had strayed into the city, my father would pound the kitchen chopping board and, addressing no one actually present in the room, repeat the mantra, “God damn it all, I told them to stay the hell out of Detroit!”
In late May and early June American cities were again in flames, and for the same reason Detroit was in flames over fifty years ago: white police brutally targeting black men. On May 25, George Floyd, who was accused of passing a counterfeit bill to buy cigarettes at a convenience store, was killed by Minneapolis police. Some overly cautious reporters still prefer the locution “died while in police custody,” but if you watch the multi-source video documentation put together by the New York Times, it’s clear that he was murdered. Derek Chauvin, the cop who knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, watched the suspect go limp and become unresponsive. He ignored the entreaties of bystanders, who pointed out Floyd’s obvious distress and begged Chauvin to back off.
Like many white Americans, I have for years consoled myself with a narrative of gradual progress. Yes, surely there is still much to do, but the Voting Rights Act and other civil-rights legislation provided a roadmap for at least a modicum of racial justice. We were on the right path. Affirmative action in hiring and education were working, albeit slowly. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr. (who himself had borrowed the phrase from a nineteenth-century clergyman), President Obama frequently assured us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It is a faith I have clung to, and a comfort I have allowed myself, for far too long.
Fifteen years ago, when I took a position at Duke University, the assigned reading for the incoming freshman class at the neighboring University of North Carolina was Timothy Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name, a historical memoir that tells the story of the 1970 murder of a twenty-three-year-old black veteran by three white men. Though the victim died by gunfire, it was essentially a lynching. The perpetrators were acquitted by an all-white jury. Blood Done Sign My Name was a consciousness-raising book that won many awards and garnered a great deal of attention.