Fifty years ago today, Detroit was in devastation.
The police raid of an after-hours bar on July 23, 1967 triggered a massive wave of arson, looting and sniper fire across much of the city.
The Detroit Police Department, the Michigan State Police, the Michigan National Guard and even U.S. Army troops were deployed to bring order to Detroit. Their presence, however, only seemed to escalate the anger.
Today, in our ongoing series “50 Years After the Fires,” we’ll hear the perspectives of two police officers – one black, one white – who were called into service during the uprising.
WARNING: This story contains language some may consider offensive and may not be appropriate for young listeners.
Ike McKinnon remembers the day he decided to become a police officer.
It wasn’t an inspiring career day speech at his middle school, or an uplifting TV episode of “Dragnet.”
It was the day four white Detroit cops took turns beating him up.
"I was 14 years old,” McKinnon recalls. “I knew that someone had to stand up and do something for people like myself and the minority community.”
Racism in the Ranks
McKinnon turned his anger into ambition, joining the Detroit Police Department in 1965. On his first day on the force, McKinnon reported for role call. He was the only African-American in the room.
“They started calling names out for assignments,” he says. “They got to this one officer, they called his name and they said, ‘McKinnon, 2-7.’ At that point, this officer yelled out, (expletive), I’m driving with the n****r.’ And everybody started laughing.”
Gene Wriggelsworth first donned his badge with the Michigan State Police in 1966. The young officer from rural Shiawassee County was stationed at Flat Rock, south of Detroit.
“We went up there on many trips to the Wayne County Jail,” Wriggelsworth says. “ So basically, it was a travel through the city, drop off prisoners, come back kind of a thing. Didn’t know much about the town.”
In 1967, Officer McKinnon and Trooper Wriggelsworth were just starting their careers in public safety.
Six days in July would give each man a baptism by fire.
The Melee Erupts
“I was at home; I’d worked the midnight shift,” Wriggelsworth remembers. “ We got a call that said, grab your riot helmet and nightstick and report to the post. You’re going to Detroit. So I did that, thinking a few hours later we’d be home. Seven days later, we came home.”
On the first night of the uprising, Officer McKinnon was driving home after an 18-hour shift. He was still in uniform when a Detroit police cruiser came up behind him.
“And so, I pulled over and they came up with their guns drawn, and I said, ‘police officer,’” says McKinnon. “And I stepped out of my car, but I left the door open. The older officer said, ‘tonight, you’re going to die,’ and he used a racial epithet. It was like slow motion because I could see his hand on the gun and the trigger. As I dove back into the car he started shooting at me. I hit my accelerator with my right hand and steered the car with my left hand as they were shooting at me, and I drove off.
"If those officers were doing that to me as a fellow officer, what were they going to do on the streets of Detroit?"
As the violence exploded, it became clear the city police were overwhelmed.
Trooper Wriggelsworth soon found himself in the line of fire. Snipers had taken up positions in various places in the city.
“The thought that crossed my mind was, I don’t even know these people,” he says. “What are they shooting at me for?”
Through it all, Wriggelsworth never fired a shot.
“We had a number of bullets that bounced off the pavement in our area, but you couldn’t see where they were coming from, and I’m not one that’s just going to crank off a round just for the sport of it,” he says.
Looting on Linwood
Ike McKinnon patrolled the streets in his squad car with his partner. On Linwood Street, they encountered a scene of mass looting. McKinnon was shocked when the police sergeant in charge gave a stern order.
“The sergeant stands up to all these people who are black,” McKinnon says. “He says, ‘G****” all you n*****s, get off this g****** street!’ They all heard this guy and they stopped looting. And I remember this one guy saying specifically, ‘What the (expletive)did you just say?’ And this guy; this sergeant repeated himself! And they started throwing bricks and bottles at us.”
As days and nights wore on, the severity of the crisis in Detroit reached the White House. President Lyndon Johnson mobilized federal troops on July 25.
Assault With a Delicious Weapon
On one occasion, Trooper Gene Wriggelsworth responded to a report of snipers in a particular building. As he searched a suspect, a rare moment of levity emerged.
“We had him up on the wall,” he remembers. “As I went through his pockets, my hand went into some slime that really, made me think, ‘what have I got here?’ He had a hamburger in his pocket and my fingers went down between the bun and the pickles and all that stuff. And I kind of jumped, quite frankly. It startled me. Here were all these guys armed to the teeth and here I am with ketchup all over my fingers and everybody laughing at me!"
Conflict Fades, Careers Rise
By July 28, the violence had been quelled. The police and soldiers started to pull back. The tragedy in Detroit claimed 43 lives...33 of which were African-American .
Stunned, the Johnson administration commissioned a study to uncover the cause of the conflict. In 1968, the Kerner Commission bleakly concluded America was “moving towards two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”
The young police officers dispatched in Detroit went on to prosperous careers. Trooper Gene Wriggelsworth retired as sheriff of Ingham County. Officer Ike McKinnon rose to become Detroit’s police chief and later, deputy mayor.
For 50 years, historians have tried to pinpoint the angst that boiled over in the city that summer. For Ike McKinnon – the Detroit native – it’s not hard to understand.
“Can people understand what it’s like to be demeaned every day, whether it’s male or female or black or white or brown?” McKinnon asks. “To be demeaned every day or to be treated in such a way that you’re de-humanized. That’s the way that I was for all those years on the police department. But I knew that I was going to be there to try and make a difference.”