Liberation · Social Justice

Remembering the July 1967 Detroit & 1917 East St. Louis Race Riots

Yesterday evening NPR spent a good part of the Sunday evening All Things Considered highlighting a remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Race Riots in Detroit. It included one segment interviewing 3 prominent Detroit natives, and one interviewing the defense attorney for three white Detroit cops charged variously with murder, conspiracy, and federal civil rights violations following the death of three black youth. NPR added another segment of remembrance this morning. I strongly encourage folks take time to listen to all three stories from NPR, as well as resources beyond.

But this also brought to mind the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Race Riots in East St. Louis, another place dear to my heart. I didn’t hear any reports helping me to remember that atrocity, but needed to look for a local St. Louis newspaper report from a month back. Some say several dozen, some say more than 100, some even more — black men, women, and youth were murdered that day through extremely barbaric and brutal attacks. At least once or twice a year I take a moment to look at some of the pictures of burning or shot black bodies. Retired reporter Harper Barnes has written the book Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement which provides an in-depth story of the events before, during, and after July 2, 1917. Andrew J. Theising, Professor of Political Science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, has written the book East St. Louis: Made in the USA, The Rise and Fall of an Industrial River Town that includes a chapter with graphic photos from the event while including a much broader image of the history of the region and its impacts on the community and its people.

Today I also remember the 26th anniversary of the killing of Eric McGinnis, a black teenage boy from Benton Harbor (my hometown), found dead in the river between that 92% black town and it’s 95% white neighbor city, St. Joe (Read Alex Kotlowitz’s book The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, A Death, and America’s Dilemma.)

These are just three stories of hundreds and thousands and millions of native Americans, blacks, and other people of color who have been killed at the hands of white Americans. Many of those whites were not only not convicted of crimes, they were celebrated. These are three stories from places I spent time growing up and as a professional in community informatics, and I have had the honor to hear stories of truth to power throughout my life from friends in these communities.

A few weeks back I attended a session at the American Library Association put on by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation introducing their Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation enterprise. Here’s part of the intro to the guidebook:

TRHT enterprise is a multi-year, national and community-based effort to engage communities, organizations and individuals from multiple sectors across the United States in racial healing and addressing present-day inequities linked to historic and contemporary beliefs in a hierarchy of human value. This absurd belief, which has fueled racism and conscious and unconscious bias throughout American culture, is the perception of inferiority or superiority based on race, physical characteristics or place of origin.

During the session, Dr. Gail C. Christopher, the Vice President for TRHT, pointed out that in contrast to the 20 nations that have participated in Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, our nation needed something different because only in our nation has the relative worth of whites above all others been integrated from the very first visits by European settlers.

America has had much good throughout our history. But it has also had some extraordinary evils, ones that match the evils seen at Auschwitz and Mauthausen, or in Siberia, or in Roman Colosseums, or …

Make America Great Again, is a very dangerous statement unless we first go through a period of truth, racial healing, and transformation. We have never done this, even in very small part, as a nation. As such, this day of remembrance of these mile markers in Detroit, East St. Louis, and Benton Harbor are but reminders to me that we continue to live on a cusp that allows for continued crimes against humanity, and will continue to allow so until we put in a committed, universal work for racial healing. Soon.

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