Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The historical date that changed everything

In everyone’s life, there is a single date – one vivid unforgettable day – that changes a person’s life. It’s not really that wedding day, or the birth of a child or even the assign of a loved one. All those are important and significant, but not historical.
I write of moments in history that alter your view of life, your actions toward your fellow man and your entire outlook on the world in which you live.
For most people alive today, that date would be Sept. 11, 2001 … for obvious reasons. That ground has been plowed a million times since that Tuesday morning and we all know how much the United States seems different since that point forward.
For your grandparents, it would have been Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked the U.S. naval fleet and planes at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was our official entry in the biggest armed conflict Earth has ever seen, and perhaps the last time definitive lines between good and evil (among nations) were drawn clearly for the average person.
Could be it was Sunday, July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and you then realized that mankind was not as bound to these mortal coils as once believed.
For me, it was a different Sunday - July 23, 1967 - when my childhood notions of my home were forever changed for the worse. In the early hours of that date, a police raid on a blind pig (after-hours speakeasy) turned confrontational. Things on that hot summer night escalated and quickly became lethal.
Within hours, two forces collided, based on racial lines, and the city of Detroit essentially was destroyed. By late afternoon and early evening, as disenfranchised people went on a riotous rampage, flames that were engulfing stores, homes and cars could be seen from many other neighborhoods, including mine … from my front lawn.
Places which I had known riding alone on Detroit city buses, or speeding past on my bicycle, became war zones, complete with troops in full battle gear, tanks and armament previously only seen on the news in Vietnam. I stood on one of the main thoroughfares and watched federalized Michigan National Guard troops occupy my city, to quell what Gov. George Romney termed “a state of insurrection,” and somehow I knew, my life would never be the same.
It wasn’t safe anymore to take those bicycle rides, even within my neighborhood, or to the Jewish Community Center for swimming lessons, or on the bus to the Detroit Public Library for research or to the Institute of Arts to see priceless works of genius. One would be looking over their shoulder around almost every corner – regardless of skin color. It simply wasn’t the same place to which almost everyone had seen. The Motown sound went from the Supremes, Temptations and Four Tops to the sounds of emergency service sirens wailing in the night.
When the smoke literally cleared, 43 people had died and 1,179 more were injured. There had been 7,000 arrests and more than 1,400 buildings were burned beyond salvage. The financial cost was $45 million (astronomical for that era) and indescribable in terms of the emotional damage. Only the achievements of a baseball team, the 1968 Detroit Tigers’ drive to a World Series victory, prevent reigniting of the tensions from the prior year.
It lasted for about a week, but the affects remain to this day. On a trip to Detroit two years ago (for one of the few times since I migrated to Texas), I could still see visible scars from that 1967 moment in history. When the sports world turned its recent attention to the 40th Super Bowl, held in Detroit, nary a word was spoken about that terrible week. However, all the lauded urban renovation, or “renaissance” as it could be laughingly described, was for a reason. Detroit lost half of its population from 1967 to 2000, falling from 1.8 million residents to less than 950,000.
No one discussing Black History Month ever examines that dark moment in our nation’s history, choosing instead to focus on other milestones. So much of how our nation’s population pattern changes can be traced to that moment in time. White flight began in earnest after 1967, first toward to northern Detroit suburbs and then southward toward seemingly friendlier confines, such as Texas.
But it is, and was, part of our American history. During a time when our society acknowledges and attempts to educate itself about African-American history, I wish this chapter, sad as it was, would be fully included.
For at least one American, it is a date that changed everything.

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