Aurora Harris spent most of the summer of 1967 in the Philippines, where her mother was from. There, as President Ferdinand Marcos threatened to impose martial law, she saw soldiers patrolling the streets.
Her father was concerned that should martial law be declared, his family would be trapped in the island nation. So he brought them back to Detroit. They arrived home on the last day of Detroit's rebellion.
"I watched the rebellion here via satellite," says Harris, who was 8 at the time. "We came back at the end of the rebellion here. We were coming from the airport in a cab at 3 a.m. I opened the window and it smelled like smoke. I said, 'Look mom, everything is smoky.' We lived on Lawrence and the A&P near there was still smoking. You could still hear gunshots and stuff. When we got out of the cab my grandfather met us at the door with shotguns."
Harris, a poet and educator, will read a new poem she has recently written about her memories of the 1967 rebellion and the conditions that led to it during the Concert of Colors Friday, July 14, at the John R stage near the Michigan Science Center. It's all part of the 1967 rebellion festivities that take over the town for the next couple of weeks. CoC activities include a Forum on Community, Culture, and Race at the Annex of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn on Thursday, July 13. Possibly missed by many in all this 50th anniversary is that this is the 25th anniversary of the CoC, neatly bisecting that time segment in half. More important, one of the reasons the CoC began was to bring people together by celebrating the arts of many cultures.
There is plenty more happening. Also on Thursday there will be a panel discussion at the Cass Corridor Commons on Property, Poverty, and Profit: Post Rebellion Land Use and Housing Policies and Practices from 1967 to the Present. This one is hosted by the University of Michigan Literature, Science, and the Arts Residential College as part of its Detroiters Speak series.
"Certain trends have actually gone more negative," says panelist Gene Cunningham. "A lot of the housing destruction actually came later, the population of the city is actually poorer, more illiterate, less educated, there's higher unemployment. All of the economic indicators have gone south."
Not only that, Cunningham is a realtor who was a former city employee and he pays close attention to city government. One of his many concerns is "a total lack of democracy in this city."
Cunningham refers to the Financial Review Commission that is a hangover from the consent decree and emergency manager. The commission's stated job is oversight of the city of Detroit and the public schools to ensure that it stays on track with the plan set up by the city bankruptcy proceedings. The commission has to give the OK for any city contracts higher than $750,000. With a city budget of just over $1 billion, that means no significant
financial decisions without oversight.
"There should be a rebellion that first goes to the ballot box," says Cunningham. "You've got to elect a mayor, city council, and city clerk that will reassert control of elected officials over the affairs of the city."
A lot of events observing the 1967 anniversary will be based at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History or start from there. It kicks off a White Panther Party reunion on Saturday, July 15, and the schedule runs through July 30 when the Liberation Film Series screens Born in the Struggle, which focuses on children born to 1960s and 1970s revolutionaries. Along the way there will be discussions on police tactical units, the Algiers Motel incident, and a 1967 Rebellion bus tour led by Jamon Jordan. The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers will present a program called "1967" on July 21.
As a member of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Committee, Harris is one of the organizers of the bus tour. She says it's important to mark this anniversary because "it's a part of our history and people need to understand why people rebelled. It was because of racism, and police brutality, and harassment, and other oppressive conditions such as overcrowding in neighborhoods, TAC forces harassing people, unsanitary apartments, low wage jobs, and more. Things that were happening 50 years ago are still going on now. The tour is to take people out and have a dialogue on the conditions of life that were going on then and are prevalent now."
She's got some company for that perspective. Just this past Saturday, July 8, the Charlevoix Village Association on the east side hosted a march and rally. The group's statement in announcing the event could have been written 50 years back. It read:
"Our communities have been subject to racist and unequal treatment as part of the effort to 'revitalize' Detroit. Mass school closings, home mortgage and tax foreclosures, and the gutting of city services like libraries, rec centers, and public transit have been used to push out our friends and families in droves. Now, those of us who have weathered the storm that has ravaged Detroit face the same threat of being pushed out of our homes and neighborhoods. The situation is dire; the time to fight is now!"
It seems like that fight never ends. Harris' mother was a white Filipina; her father was African-American. Her father's parents were early converts of the Nation of Islam, and her father a Muslim although Harris was raised a Catholic. She has had to face anti-Asian, anti-black, and anti-Muslim prejudice in her life.
"We were targeted as Muslims as well in this country and in the city," she says. The emotion in her voice as she speaks indicate that the feelings about those experiences are deep and raw. The anti-Muslim acts of President Trump have to be frightening to someone who grew up facing those sentiments and prejudices.
Many of the same conditions that led to a blowup 50 years ago remain the same. That's why it's important to face it again — to try to understand what happened then and to learn some lessons from it.
"They don't understand what it's like to be targeted by police, where every aspect of your life is a disturbance to someone," Harris says of white people who believe the narrative that black people destroyed the city and continue to fail in rebuilding.
The people are different today. The world and the way we operate are different today. But when it gets down to identity and power, the issues remain the same. That's why we're still not over something that happened for five days 50 years ago.