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  • Kirk Lightsey

DETROIT RIOTS 1943-1967

From the tender age of 6 I have had a front row seat for the American performance of race riots and rage.


It all began for me at home in Detroit. When I was a little boy, I used to sit on the trunk next to the front window to look outside. We lived then on 4136 Brush Street. From the window you could look down on Brush Street and past Grace Hospital. Beyond ran John R and Woodward. Woodward Avenue divided East from West in Detroit. And the further east you went, the blacker and poorer you were. We lived 3 Blocks East of Woodward.


That day in June 1943, I was astonished to see hordes of people coming from the black and poor side and running towards the hospital to attack the doctors and nurses who stood outside having a smoke or something.


What I witnessed was the peak of racial tensions in the city, when fights and the spreading of rumors culminated in gangs of both colors roaming the streets with Woodward Avenue as their dividing line.


My friend Warren Hanson tells the story of his father, a black man of light complexion, being attacked by black people in the Black bottom neighborhood where he worked as an insurance salesman. A black woman, who knew him, witnessed the scene and let him into her house to safety.



Twenty-four years later, I lived in a Detroit loft on John Large Street, overlooking the expressway, on the second floor above a barbershop. It was a mixed neighborhood.

We used to play and rehearse at my place. Marcus Belgrave (tp), George Bohanon (tb), Leon Henderson (sax) – he was Joe Henderson's brother, John Dana (bass), and Charles Moore (tp), who was teaching us how to rehearse. David Durrah used to come over to hang out and practice on my piano while I played my gig at the Rooster Tail. And, of course, my friend of always, Rod Keeler hung out with us.


July 1967 was a very hot summer. On July 23rd, David Durrah was crashing at the pad and we woke up hearing helicopters, shots being fired and people yelling. I went up to the roof to check what was happening.


Within minutes, four armed policemen surrounded me. David had to let them into the loft. They were State Troopers and kept giving me contradictory orders. One would say put your hands up and turn around and the other one would say put your hands behind your back and don’t move or I'll shoot you.


I told them I lived there and had no weapon. They took me downstairs to interrogate me. They thought I was a sniper shooting from the roof and they started looking around the pad for weapons. They didn’t give a shit about the crystal ball full of C sitting on the piano or the bag of grass that Rod had stashed in one of my drawers. One said, "There is nothing there but weed." But meanwhile a young National Guardsman was pushing David into the closet, with a gun to his throat. I happened to see them from the corner of my eye and started screaming to leave him alone. The other cops turned around and immediately told the motherfucker to go back downstairs. David Durrah later said, "I could tell in the eyes of that Smokey the Bear, that he just wanted to kill someone; I was just getting out of the army and I knew that look. One more step back into that closet and I was dead!"


That same day looters broke into the grocery store across the alley and set it on fire. Suddenly my window broke and a projectile hit my Steinway and burned it on the side.

Later we found out that earlier that morning, the police had raided a "blind pig" (unlicensed bar) known to be owned by the Purple Gang, some kind of Jewish mafia. Because of the heat wave, a lot of people were hanging out in the street and they quickly gathered against the police, starting an eruption of violence which turned Detroit into a warzone.


The riots lasted 5 days and nights and we were right in the middle of it. I stayed home, sometimes going down to the barbershop to discuss the news and look at Detroit becoming "Destroit".



So many years, decades, later and it’s still going on. I wonder why in all these years there has been no resolution. Why is it still going on? When will we learn? What can we do? Questions. But now it’s up to the young people to save mankind.

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