31 Mar Back to the future: Detroit 67 links city’s tumultuous past to present and beyond
To many in this region, it conjures up many memories of the tumultuous summer of a civil disturbance. Personally, I remember the events as clear as yesterday — from the news reports to seeing images which are forever ingrained in my memory.
The year 2017 marks the 50-year commemoration of the tumultuous summer of ’67 and the Detroit Historical Society views it as an opportunity to share this defining event, not just for Detroit, but also for the region and beyond as part of the Detroit 67 exhibit. Those who engage with Detroit 67 will be able to better understand the events leading up to July 1967, where we are today and connect to efforts that are moving Detroit forward.
Last year, I wrote a blog post as it related to what was then the Detroit 67 project. Since that time, it has evolved in scope and time.
I recently discussed this evolution with Robert Bury, executive director and CEO of the Detroit Historical Society, and Shirley Stancato, president and CEO of New Detroit.
Lee: The Detroit 1967 project has been rebranded the Detroit 67 project. It initially focused on the civic disturbance of 1967, but has now evolved over an extended period of time. Why the change in focus?
Bury: We recognized that the events that occurred in Detroit during the summer of 1967 couldn’t be fully understood without proper context. To provide that context we needed to look back at least 50 years to 1917 and forward 50 years to 2067, so we modified the scope and the identity of the project. It will cover, in a comprehensive and balanced way, a 150-year period and will not focus solely on the events of 1967.
Lee: So this exhibit also looks to the future based on the city’s past.
Bury: The exhibition, the centerpiece component of our project, will cover the period from 1917 to 1967, then look at all that has been achieved from 1967 to 2017. Importantly, we will also offer the community to look forward to 50 years from now to the year 2067. As the project title suggests, the Detroit 67 project is about looking back to move forward and the focus on 2067 is a big part of that.
Lee: DHS has engaged several partners such as New Detroit.
Bury: The Detroit Historical Society is engaging thought leaders, community partners, the business, nonprofit and policy community, residents of all backgrounds, experiences and generations from across the region to be part of this comprehensive effort.
New Detroit, the organization that was formed in response to the events of 1967, is one of our primary core partners, along with many others. Another significant partner is the city of Detroit Department of Neighborhoods, which will help us connect to residents and neighborhoods as part of this project, which we believe is critical.
Lee: Why is this initiative important to New Detroit?
Stancato: By highlighting the events of 1967 and the factors that fed into it, we take another step toward bringing about the change that must take place to assure that everyone has an equal seat at the table. It is a process that has been underway for 49 years and that continues to this day.
Through the Detroit 67 project, the DHS is taking the lead to connect the story and its relevance outside the museum. We need to call on other individuals and organizations who have social, economic, race relations and generational expertise to lead programs, workshops and discussions that help engage the community, and connect to the ongoing story of our region.
We hope to increase awareness of connect people to the important programs and services they provide.
Lee: To many, the events of the summer of ’67 were a defining moment in Detroit’s history, mostly unfavorable. Your thoughts?
Stancato: The events of July 1967 did not spring out of nowhere. Rather, they brought to the forefront issues that had been festering in Detroit and the Detroit region for decades. Detroit and the Detroit region have a very troubled history when it comes to dealing with race and the events of July 1967 forced us to face up to those troubles, rather than to pretend they did not exist.
The 1960s were a time of great change across America and Detroit was no exception. The civil disturbance that occurred during the summer of 1967 was one of the worst in recent American history and had a profound effect, albeit in many different ways, on people and communities across the region and beyond. While the events of that summer were significant and devastating, many of the underlying causes, conditions and circumstances that led up to the 1967 disturbance were present for many years prior.
The Detroit 67 exhibition aims to provide a complete and balanced view of the summer of 1967 and the years prior and since.
Lee: How will this exhibit take that defining moment and focus on the positive for the next 50-100 years?
Bury: The upcoming 50-year commemoration of the summer of 1967 presents an unparalleled opportunity for the community to reflect, engage and take action. As a result, those who engage will be better able to understand the events that led up to July 1967, where we are today and connect to the efforts that are moving the community forward.
Knowledge promotes understanding and Detroit 67 will aid in the understanding of what occurred, help differentiate facts from myths, recognize the progress that has been made since 1967 and better understand the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
It also provides the Detroit Historical Society and Detroit with an opportunity to demonstrate leadership as we work together to inspire a future that will enable Detroit and the region to realize its full potential.
Stancato: We have made significant progress in this region in the past 49 years, but there is still much that needs to be done to finally assure equal access and equal opportunity for all. To the extent that this project reminds us of the underlying causes of 1967 and the need to continue working on those issues, it will help us continue to work toward becoming the city and region that we should be. And it will remind us that our job is far from done.
Lee: As part of this exhibit, individuals can share their stories for generations to come. How?
Bury: We are engaging community members and their stories and perspectives as part of our oral history project. Hundreds of individual perspectives will help us tell this story — from people who were active community members in Detroit during 1967 to people with no direct recollection of what occurred.
To ensure their stories are collected and preserved forever, a key part of our project is the creation of the largest collection of oral histories ever collected on this subject, that will be universally accessible through an online digital database. Our oral history project is well underway and accessible at www.detroit67.org or at 313 885-1967.
Lee: How can the business community get engaged and lend its support?
Bury: The Detroit Historical Society is an independent nonprofit organization that relies primarily on philanthropic support for its operations and is actively seeking the support of foundations, corporations and individuals to help. Support and sponsorship packages — large and small — are available.
In addition to seeking funding from the business community, we are also eager to include the role of businesses and organizations that have been present across our community over the past 100 years and engage them to be part of our region’s future.
Lee: Why is this project important as part of Detroit’s past and what impact do you believe it will have on Detroit’s future?
Stancato: Everyone knows the issue of race is there. But too often we go far out of our way to avoid the subject because it makes us very nervous. We don’t know how to address it and we don’t want to say something that will come off as insensitive or uninformed, so we stay silent. To the extent that this project helps us to maintain our focus on the issue of race and its importance to the future of this city and region, it helps us to move in the direction we should, and must, move.
Lee: What do you hope people will gain from this exhibit?
Bury: Those who engage with Detroit 67 will be better able to understand the events leading up to July 1967, where we are today and connect to the efforts that are moving Detroit forward.
More specifically, those who engage will have a better understanding of Detroit’s social, economic and cultural environment between 1917 and the present day; understand the root causes of the civil disturbance; differentiate myths from facts; see themselves in the story; feel encouraged to connect to the myriad community-based opportunities outside of the museum by the society’s partners; and understand what progress has and hasn’t been made between 1967 and today.
Additionally, an outcome of this multi-year project will be the creation of a model for bringing diverse voices and communities together around the effects of a historic crisis to find their role in the present and inspire the future.
Stancato: I hope they will gain a greater understanding of what happened in 1967, why it happened, what has been done since then to address those underlying causes and what remains to be done.
Lee: When is the expected opening date for this exhibit at the Detroit Historical museum?
Bury: The exhibit will open in May 2017, at the Detroit Historical Museum and will be on display for two years or more. Given its national and worldwide significance, it is expected to travel.
Lee: Regarding the future, what is the state of racial relations across the Detroit region and state and how do we keep this region of 5 million people moving forward?
Stancato: We have made significant progress in improving race relations in this region since 1967. The leadership structure of the region is much more diverse than it was 49 years ago and opportunities exist that simply were not available at that time. At the same time, we still confront significant issues that require our constant attention.
Lee: Final thoughts?
Bury: Detroit is a classroom for the world and the world is watching. A story this big needs to include all of us. The 50-year commemoration of the events of the summer of 1967 presents an unparalleled opportunity for our region to move forward and provide lessons of leadership for the world. We can do this by creating a model for bringing diverse voices and communities together around the effects of a historic crisis to find their role in the present and inspire the future. Detroit 67 is arguably the most important and transformational project ever undertaken by the Detroit Historical Society.
While it may be out of our comfort zone, it is well aligned with our mission: Telling Detroit’s stories and why they matter. We must seize this opportunity and we invite you to join us.
Stancato: Our mission statement at New Detroit says that we are “the metropolitan Detroit leadership organization working to identify and eliminate racial disparities in the region by building economic equity, social justice and racial understanding.”
Our goal in participating in this project is to continue that mission of shining a light on racial disparities in the region in order to continue building on programs that address and work to eradicate those disparities. We believe the project has the potential to achieve that goal.
For more information, visit to detroithistorical.org or call (313) 833-1800.