Riots in the City
Andrew Salas

It was the summer of 1967. As I was watching television in my living room, NBC News flashed to events of rioting throughout the nation. Racial tension had exploded into riots in the city district of Watts in Los Angeles, California, and in cities as far south as Florida and as far north as Michigan. It was as if a trail of fuel was being poured across the nation and ignited, spreading fire and destruction all along its path. City after city fell like dominoes to rioting, looting, arson, and death.

These riots were initiated by the long-standing racial discrimination of African Americans who were struggling for higher paying jobs, access to better housing, and quality medical attention. There was widespread police brutality of African Americans, and they were being denied countless other basic civil rights.

On July 24, The Saginaw News reported riots flaring up in cities across Michigan. I was only fifteen years old at the time, but I was concerned for my own and my family's safety. I was somehow under the illusion that something serious like the rioting would never happen so close to home. I didn't realize that other Michigan cities such as Detroit, Grand Rapids, Pontiac, Flint, Muskegon, Benton Harbor, and Mount Clemens were indirectly fanning the flames of racial hatred. Political forces from outside the city of Saginaw were gearing us toward an event that would change my priorities and my appreciation for family and for life (Riots in Michigan").

Then it happened. On Tuesday, July 26, 1967, the local television station announced there was a protest march that started at 5:00 p.m. at Third and Lapeer Streets in Saginaw. The march consisted of fifty people, including fifteen clergymen. The dissenters walked downtown to the crossroads of Genesee and Washington Street, protesting a meeting called by Mayor Henry G. Marsh that was closed to the public. They staged a sit-down rally, blocking traffic and interrupting business. Two hundred people showed up to vent their anger ("Riots" 1).

Earlier that day, Mayor Marsh announced a city conference, saying, "I am calling a Tuesday meeting composed of people who have been most strongly critical of this city, as well as representatives from business, government, and the news media." He neglected to mention that the meeting was for invited guests only. Between fifty and a hundred people from the public showed up, thinking it was an open meeting, but they were asked to leave. This infuriated many citizens, who, in response, shouted in anger and banged on the door as the security guards closed it in their faces ("Riots" 4).

This was a huge political mistake by the mayor, and it was the match that lit the powder keg, rapidly recruiting more protesters. The police responded with weapons ready, and this resulted in a confrontation. An unknown representative of the crowd outside City Hall cried, "Anyone who says he speaks for us and stays at the council meeting will no longer have any connection with us." This caused the meeting to be brought to an end, because a representative for the Civil Rights Commission, Miss Dorothy E. Hampton, left the building. She stated that she could not in good conscience stay at a meeting where the grassroots representation was not allowed ("Riots" 4).

The crowds grew larger as word spread of the unjust treatment being dealt African Americans by their mayor, a man of their own race. The situation had gone too far by the time the influential Reverend H.C. Higgins of A.M.E. Church, who also was not invited to the meeting, spoke to the city to calm the people. He explained that a mistake had been made by the mayor, but acknowledged that "This had widened the communication gap" ("Riots" 4).

I was in the ninth grade at the time, living on Twenty-First and Perkins Street, and I became alarmed when I heard of the demonstrations downtown. After all, downtown Saginaw was only a mile away, and that was too close for comfort. A bulletin on television alerted the public that a riot was breaking out on Ninth and Lapeer Streets, in unison with the increasing level of discontent downtown. “This rioting led to thirty-five arrests and seven shooting victims--five African Americans and two policemen. One African American victim was shot in the head, another in the neck, still another in the back, and the rest suffered leg and thigh wounds," stated a Saginaw News report. But the wounds to the city were just starting to be inflicted, and in response to the violence, a ban of all alcoholic beverages was imposed on the county of Saginaw by Commander Frederick E. Davids ("Riots" 4).

As rioting progressed throughout the evening, reports of arson and looting were rampant. Condemned houses were being set on fire, and I later learned that some of the houses were destroyed by their owners so they could collect the insurance money. Rocks were being hurled through glass windows, to the dismay of people who owned expensive cars and beautiful homes with large bay windows.

My family's anxiety magnified my own fears, and, though I tried to conceal it, as the evening wore on I found it almost impossible to manage a courageous look. Being so young, I didn't want to appear afraid of life, but I didn't know that to express fear was to be human. Every so often I would see cars drive by, full of people with the silhouettes of rifles looming, as if they were headed to the front lines of a battle. In the distance, gun shots could be heard with frequency. "Is this a civil war?" I asked myself. It was at this point in the evening that I went with my parents and oldest brother to pick up my cousin, who was home alone and scared.

As we drove down Janes Street we pulled up to a stop sign, and across the street we saw a pharmacy that had been set on fire. The fire could be clearly seen as it contrasted against the night sky. A large window had been shattered in the pharmacy, and people were running in and out with miscellaneous merchandise. Many had things like hair dyes, curling irons, and I'm not sure what else, but their arms were full of various goods. Later, I learned that hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of prescription narcotics had been stolen from the pharmacy. Well, it would figure, being in a area that was known for drug peddling and other illegal activities. The thought amused me, allowing my mind cessation from the seriousness of the situation: These same people who stole drugs from the pharmacy would eventually be outside it, selling them.

Nowhere were the police to be seen. There was so much anarchy that there were not enough police officers to be everywhere. It felt like the disintegration of society, where only the strong survive. It was teaching me how hard life really could get. "What will happen to my family?" was the question I kept asking myself.

As I recall my past, I realize this was a significant time in my life, when anything could happen at any time. I would no longer take for granted my feeling of safety. Though I may have felt safe within my family, the outside world could come crashing in on me at anytime-- as was happening during the riots.

The next day the city was under control, and the worst was over. Sitting me and my brothers and sisters down, my parents explained that we were now out of harm's way. To hear this from them was a tremendous relief. I remember them saying, "Life is unpredictable, and we must always be aware of the realities around us, and, in particular, the situation you are in. Always strive for peace, and remember that sometimes certain actions are out of our control."

Thankful that our family was not harmed, we knew that tragedy could have struck us as it did others in the city. My unrealistic feeling of security was gone, but in its place came a very positive outlook of the world. An outlook based on the facts and circumstances surrounding me, giving me a much stronger and better chance of surviving.

Slowly, questions about the riots were answered, thus giving the people of Saginaw a better chance of avoiding possible future riots. Although some racial problems may never be solved, improvements were made as a result of the riot. Dr. Jack P. Taylor, Board of Education Superintendent, ordered the hiring of qualified African Americans candidates for administrative and supervisory positions. Also, he said that he would work to have more African American teachers, if the majority of the students are African American. These were constructive steps toward racial harmony that resulted from a destructive event. Hopefully, the city of Saginaw learned through experience to help keep history from repeating itself ("Riots" 4).

Works Cited

  • "Riots in the City." Saginaw News 26 July 1967: Al -4.
  • "Riots in Michigan." Detroit Free Press 25 July 1967: Al2.


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