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The Day the Music Died
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
"A roar went up in the city of Detroit," says Martha Reeves, recalling the late afternoon of July 23, 1967, when she and the Vandellas were getting ready to sing "Jimmy Mack" at the Fox Theatre. Though the song was already a national hit, they hadn't yet performed it live in their hometown. "I never heard a roar like that before and hope never to hear it again."
It was the sound of a riot, one that began 40 years ago next week and would become one of the largest and costliest in the nation's history. The riot's immediate spark had been a rough police raid on an illegal drinking and gambling establishment. The deeper causes included decades of police abuse and discriminatory labor practices.
The burning and looting would wipe out most of the commercial streets in black neighborhoods and badly damage many of the residential areas. Over 2,000 buildings caught fire, 43 people died, over 450 were injured and some 7,500 were arrested. Businesses and houses were simply abandoned, plunging the city into a four-decade economic decline.
Now a member of the city council representing downtown, Ms. Reeves believes Detroit is at last coming back. "We've got good development going," she says, gesturing out the window of her office overlooking the Detroit River. "We've got strong economic development bringing in tourists. Our downtown is clean and safe." Over the week that included Independence Day, Detroit was full of white, suburban-looking families, attracted by the Tigers game against Cleveland in the pristine Comerica Stadium and happily spending money in the nearby hotels, restaurants, bars and casinos.
But things are still not the same. The riots had propelled one of the greatest black economic engines the country had ever known -- Motown Records, founded in 1959 -- to eventually depart for Los Angeles. After receiving a taunting phone call that Motown would burn to the ground by Halloween, founder Berry Gordy moved most operations to a secure office building close to downtown, away from the riots he had called "a hurricane of rage."
He didn't know it then, but Motown's great days were actually over. Gerald Posner, author of "Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power," notes that 1966, the year before the riots, was Motown's best ever. Over 75% of its releases hit the charts in an industry in which the most successful companies averaged only 10%.
With more than 100 performing groups, nearly all black and nearly all drawn from local public schools, Motown had plowed an entirely new road to entrepreneurial success. As historian Suzanne Street, author of "Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit," argues, Motown was the first black-owned company to create and produce the musical artistry of its own community -- and then successfully sell it across racial boundaries.
Never again would black music be categorized as "sepia" or "ebony" to distinguish it from mainstream music. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Mary Wells, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and of course Diana Ross and the Supremes were local kids who turned Motown into "Hitsville U.S.A.," as the sign above Motown's headquarters read.
What's more, Motown accomplished this by deliberately making the most of Detroit's black assets. Detroit had the nation's first black-owned and -operated radio station, WCHB; the Broadside Press, one of the first black-owned publishing houses; the Concept East Theater, one of the first black theater companies in the North; and the first African-American history museum as well as one of the first African-American bookstores.
This abundance was due in part to so many black Detroiters being comfortably middle class. Black workers were grossly discriminated against in the automobile industry, but they still made far more money than in the rural South, from which so many came. And their salaries paid them enough to buy houses in fine old neighborhoods, giving Detroit the largest black home-ownership rate in the country.
And Detroit had excellent public schools that provided classical training in music and art, notes Gerald Early, author of "One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture." "Motown came about because black urban life had reached a certain level of self-sufficiency and entrepreneurial achievement," says Mr. Early, now a professor of modern letters at Washington University in St. Louis. "The achievement was based on excellent, racially segregated schools that promoted the classics, and churches where there was a lot of playing of Mozart and Handel." At her Northeastern High School graduation in 1958, Ms. Reeves sang a Mozart Alleluia.
Much of Detroit's achievement was simply wiped out in the riots. As Ms. Street notes, black record shops and bookstores were burned despite Soul Brother signs in the windows. Few small black businesses had insurance, so they closed forever. The middle class simply left, and Detroit's institutional structures could not survive its departure.
However polished downtown looks today, Detroit's neighborhoods are another story. Retail activity never returned. Even 40 years later, what should be commercial streets combine empty lots with Detroit's peculiar triumvirate of gas stations, dollar stores and check-cashing outlets, plus "party" (liquor) stores on prime corners. And so much vacant land is available that, with official city support, a group called Urban Farming has planted hundreds of acres in the former riot areas.
Most of the public housing where so many Motown stars grew up has been demolished. The Brewster towers, where all four original Supremes lived in what they've described as clean, safe housing, had been among the first projects in the country built for African-Americans. In her autobiography, Supreme Mary Wilson wrote that when her family took an apartment there in 1956, "I felt like I just moved into a Park Avenue skyscraper."
But today Brewster is considered unsalvageable. Most buildings have been closed, leaving the grounds to be patrolled by drug dealers and pit bulls. And, indeed, Detroit's crime remains at frightening levels -- with 366 murders last year, Detroit's homicide rate was 47 per 100,000 residents, over five times the national average; with 25,356 car thefts, it had a rate 4.56 times the national average.
When asked about radical H. Rap Brown's contention that her famous song "Dancing in the Street" was meant to inspire rioters, Ms. Reeves retorts: "Marvin Gaye wrote that song to quench riots, not to incite them. He didn't mean to instill anything but love." Forty years later, Detroit has still not recovered from the riots or what historian Peter Benjaminson calls the spiritual blow of Motown's defection. Where has the love gone?
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
©2007 The Wall Street Journal
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