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Before 'The Blind Pig' Raid, What Sparked The Detroit Uprising

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This weekend marks 50 years since the start of what many people here prefer to call the uprising. It started when a police raid on a party at an unlicensed after-hours club called The Blind Pig set off fires, looting and other chaos that went on for five days. This weekend, we'll be talking about those events and the state of the motor city these 50 years later. We thought we'd start by hearing from someone who's been here for all of it, Congressman John Conyers. He represents Michigan's 13th congressional district.

Fifty years ago, he found himself addressing crowds of angry protesters who started gathering in the early morning hours of July 23, 1967. He's currently Congress's longest serving member, making him the dean of the House of Representatives. And he's with us now from his office. Congressman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JOHN CONYERS: What a pleasure to talk with you.

MARTIN: And I just have to acknowledge that we're only going to be able to scratch the surface of what had to have been such a momentous occasion in your life and in the life of your city. So just having said that, can we go back to that day? I understand that you were home. It was 9 a.m. And the deputy police chief called you and asked you to come down to 12th and Claremont, where people were already gathering. Can you just take us back to that moment and just ask you, what was it like for you?

CONYERS: I can never forget the fact that Lyndon Johnson, then the president of the United States, called me at my home to verify that this was as bad as he had been advised that it was. There were tanks coming in, paratroopers sent by the president himself. The governor at that time, George Romney, ordered 8,000 National Guardsmen to do active duty. And the police officers - the state police officers were sent in, some 800 or more of them. It was just unbelievable. It was a total breakdown of a civil city.

MARTIN: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. What do you think it - I mean, the spark was the raid on The Blind Pig, but you have said many times since then that, you know, that was just the spark that set it off. What, in your view, is really why? What is the real why of it in your opinion?

CONYERS: The underlying cause was the racism and segregation that permeated everything that we did, where we lived, where we were - how you were treated, especially by the police.

MARTIN: Do you think it made your job harder or easier? And the reason I ask that is you were only in your second term in Congress. And, you know, you were trying to - I mean, you were one of the founders of the Black Caucus. I mean, you were trying to get people to pay attention to a lot of these issues. On the one hand, you certainly got the world's attention. On the other hand, some people think it ignited this kind of backlash of, you know, racial paranoia and even more kind of resentment and desire to keep black people out of certain places. So what do you think?

CONYERS: Well, I would like to think that it made it more challenging. But fortunately, we were able to bring together a number of organizations that were helpful. And we began to systematically examine these causes of discriminatory action on the part not only of the police, whose brutality is - was unspeakable at that time, but other obvious discrimination in terms of where you lived or where you worked and how your conduct was monitored by police all around you. It just created this explosion of anger that had built up and could not be contained. And that ran for the course of five days and cost 43 people their lives.

MARTIN: There are some who say that African-American Detroiters are in some ways worse off than they were 50 years ago. What do you think about that?

CONYERS: Well, no. I invite anybody that feels that might be the case to come out and visit us. I think without doubt we're better off. And I'm not saying that everything is OK now and that this is all past, but I don't think that this could happen or would happen again because we have so many outlets. We have nine council members. But at that time, there were only two of color in the city of Detroit. But today, 7 of the 9 members of the Detroit Council are people of color. So I think this was a wake-up call to America, as well as Detroit and Michigan.

MARTIN: That's Congressman John Conyers of Michigan. He is currently Congress's longest serving member. He's the dean of the House of Representatives. And he was kind enough to join us from his office. Congressman Conyers, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CONYERS: It's a pleasure, Ms. Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SMOKEY ROBINSON'S "CRUISIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.