The Weight of History
The peaceful protest against police brutality Saturday evening in Grand Rapids, and the vandalism and looting that followed over the night of May 30-31, reflected the histories of race, poverty, policing, segregation, and riots in the city. At the national level, “race riots” have left a mark generationally—1967. 1992. 2020. We’re here again.
The weight of that history is one that African Americans in Grand Rapids know well but most white residents don’t, which is part of the privilege that they enjoy but often don’t acknowledge.
This blog post is not a comprehensive history. It simply provides brief notes of historical context and points to resources for more details about the history behind this past week’s events, from a variety of viewpoints.
One context is “race riots” in 1967 in many parts of the country. The 1967 protests and rioting in Detroit are better known and have been studied by scholars. The 1967 “race riot” in Grand Rapids has been neglected by scholars. But here are some things to read about this history.
- The Grand Rapids People’s History Project website has an article on a 1987 retrospective essay in the Grand Rapids Press about the riot in 1967. The article includes a link to the Press story from 1987.
- The People’s History Project also has an analysis of what we can learn from the events in 1967.
- The Grand Rapids People’s History Project website also has a link to news footage from 1967. The footage includes a reporter talking about what happened in Detroit, some footage with no commentary, interviews with the GR chief of police and a GR business owner, commentary from a Wood TV 8 reporter, and more footage of GR.
- For a recent take on the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids, note this MLIVE story from 2017: “When anger, oppression erupted into ‘chaos.’”
- There is a brief story on the Black Past website about rioting in 1967 in Grand Rapids by African Americans and a vigilante reaction by white residents.
- MLive did a retrospective in 2017 story of the impact of the rioting and destruction on Division Avenue. It notes, among other things, the challenges that African Americans have continued to face to get home and business loans.
- A blog post by Peter Bratt provides some details and background to the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids and a report on race relations: “The 1967 Grand Rapids Riots.” He discusses housing and employment discrimination and urban renewal projects that disrupted African American neighborhoods. Bratt also has a useful article in the Michigan Historical Review (behind a paywall), “Renewing a Grand Center: Postwar Planning in Grand Rapids, Michigan: 1949 to 1959” (Vol. 36, 2010).
- Bratt mentions a report produced by the Grand Rapids City Planning Department on the riot in 1967 in the city. You can find it here: Anatomy of a Riot.
- A useful source from the 1960s for the national story is Report of the Kerner Commission of 1968, named after the governor of Illinois, who headed a commission to study riots nationally in the US in 1967. Its official title is Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. It has a brief mention of Grand Rapids (p. 70), but discusses events in Detroit extensively.
Churches in the 1960s and early 1970s also responded to riots, segregation, and civil rights movements in 1967 and 1968 with committees and plans to study and address racial discrimination in cities like Grand Rapids, typically focusing on housing segregation and the role of churches.
- For example, the Grand Rapids Board of Evangelism of the Christian Reformed Church commissioned Dennis Hoekstra and Theodore Rottman to coordinate programs in the “inner city” in 1968. Their work let to an unpublished paper entitled “The Grand Rapids Inner-City and the Christian Reformed Church.” The paper is available in the collections of Heritage Hall at Calvin University and in the Grand Rapids History & Special Collections section of the Grand Rapids Public Library.
- You also can find reports from the CRC’s Synodical Committee on Race Relations in the Agendas of Synod in the late 1960s and early 1970s, notably 1972 and 1974.
- For scholarship on these issues, see Mark Mulder and Kevin Dougherty’s essay (behind a paywall), “Congregational Responses to Growing Urban Diversity in a White Ethnic Denomination,” in Social Problems (Vol. 56, 2009).
The broader context for 2020’s protests and the “race riot” in 1967 is the history African Americans in West Michigan.
- The work of Randall Jelks is essential here. Check out, “Making Opportunity: The Struggle against Jim Crow in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1890-1927, in the Michigan Historical Review in 1993. The published version of this essay is behind a paywall. But I found an unpublished version online. Jelks’s book is also valuable: African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids.
- For those who want a lot of detail, note a PhD dissertation from the University of Michigan, by Todd E. Robinson, called A City Within a City: The Social and Economic Construction of Segregated Space in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1945-1975 (2006). You can access this for free. It looks at housing and schools and at civil rights struggles by African Americans. You can buy the book here.
- For the impact of the history of housing discrimination into the present, check out this story from 2017, “Facing Racism: The lasting Effects of Discrimination in GR’s Southeast Community,” at Rapid Growth. It includes the voices of local residents and scholars like Jelks.
- A related context is the general history of poverty, changing neighborhoods, and the impact of gentrification in the city, check out this story by Herb Brinks, “Heartside Neighborhood, 1850–2000: 150 Years,” in Issue 29:1 of Origins: Historical Magazine of the Archives (Spring 2011).
The reports from the 1960s and 1970s listed above will feel out of time and sound paternalistic and racist to contemporary ears. They use the languge of their time. They are useful to gauge how far we have come—or not come–as the People’s History, Rapid Growth, and other stories indicate.
The Kerner Report of 1968, for example, described a nation “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” City and church reports from the time say something similar. Their authors called for change, for expanded aid and programs, and the like. The Kerner Report warned that without concerted efforts to make change happen the result would be “continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.”
William Katerberg is professor of history and interim curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University.