Summer of Fate

On a sweltering July evening in 1967, Detroit police descended upon an illegal saloon in one of the city’s largest black neighborhoods -- and unwittingly unleashed a maelstrom. As a small crowd of onlookers gathered, years of simmering racial and economic tensions -- fueled by housing discrimination, rampant unemployment, and police harassment -- suddenly boiled over.

Angry men jeered and threw bottles and rocks. Others broke into a nearby store. As word spread of events, the crowd swelled into the thousands -- and eventually whipped itself into a frenzy of mayhem and destruction.

What followed was one of the most brutal riots in U.S. history. Over a five-day period, more than 2,500 buildings were put to the torch. Innocent citizens, along with rioters and police, were struck down by gunfire. As streets lined with shops went up in flames, family fortunes were destroyed and thousands of jobs lost forever. It took the deployment of the National Guard and 82nd U.S. Airborne Division to restore order. By then, 43 people were dead, hundreds were injured, and 7,200 were arrested. Property damage exceeded $54 million.

What does this 40-year-old tragedy have to do with public education today? Quite a lot, actually.

The violence in Detroit -- as well as similar unrest in Newark, N.J. and more than 100 other cities in the mid-1960s -- was sparked by powerful social and economic forces at the root of a decaying urban America. Those forces, says Myron Orfield, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty, fueled “the very powerful, palpable force of racial segregation” that undermined the financial resources of city schools and, at the same time, presented them with an increasingly impoverished and troubled student population to serve. All of this, he notes, was a “body blow” to urban education.

Some will tell you the wounds of that brief, if terrible, period are long healed. Others disagree. But it’s worth noting that the conditions that sparked the violence still linger in many of the nation’s urban centers. The influences of racism, poverty, blighted neighborhoods, joblessness, and hopelessness continue to make themselves felt.

These influences reach into classrooms and hinder student achievement. They affect policy decisions at all levels of government and explain why school reform has proven so intransigent and insolvable. They are the reason that Max Herman, author of Fighting in the Streets: Ethnic Succession and Urban Unrest in 20th Century America, reminds us of the obvious: “Schools do not exist in a vacuum.”

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