Former WXYZ-TV anchorman Erik Smith reflects on 1967 Detroit Riots

Posted at 4:46 PM, May 23, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-24 11:25:50-04

As we look back on the 1967 riots in Detroit, we're revisiting the way it was covered by the media.

For those on the front lines, it was frightening.

This story is part of our Detroit 2020 series looking back to move forward 50 years after the riots.

What our colleagues did to cover the five days of rebellion 50 years ago was all captured in the Detroit Free Press documentary "12th and Clairmount." It was done in collaboration with WXYZ-TV and Bridge Magazine.

I went back to where the riots took place with my friend and former colleague Erik Smith who covered the riots from start to finish.

"It was just crazy," Erik says. "I can't make it real for anybody who wasn't there if you can imagine hell."

There are a lot of names for what happened here.

Erik says, "Civil unrest, race riot, in my heart it was a rebellion."

Reporters had to wear helmets, but Erik's could not shield him from seeing death all around him.

"I saw a little boy looting a department store shot carrying away a little black and white TV," he remembers. "How do you get to that?"

Erik also witnessed the National Guard open fire on a little girl and her father when they mistakenly thought they saw sniper fire. Erik says her father lit a cigarette, and the little girl, who was on his lap, was shot and killed.

He and his Channel 7 Photographer Mike Kalush captured a woman driving with a pistol in hand behind the wheel.

For Erik this was personal.

"This is a war in my city, not just your city, but your neighborhood."

As we walked around, Erik was saddened by seeing what has not been fixed in the five decades that have now passed: a shuttered clothing store where Erik once shopped, a former movie theater right on Grand River that once rivaled today's Fox in downtown Detroit still boarded up, also a corner on Grand River where Erik was attacked during the riots when the crowd mistakenly thought he was a cop.

After the riots, Erik says promises of rebuilding were made, but...

"All of a sudden, after that riot, things changed. White flight was enormous, it drained the city of financial resources and a tax base," he says.

The blight on street after street still lingers.

"We've had 50 years - 50 years!," Erik says. "This is the disappointment I feel right now."

While disheartening to see the destruction, there are signs of growth at least a little bright spot,  a community garden, and Erik says there are a lot of spots like this around the city showing signs of rebirth.

"We've come a long way, but boy the road is still long, he says. "Who knows, we may get there, I hope, my fingers are crossed."