1967 riot: Prayers in black and white as faith groups wrestled with change

Draped in flowing white robes with his arms stretched wide, a statue of a black Jesus towers over a corner on Detroit's west side.

When the 7-foot statue was first erected in 1957 on the northeast edge of Sacred Heart Seminary, Jesus was white.

But on July 23, 50 years ago — the first day of the civil disturbances of 1967 — two or three African-American men carefully painted Jesus' face, hands and feet a dark brown or black. It was a symbol of ethnic and religious pride that emerged during a turbulent time in a changing Detroit.

A couple of months later, a group of three whites outside the same seminary painted the statue white again, symbolizing an intense backlash from some whites in Detroit after the riot. "Blackened Christ Causes a Dispute," read a front-page Free Press headline in September 1967.

Religious leaders at Sacred Heart Seminary ultimately decided to paint the Jesus statue black, as a sign of solidarity with a neighborhood, and a city, that was transitioning from majority-white to majority-black.

Today, the "Black Jesus" statue is a symbol of how faith communities collide, intersect and get reshaped by current events.

The story of what happened to the statue in 1967 — and what has taken place around it over the past 50 years — helps explain the changing religious geography of an area that was the epicenter of one of America's largest civil disturbances of the civil rights era.

"What was once a symbol of contention is now like a sacred icon, of the love of Jesus for all people," said Dan Gallio, an official at the seminary, known today as Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

"The black community was testifying of the universal nature of Jesus to all races. ... It's sort of become a community property, it's not just Sacred Heart property, it's part of the local community and also the city of Detroit. This is one of the positive symbols that came out of those dreadful days of 1967."

ome churches in the area have faded away and are abandoned while others still are there, trying to keep alive struggling neighborhoods. In the years after the riots, many white Catholics and Jewish residents left the city as black Protestant churches grew in size and influence.

This month, many congregations and faith communities in metro Detroit are recalling the events of 1967 and its impact on them, including a Sunday mass and vigil at Christ the King Catholic Church in Detroit remembering the 43 fatal victims of the riot. In an open letter Wednesday, Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron urged Catholics to reflect this Sunday on the events 50 years ago: "Let us make our remembering of 1967 a guidepost on that path to spiritual renewal."

The riot began on the corner of 12th and Clairmount, just a couple of blocks southwest of where the statue stood on the corner of Chicago and Linwood Avenue at the predominantly-white Catholic seminary.

The black nationalist Shrine of the Black Madonna church, a few blocks south of the seminary on Linwood Ave., had unveiled a painting in April 1967 depicting Jesus and Madonna as black. Black pride grew in popularity in Detroit as blacks sought new ways of interpreting Christianity and their place in America.

"My memory of '67 was driving down Linwood, and when we got to Clairmount we saw the statue of the Christ figure at Sacred Heart painted black," recalled Bishop Mbiyu Chui Moore, 61, who today leads the Detroit church of the Shrine of the Black Madonna. "That really struck me psychologically. And a couple weeks later we came back down Linwood. ... It was painted white again. A couple weeks later we came back down Linwood and it was painted black again. ... So I knew in my 11-year-old psyche that something is going on here."

As the statue bounced between black and white perspectives, tensions simmered, and the religious community was forced to address the sensitive nature of race relations, amid violent outbursts.

After it was painted white, some black people drove a truck with a loudspeaker around the statue declaring that seminarians and priests had returned to school for the fall semester and had painted it white. The accusation was false, and the seminary sought to reassure the community it would be painted black again. But not all African Americans wanted it painted black: Some opposed what they saw as vandalism and wanted it to remain white, the Free Press reported in 1967.

At the time, Bishop Donald Hanchon, 69, of the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit was a student at the seminary. During the riot, he volunteered with other Catholics to distribute food to those affected. And in the years afterward, he became involved in outreach with minority communities, organizing interracial gatherings of students and interviewing the Rev. Albert Cleage, the fiery leader of the Shrine of the Black Madonna. Other Catholic priests, such as the late Father William Cunningham, got more outspoken in their views; Cunningham cofounded Focus: HOPE a few months after the riots to unite blacks and whites.

Gazing at the statue last Sunday, Hanchon reflected on its meaning: "To me, it's a symbol of how the seminary feels but also, I think of how the neighborhood feels. I've talked to people over the years from the neighborhood who appreciate what happened 50 years ago and who like the fact that it's been preserved. It's been maintained as a memorial to that event and to our best hopes for letting (Christ's) sacred heart ... his peace descend upon our city."

While a student at Sacred Heart, Hanchon used to live near St. Agnes Catholic Church, today abandoned and vandalized, a few blocks south of where the riot started. Its decay came as many Catholics moved to the suburbs. In 1967, there were 129 Catholic parishes in the city. Today, there are 44.

"It was very sad that the Catholic church closest to the scene, which was so involved in the neighborhood, had been destroyed," Hanchon said of St. Agnes.

The riot also greatly affected the Jewish community. Many of the region's Jews still lived in the city at the time of the uprising, and owned a number of businesses, including 79 in the area where the riot started.

But many stores were looted and vandalized during the disturbances, with 40 Jewish-owned businesses closed down permanently in the 12th Street area in the immediate aftermath, reported the Detroit Jewish News. The city also had dozens of synagogues and temples 50 years ago, but today, only one synagogue with its own freestanding building remains, Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.

The week of the riot, a front-page article in the Detroit Jewish News said the rioters were "gangs of hoodlums who were bent on stealing, pillaging, looting."

In the years to follow, the Jewish community increasingly moved out of Detroit into Oak Park, Southfield and other suburbs.

At the same time, many in the Jewish community were active in civil rights issues, trying to find common ground with African Americans on civil rights. U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn, 92, was an attorney at the time active in the Jewish community who represented several of the people arrested by Detroit Police during the riot.

"I remember the general chaos," Cohn said. "Along 12th street to Linwood were a lot of Jewish merchants. It had been an old Jewish neighborhood. Most of the Jewish community had moved out."

But, "there was still a significant amount of Jews living in the northwest area," Cohn said.

After the riot, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant congregations teamed up to form an interfaith group to help those affected by the events, which damaged properties and homes.

"Jews were already leaving by 1967, but the riots accelerated the departure," said Prof. Howard Lupovitch, director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Jewish Studies at Wayne State University. After Coleman Young was elected mayor six years later, some "started to get the impression that white people were not welcome in the city. ... That made some a little wary about going back."

At the time of the riot, blacks made up about 40% of the city, and would become a majority in Detroit in the 1970s, reaching a peak of 83% in 2010. Today 79% of the city is black and 10% white, the lowest percentage of whites in a big city in the U.S. About 10% of Catholics in metro Detroit are black.

But the Jewish and Catholic communities are trying to remain engaged with the city in many ways. Jewish groups have formed several programs to promote activity in the city, especially among younger generations. Catholics in suburbs are trying to keep up parishes in the city. From July 31 to Aug. 5, the Archdiocese is mobilizing 12,000 volunteers to remove blight "in the neighborhoods hardest hit by the 1967 civil disturbance," Vigneron said.

At the Downtown Synagogue, members are working with Breakers Covenant Church International in Detroit, housed in a former synagogue, to attract Jews back to the city.

It's "opening up a space for people to continue to have that emotional relationship with the city of Detroit," said Rabbi Ariana Silverman of Downtown Synagogue. "It's not over. We can do something different."

Amid concerns by some about gentrification and blacks losing influence in Detroit, there will be complex issues to sort through, just as in decades prior.

"How do we understand what has happened in the past 50 years?" Silverman said. "What do we want the next 50 years to look like? That's a complicated conversation."

Daniel Syme, 71, rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, has worked on black-Jewish relations, influenced by his late father, a rabbi at Temple Israel.

"I saw my childhood going up in flames," Syme said, recalling seeing news reports of the riots as a 21-year-old. Today, he works with black pastors on building "bridges between the black and Jewish community. ... You have to walk across them if you intend to stamp out hate and bigotry."

Many in the faith community are hoping this month will be a time to make sure Detroit has a peaceful future.

The Rev. E.L. Branch, pastor of Third New Hope Baptist Church and former president of the Michigan chapter of National Baptist Convention USA, the largest African-American religious group, said the 50th anniversary of the riot can be a time to renew "our efforts to still promote the kind of peace and togetherness we are all capable of. Large number of folks carried a lot from those times, whether it was bitterness, whether it was a sense of ethnic pride. ... We've not had anything like it since, and so we can celebrate that, and make that something we could all come together on."

The Rev. Oscar King of Northwest Unity Missionary Baptist Church, former president of the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity, said he plans to speak in the pulpit Sunday about the anniversary of the riot and how to prevent future disturbances by addressing social needs of people of all races.

King is concerned that younger generations might not be aware of the struggles of Detroit churches over the past 50 years.

"People of my generation have forgotten about it, and the younger generation doesn't know anything about it," King said.

At Christ the King Church, the Rev. Victor Clore will have 43 crosses planted outside the church to remember the 43 people who died in the riot. After mass Sunday, he will lead the congregation to pray over them.

At the time of the riot, Rev. Clore was pastor at Saint Francis de Sales in northwest Detroit on Fenkell and Meyers. As more African Americans moved into the neighborhoods, the church formed a group to "welcome people even if they were of a different race or nationality."

The Detroit disturbance in 1967 "energized us even more" to promote racial harmony, he said.

As a student, Hanchon remembers people from the community praying before the black Sacred Heart statue, kneeling on a stone before it, their hands clasped. He hopes the statue can be a symbol of harmony as Detroit moves forward.

"I think of all the times that I stopped here," Hanchon said on the lawn near the statue. "We would go down to the supermarket a block down, and I would always stop here and say a prayer on the way back to school, praying this prayer of 'Sacred Heart of Jesus, thy kingdom come,' ... that the kingdom of Christ's peace would really come over our city."