Historian Tom Sugrue on Detroit’s Ascension, Decline and ‘Detroit’ the Film

“The uprising is anything but respectable. It’s a rebellion. It’s a profound challenge to the status quo,” says Sugrue.

Jake Neher/WDET

This conversation originally aired on Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson on July 26, 2017

On Tuesday night, there was a major movie premier downtown in the Motor City for the new film Detroit.

It’s the latest in a series of events around town that are part of a weeks-long remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 uprising. Author and historian Thomas Sugrue has been in Detroit for several days helping to lead conversations about the rebellion, Detroit’s economic and social strife, and race. He wrote what many people consider the definitive work on Detroit’s ascension and decline, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.”

Detroit Today host Stephen Henderson speaks with Sugrue, who was at the premier and puts his experience there in the context of his work and research.

“(Detroit director) Katherine Bigelow does violence… in a way that is unsettling and captures viscerally what it must’ve been like to be in the Algiers Motel while patrons were being terrorized,” says Sugrue, “the fear, the horror, the sense of utter helplessness at the hands of these… really sadistic, violent officers who raided the motel.”

The conversation moves beyond the film itself and into the historical context of the events in 1967, specifically as it relates to the culture of Detroiters.

“There was a wide variety of different opinion on what was happening. And so there were folks who cheered when they saw the indelible images of people breaking windows and tossing molotov cocktails, and there were folks who said… ‘this is immoral, we shouldn’t be doing this sort of thing.’

“For African American Detroiters especially, there’s a long history of a tradition of respectability…We want to show our best face… The uprising is anything but respectable. It’s a rebellion. It’s a profound challenge to the status quo and rebellion is disturbing to its targets but also to many folks who are witnessing it.”

To hear the full conversation, click the audio player above.


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