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How issues at a 1967 education conference foretold Detroit’s historic civil uprising

Reflecting, remembering and reviewing the events of 1967 in Detroit and what it means for us going forward. This is the latest in an ongoing series.

Arthur Divers was incredulous yet inspired.

As a black man teaching Social Studies and English at Murray-Wright High School 50 years ago, he remembers that there were few depictions of African Americans in the textbooks in 1967.

“There were no mentions,” Divers recalls today. “We had to create our own lesson plans and make copies on mimeograph machines.

“When I came in, they really didn’t want black men teaching high school social studies,” Divers continues. “They didn’t have it in junior high school and definitely not in high school. Very little, if any.”

Divers would be the first to tell you that the wheels of progress in those days moved like Alaga Syrup. He, however, prodded, provoked and pleaded with his superiors for months until Detroit Public Schools began to offer black studies courses to adult education students.

Not long after, Detroit erupted after police moved to shut down an illegal after-hours celebration during the wee hours of the early morning on July 23, 1967. But more than two months before the July rebellion another effort, it too radical, took place in Detroit. The Racism in Education conference, sponsored by the Michigan Federation of Teachers and hosted by the Detroit Federation of Teachers, took place on May 11, 12 and 13 at University of Detroit. Ed Simpkins, a DFT executive board member who would later become dean of Wayne State University’s college of education, was conference coordinator. His DFT executive board colleague, Zeline Richard, provided the welcome.  

Subtitled American Education: A Partner in the Perpetuation of Racism?, the effort featured fire-brand leader Floyd McKissick of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), noted historian John Henrik Clarke, as well as local educators Catherine Blackwell and Carolyn Reese and Ed Vaughn, owner of the popular Vaughn’s Book Store. Other presenters included sociologist and anthropologist St. Clair Drake, sociologist and psychologist Nathan Hare, author John Oliver Killens; and author and historian Arna Bontemps. Hare’s presentation on the conference’s first day was titled: Bourgeois Teachers in Ghetto Schools. Killens’ presentation was titled: Education Through the Eyes of a Black Novelist.

It was deemed historic, especially considering that only about 50 percent of the Detroit Public Schools’ 300,000 students were African American and only about 45 percent of the school district’s teachers were black. The first day of the conference was held during a teacher development-no school day and DFT President Mary Ellen Riordan, who was white, urged her members to attend. Many – blacks and whites – did so.

In the years prior to the conference, the Detroit Public Schools had a been embroiled in high-profile battles with parents and the general community over black students, building conditions and the quality of education offered. In 1962, a group of parents at Sherrill Junior High School protested the district’s decision to transfer about 150 black students to Clippert Junior High School, about one and one-half miles away. The black parents argued that administrators were doing so to keep blacks from attending Mackenzie High School, which in 1962 was majority white. The protest resulted in a lawsuit leveled in federal court by law firm Goodman, Crockett, Eden, and Robb on behalf of a parent organization. The group argued that DPS was practicing defacto segregation. In 1966, black students walked out of Northern High School citing race discrimination.

Divers, who is an active 14th Congressional District Democratic Party Organization activist and president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers retirees group, remembers those days well.

“We had to fight every step of the way.”  

For him and others of that time, racial tensions within the educational community were one of the factors that resulted in the 1967 Detroit riot. 

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