In the long, hot summer of 1967, 159 race riots broke out in cities across the United States. But it’s the Detroit riot most people remember.

“Everyone recalls what they were doing when the ‘67 riots happened,” says Marcus Burell (A.B. ’08), senior partner at Saga Marketing. “One man told me, ‘My granddad wouldn’t let us leave the porch, we were just on the porch for three days.’ Some people remember driving down 75 and that all you saw was a red glaze over the entire city. People still remember. The Detroit 67 exhibit makes them pause, take a moment, and reflect.”

Detroit 67: Looking Back to Move Forward, a Detroit Historical Museum exhibit, is the culmination of more than two years of work. Using pictures, videos, oral histories, and a large network of community partners, the exhibit looks back at Detroit in the 50 years before 1967 and at the 50 years that have followed.

Detroit 67 is a long-term storytelling campaign,” says Paige Wood (A.B. 2015, M.M. 2016), Creative Producer at Saga. “It’s the part of Detroit history that some locals seemed reluctant to remember and the national news media wanted to talk about all too much, but never in its full context. Saga’s goal with Detroit 67 was to help tell the story of Detroit to community partners and share the goals of the project so that all of the pieces of the puzzle could be brought to light.”

Not the Same Old Story

Burrell and his business partner, Eric Thomas, created Saga in 2015 as a storytelling agency. Both had worked in marketing, and both felt their best work came from getting the client’s story right. Both were also committed to finding work that supported causes they believed in. With his economics major, Burrell handles “all the charts and graphs and back end stuff that people don’t get excited about but that I actually enjoy.” He also helped shape Saga into a viable business.

The Detroit Historical Society (DHS) approached Saga about the Detroit 67 exhibit in March 2016. “They came to us with this grand project: to look at what happened between 1917 and 1967 and between 1967 and now. They also wanted the project to look at how what we’re doing now in Detroit is going to transform the future,” Burrell says. To succeed, they needed broad community engagement.

Nearly 5,000 US troops were deployed to the city of Detroit in 1967. Soldiers patrolled the city's streets in tanks and armored carriers.

Image courtesy of Detroit Historical Society and Chuck Cloud for Elayne Gross Photography

For the Mackinac Policy Conference, which draws the state’s business and political leaders to Mackinac Island to network and talk policy for three days each spring, Saga helped develop the narrative for videos, apps, and presentations so DHS could explain what Detroit 67 was trying to do. “DHS needed to talk to foundations, stakeholders, and community groups,” Burrell said, “and they all needed to be engaged in a different way.”

Detroit 67’s list of community partners includes many of the big foundations and corporations behind Detroit’s recent boom. It also includes small, grassroots neighborhood nonprofits, places like the Community Development Advocates of Detroit. “We already had great relationships with a lot of the community groups Detroit 67 wanted to partner with,” Burrell says, “that meant we could say, this is how you need to talk to them about this. We really saw that those kinds of conversations -- this type of tailored approach -- definitely brought people on-board and encouraged much more community engagement.

1967 Before and After

For the last two years, the Detroit Historical Society (DHS) has been collecting people’s memories, poring over photographs and newspapers, and reaching far out into the community to tell a more complete history of Detroit’s last 100 years. DHS hopes that Detroit 67 can reconstruct the way the housing shortages, redlining, policing, decisions about where to build highways, unemployment, and other forms of racism had smoldered for decades, and why it finally flared on July 23, 1967, and raged for six days. It hopes to connect these stories to the world outside the museum, and to show the ways this history is relevant to Detroit’s present and its future.

Detroit 67 acknowledges the variety of ways people experienced the rebellion, in person and through the media. It also reminds visitors of iconic images people recognized from that era.
Image courtesy of Detroit Historical Society and Chuck Cloud for Elayne Gross Photography

“The story of the riots is more than just the story of race, anger, and rebellion,” Wood says. “There were valid reasons that justified the way people felt and why they rebelled. To tell the story now, we have to try to see everything as it was and what lead up to that moment. We can’t embellish the events, but we can’t diminish them either.”

Finding that balance is essential in telling the present-day story of Detroit too. There’s a lot of buzz about Detroit right now, but it’s generally limited to what’s happening within the 7.2 square miles around Midtown. The other 135 square miles of Detroit, which includes the neighborhoods and scores of dilapidated blocks—are still pretty tough. “Detroit’s future is all about equitable growth, which hasn’t happened here yet,” Burrell says. “We want to see everybody involved. We want Detroit’s story to focus on everyone [not just those that were there, but also those that were impacted].”

“In our work, we push for inclusiveness and for a diversity of perspectives because we want make sure everyone is represented,” Wood says. “It’s more work than just saying taking one story and trying to turn it into something universal. Getting everyone’s perspective in takes time and it takes effort. It can be frustrating because that means you’re going to have to go through a lot of people – and not everyone is an email away.

“But it’s rewarding in the end,” she continues, “because when we make these efforts, we really get feedback that says we’re doing the right thing here.”

“I hope Detroit 67 sparks conversations that don’t just stop after the exhibit closes,” Burrell says. “We hope these conversations help people in power start to shift their mindset about how they’re solving problems and how they’re working to grow Detroit.” 



Top image by Becky Sehenuk Waite