More than 2,000 students walked out of Detroit's Northern High School in 1966 to protest racism
Editor's note: Over the next two weeks, the Free Press will publish daily profiles of people from different walks of life who talk about their experiences 50 years ago during the 1967 riot. The profiles were drawn from the Detroit Historical Museum's Oral History Project.
It's been more than 50 years since Ivory Williams sat down with his high school guidance counselor George Grech, but the Detroiter can still remember their conversation, in the spring of 1966, with extraordinary clarity.
Williams had walked into the discussion thinking it would be somewhat perfunctory. A junior at Northern High School — a since-closed Detroit public school on Woodward and Clairmount, around the corner from his childhood home — the then 16-year-old anticipated a simple discussion about the classes he would take his senior year.
It was anything but.
When Williams explained that he planned to continue taking the college-prep courses he had enrolled in since his freshman year, Grech shut him down.
"We aren't sending Northern students to college," the counselor said.
While the Detroit Public Schools district was slightly more than 50% black that year, Williams remembers that diversity within his school was not split like the district-wide statistics. As he recalls, all but five members of the Northern student body looked like him — black — a reality of the de facto segregation and discriminatory redlining practices that pervaded Detroit.
When Grech said they weren't sending Northern students to college, he meant black kids.
"The city needs more service workers," the counselor explained to Williams as he signed him up for a woodshop, metals and automotive class.
The then-teen left devastated and puzzled.
"I didn't understand. I had spent all of these years up to this point preparing to go to college, only to be told no," Williams, now 67, told a reporter as he recalled in detail the walkout he and his classmates organized in response to the inequitable educational opportunities they experienced.
As Detroit reflects on the 50th anniversary of July 1967, stories like Williams' serve as a reminder that while the uprising was an immediate response to a raid on a blind pig in the black neighborhood at 12th and Clairmount, the violence did not take place in a vacuum.
Historians and social scientists say the city erupted in five days of mayhem as a response to years of inequities and pent-up frustrations around police brutality and systemic racism in housing, jobs and schools.
"It was the product of African Americans having suffered decades of brutality at the hands of the Detroit Police Department while civic leaders — even liberal leaders publicly committed to racial equality — were not stopping the abuse," University of Michigan historian Heather Ann Thompson wrote in the new prologue to her 2001 book "Whose Detroit?"
"It was the result of grinding poverty that continued to exist in Detroit's black neighborhoods as white Detroiters enjoyed unprecedented prosperity," she continued. "It happened because access to everything from good housing stock to strong schools remained elusive for black Detroiters while, for white city residents, such access was a given."
As the Kerner Commission — a report published in 1968 on the factors leading up to the riot — concluded: "Our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal."
School — as was the case in 1966 with Williams — became a mirror to see these injustices.
They were also, even before 1967, hotbeds for activism.
Ivory Williams pictured in his senior yearbook from 1967 at Northern High School in Detroit. (Photo: Northern High School)
After meeting with Grech, Williams initially kept the baffling discussion to himself. But then, one day during lunch, he and some classmates began discussing their senior plans and they realized they had all been told the same thing: College was not in their future.
Frustrated, Williams and three of his classmates scheduled a meeting with school principal Arthur Carty, to bring some clarity to the situation.
It did not go well.
As Williams remembers it, when they went in to meet with Carty, the principal called them the "N-word" and told them to get back to class and stop wasting his time.
No longer just confused, the angry students decided to organize. They wrote up a list of seven demands, including the immediate removal of Carty and the school's on-campus police officer, who had been known to rough up kids and give them a hard time.
They also called for qualified teachers, information on the academic standards at the school, and the creation of a student/faculty council to study school problems and come up with solutions to known inequities.
The demands were sent to the DPS Board of Education. While Superintendent Samuel Brownell quickly agreed to remove the school police officer, he only promised to discuss the other demands.
For students, getting rid of Carty became nonnegotiable and a rally cry.
Inspired by their English literature reading, specifically "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau, Williams and his peers began discussing a walkout. According to "The Color of School Reform" by Jeffery Henig, the students told Brownell that if Carty returned to school on Monday, April 18, following the Easter break, they would not be returning.
The superintendent reassigned Carty to the central office and placed two high-level administrators on campus that day, to assess the situation. The students ended up showing up for school. They were waiting, however, for the following day, April 19, when board members were supposed to discuss Carty's removal, to decide their next steps.
The board refused to take action, and that is when the movement for the walkout started.
Getting noticeably animated as he recalls the excitement that was in the air as teens transformed from students to activists, Williams couldn't help but laugh as he recalled the planning.
"My job was to tell everyone but the teachers," he said, noting he was surprised none of the teachers caught on since the students even had a countdown for the day.
"We felt like secret agents operating under the teachers' noses," he said.
At 10 a.m. April 20, Williams stood up in the middle of one of his classes and made his way out the room. The hallway was empty. He strolled outside. It was also deserted. The only people out there were his friends — the ones who helped plan the event.
As the group of about 15 kids tried to decide what to do next — should they go back into class? Should they just skip school for the day? — the doors flew open and a stream of students poured out.
That day only 183 of Northern's 2,307 attended class.
"We couldn't believe it," said Williams, laughing at how the group had organized the protest but didn't have a game plan for what to do once everyone followed through.
They ended up marching around the school chanting and singing about being college bound.
If the group didn't have a plan before the walkout they quickly realized they needed one. Upon returning to the school they were met with furious administrators and the school cop who, as Williams remembers it, was "jacking up anybody he saw in the hallway, legitimate reason or not."
Ivory Williams in his senior yearbook from 1967 at Northern High School can be seen in the National Honor Society, as well as the Prima Is, a group that was formed after the walkout of 1966. (Photo: Northern High School)
The students decided to continue organizing. On April 21, they met in St. Joseph's right next to the school. Pastor Karl Gregory had agreed to open it up to students who would host a Freedom School inside. While the students had planned to teach the courses, Wayne State University, Michigan State University and the University of Michigan pledged their support of the protest and sent teachers over to help lead the classes.
According to Williams, the real "turning point" occurred April 22, when students from Eastern High School joined the Northern students. Williams said that students at schools across the city were expressing interest in a "citywide high school boycott."
Brownell and the board met three days later and agreed to meet all of the Northern student demands, including removing the principal.
For Williams it was an incredible lesson in standing up for what one believes in.
"We didn't know a darn thing," he said. "We didn't know about curriculum, school budgets, academic standards or any of the stuff we talk about regarding education today. We had no adult leader to turn to. No mentors, models or plans to follow. We didn't hold a lot of meetings or set up committees. We didn't know how to do any of that stuff. We just did something, and in a single month we changed our world."
The following year, Williams continued with his college-prep courses. While he did not get into U-M, he enrolled in community college in Highland Park. The scholarship he was on, however, ran out after only one year. In January 1969, afraid of being drafted to Vietnam — where he ultimately ended up anyway — he enlisted in the Navy.
Before any of that, however, July 23, 1967, happened. The month after Williams graduated from Northern — the same school his mom and dad both attended — the city was engulfed in flames, a magnified version of the discontent Williams and his classmates showcased a year prior.
Afterward, schools, including Northern, continued to be flash points for activism and intense frustrations.
Following the 1967 riot, there were an "extraordinary number of incidents of police brutality in Detroit's school system," according to historian Thompson, who said by the end of the decade there were 22 high schools with chapters of the Black Students United Front, with each demanding the removal of police from schools and the end of all-white curricula and a predominantly white faculty.
At Osborn that year, students submitted a list of demands that included the hiring of more black instructors. Northern also made demands that year that included the library being filled with books highlighting the black experience.
While Williams said he couldn't see the connection between the work he and his classmates did in 1966 and the actions of citizens in the summer of 1967, and onward, that is no longer the case.
"Looking back, now I see it's all connected: the social conditions, the lack of jobs, the white flight without leaving anything, the police," Williams said, noting that there were still issues left unresolved.
"1967, that thing was a symptom of something that has not actually reached a tipping point yet," Williams said, explaining how the Detroit's current resurgence could prove problematic if it doesn't take into account all Detroiters, specifically long-timers living in the neighborhoods.
"If there is any time to learn from history, now is the time to learn about what's going on if we're really going to go forward."
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Article Detroit '67: 1966 student walkout at Northern a sign of things to come compiled by www.freep.com