The city’s segregated society got a shake-up on July 23, 1967, when white police vice squad officers executed a raid on an after-hours drinking club or “blind pig” in the predominantly black neighborhood located at Twelfth Street and Clairmount Avenue. Inside the illegal club, 82 people were celebrating the return of two Vietnam veterans. Detroit’s vice squad attempted to arrest all 82 violators; and as the officers called for a “clean-up crew” to assist in transporting the arrestees, a crowd gathered in protest. After the last police car left, a small group of men broke through the protective bars and broke the window of an adjacent clothing store.
The vandalism and the anger spread in waves—with looting and fires spreading through the Northwest side of Detroit, then on to the East side of the city. The Detroit police force, unable to contain the spreading anger and violence, asked then-Governor George Romney to call in the Michigan National Guard; after that, the 82nd Airborne Division joined the effort to restore peace to the city. Violence escalated as police and soldiers fought to regain control of the city. When the riots ended five days later, 43 people were dead; 1,189 had been injured; and over 7,000 people had been arrested. More than 2,000 buildings had been destroyed.
I was working in downtown Detroit when the violence broke out, in my first post-high school job at Blue Cross-Blue Shield. The company, like other businesses and schools, closed early that day, sending employees home to safety; and I remember my fear, riding the bus past crowds on the street corners and seeing the first pillars of smoke rising up from burning homes and stores and office buildings.
Days later, when the flames had subsided and the city was once again under control, my Dad drove me through the central city and along Twelfth Street. It was surreal: Soldiers, rifles trained on the street below, stood on the rooftops. We gawked at burned-out buildings which had, just the week before, served up groceries or dry cleaning; now, some of the same people who had been their customers had become their executioners– ending their service to the community with a Molotov cocktail.
Detroit was in trouble.
Why did it happen? After the riots, the New Detroit Commission was established to explore the reasons. They identified causes ranging from economic inequality and urban renewal projects which destroyed black neighborhoods, to black militancy, to police abuse, to rapid demographic change. And they sought solutions.
It was in this climate of unrest that two white Catholics—a priest, Fr. William Cunningham, and a lay woman, suburban housewife and mother Eleanor Josaitis—stepped up to propose a solution. Together they founded Focus: HOPE, with the mission of providing food, job training, educational assistance to the under-served in the city. The organization’s website explains the organization’s mission:
Recognizing the dignity and beauty of every person, we pledge intelligent and practical action to overcome racism, poverty and injustice. And to build a metropolitan community where all people may live in freedom, harmony, trust and affection. Black and white, yellow, brown and red from Detroit and its suburbs of every economic status, national origin and religious persuasion, we join in this covenant.
—Adopted March 8, 1968
Focus: HOPE’s social advocacy programs were successful, bringing calm and hope to the community. The website details some of Father Cunningham’s early successes.
The founders’ first action was to organize Focus Summer HOPE, a riverfront festival that brought together city and suburban residents in a spirit of friendship and harmony.
It was such a success that the co-founders embarked on other social advocacy initiatives. They trained a group of priests to preach on civil rights issues by exposing them to the rhetoric of extremist groups. Next, they collaborated with Wayne State University on a study that demonstrated that city residents were paying significantly more for food and prescriptions than suburban residents. The HOPE ’68 study exposed some of the conditions believed to be behind much of the violence of 1967 and laid the foundation for Focus: HOPE’s entire approach to resolving the effects of discrimination.
As Focus: HOPE was working to bridge the racial divide, a major Detroit employer announced its move to the suburbs. Focus: HOPE took the employer, AAA of Michigan, into Federal District Court and proved the move was racially motivated. As a result, hiring practices were changed to open opportunities for women and people of color.
In 1971, after gathering scientific evidence of the effects of hunger and malnutrition on the early development of infants, Focus: HOPE’s co-founders won approval from Congress for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). It provided food for pregnant and post partum mothers, infants and children up to age six. At age six, children who were still in need qualify for the school lunch program. After winning support for mothers and children, the co-founders tackled the issue of hunger among senior citizens – successfully extending the federal CSFP program to include low income seniors in 1975. The program now assists 41,000 people each month through Focus: HOPE’s four food centers and more than 500,000 people nationally.
The first Holiday Music Festival fund raiser was held in 1969 and the first WALK in 1975. Focus: HOPE had established a strong foothold in the community.
The Focus: HOPE story continues today. At 11:00 a.m. today, supporters gathered for the 38th annual Focus: HOPE Walk, a four-mile walk around the community surrounding their campus at 1355 Oakman Boulevard in Detroit. Funds raised will help the organization to provide food, job training and education.
For the first time this year, the Focus: HOPE Walk will have a new feature, a Flash Mob featuring the performance of an original dance dubbed the Focus: HOPE Hustle. Here, for your entertainment, is the tutorial so that you, too, can do the Focus: HOPE Hustle in your home and your local community.