Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Memories of Unrest: Placing the Detroit 1967 Project within the Riot vs. Rebellion Debate

Memories of Unrest:  Placing the Detroit 1967 Project within the Riot vs. Rebellion Debate

Athena Zissis

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Detroit’s 1967 Uprising, the Detroit Historical Society created a public database of eye-witness testimonials to commemorate the events and aftermath of the 1967 Uprisings.  In doing so, the database placed itself in a larger lexical debate regarding the morality of the civil unrest and whether it should be classified as a riot or a rebellion.  Within this debate are themes of injustice, civil rights, violence, morality, discrimination, and resilience to oppression.  Utilizing Erving Goffman’s method of frame analysis coupled with themes of conceptual metaphor, this study examines 70 self-written testimonials of Detroit’s 1967 Uprising for patterns of prescribed agency, responsibility, and blame while exploring how the authors’ explicitly or implicitly frame their stories within the riot vs. rebellion debate.  Because framing shapes the viewpoint of a given audience, and is thus a powerful tool that has been shown to effect social change, it is important to understand how the Detroit 67 Project database contributes to the discussion, and to whom that discussion is reaching.  With the results leaning heavily in favor of categorizing the civil unrest as a riot, the narrative of 1967 Detroit emphasizes an arguably counterproductive discussion of self-sabotaging violence.  As the Detroit ’67 Project’s intentions were to “engage, reflect, and provide opportunities to take the collective action that can help move our community forward,” it is my hope that as more people submit their testimonials more equal representation will be given to the rebellion framework.

April 6, 2017 - Posted by | abstract


  1. So glad you’re doing this– *hopefully* a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The terminology used to describe the events of July 1967 (personally, I like to call it “the Great Unpleasantness” and yes, I was an eyewitness) might be usefully linked to the Rashomon Effect.

    Comment by Dan Harrison | April 6, 2017 | Reply

  2. I love this paper’s focus- especially using such a unique database of oral history as data. Also, what great timing! It is interesting that it appears that the database has some methodological limitations, such as the kinds of voices found to include. I would love to see this paper have a more applied focus- perhaps conclude with some recommendations provided directly to the Detroit Historical Society surrounding how it can frame and promote its stories in a more productive manner.

    Comment by Elizabeth Riedman | April 15, 2017 | Reply

  3. An incredibly important paper topic–I would absolutely love to read what you have found. This may not be news to you, but I would recommend taking a look at Grace Lee Boggs’ autobiography as she discusses these same issues and explicitly talks about the distinction between riot, rebellion, and revolution in reference to the civil rights movement in Detroit. It might be helpful for some of the subjects that you are discussing! In my own research looking at urban renewal around this same period, I came across a lot of newspaper articles discussing these events and was surprised to find them referred to as “riots” in newspapers intended for predominantly white and predominantly black audiences. I wonder if the way that the 67 uprisings were originally conceptualized in media discourse has influenced the volume of narratives categorizing them as riots today? Are you able to retrieve the demographic information for individuals providing narratives for DHS? I have so many questions for you! We should absolutely have a proof-reading session before the final submission–I will talk to you in person on Tuesday! :)

    Comment by Kailey McAlpin | April 17, 2017 | Reply

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