Aug. 3 2016 11:46 AM

Remembering two nights of rioting on the west side 50 years ago

MSU Trustee Joel Ferguson visits Lansing's old Main Street School at 1715 Malcom X St., where, as a playground director, he helped to calm riots that swept through the neighborhood on Aug. 7 and 8, 1966.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse
Civil unrest erupted in dozens of American cities in the 1960s. Fifty years ago this week, on Aug. 7 and 8, 1966, it was Lansing's turn.

Two days of chaos on Lansing's near west side escalated from rock throwing to gunfire and flying Molotov cocktails, drawing a small army of 300 cops from Lansing, East Lansing, MSU and other units into the neighborhood.

Bradford Jess Dothard, a retired military officer, was among a handful of people arrested.

Dothard, a retired military man, still lives in Lansing. He was a senior at Sexton High in 1966. That summer, he served 30 days in jail for riot-related offenses. A year later, he was drafted and served in the infantry in Vietnam. The whole period blends into a stretch of life he'd rather forget.

"A lot of these things still hurt after 50 years," he said.

The Lansing State Journal reported that Dothard pleaded guilty to assault and battery, but he remembers it differently.

"A lot of that stuff is a blur," he said. "Things happened so fast. I was charged with inciting a riot. That's what they charged everybody with. I was just there."

Just what sparked the riot is unclear. Groups of black and white youths are both implicated in press reports. According to stories in the Journal and Chicago Tribune, looting began about midnight Sunday, starting with Bill and Don's Grocery at Butler Boulevard and Kalamazoo Street. Windows were broken at the Shell gas station at Main and Logan streets.

Police Chief Charles Stragler reported about 150 white youths gathering near Washington Avenue and Genesee Street at about 9:30 p.m., throwing sticks and other objects. Police dispersed the mob. Late Sunday, a group of black youths moved south along Logan Street, throwing stones at cars.

A little later, white and black youths faced off at a dance hall in the 400 block of North Washington Avenue. Police broke up the dance. About 11 p.m. a large group of black youths gathered in the 1100 block of West Michigan Avenue and headed downtown.

Inspector Thomas O'Toole reported gangs of white youths roaming Washington Avenue downtown "spoiling for a fight."

Press reports paint a picture of a spontaneous, unorganized flare-up. That's how Dothard remembers it.

"It was word of mouth," he said. "People got angry. Some people were curious what was going on. They got swept up. If you went against the grain you were going to get hurt, so you just moved along with the flow."

Monday, the trouble resumed at about 8 p.m., this time with gunfire in the mix. Four people were injured by sniper fire and two cop cars were hit by bullets. An officer was hospitalized after being hit in the ear with a brick. More than 30 cars were damaged.

A carful of youths broke through police lines and hit Sully's Drive-In Restaurant at Waverly Road and Saginaw Street, breaking windows and damaging cars. Several Molotov cocktails were thrown, to little effect. Sporadic gunfire could be heard throughout the night.

Returning from a summer vacation, Mayor Max Murningham blamed "outside influences" on Sunday, but he declared Monday's disturbances "purely local." He resumed his vacation the next day.

Gov. George Romney issued a stern statement and threatened to call out the National Guard.

Dothard doesn’t remember any particular incident or grievance causing the riots, but there was plenty of tinder laying around, ready for a match.

"People getting angry because they didn't have a good job, they couldn't move where they wanted to move," he said. “Things that go back 400 years.”

He seemed to have no beef with Lansing in particular. "I didn't even know what prejudice was until 1967, when we went south with the military,” he said.

Joel Ferguson was a playground director at Main Street School in 1966. Ferguson's role in helping to calm the riots set the stage for his long political career that took him from Lansing's City Council to bigtime developer, chairman of the MSU Board of Trustees and a national Democratic Party power broker.

"I went out there in the middle of it," Ferguson recalled. "Everybody was in the streets, I got a phone call and I went down there."

Dothard remembers Ferguson well.

"He was my basketball coach, softball coach, mentor," Dothard said. "Took me to the hospital when a softball split my hand wide open."

At Main Street School, Ferguson put a net in the bare rim of the basketball hoop and blacktopped the gravel court where Earvin Johnson later got his start.

"He was respected by a lot of people," Dothard said. "Of course, some of the people called him Uncle Tom, but he tried to change things for the better. He taught us young black men a lot."

Ferguson said segregation set the stage for hot summers around the country in the 1960s, Lansing included.

He remembers the station wagon from the Lansing Country Club, roving through black areas of the city, including his own house on Chelsea Street, picking up black employees and taking them to work at the all-white club.

"It was like a plantation," Ferguson said.

He shrugs off any credit for quelling the riot.

"Riots stop," he said. "You can't get out there and raise a bunch of hell for days on end."

In the aftermath of the riots, Ferguson served as the spokesman for a committee of black youth that met with city officials in early August. The need for more summer activities, with more student input, topped the agenda. Ferguson still pushes for more investment in what he calls "the front side of life.”

"Instead of building more prisons — the back side of life — we should be improving schools, parks, having more youth activities," he said.

Lansing clergy played a prominent role. Some 40 pastors and ministers took to the streets to pour oil on the troubled waters, and several spoke out at subsequent meetings. The Rev. Kenneth Faiver of Cristo Rey Catholic Church complained that police brutality "puts the officer in a deplorable image as far as the Negro is concerned."

After a community meeting with Mayor Murningham, civic leaders and clergy, held after the first night of rioting, police stopped using bayonets for crowd control.

Faiver's stand against police brutality didn't endear him to the authorities.

"Everywhere he stands, 30 or 40 kids surround him and we've got a mob again," an angry police officer was quoted by the Associated Press.

Bishop S.C. Cole of the Church of God in Christ said blacks needed more representation at City Hall. A year later, in 1967, Ferguson became the city's first black Councilman and the youngest person elected to Council up to then.

However, Ferguson couldn't remember any specific changes that were made in the immediate wake of the riots. Neither could Dothard.

"It was stupid," Dothard said. "It didn't bring about change, better facilities. Better facilities came from people trying to make things better."

The experience taught Lansing at least one thing. Lansing School Board President Nellie Nussdorfer spoke for a shaken city at one of the post-riot community meetings.

"Recent events have shown that many people have who had their heads in the sand now realize it can happen in Lansing," Nussdorfer said.

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