Grand Rapids race riot: Firebombs, gunshots and blood

Rioters, police officers and victims describe the violence and chaos that rocked the city for three days in July 1967

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Fifty years after the Grand Rapids riot, the memories are still clear to those who rioted, to the police officers who responded, and to the innocents who were caught up in the violence.

The 1967 riot was exploding outside Willie Joe Vance's home, but how was he to know? He was sleeping.

"What woke me up was the busting of the glass, the windows in the house was busting out," Vance recalled. "That's what woke me up."

Rioters had torched the used car lot next door owned by a white man.

But flames don't discriminate. They jumped to Vance's home on LaGrave Avenue SE at Wealthy Street, the one he shared with two other families, and burned it down.

"So everybody got out," he said.

That, he said, was the first night of rioting — July 25, 1967, two days after deadly riot started tearing through Detroit.

It was four years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Lyndon B. Johnson was president; U.S. troops were fighting in Vietnam.

Parts of Grand Rapids were burning.

"It was pretty crazy, a lot of firebombs, bricks being thrown,"  Vance said.

The next day, after leaving his bakery job, after losing his home to the riot, Vance joined the protesters. He was 21.

"I just kind of got in and joined along with everybody else, you know, just going through the motions of the riots," he said.

He recalled joining about 50 others at Campau Park on South Division Avenue:

"When I got up to the park, it had started already a little before I got there. They had come from, like, Wealthy and marched up to Campau. They had already (done) two or three hours’ worth of damage."

At the park, he said, they were "just rallying, you know, singing some of the old songs."

"So we left the park, that's when all the police were there," he continued. "Police came down, they had the buses and cars and everything there, so they kind of rushed the crowd, and they picked me out of the crowd."

Vance said he was one of first arrested on the second night of rioting, one of nearly 350 locked up in all. Like many others, he got a brief mention in the newspaper.

"I got to do a couple of 'We (Shall) Overcomes' and police rushed me," he said. "I was put in the bus. Hauled downtown, booked in."

He said he spent seven days in jail for failure to disperse — or as he put it, for singing.

Willie Joe Vance
Willie Joe Vance.

"It was something that had needed to be done. It wasn't just here, it was all over really, the United States," Vance said. "The bigger cities had started it and had more to do with it than we did, but it was pretty much the same message: That we had to get some kind of attention to get things better, better with the neighborhoods, better with jobs."

Vance later joined the U.S. Army before working foundry and auto factory jobs.

"After that time, that's when people started moving out," he said. "They started getting better homes, they're moving out on the north end, out in the south end, out in Kentwood."

He's 71 now, retired, a great-grandfather living not far from where he grew up.

JIM WELLS, RETIRED GRPD: DUCKING ROCKS

The rioting started just after midnight on July 25, confined to a 36-block area on the southeast side — confined there just like most of the city's blacks.

Jim Wells was a young cop with just five years on the job on a mostly young Grand Rapids Police Department.

"I was working motorcycle, police motorcycle, I got through work about 11 o'clock, went home, just had gotten to bed or so and I was called and they said to come on down," he remembered.

He was summoned to the police department, then sent to the riot zone.

"It was stupid," he said of the violence. "There was no rhyme or reason to it. I remember one lady saying, 'You're burning your own neighborhood down. Why are you doing this?'

"I can't say I could see it coming, and I didn't think we were getting along bad with people down there," he continued.

Down there, in that narrow stretch of the Southeast side where nearly 90 percent of the city's blacks lived, many in poverty.

"I think a lot of it started in Detroit and it just worked its way here," Wells said. "We never thought it was going to happen. We were unprepared."

He recalled emptying the booze from Kal's Liquor store on Jefferson Avenue before rioters could get to it.

"We were just throwing stuff up in the trucks. Those things were driving down the street, just leaking booze and beer out of them all the way down to the dump," he said

Rioters pelted police with rocks and bricks.

"We got hit by rocks so often, I'd wake up and find bruises on my body that I never knew that I got hit," he said.

All the while, he was wondering, "Why? We didn't know why."

One rock smashed his foot, sending him to the hospital — one of more than 40 listed as injured, including rioters, officers and bystanders. But while more than 40 died in Detroit's riot, nobody was killed in Grand Rapids.

Wells came close, though, inside an auto parts store after a break-in.

"There was three or four of us in there when a Molotov cocktail came through the window, and we had to jump to get away from the flames, and that building was destroyed," he said. "It just burned to the ground."

Jim Wells
Jim Wells.

Wells retired after 31 years with cop stories he tells through surgical scars on his knees.

"This was a burglar that got away," he said, pointing to one knee.

"This is a little car thief, and he didn't get away," he added, pointing to the scar on the other knee.

HEZEKIAH PULPHUS: ARRESTED IN RIOT

Hezekiah Pulphus worked at a gypsum mine back then, and like most Grand Rapids' blacks, he lived on the southeast side.

"We all had landlords, slum landlords," he said. "Everybody had rats in there — big rats, too. It was just a regular slum."

He recalled getting a ride from work and getting dropped off in the middle of the riot.

"Everybody that I was with, you know, drinking, I got to drinking with them," he said, "but I know some was throwing bricks, Molotov cocktails, you know, right there on Sheldon (Avenue).

"I didn't know nobody there who was even leading the riot. Usually, when you have a riot, you're out leading it."

Hezekias Pulphus
Hezekias Pulphus speaks with Target 8 investigator Ken Kolker.

He said he didn't know why they were marching:

"I was a follower and I was marching along with them because I saw what was going on; that's why I walked."

What he saw, he said, was a friend who had been shot by a cop.

"He had pellets they had to pick out of him," he said.

And another rioter, he said, was struck with a police bayonet.

"They juked him with a bayonet in his buttocks," he recalled.

"That was the enemy, the police and the firemen, all of them was the enemy," he said. "To me, that's the way I saw it in my mind."

Rioters made firebombs.

"I saw how they make them and I threw a few myself," Pulphus said. "But they only just hit the street and fell."

"All it was was gas with a wick in it, piece of cloth they're taking off their shirts, tearing them, sticking down there" into wine bottles, he said.

Police answered with tear gas.

"It wasn't just smoke, it was tear gas. That's what I remember the most," he said. "They was shooting tear gas canisters. I got to choke. I know the feeling of it, and most of the people around me. They shot the tear gas right up on us."

The march moved north toward white-owned stores downtown, he said.

"All I know, if you get downtown, you could hurt their pocket," Pulphus explained. "The big stores, Herpolshiemer's, Steketee's, all the stores they had back then that moved out."

But riot police cut them off:

"Anybody try to get across Buckley (Street) there, they was stopping, putting them in squad cars."

Pulphus spent 45 days in jail for disorderly conduct, lost his job but later got it back, and now works maintenance at an apartment complex.

"This incident is gone, and most of those people I'm looking at is dead," he said as he flipped through some of the black and white photographs.

HARRY BOLDEN, RETIRED GRPD: HIDING FROM BULLETS

Harry Bolden was one of the few black cops in Grand Rapids. He grew up on the Southeast side.

Rioters were not impressed.

They fired shots in his direction in the dark, called him "Uncle Tom."

"I remember laying prone at a curb once, just trying to figure out where the gunfire was coming from," Bolden said. "Kind of hoping the curb would protect me. They're just firing rounds just to fire rounds, you know. That was a little scary, made me kind of second-guess my career choice.

"There was always mistrust of the police, of course, with the minority community," he said. "Even back then."

Harry Bolden
Harry Bolden.

He already was part of what the city called "Eye to Eye" — cops meeting with blacks and black leaders, what they call sensitivity training today. But even he didn't see the violence coming.

"I grew up in that area, and I just never realized that it was a problem, always had a roof, and meals and went to school," he said. "I thought I had a normal childhood, even though I grew up in that area.

"I don't think they put much thought into that," Bolden said of the rioters. "Just something they could go out and raise a little cane, and it snowballed and it got started."

The riot overwhelmed Grand Rapids police.

"It felt kind of powerless at the time until the state police eventually came over to help us," Bolden said. "They quelled the situation but they did it kind of, I would say, not by the books so much, but they took care of the situation."

The same state troopers had just finished helping control the deadly Detroit riot.

In Grand Rapids, police had ordered everyone in the riot zone to turn off porch lights. If they refused, Bolden said, state police had an answer.

"Just say drive by and shoot out somebody's porch light because they had a porch light on," he said. "No reports, just take care of the situation. You're going to turn it off, or they're going to shoot it out."

Nearly 20 years later, Bolden was named Officer of the Year. He's now retired.

He was surprised to learn poverty is worse now among Grand Rapids' blacks than at the time of the riot.

"It's easy to blame somebody else, but perhaps you've got to just pick yourself up and go make something happen positive instead of negative," he said.

FRED BROWN, HAROLD MORRIS: SHOT BY STATE POLICE

Fred Brown, Harold Morris and two friends had put themselves in the middle of the riot, on Jefferson Avenue SE, but they were not rioters. They were trying to calm down the disturbance with permission from Grand Rapids police.

Until, they said, a state trooper opened fire on them with a shotgun.

"I had been hit six times, in my face, my hand, my arm, my side," Brown said.

By buckshot.

Morris got hit in the back.

Their injuries were later printed in The Grand Rapids Press.

"That was a dark night," Brown said. "It was trying times, attitudes were way up, tear gas was everywhere, gunshots were going off behind houses, in the street, it sounded more like a war zone than anything else."

Fred Brown
Fred Brown.

Brown was 22, four years out of Ottawa Hills High School, a track star and an all-state basketball player. He was also part of Operation Task Force, a group of young, mostly black athletes, well-known in the black community, hired by the city earlier that summer to keep inner-city kids out of trouble.

"It was an extremely hot summer," Brown recalled.

Morris was 30, fresh out of the U.S. Navy, and an accomplished athlete himself, having played baseball and basketball. He said he drove down to the riot to get answers.

"They didn't know why they were rioting, and then they were rioting in the black neighborhood," Morris said. "You're tearing up what you already own. It didn't make sense to me."

Brown said they watched from Morris's convertible as rioters looted a store on Jefferson.

"A boy about 16 or 17 years old ran out of the store with a carton of cigarettes," he remembered. "This officer, this was a state police officer, not a Grand Rapids officer, he hit that boy in the head so hard with the butt of his rifle, I thought he killed him. I thought he broke his neck."

Then, from the back seat of the convertible, as he was about to jump out to help, Brown turned his head.

"As I stood up to get out, and I reached down to do something and as I reached down, I looked back and there was a shotgun pointed at me, and I'm like, 'Whoa,'" Brown said. "Next thing I know I was flying through the air and landed on Harold. I said, 'Harold, I'm shot.' Harold said, 'Me too.'

"It was a state police officer, and I could tell the difference because the uniform was so much darker than Grand Rapids," he continued. "It was like he was out there like in Dodge City just taking target practice on people."

Angry blacks later complained about state police troopers — that they shot out porch lights and used racial slurs, about a trooper who had hit a task force member in the head with the butt of a rifle, according to a report in The Grand Rapids Press.

"I thought the Grand Rapids Police Department did a yeoman's job," Brown said. "There was a problem there and they didn't add to it."

After Morris was shot, he wanted to find a gun and shoot cops.

"But by the grace of God," Morris said, tearing up.

Morris is 80 now, worked at a GM plant for a time, then worked maintenance.

Harold Morris
Harold Morris.

He's not surprised that poverty is worse now for blacks.

"All the factories left town," he said.

Brown also was angry after the shooting.

"That time is emotional for me because I used to say, 'Why, what did I [do]? Why?' To shoot someone who was doing nothing while things were going on over here, gunshots were going on over here, and then you look right in front of you and try to kill four people," he said. "The shooting, it was prominent for a moment, but it had to take a back seat to moving forward."

He's not surprised that blacks in Grand Rapids are now 2.5 times more likely to live in poverty than whites — the biggest gap among large cities in the state.

"There's a shield out there that within the black community, you feel it, it's out there, it's invisible, it's cloaked," Morris said.

But, he said, the riot did make a difference, leading to meetings between black leaders and the city.

"The greatest thing that could happen is that change started a little bit after that," he said. "We have learned from it, but sometimes I think people forget the subject matter, forget the lesson."

Brown is 72 now, retired from Meijer, living in suburban Wyoming, and a 2017 Giants Award winner honoring African-Americans for public service.

But his real legacy is Mr. B's Basketball, Reading and Math Camp at Alger Middle School. Brown started it 17 years ago, focusing on inner-city kids, just like when he was on that task force a half-century ago. This year, it's working with more than 120 kids in class, on the basketball court, off the streets.

Recently at Mr. B's, Brown sat across a table from a young student.

"What's better, your reading or your jump shot? What do you do best? what's better?" Brown asked the boy.

"Reading," the student answered

"Good answer," Brown said. "What's better, your addition and subtraction or your crossover?"

"Addition and subtraction," the student responded.

"My man. You got the right answers," Brown told him.

DICK BESSER, FORMER GRPD: SHIELDED FROM GUNFIRE

Months after the riot, a city report, "Anatomy of a Riot," suggested a possible cause: a police crackdown on prostitution. But that's not how former Grand Rapids Officer Dick Besser remembers it.

Dick Besser
Dick Besser.

He was 23, worked the South Division beat and focused on prostitution.

"A couple of officers pulled over some young men in a stolen car, just off of Division Avenue," he recalled.

Reports at the time said police used excessive force during the arrest.

"That drew a crowd, and it took off after that," Besser said.

That same city report also said the Detroit riot could have ignited what happened here, though the report noted it likely would have happened eventually either way.

"Why did they do those things?" Besser said. "I don't know. I think just the atmosphere in the country at that time made places ripe for that sort of thing."

"America was on fire all over the place," he added.

Besser also was part of Eye-to-Eye, those meetings between cops and black leaders.

"The things they're calling for now, we were doing that, we did that back in '66 and '67," he said. "We wanted the community to understand a little bit about what we're up against, and we learned a few things on the other side of the coin, too."

During the riot, Besser worked for the late, legendary GRPD Capt. Francis Pierce.

"Francis was, uh, he was something else," Besser said.

Pierce won a Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery during a battle at Iwo Jima in World War II. Twenty-two years later, he was in the middle of another battle, leading the city's riot team armed with a machine gun.

"He got on the radio and had the dispatcher call the city engineer and to tell him to turn the street lights out and darken the area," Besser said.

Silhouetted cops were easy targets.

"The city engineer refused to turn the street lights out, so Francis said, 'I guess I'll put them out,'" Besser recalled. "I happened to be standing there and he did shoot out a couple of street lights, then the city engineer shut the lights down."

In the riot zone, police enforced a 9 p.m. curfew and outlawed the sale of gasoline and booze.

Police formed four-car caravans, each with four officers, including state troopers.

"We had a four-car caravan going down a couple blocks maybe east of Jefferson and somebody started shooting at us with a rifle," Besser said. "Turned out it was a guy up on the third floor of a house. I was driving the car, the lead car. When I got out, I crouched behind the car, tried to get behind the wheel because automobiles don't stop bullets. When I got around the corner of the car, the headlight got shot out. Pretty close."

Later, another sniper took aim.

"We were outside the car, and I was hanging onto the steering wheel with one hand and running the gas with the other hand, dragging us down the road so we were getting away from that," he said.

Besser quit the force two years later. He's 73 now and retired.

"What have we learned? I wonder about that sometimes because sometimes people just don't pay much attention to the past," he said. "It's interesting how much things change but yet stay the same."

DENNIS KISSINGER: A LIFELONG LESSON

July 25, 1967, was a top-down kind of day.

Dennis Kissinger, who is white, was 14 and sitting in the front seat of his brother's Chevy convertible. Two white friends rode along. Soon, they were surrounded, in the middle of a riot, bricks flying. Then the flash of a knife.

They had headed downtown to chase sirens and flashing lights they could see from their home on the southwest side. They hadn't heard about the riot that had started the night before.

"I just remember us going down Division to Fulton, coming up Fulton, turning, coming this way heading back home, and that's when it happened," he said.

On Jefferson, in the middle of it.

"There was a milk truck in front us, it stopped, then all of a sudden the windows in it just exploded," Kissinger remembered.

Suddenly, young rioters surrounded their stopped car.

"It looked like a mob coming at you," he said — an angry mob.

"I know they were yelling at my brother," he said. "They were yelling for us to get out of the car. I wasn't going anywhere."

His brother and friends got out, but he stayed inside:

"I took a brick in the head at that point," he recalled.

Covered in blood from the gash in his head, he grabbed a handle inside the car.

"Well, they tried pulling me out, I wasn't going to let go," he said. "Well, then they took a knife and they stabbed me here in the hand, right between my thumb and you can see I still got the scar through there. I still have a knot on my head, too."

Later, it would take about 10 stitches to close wounds to his head and hand.

Rioters finally yanked him out of the car.

"I do remember once I got taken and thrown out, almost getting run over, my legs, because I had fallen out and my legs were (in the road), so I quick moved my legs so they didn't get run over," he said.

The rioters stole the convertible and crashed it into a liquor store a few blocks away — an assault and theft described in The Grand Rapids Press.

Kissinger, his shirt drenched in blood from his head, went for a pay phone.

"A black lady on the porch hollered for me," he recalled. "She came out with a rag for me to put on my head, to stop the bleeding."

But, more important, he said, were her words.

"She says, 'I'm sorry that this happened to you. Don't judge all of us by what these kids are doing,'" he said. "I remember that distinctly, yes. She was very sorry."

Within three months, Kissinger's parents moved their family out of Grand Rapids to Alto — the definition of white flight.

Since the riot, Grand Rapids' white population has dropped by more than a third, by nearly 64,000.

"I just remember my dad saying, 'We're not putting up with this,' so we left," Kissinger said.

At Lowell High School, two of Kissinger's best friends were black. One of them stood up at his wedding.

Kissinger hadn't returned to Jefferson Avenue since the riot.

Dennis Kissinger
Dennis Kissinger returns to Jefferson Avenue.

"Never had a reason to come down," he said recently while meeting a reporter at the scene of the riot. "Everything was desolate. It was homes, windows boarded up, broken out windows, yards not taken care of that well. Fifty years later, and it doesn't even look familiar to me."

Kissinger, now 64, is certain the black woman who helped him is gone. She was old back then. He never did get her name, but will never forget what she told him, the only words he remembers from that day: "Don't judge all of us."

"It made an impact, obviously, because I remember to this day exactly what she said," he said. "She helped me. She didn't have to."

'Riot Race Reconciliation'

On Tuesday, the Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives will air a documentary about the disturbances, titled “Riot Race Reconciliation.”

The film showing starts at 6 p.m. at Grand Valley State University’s Loosemore Auditorium, located at 401 W. Fulton St. A panel discussion will follow.

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