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In July 1967, five days of chaos erupted in Detroit. Citizens, police, and troops clashed in a violent conflict that left 43 people dead, thousands of buildings destroyed, and a lingering scar on the once-vibrant city. It was a pivotal moment for Detroit, and for the country.Today, many believe Detroit is having a renaissance. And there have been plenty of visible improvements in recent years.But for many Detroiters, little has changed for the better in the past half-century. Poverty is even more entrenched. There are few good jobs and even fewer good schools. Blight and foreclosure have erased entire neighborhoods.If we want to understand today’s Detroit, we have to consider the city’s turbulent past. That’s why Michigan Radio is revisiting the events of that hot summer in 1967.From July 17-28, Stateside and Morning Edition will hear from people who were there; explore the issues that led to the deadliest riot of the 1960s; and examine why it still resonates in the city today.

As "Detroit" movie opens nationwide, a teacher remembers student killed at Algiers Motel

Aubrey Pollard about a year before his death.
Courtesy Thelma Pollard Gardner
via Bridge Magazine
Aubrey Pollard about a year before his death.

This Friday, the movie simply titled “Detroit” debuts nationwide.

It depicts the most notorious single incident of the 1967 Detroit rebellion — the brutal police killings of three black teens at the Algiers Motel.

The still-contested events of that night at the Algiers Motel have already been written about extensively. A surviving witness called it“a night of horror and murder” worse than anything he had experienced as a soldier in Vietnam.

But after multiple trials, none of the officers involved were ever convicted of any crime.

One of the young men killed that night was 19-year-old Aubrey Pollard.

Carole Hall was one of Pollard’s teachers in junior high school. She recalls his death as “one of the most painful times in my life” and something that’s impacted her ever since.

“Aubrey was in a special class everyone thought was incapable of learning,” Hall said. “And that wasn’t unusual in those times because it was just kind of assumed that if you were a black student, you had difficulty learning. That was an assumption.”

But Hall, a new teacher, says she quickly realized a lot of the kids in her class were actually quite bright. And among them, Pollard stood out.

At one point, Hall assigned a term paper on significant figures in black history. The students had to give presentations on the person they had chosen. Pollard had Frederick Douglass.

Hall recalls that “Aubrey came up, maybe the third or fourth student to do his presentation” and blew her and the class away with his presentation.

“No notecards,” Hall said. “But it was so brilliantly done. He clearly understood everything that was happening. He clearly felt very deeply about what he had just learned.”

But despite his intelligence, Hall says, Pollard didn’t seem cut out for school. As they approached the ninth grade, she recalls that he “began to shift away from the class.”

“He was always very mature for his age,” Hall said. “But I noted that not his demeanor per se changed, but his clothing changed. His hair changed. And I realized that Aubrey loved the girls. And the girls were there. He had that charm.”

"He clearly understood everything that was happening. He clearly felt very deeply about what he had just learned."

Not too long afterward, Hall says Pollard came to tell her he was leaving school for good.

“And I knew from the way he talked there was no talking him out of it,” she said.

Hall says it was clear that Aubrey had found something outside of school that was more fulfilling to him than being in the classroom. 

“If I had not known what he had already done, I might have said that maybe he was having some difficulty learning. Definitely wasn’t it...He wanted to be in the world," she said. 

Several years passed. In 1967, Detroit exploded in the most violent uprising of the 1960s. Hall lived near the epicenter of the riots, along 12th Street. She was horrified.

“I looked on my front porch, and I looked up, and I saw smoke and flames,” Hall said. “And I thought, ‘Oh my God, what is happening here?’

“And this was critical for me because I had already lived through a riot when I was a little girl in Detroit, on the east side off of Hastings Street. It frightened me, so I grabbed the children, jumped in the car, and drove to Chicago.”

When she returned to Detroit, Hall read news accounts of what had happened and came across a list of the dead.

“And one of the first names I saw was Aubrey’s,” Hall said. “That he had been killed in a hotel.”

Hall tried to piece together what had happened from conversations with her colleagues. There was some conflicting information, but “the word was that he was not killed resisting anything,” she said. “He was simply killed because there were white women, and other women, and there was a rage. And that it was done by a white police officer.”

Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Members of the "Detroit" movie case at an event in Detroit last month.

Hall says she knew right away that Pollard’s death was not going to resolved through the justice system, that “they were not going to find anybody guilty.” But she also knew she “had to act.”

Working with then-Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh’s office, several colleagues, and a handful of volunteers, Hall started working to make sure that nearly all graduating Detroit high school seniors the following year had the opportunity to apply for a job, apply to college, and get into job training “all for free.”

Hall says she still thinks “too often of Aubrey, and that I have not done enough.” But she also retains a sense of optimism about Detroit and the future. She does not want Aubrey's death to be in vain. 

“I think all of us have at some point a nexus of some type that motivates us to do something,” Hall said. “It’s not always in our face, it’s not always in our ear, and we’re not always thinking about it, but it has been the catalyst for something major that has happened in our lives. And Aubrey has been that for me.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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