Former prosecutor looks back on Detroit, Flint riots 50 years la - WNEM TV 5

Former prosecutor looks back on Detroit, Flint riots 50 years later

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(Source: WNEM) (Source: WNEM)

President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed the nation on July 24, 1967 after riots broke out in the city of Detroit.

A police raid on a popular after-hours nightclub sparked five days of the deadliest and most destructive riots in U.S. history.

The riots resulted in 43 deaths, thousands of arrests and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed.

"Flint was a microcosm of Detroit," said Robert Leonard, former Genesee County prosecutor.

The same issues that boiled over 50 years ago in Detroit were also bubbling in Flint. Leonard was a prosecutor during that time.

"Segregated community, a almost totally white police department. There was only one black on a police department of 250 officers. One black in a city that was about 30 percent minority," Leonard said.

Segregated housing, education, healthcare systems and a police department accused of isolating minorities.

"All the problems that created the problems that caused the riots in Detroit was smoldering here in Flint, Michigan too," Leonard said.

The issues in Flint never got out of hand like Detroit. Leonard played an instrumental role in keeping the peace.

"It was Monday night. We had had some isolated fires, burnings. But there was a lot of people on the streets," Leonard said.

Police arrested more than 100 people, mostly minorities.

A group of pastors, plant managers and union heads called Leonard to a meeting, urging him to use his prosecutorial power to let the people out of jail.

The black ministers specifically had an unique plea.

"They said we'll go out and talk to these young people if you let them out. And we will go out with them and calm the community," Leonard said.

Leonard did his homework and discovered the police had no evidence linking any of the arrests to arson. He said the people were arrested for simply gathering nearby. So Leonard let them out of jail, which was considered risky at the time.

However, it paid off. With the help of those ministers and the UAW, the community was able to bring a swift end to the unrest.

"As it turns out, they probably had more influence on keeping the city calm, those young people," Leonard said.

Leonard said there are theories that suggest the building fires in Flint could have been caused by landlords for insurance purposes, but those have never been proven.

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