Gloria Nixon-John


Gloria Nixon-John


Gloria Nixon-John was 21 years old in July 1967 and remembers the feelings in the city as well as the lasting effects.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI






Written Story


I was a part of a USO unit stationed at a school in Detroit to, of all things, entertain the troops.
That I had mixed feeling about doing so goes without saying. Here is a short essay I wrote about the experience.

Waiting in the Wings
by Gloria Nixon-John

I stood in the wings, just enough light filtering in from the stage to be able to write on the back of the piece of paper that was handed to the soldiers with their “bivouac orders.” Just twenty-one at the time, I knew I was witnessing something unusual if not historical, and I was uncomfortable with my role, as well as the role of the national guardsmen, and U.S. army soldiers in the audience. Still, I knew I had to write something down; I had to record the images and feelings first hand. This was my city, Detroit. I took pencil in hand and wrote the lyrics to a song.
The night before a local reporter had looked directly into the camera and said, “Detroit is burning.” In the neighborhood, the talk was all “them” and “us” and it didn’t take much life experience to know how those pronouns were being thrown around or to whom they referred. In the days leading up to being summoned to entertain the troops for the Justice unit of the USO, I had seen a swat team cruising down the main thoroughfare in my neighborhood. I knew things were eschew, badly eschew when I saw my brother’s friend lean from his patrol car and shout racial slurs at a black woman carrying groceries home from the corner store.
I was raised to respect differences, my father in particular would never stand for anyone using that language, an immigrant to America from Italy he suffered prejudice at the hands of the KKK when he was working in the mines of West Virginia, where housing was denied him because of his Italian accent and his olive complexion. So, when I heard racial slurs, I knew that my father could have been the target in a different time and place. I knew not to join the swell of that kind of blind anger that was gripping the city I loved. Yet here I was asked to entertain the troops that occupied my city. I had never seen large guns up close before. I had never seen men in fatigues with pith helmets, that was for T.V. Yet, here they were…troops…in my beloved city, Detroit. And, I knew those guns were loaded, the uniforms more than costume. I knew it was bad.
I will let the historians tell you the specifics of how and why the riot of 1967 started. At the time I was told that police confronted “an unruly crowd” at an afterhours club on 12th Street. Historians will tell you that there were riots in many U.S. cities at the time. They may also tell you that that kind of racial unrest is itself historical, that many of the conditions that caused those riots have been resolved. They may have told you that before the recent atrocities and unrest in Ferguson Missouri. Still, pundits may even try to tell you that what is happening there is a fluke, that an odd combination of circumstances came together and caused the eruption of violence. I use the word eruption because as I see it, it was going to happen as sure as the pressure builds…like the superheating of steam in magma …causing a volcano to blow. And, I believe that there are many such volcanoes ready to erupt in any American city you care to name. That it hasn’t happened sooner is what surprises me. I guess if you segregate people economically, racially, ethnically… you can lull that group into thinking that everything is ok because most others around them are living under the same conditions, under the same rules of conduct no matter how unpleasant or unfair. Think back in history and you will get it. But, there will always be someone to speak up, someone to act out, someone to say…hey wait a minute ...why does it have to be this way? Down in the dark of the volcano it only takes one more miniscule amount of pressure to get the lava flowing up and over. Sometimes it takes more to get a community moving up and over the edge. That it took the death of one then another, and another young man at the hands of police breaks my heart, and it should break yours. That the arguments, rationalizing the shootings are echoes of what I heard in Detroit in 1967, should cause the grief and frustration it causes me.
Back to that twenty-one year old girl standing in the wings, ready to go out to sing her songs for the troops brought in to quell the unrest in her city. She didn’t go out and sing, Crying Time, as she had planned. That was too corny, too insensitive, too self-indulgent. Perhaps she should have sung, We Can Work It Out. Instead, she wrote a different song. She wrote and sang a song she called, Human Caring. And, perhaps her lyrics were naive, even corny, but they were what needed to be sung and heard. “We need more than a gun my friends, we need a cause, a means, an end. If Angels lost could find their way, they’d say it’s human caring, respect, and human caring.” That was the chorus. I could just as easily sing it today.

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Gloria Nixon-John

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“Gloria Nixon-John,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed September 30, 2020,

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