Detroit race riot of 1943
The Detroit race riot broke out in Detroit, Michigan, in June 1943, and lasted for three days before thousands of Federal troops were called in to establish control. It occurred in a period of dramatic population increase associated with the military buildup as Detroit's auto industry was converted to the war effort; nearly 400,000 migrants, both African American and European American, came from the Southeastern United States from 1941 to 1943 and were competing for jobs and housing in an already crowded city, both between each other and with foreign immigrants.
The rioting began among youths at Belle Isle Park on June 20, 1943; it was exacerbated by false rumors of stereotypical attacks in both communities, and continued until June 22, after 6,000 federal troops were ordered in to restore peace. A total of 34 people were killed, 25 of them black and most at the hands of police or guardsmen; 433 were wounded, 75 percent of them black; and property valued at $2 million ($27.5 million in 2015 US dollars) was destroyed, most of it in the black area of Paradise Valley, the poorest neighborhood of the city. In this period, there were also racial riots in Los Angeles, which had a burgeoning military industry; Mobile, Alabama; and Beaumont, Texas.
At the time, reports of commissions made up of whites revealed their bias, attributing the riot to black hoodlums. The NAACP identified as causes longstanding problems in the city of housing and job discrimination, lack of minority representation in the police, and police brutality. A late 20th century analysis of the rioters showed that the white rioters were younger, often unemployed, but if working, they were in semi-skilled or skilled positions. They traveled long distances to join the first stage of the riot near the bridge, and later traveled in groups, carrying weapons, to attack the black neighborhood. The black rioters were more mature, longtime residents of Detroit (10 years or more), often married working men, who were defending their homes and neighborhood against police and white rioters; they sometimes looted and destroyed white-owned property there.
Events leading up to the riot
By 1920, Detroit had become the fourth-largest city in the United States, with a boom driven by expansion of the automobile industry. In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan had established a substantial presence in Detroit in its 20th-century revival, which was concentrated in midwestern cities rather than exclusively in the South. It was primarily anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish, in an era of high immigration from southern and eastern Europe, but it also supported white supremacy. It contributed to the city's reputation for racial antagonism, and there were violent incidents dating from 1915. The lesser-known offshoot, Black Legion, was also active in the Detroit area; 48 members were convicted of numerous murders and attempted murder in 1936 and 1937, ending its run. Both organizations stood for white supremacy. Detroit was unique among northern cities by the 1940s for its high percentage of Southern-born residents.
During World War II, the auto industry was converted to defense purposes; high wages were offered, attracting large numbers of people, but the city had little available housing, and competition among ethnic groups was fierce for jobs and housing. With Executive Order 8802, President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 25, 1941, had prohibited racial discrimination in the national defense industry. He called on all groups to support the war effort. The Executive Order was applied irregularly, and blacks were regularly excluded from numerous industrial jobs, especially more skilled and supervisory positions.
In 1941 at the beginning of the war, blacks numbered nearly 150,000 in Detroit, which had a total population of 1,623,452. During the struggle for democracy, blacks in Detroit continued to have to deal with numerous indignities. By summer 1943, after the United States had entered World War II, tensions between whites and blacks in Detroit were escalating; blacks resisted discrimination as well as oppression and violence by the city's police department. Detroit's population went over 2 million, having absorbed more than 400,000 whites and some 50,000 blacks in recent years, mostly from the American South. The African Americans were part of the second wave of the black Great Migration, joining 150,000 blacks already in the city, many of whom had come from the South in 1915 to 1930. They were restricted by informal segregation to the poor and overcrowded East Side of the city, a 60-block area known as Paradise Valley east of Woodward Avenue, which had old and substandard housing. The police force was overwhelmingly white.
White migrants came largely from agricultural areas and especially rural Appalachia, carrying southern prejudices. Rumors circulated among ethnic white groups to fear African Americans as competitors for housing and jobs. Blacks had continued to seek to escape the limited opportunities in the South, exacerbated by the Great Depression and second-class social status under Jim Crow. After arriving in Detroit, the new migrants found that bigotry existed there, too, and that they had to compete for low-level jobs with numerous European immigrants, in addition to rural southern whites. They were excluded from all of the limited public housing except the Brewster Housing Projects. They were exploited by landlords and forced to pay rents that were two to three times higher than for families in the more spacious white districts; and, like other poor migrants, they were generally limited to the oldest, substandard housing.
Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt had already been concerned about providing better housing for defense workers throughout the country, as much of the older housing in cities was substandard. On June 4, 1941, the Detroit Housing Commission approved two sites for defense worker housing projects - one for whites in northeast Detroit, an ethnic Polish area, and one for blacks. Originally the commission selected a site for the black residential project in a predominantly black area, but the U.S. government chose a site at Nevada and Fenelon streets, a predominantly Polish white neighborhood.
The housing development intended for blacks was named Sojourner Truth, in honor of the prominent black Civil War abolitionist and women's rights advocate. Local whites fiercely opposed allowing blacks to move in next to the ethnic Polish, all-white neighborhood. On January 20, 1942, the federal housing office responded to the Detroit Housing Commission's concerns, saying that the Sojourner Truth housing project would be used for whites and another would be selected for blacks. But when a suitable site for blacks could not be found, Washington D.C. housing authorities agreed to allow blacks into the housing project, beginning February 28, 1942.
On February 27, 1942, some 150 local ethnic Polish whites vowed to keep out any black tenants in the new project, who were scheduled to move in. In a nearby field, a cross was burning, alluding to the KKK sign. By the following morning, the crowd of whites – many armed – had grown to 1,200. Blacks who had already signed leases and paid rent tried to pass through the whites' picket line, leading to a clash between white and black groups. Despite the mounting opposition from white groups, six black families were allowed to move into the project at the end of April.
To prevent violence, Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries ordered the Detroit Police Department and state troops to keep the peace during this period. More than 1,100 city and state police officers and 1,600 Michigan National Guard troops (who were largely white) were mobilized and sent to the area around Nevada and Fenelon streets to guard six African-American families who moved into the Sojourner Truth Homes. Eventually, 168 black families moved into the homes. There were 220 arrests and 40 people injured in the conflict; ill feelings were raised on both sides of the racial divide.
Roosevelt's administration had prohibited racial segregation among federal defense contractors in an effort to improve opportunities for all citizens during the war effort. In June 1943, Packard Motor Car Company finally promoted three blacks to work next to whites in the assembly lines. In response, 25,000 whites walked off the job in a "hate" or wildcat strike at Packard, effectively slowing down the critical war production. Although whites had long worked with blacks in the same plant, many wanted control of certain jobs, and did not want to work right next to blacks. There was a physical confrontation at Edgewood Park. In this period, riots also broke out in Los Angeles, Mobile, Alabama and Beaumont, Texas, mostly at defense shipyard facilities.
Altercations between youths started on June 20, 1943, on a warm Sunday evening on Belle Isle, a recreation area on an island in the Detroit River off Detroit's mainland. In what is considered a communal disorder, youths fought intermittently through the afternoon. The brawl eventually grew into a confrontation between groups of whites and blacks on the long Belle Isle Bridge, crowded with pedestrians returning to the city, and it spread into the city. Sailors joined fights against blacks. The riot escalated in the city after a false rumor spread that a mob of whites had thrown an African-American mother and her baby into the Detroit River. Blacks looted and destroyed white property but in the end, much more black property was destroyed.
Historian Marilynn S. Johnson argues that this rumor reflected black male fears about historical white violence against black women and children. An equally false rumor that blacks had raped and murdered a white woman on the Belle Isle Bridge swept through white neighborhoods, expressing another racial stereotype. Angry mobs of whites spilled onto Woodward Avenue near the Roxy Theater around 4 a.m., beating blacks as they were getting off street cars on their way to work. Stores were looted and buildings were burned in the riot, most of them in the black neighborhood of Paradise Valley, one of the oldest and poorest neighborhoods in Detroit.
The clashes soon escalated to the point where mobs of whites and blacks were “assaulting one another, beating innocent motorists, pedestrians and streetcar passengers, burning cars, destroying storefronts and looting businesses." Both sides were said to have encouraged others to join in the riots with false claims that one of "their own" was attacked unjustly. Blacks were outnumbered by a large margin, and suffered more deaths, personal injuries and property damage.
The riots lasted three days and ended after Mayor Jeffries and Governor Harry Kelly asked President Roosevelt to intervene. He ordered in federal troops: a total of 6,000 troops restored peace and occupied the streets of Detroit. Over the course of three days of rioting, 34 people had been killed: 25 were African Americans, and 17 of these were killed by the police (their forces were predominantly white and dominated by descendants of immigrants). Thirteen murders remain unsolved. Of the approximately 600 persons injured, more than 75 percent were black people; of the roughly 1,800 people arrested over the course of the three-day riots, 85 percent were black people.
After the riot, leaders on both sides had explanations for the violence, effectively blaming the other side. White city leaders, including the mayor, blamed young black hoodlums and persisted in framing the events as being caused by outsiders, people who were unemployed and marginal. Mayor Jeffries said, "Negro hoodlums started it, but the conduct of the police department, by and large, was magnificent." The Wayne County prosecutor believed that leaders of the NAACP were to blame as instigators of the riots. Governor Kelly called together a Fact Finding Commission to investigate and report on the causes of the riot. Its mostly white members blamed black youths, "unattached, uprooted, and unskilled misfits within an otherwise law-abiding black community," and regarded the events as an unfortunate incident. They never interviewed any of the rioters but based their conclusions on police reports, which were limited.
Other officials drew similar conclusions, despite discovering facts that disproved their thesis. Dr. Lowell S. Selling of the Recorder's Court Psychiatric Clinic conducted interviews with 100 offenders, finding them to be "employed, well-paid, longstanding (of at least 10 years) residents of the city", with some education and a history of being law abiding. He attributed their violence to their Southern heritage. This view was repeated in a separate study by Elmer R. Akers and Vernon Fox, sociologist and psychologist, respectively, at the State Prison of Southern Michigan. Although most of the men they studied had jobs and had been in Detroit an average of more than 10 years, Akers and Fox characterized them as unskilled, unsettled, and stressed their Southern heritage as predisposing them to violence.
Detroit's black leaders identified numerous other causes, including persistent racial discrimination in jobs and housing, the lack of blacks among police officers and frequent police brutality against blacks, and the daily animosity directed at their people by much of Detroit's white population.
A late 20th-century analysis of the facts collected on the arrested rioters has drawn markedly different conclusions, noting that whites were younger, generally unemployed, and had clearly traveled long distances from their homes to the black neighborhood to attack people there. Even in the early stage of the riots near Belle Isle Bridge, white youths traveled in groups to the riot area and carried weapons.
Later in the second stage, whites continued to act in groups and were prepared for action, carrying weapons and traveling miles to attack the black ghetto along its western side at Woodward Avenue. Blacks arrested were older, often married and working men, who had lived in the city for 10 years or more. They fought closer to home, mainly acting independently to defend their homes, persons or neighborhood, and sometimes looting or destroying mostly white-owned property there in frustration. Where felonies occurred, whites were more often arrested for use of weapons and blacks for looting or failing to observe the curfew imposed. Whites were more often arrested for misdemeanors. In broad terms, both sides acted to improve their positions; the whites fought out of fear, the blacks fought out of hope for better conditions.
Following the violence, Japanese propaganda officials incorporated the event into its materials that encouraged black soldiers not to fight for the United States. They distributed a flyer titled "Fight Between Two Races". The Axis Powers publicized the riot as a sign of Western decline.
Walter White, head of the NAACP, noted that there was no rioting at the Packard and Hudson plants, where leaders of the UAW and CIO had been incorporating blacks as part of the rank and file, part of the changes that had begun to open opportunities for blacks.
According to The Detroit News:
Future Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, then with the NAACP, assailed the city's handling of the riot. He charged that police unfairly targeted blacks while turning their backs on white atrocities. He said 85 percent of those arrested were black while whites overturned and burned cars in front of the Roxy Theater with impunity as police watched. "This weak-kneed policy of the police commissioner coupled with the anti-Negro attitude of many members of the force helped to make a riot inevitable."
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