“Detroit is packed with southern white hillbillies, who had never in their lives seen Negroes on a quasi-equal level . . . "
Amen, brother. Amen.
Metro Times - The summer of ’43
Detroit’s race riot was not the nation’s sole urban conflict of 1943, but it was the largest and last. It certainly involved white actors and hoodlums, and would leave a legacy of fear and distrust that the white political establishment would cultivate and exploit to stay in power.
The 1943 of the riot isn’t the one seen in popular books like Tom Brokaw’s bestseller, The Greatest Generation. These “good old days” were forgettable — white mobs rampaging up and down Woodward Avenue, beating and stabbing black Detroiters.
The 1943 uprising also helps define the early civil rights movement. It saw African-Americans effectively defending their neighborhoods against white mobs and courageous folk of both races taking risks to stem the bloodshed. In the aftermath, the UAW strengthened its ties to the civil rights movement.
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“The one in ’43 was a real riot, and that’s frightening,” says writer Marvin Arnett. “Let me take you to the ’67 riot, OK — which always kind of irks me when they say ‘riot,’ because it wasn’t a riot, it was economic upheaval. And I’ll tell you what happened [in ’67]. I stood on my porch, I was an adult, and watched people looting Robinson’s Furniture Store down on Grand River, and they were taking out sofas and chairs, and there would be a black man on one end of that sofa and a white man on the other end. That doesn’t seem like a race riot to me. It was more economic, it was more the ‘have-nots’ giving the ‘haves’ some trouble.”
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The new Detroiters, both white and black, were predominantly from the South; hundreds of thousands moved north during the three years preceding the riot. The demand for wartime labor meant an easing of employment discrimination, and nearly 50,000 black immigrants arrived in the 15 months prior to June 1943. Almost 3 million people crowded in and around the nation’s fourth-largest city.
The generation of workers that had emerged from the Great Depression was tormented by insecurities; they worried about who would lose jobs when the war orders ceased. This aggravated white racism and made Detroit a fertile field for demagogues.
Downing detected racism: “It is known that the Ku Klux Klan has been enjoying a notorious renaissance here in this city. … ‘Keep them in their place.’ ‘They know how to handle them down South.’ Everywhere one goes — on trains, on buses, on streetcars — one hears these ominous words. … But they do not verbalize — these words — a race hatred. They are visceral rationalizations of economic insecurity.”
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Or, in the blunt but arousing words of then-famous commentator John Gunther: “Detroit is packed with southern white hillbillies, who had never in their lives seen Negroes on a quasi-equal level; many of its policemen were southern; it has an angry tradition of labor violence; it is full of company thugs, ex-Bundists, and Ku-Kluxers; and it houses the automobile business, with rewards high and accustomed to being fought for.” (Bundists were pro-Nazi German-American groups of the ’30s.)
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In the months leading up to the ’43 riot, the upgrading of black workers led to several wildcat strikes and walkouts (the United Auto Workers’ commitment to workplace equality notwithstanding). The worst came in early June, when three black workers were installed on the final assembly line at the Packard Motor Car Co. plant, prompting 20,000 whites to walk off the job.
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