In 1943, at the height of World War II, there were 243 incidences of racial violence in 47 cities including the 1943 race riots that occurred in Detroit. The Axis Powers had a field day with propaganda over America’s inability to manage its racial issues.
Prior to the 1943 Detroit Race Riot and after, recommendations came from city leaders to help fix racial tensions. They focused on easing housing, promoting fair labor practice, and reducing racism in institutions such as the police department and the courts. Yet, these recommendations went largely ignored. Why?
Many work stoppages were occurring throughout the city of Detroit in the summer of 1943 due to race. Two weeks before the riot, 25,000 men from the Packard plant struck, walking out on strike for three days because three black men had been promoted where they would now work alongside white men.
Packard built engines for PT boats. Now mind you, in 1943, we were in the height of the war. In fact, at this exact time the Germans were pulling their U-boats out of the Atlantic because of the successes of PT boats in sinking German subs. In May of 1943, we sank 43 subs against their sinking 34 of our ships in the Atlantic.
Washington obviously knew the importance to the war of reducing these racial tensions across America. By President Roosevelt’s executive order 8802, The Fair Employment Practices Committee had been established to correct unfair hiring but its independence had been scrapped, being placed under the War Manpower Committee and it become inactive when the military pulled its budget. Blacks in Detroit lost hope as the FEPC stalled.
From the beginnings of Detroit until the riot, Blacks had been largely confined to Black Bottom and Paradise Valley sections of town. From 1916, when 8,000 lived there until the three months before the 1943 riot when an additional 50,000 arrived to raise the black population to over 200,000, living conditions worsened by the year, making these communities highly congested slums.
Not that housing was much better for the poor southern whites and Poles pouring into the city also competing with the blacks for the lowest paying jobs. Detroit was wholly unprepared for the surge. Overcrowding, poor sanitation increased the disease rate and taxed the hospitals in town as 300,000 white workers from the Deep South came to the city in months before the riot. These disaffected groups attacked black homes with rocks and bombs on numerous occasions leading up to the riot without interference or arrests from the police.
Businesses of Detroit were reluctant to hire Blacks for many reasons, not the least of which were the work stoppages that occurred throughout the city when blacks were hired or promoted above the lowest positions. Yet to meet deadlines imposed by the war committees, they had to fill quotas.
The City’s racism that had permeated through institutions such as the police and the courts were clearly demonstrated by the effects of the riots. 29 of the 35 deaths were of blacks and 17 of those were by police, several from shots to the backs of fleeing looters. 1,000 faces of whites engaged in acts of violence against blacks were collected from the riot yet none were charged.
One of the violence statistics that would continue forth to the present was that 75% of the rioters were young men between the ages of 17 and 25. Black leaders at the time attributed this age issue to the fact that the more stable of the age group were already committed to the war effort and serving their time in the military.
The riot caused a million man-hours to be lost in the war effort. Pressure from Washington was felt to fix a critical problem that was tantamount to aiding the enemy. Several groups including the UAW-CIO, a supporter of racial equality in the workplace, proposed solutions including:
*Creation of a special grand jury to indict those responsible for the riots
*Provision of adequate government housing for the war effort
*Insistence of fair labor practice recognizing the skills of blacks
*A full investigation of the conduct of the police department during the riots
*Hiring of 300 black police officers
*Hiring of more blacks in the Michigan State Militia
*Maintenance of some federal troops while racial tensions subside
*Compensation to those that lost their homes in the riots by the city
*Provision of recreational facilities for young people
*Integration of schools with black teachers
*Creation by the Mayor of a bi-racial committee to make further recommendations
*Reinstatement of the Fair Employment Practice Committee
Yet, recommendations of how to correct racial tensions that were given prior to and after the riot were largely ignored. What was the reasoning for ignoring such proposals?
In August 2005 when a largely African American population was stranded for days without support in New Orleans, rioting and looting broke out within the city. Onlookers thought at first that blacks were justified in that people needed to survive. But as the Internet streamed pictures of looters hauling off stereos and televisions, justifications turned to outrage. Governor Kathleen Blanco then ordered the National Guard to shoot and kill looters on sight. America had arrived at a moment that reminded us of the pace of our nation’s enlightened progress.
Similarly in Detroit’s 1943 riot, blacks destroyed and looted every white owned business in black neighborhoods, symbols of oppressive authority. Just like New Orleans after Katrina, blacks walked freely about with the booty of their conquest. Without police intervention, black and white mobs intensified. The riot ended days later as one of the worst and bloodiest rights to that date, ultimately being stopped at bayonet point by the army of the United States.
Recommendations of how to correct racial tensions given prior to and after the Detroit race riot of 1943 were largely ignored by the Mayor of Detroit, by the Governor of Michigan, by Congress and by the President of the United States. What was the reasoning for ignoring such proposals and what institutional racism did it expose?
In the weeks after the riot, police raided black homes and by a margin of 85% predominantly arrested blacks involved in the riots. Court charges were mainly brought against blacks. Blame for the riots lined up on both sides of the divide. Yet few actions were taken to improve Detroit’s lot.
Police Commissioner Witherspoon’s report stated that the police department that had shot and killed 17 black rioters had acted with “rare courage”. Mayor Jeffries’ report criticized the army and black leaders for their roles in the riot. The Common Council approved both reports. William Dowling, the county prosecutor threatened to indict the leaders for the NAACP for inciting the riot. Governor Kelly’s report blamed the cause of the riot squarely on the blacks who had instigated early fights and was silent about why tensions existed in the city that could have sparked such a violent reaction throughout 75% of the city’s wards. It also justified all the police killings of black rioters including those that shot them in the back.
In spite of repeated requests, the White House made no comments and took no actions on developing plans to enhance race relations. Proposals for Congress to investigate the riot were squelched. At the height of a world war that ultimately killed 60 million people, Detroit got back to the business of making armaments.
Looking back from our “enlightened view” of 2013, it is easy to see that blacks were living in intolerable, segregated slums, and suffered deplorable work conditions and unfair labor practices. It is just as easy to see the struggles between racially divisive subcultures within the city as each tried to battle for higher ground amidst the dramatic changes occurring in this wartime arsenal of the nation. The recommendations made by civic leaders would have at least moved the city toward reducing blatant abuses that thwarted equal opportunity for peaceful lives. Yet they were met with neglect.
What was the basis of this continuing obstinance against racial equality? Even though this newest black generation was growing more impatient and militant in the face of such slow progress as the country entered a war to free Europe while ignoring blacks at home, institutions of government and business were permeated with an older generation, racially prejudiced and resistant to change. We would instead move toward the even more extreme Detroit Riot of 1967 that would be given the honor as Detroit’s racist milestone in her downfall.