Tag Archives: 1943 Detroit race riot

Institutional Racism Evolved from Long Held Prejudices To Hold Back Detroit’s (America’s) Progress

1943In 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.

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The Kings of the Auto Industry’s Failure to Plan was a Plan to Fail

fordIn spite of terrible odds, there are those that rise above their circumstances to do great things. The same can be said for Detroit. Out of the slums come leaders of every profession that have excelled by their own merits. That means that even in Detroit’s inner city, there is a path to be found to make it. Just like Lewis and Clark, there are those that can take the right steps to avoid all the hazards of the journey and make it to their destination intact

However, take those same people that are put through that gauntlet and put them through a better upbringing and they most likely would still succeed. And with them, would succeed millions more that do not under the bitter circumstances of the inner city.

So when we saw businesses failing at 5 times the rate of normal business cycle turn downs in this last great recession, we can certainly say that the owners that made the decisions they made were responsible for their business failures, we can also say that 80% of those businesses that did fail would not have in a better environment that they did not have direct control over, same for those that lost their homes and jobs through the collapse. Under the environment, they made the decisions they thought best for their families and turned up way short.

I write to affect the global circumstances so that more can make it. The 68% of kids that sat in those classes expecting to learn the skills necessary to survive that didn’t make it because of all the support structures that failed them need something better than they are getting. The question is can we create a system solution that can turn around present circumstances and that can create better odds for future kids?The rules in Detroit were pervasively written in the institutions that governed the city, institutions run by the big three auto makers.

Every city has its elites, those few that have made it into the rarified air that makes them appear to themselves as gods. These are the ones that shift the economy, that pioneer its path before the masses tread on it.

I can imagine the CEOs of the big three auto manufacturers coming together at the Detroit Club in 1914 talking about the war and how they might prosper from it. Of course they expected that the windfall would be temporary so no provisions would be made for city planning to accept the hundreds of thousands of new workers and their families. No, everyone would sacrifice for the war effort and when the war was over, these wonderful immigrants and southern blacks would be persuaded to go back home.

The city was run by these captains of industry and their selections for who would run the wards. City planning was thus built upon the premise of greatest efficiency of industry as opposed to any livability factor. The city was growing exponentially and perhaps the chaos of growth could energize the police officers being deputized from southern cities for Detroit to handle the influx of blacks and Poles they thought.

As opposed to America’s growth, which climbed at a rate of 1.1% a year, Detroit’s population was growing at 4 times that rate. Certainly car production alone could not sustain such a growth rate as was occurring for military production. Certainly, the substandard housing that was going up at record pace wasn’t meant for the long haul, for no one would expect that after the war boom would come a depression followed by an even bigger war boom, in which Detroit would play a pivotal role.

After two big wars and an extended industrial war boom, Detroit could not have expected to ride on its past. But where was the planning? Was the only planning scarcity, and to let the rats abandon a sinking ship? Was the only planning to put a volatile mix of people into a beaker and to stir in the catalyst of fewer jobs?

This is why city planning ought to be left for those that consider all the people of a community as stakeholders in the city’s future, not just the chosen few who employ strategies to maximize short term goals, without considering it their responsibility to care for the community they have recruited as immigrants and migrants to do their bidding.

Here is a quick history of racially divided Detroit from it nascent auto days until the first big Detroit riot in 1943. It tells of industry drawing in masses of European immigrants, southern blacks and southern poor whites, and poorly preparing the city for them only to have racial prejudice surface and then finally explode in 1943.

Detroit Automobile Company August 5, 1899 – the first plant

Ford assembly line – starts the boom town and immigration

.1914 – Ford announces $5 a day pay – starts African American migration

Tension mounts in slums for housing and at factories for jobs between blacks and Poles

.1920s – rise of Detroit KKK membership to 20,000. KKK emphasizes racial segregation in housing

.1925 – During year, Racist Detroit police kill 40 blacks

Osian Sweets, a black man, kills a man in a mob attacking his new home in a white neighborhood. Goes on trial for murder and is eventually acquitted. In response, Detroit white neighborhoods pass restrictive “whites only” covenants.

Great Depression hits – Autoworkers unions organize

Klan clashes with the unions and the fades into background for awhile

.1940 – Franklin Roosevelt names Detroit as the Arsenal of Democracy, declaring the city to be strategic to winning the war.

.1941 – Executive Order 8802 – Roosevelt forbids work discrimination based on race

Detroit would need workers on a massive scale for the war effort so its demand for workers started the second great migration of African Americans North.

This massive influx of new labor brought Detroit, already in a housing shortage, to a boiling point.

Housing shortages and black shanty towns – Federal government builds 700 units at Sojourner Truth Housing Project to ease shortage amidst white protests

February 28, 1942 move in day ta Sojourner. White mob riots, KKK burns a cross, police tear gas and arrest 220 blacks. For two months, the city does nothing to allow blacks to move in or to protect them. Finally, they are allowed to move in.

Poor urban planning – government earmarks 17 billion for new war factories in Detroit but only 5 million for new housing in a city that was still short 12,000 units.

July 1942 – Life Magazine writes an article called “Detroit is Dynamite” where it tells the world how Detroit, the manufacturing bastion of hope for America, could not build if it continued to be so factious and bickering.
Migrants vs. Nativists
Blacks vs. Southern Whites
Protestants vs. Catholics
Communists vs. Conservatives
KKK vs. Blacks
Poles vs. Blacks for lowest paying jobs

.1943 – Efforts by Fair Employment Protection Committee to enforce fair labor practices result in several race strikes protesting blacks in the workplace. Many blamed the Klan for staging these strikes.

.1943 – Catholic Trade Unionists declare that a subterranean race war is raging in the city and will explode in violence if nothing is done to stop it.

City officials meet with police to plan for race riot

Hot summer of 1943 – people flock to parks.

Early June – a small brawl breaks out between Blacks and Whites in park and spills over to neighborhood before Police break it up.

Mid June – brawl breaks out at amusement park as whites try to chase blacks out of the park

June 20 – Brawls break out in parks, continue to resurface in the night. Groups roam downtown. Whites spread a false rumor that a black man raped and murdered a white woman on a bridge. Blacks spread a false rumor that whites threw a black woman and her baby off that bridge. Then the whites and blacks begin to riot in two separate parts of town.

Police stood aside and watched the white riots go on for 36 hours as white rioters dragged blacks from their cars and beat them. The Black riots centered on damaging white storefronts in black parts of town and in response the police used force on black rioters. 17 of 25 dead blacks from the riot were killed by police. 433 were injured. Police arrested 1,800, mostly black. Stories surfaced of savage police beatings and murders. Martial law was declared and federal troops were brought in to quell the riots.

This was the basis of institutional racism that was pervasive in Detroit as a result of its volatile mixture. Even more violent race riots would erupt again in 1967 demonstrating the lack of the city’s success in dealing with this destructive social issue.

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