Two major events precipitated the downfall of Detroit: the 12th Street riots and the social phenomenon “White Flight”. In fact, they are so interconnected that it is important to acknowledge the latter as a catalyst for the former. The events that occurred in 1967 were not spontaneous, their foundations lay in social conditions and politics that favoured racial exploitation. Specifically, the exploitation of the black community. This was made clear through the responses of the white and black communities during and after the riots. Detroit proved the American prioritization of the “Whiteness” and its superiority to “blackness” through the use of military force on its own citizens.
By The Detroit Historical Society
Like the successive rebellion that would erupt 24 years later, the Detroit Race Riot of 1943 was deeply rooted in racism, poor living conditions and unequal access to goods and services. The apparent industrial prosperity that made Detroit the “Arsenal of Democracy” masked a deeper social unrest that erupted during the summer of 1943. The KKK was active in the region and riots had already broken out in other cities.
Before and during World War II, workers migrated north to seek factory employment in such vast numbers that Detroit was incapable of adequately receiving them. Because black Detroiters were still treated as second class citizens, they suffered disproportionately from wartime rationing and the overall strains on the city. Factories offered employment but not housing, and because whites violently defended the borders of their segregated neighborhoods, black residents had little choice but to suffer in repulsive living conditions.
Detroit’s 200,000 black residents were marginalized into small, subdivided apartments that often housed multiple families. They were crammed into sixty square blocks on the city’s east side, an area ironically known as Paradise Valley.
Because there was simply no space left to expand upon already existing African American neighborhoods, the city attempted to construct a black housing project in what was otherwise a white neighborhood. A mob of more than one thousand whites, some of whom were armed, lit a cross on fire and angrily picketed the arrival of their African American neighbors.
Black workers faced virulent racism on the job as well. In June of 1943, white workers halted production to protest the promotion of their African American co-workers. Other factories faced habitual slowdowns by bigoted whites who refused to work alongside African Americans. Humiliation and resentment on each side spilled over into all facets of Detroiter’s wartime struggle and by the early 1940s, racially motivated street fights were common.
On June 20, 1943, more than two hundred black and white individuals engaged in racially-motivated fighting on Belle Isle. Though police quelled the violence by midnight, tensions soared and later that night, two rumors led to incendiary action on both sides. African Americans at the Forest Social Club in Paradise Valley were told that whites had thrown a black woman and her baby off of the Belle Isle Bridge. They formed a furious mob and moved near Woodward, breaking windows, looting white businesses and attacking white individuals.
In a nearby area, angry whites had gathered after hearing that black men had raped a white woman near the same bridge. Around 4am, a mob of white men formed outside the Roxy Theatre on Woodward. When the movie let out, black men exiting the theatre were surrounded and beaten. As word of both incidents spread, so did the violence.
Gangs of each skin color roamed the streets, with Woodward as their dividing line. White mobs overturned cars owned by blacks and set them on fire and beat black men as white policemen looked on. A white doctor was beaten to death while making a house call in a black neighborhood. African American community leaders pleaded for Mayor Edward J. Jeffries to call in help from national troops. It was not until white gangs entered Paradise Valley that the Mayor responded by seeking assistance from President Franklin Roosevelt.
Violence was curbed by the arrival of 6,000 army troops in tanks armed with automatic weapons. The streets became vacant around midnight, with most residents too terrified to leave their homes. Nine whites and twenty five African Americans were killed in the Riots of 1943. No white individuals were killed by police, whereas seventeen African American died at the hands of police violence. 700 people were reportedly injured, with damages amounting to two million dollars.
By The Detroit Historical Society
The Uprising of 1967 is also known as the Detroit Rebellion of 1967 and the 12th Street Riot. It began following a police raid on an unlicensed bar, known locally as a “blind pig.” Over the course of five days, the Detroit police and fire departments, the Michigan State Police, the Michigan National Guard, and the US Army were involved in quelling what became the largest civil disturbance of twentieth century America. The crisis resulted in forty-three deaths, hundreds of injuries, almost seventeen hundred fires, and over seven thousand arrests.
The insurrection was the culmination of decades of institutional racism and entrenched segregation. For much of the twentieth century, the city of Detroit was a booming manufacturing center, attracting workers—both black and white—from southern states. This diversity aggravated civil strife, and the Race Riot of 1943 highlighted the racial fault lines that crisscrossed the city. Throughout the 1950s, homeowners’ associations, aided by mayors Albert Cobo and Louis Miriani, battled against integrating neighborhoods and school.
Deindustrialization within the city limits took many jobs to outlying communities, even as a number of auto companies went out of business. The east side of Detroit alone lost over 70,000 jobs in the decade following World War II. Construction of the city’s freeways, newer housing, and the prospect of further integration—due to the demolition of the city’s two main black neighborhoods, Black Bottom and Paradise Valley—caused many whites to depart for the suburbs. From 1950 to 1960, Detroit lost almost 20 percent of its population.
Virginia Park rapidly transformed from a predominantly Jewish neighborhood to primarily black neighborhood by 1967. The new epicenter of black retail in Detroit became 12th Street (now called Rosa Parks Boulevard), a strip which also supported a lively illicit nightlife. Adding to tensions was the black community’s fractious relationship with the mostly white Detroit Police Department. Like many forces across the country, the department was known for heavy-handed tactics and antagonistic arrest practices, particularly toward black citizens.
At 3:15am on July 23rd, the vice squad of the Detroit Police Department executed a raid on a blind pig at 12th Street and Clairmount. Despite the late hour, the avenue was full of people attempting to stay cool amidst a stifling heat wave. As the police escorted party goers to the precinct for booking, a crowd gathered and the situation grew increasing antagonistic. When the final arrestees were loaded into police vans, a brick shattered the rear window of a police cruiser, prompting a rash of break-ins, burglaries, and eventually arson.
Law enforcement was immediately overwhelmed. While the department had 4,700 officers, only about 200 were on duty at that hour. Early efforts to regain control failed and a quarantine of the neighborhood was imposed. Hoping to ease tensions, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh ordered that looters not be shot; as the word of his order spread, so did looting. The Michigan State Police and the National Guard arrived to reinforce police and fire units. Clashes between the mayor and Governor George Romney—both of whom had presidential aspirations—and President Lyndon Johnson increased confusion and delayed the deployment of federal troops.
By the end of the first two days, fires and looting were reported across the city. Additionally, the mass theft of firearms and other weaponry turned Detroit an urban warzone. Sniper fire sowed fear and hindered firefighting and policing efforts. The arrival of battle-tested federal troops on Tuesday, July 25th brought order.
For many people the uprising was a turning point for the city. White flight in 1967 doubled to over 40,000, and doubled again the next year. Yet, many Detroiters remained. The city saw a massive growth in activism and community engagement. New Detroit and Focus: HOPE were both founded in the aftermath, with the goal of addressing root causes of the disorder. As the city’s demographics continued to shift, Detroiters elected the first black mayor in the city’s history, Coleman A. Young.
Racism and ethnic discrimination in the United States has been a major issue since the colonial and the slave eras. Detroit’s present is a direct result of this long history of prejudice, intolerance, and racial segregation.
The continued parallels between the city’s past and events such as the 1992 LA Riots, Furgeson, the death of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and the countless many show us definitively how racism affects minority communities and cripples entire cities.
For the prosperity of Detroit and other cities like it, America must acknowledge and heal deep cultural wounds.