Detroit's 'Other' Riot

From June 20-22, 1943, racial tensions boiled over into violence


Published:

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF RICHARD BAK

Revolution? Uprising? Rebellion?

While there is debate over what to call Detroit’s 1967 civil disturbance, there’s no need for a thesaurus to label the violence that occurred over three days in Detroit in June 1943. It was a full-fledged race riot, one that killed dozens, injured hundreds, and required thousands of federal troops to restore order.

The riot occurred at the midpoint of World War II. Like the munitions its converted auto factories were producing, Detroit was primed for an explosion. More than 300,000 people flooded into the area to take advantage of the plants’ high wages. Fifty thousand of the newcomers were black; many more were Appalachian whites.

Overcrowded conditions, inadequate housing, labor strife, and the combustible mixing of races led Life magazine to warn in 1942: “Detroit can either blow up Hitler or it can blow up the U.S.”

That year, clashes accompanied the integration of the Sojourner Truth housing project in a northeast neighborhood. The following spring, 25,000 Packard employees staged a wildcat strike to protest the promotion of three blacks from the foundry to the shop floor.

On June 20, 1943, a sultry Sunday, Belle Isle was carpeted with 100,000 people trying to escape the heat. As dusk fell, fights between a group of white youths and sailors and black youths broke out on the bridge. The battle spilled over onto Jefferson Avenue.

Rumors flew through Paradise Valley that a black woman and her baby had been thrown off the bridge. Similar rumors had a white woman being raped and killed by a black man.

By daybreak Monday, members of both races — principally young men — were taking turns attacking one another in an orgy of hate. Cars were stoned and torched, stores were looted, and unwary motorists and pedestrians were shot, stabbed, and beaten.

Connie Griffith, then a teenager, remembers the Woodward Avenue street car she was riding in being stopped by throngs of wild-eyed whites, who tried forcing open the doors. “I looked out in that sea of faces and I thought, ‘What are these men doing?’ ” says the 91-year-old Grosse Pointe resident. One terrified passenger managed to break free. Although it’s been 74 years, Griffith has never been able to shake the image of that nameless black man fleeing a murderous mob. “All my life,” she says, “I will occasionally think of him and say a prayer, hoping.”

After a full day of dithering, Mayor Edward Jeffries and Gov. Harry Kelly finally asked Washington for help. Six thousand army troops swept through the troubled areas at bayonet point.

By Tuesday, June 22, the race war was over.

Thirty-four people were dead. Seventeen of the 25 black victims were killed by the virtually all-white police force. Several had been shot in the back. About 700 people were injured and over 1,800 others were arrested for looting, arson, assault, and violating curfew.

White officials blamed “Negro thugs” and “agitating” by NAACP leaders. Black officials pointed to pent-up frustration over chronic police brutality and discrimination in jobs and housing.

Detroit’s national embarrassment was a boon for the enemy. Germany and Japan propagandized the violence as proof that America was hypocritically fighting for democracy overseas while enforcing racism at home.

The ’43 Detroit riot would remain the nation’s deadliest — until the city erupted again 24 years later.

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