African American Soldiers in World War II
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Earl Brown: "The Detroit Race Riots of 1943"

In June 1943, serious race riots took place in the American industrial city of Detroit, Michigan. Over the previous three years, Detroit's population had swollen from 1.6 million to 1.8 million, as around 50,000 blacks and 150,000 largely Southern whites emigrated to the city in response to the demands of the industrial war effort. Tensions between blacks and whites and between newcomers and older residents were fierce. In the hot summer of 1943, Detroit erupted in race riots. In the course of two days, 34 people—25 of them black—were killed, 461 were injured, and extensive looting took place. Less extensive riots also occurred in Los Angeles, New York, Beaumont (Texas), and Newark (New Jersey). Earl Brown, then the only black individual on the editorial staff of Life magazine, wrote an account of the Detroit riots.

On Sunday, June 20, 1943, one of the most serious race riots in American history broke out in the city of Detroit. Before it was brought under control some thirty hours later, twenty-five Negroes and nine white persons were killed and property worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars had been destroyed.

The forces which led to the outbreak in that city exist, to a greater or lesser degree, in most of our cities. Similar outbreaks have occurred elsewhere. A study of the factors leading to the outbreak in Detroit is important because it can show us how to avoid similar outbreaks, not only in Detroit, but in other cities. . . .

My first visit to wartime Detroit occurred in July, 1942. I found that although Detroit is the munitions capital of the United Nations and its war production is essential to victory, there was a disturbing lack of unity of effort. The atmosphere was tense, and the tension was increasing. There were sudden gusts of strikes for unimportant reasons—a strike occurred at the Chrysler Tank Arsenal because the men were not allowed to smoke during work.

But racial feeling was the most alarming of all. Groups of Negro zoot-suiters were brawling with gangs of young white toughs; the determination of Negroes to hold the war jobs they had won was matched by the determination of numerous white groups to oust them. There were many signs of trouble. . . .

One of the features of Detroit that in many ways sets it off from many other cities is the presence of great numbers of religious and political fanatics. Even before the last war Detroit was known as the city of "jazzed-up religion." Today all shades of opinion are to be found in the city, all races, all creeds, all political attitudes and beliefs. The first figure to attract national attention was Father Charles Coughlin. Railing against Hoover and Wall Street from his radio pulpit, he soon attracted a great following in Detroit and through the Middle West. Next came the Black Legion, an organization of native white Americans and an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan—with hoods, grips, and passwords. It was organized originally for the purpose of getting and holding jobs for Southern whites, but it quickly developed into an elaborate "hate" organization—its enmity directed against Catholics, Jews, Negroes, and "radicals." . . .

By the middle 30s, Detroit had a representation of every kind of panacea, political nostrum, and agitation. There were the Anglo-Saxon Federation and an anti-Negro organization called the National Workers League. But the most steady, day-in and day-out exhortation came from the sensational preachers. Of these the best known are the Reverend Frank J. Norris and the Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith. . . .

These three men—Coughlin, Norris, and Smith—are the best known of the Detroit religious-political demagogues, but there are thousands of others. Some have been in Detroit for years; others came during the recent migrations. It is estimated that there are more than 2,500 Southern-born evangelists of one kind or another in Detroit alone, not counting those in near-by communities. This war has caused an upheaval among the little shouting sects in the South; they have split and split again, and new sects have been formed. . . .

There is a connection between the apocalyptic doctrine of these sects and religious and racial intolerance. The appeal is not only highly emotional but is grounded on old traditionsÑwhich in the South mean White Protestant Supremacy....Many of these exhorters are members of the Klan off-shoot organizations, defiantly "American," suspecting "radicals," and completely at home with White Supremacy. For more than a decade—and increasingly during the past three years—these rustic preachers have been spreading their brand of the Word. As feeling in Detroit became more aroused over the race issue, the effect of this kind of preaching was like pouring gasoline on a bonfire. . . .

It is interesting to note that despite the racial collisions and the frequent enforcement of Jim Crow practices in Detroit, Negroes have succeeded in getting some political preferment. There are two Negro assistant prosecuting attorneys, the State Labor Commissioner is a Negro, and one of the State Senators is a Negro. The Detroit Street Railway Company, which is owned by the city, employs about a thousand Negroes—both men and women—as motormen, bus drivers, conductors, and workers of other kinds. With the police it is another matter, and this has been a burning issue. Out of 3,600 policemen, only forty are Negroes. In addition, Southern whites have been taken into the force freely, and they have frequently shown a hostile attitude toward Negroes.

The local political machine was perfectly happy to cooperate with Negro gamblers, but they had no interest whatever in the fact that most of Detroit's Negroes lived in two wretched slum areas. The two principal Negro districts in Detroit cover about thirty square blocks on the West Side and a larger district on the East Side called Paradise Valley.... Here—on the East Side—live most of Detroit's Negroes. Almost everybody now has plenty of war wages to pay for lodging, but decent houses simply do not exist. The only recourse the Negroes have is to cram themselves into the filthy valley tenements . . .

The war naturally aggravated Detroit's underlying instability. Anti-Negro sentiment was particularly strong in the Polish districts of Hamtramck, a suburb. As early as July, 1941, gangs of Polish youths provoked a series of minor riots. An editor of a Polish paper reports that anti-Negro handbills were distributed on the steps of St. Florian's Church in Hamtramck during the Sojourner Truth riots.

For many months the Negro press in Detroit and elsewhere busily promoted a "Double-V" campaign for victory at home as well as abroad. This campaign was based on the assumption that victory in the war against the fascists abroad did not mean much if there was Jim Crow at home. Colored soldiers had told a thousand bitter stories of discrimination and lack of respect for the uniform. The killings of colored soldiers at Alexandria, Louisiana, and in other Southern communities were taken to heart. The hopes roused by President Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802, issued June 25, 1941, forbidding job discrimination in plants with war contracts slowly faded. The Committee on Fair Employment Practice, set up by the President shortly after the issuance of the Executive Order, was left to pine away without money or authority and was finally placed under the War Manpower Commission. If the government would do nothing, there was nothing left but the union and the determination of the Negroes themselves. Colored workers who had been promoted to more skilled jobs were ready to hold on for dear life to their new jobs, and the brimstone evangelists, viewing with alarm this resolution of the Negroes, whipped up resentment.

Shortly after the beginning of 1943 a series of anti-Negro strikes broke out in the plants. Aside from fights between individuals, there was no violence in the plants, but much bitterness was aroused. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists anti-Negro strikes in the following plants from mid-March until the end of May: United States Rubber Company; Vickers, Incorporated; Hudson Motor Car Company; Hudson Naval Arsenal; and the Packard Motor Car Company. In the Packard strike, which brought the climax, 26,883 men left work when three Negroes were upgraded. The circumstances of this strike were so peculiar that union leaders were convinced that it had been engineered by one of the anti-Negro groups in the city, but nothing was ever proved.

Shortly after the Packard strike Mayor Jeffries called together the editors of the three local dailies, the Free Press, the News, and the Times, to take counsel. The conference over, nothing was done. A procession of Negro leaders and a few prominent white citizens besought the Mayor to take heed and act before the explosion. The Mayor listened, but appeared to be more confused after these visits than before. Then everyone relaxed to await the inevitable. It came on the evening of June 24, 1943.

Belle Isle lies in the Detroit River, connected with the city and Grand Boulevard by a bridge. There were probably a hundred thousand persons in the park that hot, humid Sunday, and the greater number seem to have been Negroes. The atmosphere was anything but peaceful. Tension had increased to the breaking point. An argument between a Negro and a white man became a fist fight and the fighting spread.

A hurry call was made for the police, but by the time they arrived the brawl, involving some two hundred white sailors by this time, was eddying across the bridge into the riverside park on the mainland near the Naval Armory. The news that fighting had broken out traveled like the wind. A young man in a colored night club on Hastings Street is supposed to have grabbed the microphone about 11:30 and urged the five hundred customers present to "come on and take care of a bunch of whites who have killed a colored woman and her baby at Belle Isle Park." This rumor was, of course, false. It was matched by another story, which spread through the white districts, that Negroes had raped and killed a white woman on the park bridge. By midnight fighting and looting had spread into a dozen different districts and Paradise Valley was going crazy. By two o'clock that morning a crowd of Negroes stopped an East Side street car and stoned white factory workers who were passengers. White men coming from work at the Chevrolet Gear and Axle plant, three miles away from the center of Paradise Valley, were attacked by a Negro mob.

Alfred McClung Lee, chairman of the Sociology Department of Wayne University, and Norman Humphrey, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the same institution, have pieced together a remarkable timetable of the violence in Race Riot (New York: Dryden Press, 1943), a report on the riot. Both the authors were present and moved about the city while the fighting was in progress. Their report shows that:

At four o'clock in the morning (Monday, June 21) there was a meeting in the office of Police Commissioner Witherspoon to determine action. Mayor Jeffries, Colonel Krech (the U.S. Army commander of the Detroit area), Captain Leonard of the Michigan State Police, John Bugas (in charge of the local office of the F.B.I.), and Sheriff Baird were present. Colonel Krech told the Mayor that the military police could be on duty in Detroit in forty-nine minutes after a request from the Mayor had been cleared through the Governor and the proper U.S. Army officials. Nothing was done about this at the time, and by 6:30 A.M. Commissioner Witherspoon decided that there was a let-up in "serious rioting."

But there was no let-up. At 8:30 in the morning a Negro delegation asked the Mayor to send for troops. At nine o'clock Commissioner Witherspoon asked the Mayor for troops. Mayor Jeffries telephoned to the Governor, who transmitted the request by telephone to the Sixth Service Command Headquarters in Chicago. By eleven o'clock it was known that troops could not come unless martial law was declared. Governor Kelly hesitated to do so. By this time gangs of white hoodlums were roaming the streets burning Negro cars.

The police had already shown themselves to be helpless or negligent. On the previous night, police had been stationed outside the all-night Roxy movie theater. A witness reported that a threatening white crowd assembled at the entrance and every time a Negro came out of the theater the mob went for him. When the witness asked the police to get Negroes a safe-conduct through the mob, the officers replied, "See the chief about it!"

At four o'clock on Monday afternoon Major General Aurand arrived from Chicago. By that time, according to Lee and Humphrey, "the crowds of whites were increasing in size on Woodward Avenue. Milling packs of human animals hunted and killed any of the easily visible black prey which chanced into the territory."

At 6:30 Monday night, just as Mayor Jeffries was going on the air with a plea for a return to sanity, four white boys, aged 16 to 20, shot down Moses Kiska, a middle-aged Negro, "because we didn't have anything to do." Still no troops, and all through the evening, after even the Mayor had admitted that the city administration and police were unable to deal with the situation, there went on an endless amount of official confusion until, at last, it was discovered precisely what had to be done to get federal intervention. Just before midnight President Roosevelt proclaimed a state of emergency, and by Tuesday morning 6,000 troops in trucks and jeeps were patrolling the city. The hold of the city authorities had so completely collapsed that it took the United States Army to get twenty-nine Negro members of the graduating class of Northeastern High School away from the closing exercises in safety.

Two days later Governor Kelly decided to ease restrictions a little, and by degrees the city began to breathe again . . . .

Source: Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

 

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