The 1943 Detroit Race Riot, 70 years later
Mention “Detroit” and “riot” to most metro Detroiters today, and most people will think of the year 1967. Some will call it a “riot” and some will call it a “rebellion,” but chances are that nobody will talk about Detroit’s forgotten riot, the 1943 Detroit race riot.
Most likely, that’s because the events of 1943 don’t neatly dovetail with our conventional narratives about the Greatest Generation, and they provide ugly examples of white racism that most area residents, if they remember them, would rather forget.
And that’s a shame, because the 1943 riot offers a chance to look beyond simplistic sociological assumptions about ’60s civil disorder and the ensuing urban disintegration. This is especially interesting at a time when historians such as Thomas Sugrue are re-examining Detroit and the roles played by whites and their institutions, often uncovering sweeping antecedents that transcend a passive white exodus.
And for those whites who think the ramifications of institutional racism are overstated, those old photographs of white mobs rampaging up and down Woodward Avenue, beating and stabbing black Detroiters, might change a mind or two.
And 1943 is also worth another look because it helps define the early civil rights movement. It saw African-Americans effectively defending their neighborhoods against white mobs and courageous folk of both races taking risks to stem the bloodshed. In the aftermath, the UAW strengthened its ties to the civil rights movement, setting the stage for the gains for racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s.
So, 70 years after the citywide free-for-all began on the MacArthur Bridge, it’s an excellent time to look back. See MT‘s 2003 story on the riot here.