The great Detroit race riot raged 71 years ago today

June 20, 2014
By
In 1943, racism was as American as apple pie, and it turned downtown Detroit into a living hell for 36 hours.

In 1943, racism was as American as apple pie, and it turned downtown Detroit into a living hell for 36 hours.

Seventy-one years ago today, after a skirmish on the bridge to Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, the city exploded into the worst race riot in the city’s history. It was not the nation’s sole urban conflict of 1943, but it was the largest and last. It certainly involved white actors and hoodlums, and would leave a legacy of fear and distrust that the white political establishment would cultivate and exploit to stay in power.

What’s strange is that, for all the metro Detroiters who know the details of the 1967 “race riot,” relatively few are even aware of the 1943 disturbance. Perhaps that’s because it casts white Detroiters in ugly roles, acting out an urban lynching right on Woodward Avenue during the height of the battle against fascism. Nazi radio crowed about the bloodshed, attributing it to ““the internal disorganization of a country torn by social injustice, race hatreds, regional disputes, the violence of an irritated proletariat, and the gangsterism of capitalistic police.” After an orgy of violence that pit white crowds against hapless black Detroiters, the episode was quickly forgotten. The story certainly doesn’t dovetail with the narrative peddled in popular books, such as Tom Brokaw’s bestseller, The Greatest Generation. These “good old days” were forgettable — white mobs rampaging up and down Woodward Avenue, beating and stabbing black Detroiters.

The one great obstacle standing in the way of metro Detroit’s future remains race hatred. And we won’t be able to move beyond it until we can discuss it. And we can never discuss it intelligently until suppressed history, such as that fateful day seven decades ago, is brought to light and examined, as ugly as it is.

Metro Times' cover story from 2003 on the 60th anniversary of the 1943 race riot.

Metro Times’ cover story from 2003 on the 60th anniversary of the 1943 race riot.

 

  • jc

    suppressed history?……sounds like the Metro Times to me. Must we cut off our left nuts in order to “properly acknowledge” that racism was an ugly chapter of Detroit’s history? And why is there so little hype demonstrating the countless positive steps that have been taken since that ugly time? The attempts by the media to downplay racial progress serves to perpetuate racial hostility on the flip side of the coin.

  • Dallas

    I certainly don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we still have quite a ways to go. Racism and the disparity of wealth between white vs. black communities is still a definitive issue in the politics of Detroit, as well as every other American metropolis.

  • Greg

    I knew of this riot (I’m 49) so I don’t know all the details. But this article’s seeming tone of “it was all whitey’s fault” has spurred me to read up on it to find out what really happened. I have no doubt that there was plenty of ignorance and racism back then which likely played a direct role in these riots, but there are always two sides to a story, and that certainly hasn’t been presented here.