The great Detroit race riot raged 71 years ago today

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.  

About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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