The summer of ’43

Jun 18, 2003 at 12:00 am

“They were all beating him. The blood was all over the pavement and everything.”

Sitting in the Cass Cafe almost 60 years later, Ron Condron vividly remembers hanging from a power pole he’d climbed, seeing a black streetcar conductor pummeled and stomped by a white mob on a hot June afternoon in 1943.

His voice lowers, becoming somber, as he haltingly describes the spectacle, mumbling that the attackers were “beating him with a pipe, rubber hoses, anything they had. ... It was pretty gory, what you could see of it.”

Condron is among the diminishing number of Detroiters who witnessed that terrible afternoon 60 years ago this week, when blacks and whites rioted in the streets. Before it ended, 34 were dead and nearly 700 injured.

The 1943 race riot is not as well remembered as the city’s 1967 tumult, perhaps because it doesn’t fit smoothly with the mythology we’ve created about our past. The mythology of 1967 validates “conventional wisdom” about white flight and inner-city pathologies.

The past 10 years, however, have seen groundbreaking scholarship — chiefly, Thomas Sugrue’s work, The Origins of the Urban Crisis — that looks beyond simplistic sociological assumptions about ’60s civil disorder and the ensuing urban disintegration. Historians are re-examining Detroit and the roles played by whites and their institutions, often uncovering sweeping antecedents that transcend a passive white exodus.

Detroit’s race riot 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.

The 1943 of the riot isn’t the one seen in popular books like 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 1943 uprising also 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.

’43 vs. ’67

For Thomas Klug, director of the Institute for Detroit Studies at Marygrove College, the differences between the 1943 and 1967 riots couldn’t be more stark. Like the American race riots before it — such as in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921 — 1943 pitted community against community in pitched, brutal confrontations. But the 1967 riot was about looting. The 1943 riot was about hand-to-hand combat.

“With the ’60s it’s a whole different thing,” Klug says. “You’re dealing with pretty rigid segregation, cities that have been abandoned by a lot of white folk, in which people are really hopeless and rise up and rebel. It’s a real rebellion, still against whites, but often white authority in the form of white police departments typically. ... And when you hear stories about ’67 in Detroit, they’re predominantly about African-American involvement, but you do hear stories of white people involved. ... They’re all sort of in it together.”

Klug’s perspective is echoed by Detroiters who lived through both events and can compare them.

“The one in ’43 was a real riot, and that’s frightening,” says writer Marvin Arnett. “Let me take you to the ’67 riot, OK — which always kind of irks me when they say ‘riot,’ because it wasn’t a riot, it was economic upheaval. And I’ll tell you what happened [in ’67]. I stood on my porch, I was an adult, and watched people looting Robinson’s Furniture Store down on Grand River, and they were taking out sofas and chairs, and there would be a black man on one end of that sofa and a white man on the other end. That doesn’t seem like a race riot to me. It was more economic, it was more the ‘have-nots’ giving the ‘haves’ some trouble.”

Retired Detroit firefighter Alec Bryce remembers both episodes too. He recalls the anxiety of being a white motorist driving through chaotic crowds in 1967, saying, “In ’67 they thought it was funny. They’d rock the car, you know. In ’43 they would have killed us.”

War boom

Wartime Detroit boasted gaudy statistics — 700,000 of a regional population of 2.8 million employed in war production, almost full employment, average take-home pay a robust $61 a week. But it was a tough place to live. Wartime rationing of everything from gasoline and tires to butter made it difficult for people to feel prosperous.

Workers had to carpool or cram into packed streetcars. The Department of Street Railways carried 2 million passengers daily, one-third more than before the war. Transportation was so irritating it prompted Francis Downing to write for the nationally distributed magazine The Commonweal, “Even in New York people do not stand in single file for blocks to get on a bus. But they do in Detroit. In fact in Detroit one stands for almost everything. … Needless to say you don’t get a seat on a bus or a streetcar. … Detroit must cease trying to transport an increased war population with the services of a small New England town.”

The city teemed with fortune-seeking transients who had little interest in local institutions.

Arnett, who was a junior high school student in 1943, recalls, “They were here for one purpose and one purpose only … to make money in an unheard-of amount. … It made everything different, because I remember that was when people started to lock their doors.”

The new Detroiters, both white and black, were predominantly from the South; hundreds of thousands moved north during the three years preceding the riot. The demand for wartime labor meant an easing of employment discrimination, and nearly 50,000 black immigrants arrived in the 15 months prior to June 1943. Almost 3 million people crowded in and around the nation’s fourth-largest city.

The generation of workers that had emerged from the Great Depression was tormented by insecurities; they worried about who would lose jobs when the war orders ceased. This aggravated white racism and made Detroit a fertile field for demagogues.

Downing detected racism: “It is known that the Ku Klux Klan has been enjoying a notorious renaissance here in this city. … ‘Keep them in their place.’ ‘They know how to handle them down South.’ Everywhere one goes — on trains, on buses, on streetcars — one hears these ominous words. … But they do not verbalize — these words — a race hatred. They are visceral rationalizations of economic insecurity.”

Or, in the blunt but arousing words of then-famous commentator John Gunther: “Detroit is packed with southern white hillbillies, who had never in their lives seen Negroes on a quasi-equal level; many of its policemen were southern; it has an angry tradition of labor violence; it is full of company thugs, ex-Bundists, and Ku-Kluxers; and it houses the automobile business, with rewards high and accustomed to being fought for.” (Bundists were pro-Nazi German-American groups of the ’30s.)

As Detroit’s population swelled, its housing crisis worsened. The city that was performing miracles for war production couldn’t build homes for its people.

Conditions were direst for black Detroiters, whose neighborhoods were already hemmed in by the lines of segregation; blacks who crossed the lines met open hostility. Gunther described some of the consequences for the “cooped up” black community: “congestion; violently high rents; the perpetuation of slums; breakdown in municipal facilities like street repair and garbage disposal; hoodlumism, especially among the young; and serious problems in police and fire protection.”

Though a few black “villages” dotted the city, the main black quarter was the near east side, including the gritty Hastings Street neighborhood where I-75 now runs, and the glamorous Paradise Valley entertainment district. This area’s residential housing stock was some of the city’s most dilapidated, and much of it was owned by absentee white landlords who charged high rents.


In August 1942, 10 months before Detroit’s riot, Life magazine ran a long, critical piece titled, “Detroit is Dynamite.” The jeremiad warned, “Detroit can either blow up Hitler or it can blow up the U.S.” Mayor Edward J. Jeffries Jr., who originally called Life a “yellow magazine” and the story “scurrilous,” later admitted, “I saw signs; I read the papers ... I knew what was going on in other parts of the country.”

For years, there had been sporadic bursts of interracial violence in and around Detroit. In 1942, black families scheduled to move into the Sojourner Truth housing project ran into resistance from the heavily Polish, all-white neighborhood. Although it took two attempts and the presence of thousands of police, the black tenants finally moved in, despite a clash of black supporters and white protesters that resulted in 40 injuries and more than 100 arrests.

In the months leading up to the ’43 riot, the upgrading of black workers led to several wildcat strikes and walkouts (the United Auto Workers’ commitment to workplace equality notwithstanding). The worst came in early June, when three black workers were installed on the final assembly line at the Packard Motor Car Co. plant, prompting 20,000 whites to walk off the job.

Newspaper reports of the time reflect frequent clashes. On Sunday, June 13, a racial brawl broke out in Inkster, which had a large population of black war workers. On Tuesday, June 15, police rushed to East Detroit to quell a fight between blacks and whites at Eastwood Amusement Park.

Riots exploded throughout the summer of 1943 in Los Angeles, Beaumont, Texas, and Mobile, Ala., and on June 3 — two-and-a-half weeks before Motown’s conflagration — NAACP National Secretary Walter White declared in Detroit, “Let us drag out into the open what has been whispered throughout Detroit for months — that a race riot may break out here at any time.”

Arnett recalls, “All the pieces that were needed to create the scenario just fit like pieces in a puzzle. ... you could smell it in the air.”

Deadly rumor

According to newspaper accounts, books and the official governor’s report, the riot of ’43 began on the Belle Isle bridge and lasted for roughly 24 hours. June 20 was a Sunday that would reach 90 degrees. Some 100,000 people, most of them African-American, were on Belle Isle seeking refuge from the heat.

Young black toughs took it upon themselves to revenge the beatings dealt to blacks at Eastwood Park the week before.

At about 10:45 p.m., one of the troublemakers knocked down and beat a white pedestrian. The terrified victim ran into sailors from the nearby naval armory on Jefferson. Sailors had been fighting regularly with African-American picnickers in recent months, and these sailors leapt into the fray. A free-for-all involving the crowd, more sailors from the armory and the police ensued.

Eleanor Josaitis, future leader of the civil-rights group Focus:Hope, was 11 in ’43. She had spent the day at Belle Isle with her grandmother. As they walked off the bridge toward Jefferson, Josaitis, who is white, recalls “all this ruckus was taking place.”

Soon, white mobs of men and women, boys and girls, were attacking innocent black pedestrians walking along the bridge, declaring, “We don’t want any niggers on Belle Isle!”

As midnight approached, a crowd of thousands, mostly white, many sailors, milled about the mainland side of the bridge and through nearby Gabriel Richard Park, dealing out beatings to hapless blacks who passed through. By 2 a.m., the crowd had largely been dispersed, but pernicious rumors would circulate and reignite passions.

In one dramatic incident, a man burst onstage at a crowded bar on the black near east side, grabbed a microphone and shouted that whites had killed a black woman and her baby by throwing them off the Belle Isle bridge. Vengeful patrons rushed for the exits.

Of this apocryphal tale, Arnett says, “The essence of the lie is so intriguing, that some persons threw a black baby — that’s the key — off the Belle Isle bridge. At that time, if anybody’s child had any characteristics — a performer, or smart, or bright, anything — they belonged to everyone in the neighborhood. They all claimed them. It could have been two drunks, white and black, fighting, and one pushed the other one in the river, and it would have been nothing. But to take from a woman the most personal thing she had and throw it in the Detroit River?”

As the rumor spread, frenzied crowds threw rocks and bricks at motorists. Or they stopped streetcars and stoned passengers. Any white person luckless to drive through the near east side was in grave danger. Blacks began to shatter the windows of the largely Jewish-owned stores along Hastings Street, though few of the stores were immediately looted.

Police action

As the night wore on, a police riot erupted in the ghetto. Hostile officers charged through the streets, beating senseless many innocent blacks, some of whom were in military uniform. When confronted, police didn’t hesitate to use deadly force.

By early morning, looters set upon Hastings Street’s shops, particularly those that were white-owned. Police charged in and dispersed the crowds with gunfire, but when looters didn’t follow orders, many police shot to kill. A few looters were shot in the back.

M. Kelly Fritz, an African-American mortician, collected a corpse. “I went down on Alfred and Hastings Street and picked up a man down there that the police just took an automatic gun and … cut him in two,” he said in Elaine Latzman Moon’s collection of oral histories Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes. “You had to pick up one part of him and then pick up the other part. I shipped him back to his home in Mississippi. ... That stands out as the most gruesome thing I’ve ever seen.”

Such shoot-to-kill tactics further inflamed blacks.

Ulysses Robinson, then a 29-year-old factory worker at Ford’s Rouge plant, was one of the African-Americans out in the street that morning. He recalls the anger “about the false rumor about the woman and the child,” but contends the anger was really about “the racist segregation that we were going through at that time.” Robinson says he set about to “demolish cars. Anything we saw that was owned by whites. White vehicles coming through. We were trying to tear it up and destroy the car and burn it up. And destroy the person if we could. …

“We would patrol those streets and anything we would see that we had the upper hand, we did it.”

George Ramsey, then 5, was playing in his back yard on Warren near Hastings when he heard a terrible crash. “I went around front, and as I approached from the side of the house I saw my mother was standing on the porch and she called me over. ... We watched these cars going west on Warren Avenue toward Woodward.

“Someone in the crowd threw a brick and it went in through the window and hit this white guy who was driving and he skidded to a stop, crashed, hit another car, and he got out dripping blood, he had been hit in the head.”

As the disoriented motorist tried to elude his attackers, Ramsey recalls, his mother beckoned the man and helped direct him to safety.

“The crowd that was chasing the guy, they stopped and said some things to my mother. … I could tell that whatever she did, they did not necessarily appreciate.”

By midmorning Monday, a few white motorists had been killed, including a doctor who had been stoned to death and a truck driver who had been beaten and shot.

Inverted rumor

By the time Eleanor Josaitis arrived at her grandmother’s house in Highland Park late Sunday or early Monday, a new rumor — that blacks had raped and murdered a white woman on the Belle Isle bridge — was spreading like wildfire among white Detroiters. It gave Eleanor her first and most memorable encounter with racism: “Everybody was talking about what happened and I was listening to my grandmother, her neighbors and everybody. … And I sat there and listened and it’s the first time I heard an adult swear or use a negative word against people.”

Emotion creeps into Josaitis’ voice as she remembers the anger and bigotry: “It just left such an impression on me as a child, thinking, ‘Why are they talking like that?’ … Just that one little thing of sitting on my grandmother’s porch and listening to that has made such an impression on me all my life.”

Then-firefighter Bryce says the rumor escalated in severity: “We heard the rumor that a black fellow had thrown a white woman off the bridge. It wasn’t too long until that white woman was pregnant. And it wasn’t too long that the white woman was carrying a little baby.”

This rumor would send swarms of revenge-seeking whites to lower Woodward Avenue. Before dawn, whites attacked blacks as they emerged from the all-night movie theaters downtown. Witnesses reported police standing by and doing nothing to stop the pogrom, except chasing the victims off. Some witnesses reported police joining in and beating blacks with nightsticks.

White riot

In 1943, Bob Abbott was a 33-year-old mounted policeman on the downtown beat. Of June 21, 1943, he remembers: “Got up at 4 a.m. and 12 of us went to the barns and saddled the horses up downtown. All hell broke loose. I was on the saddle of a horse 12 hours that day. ...

“None of us got hurt, but we had a lot of the people throwing stones at us. We arrested a lot of people. We were down around Grand Circus Park, on the east side of Woodward Avenue. … They were turning over cars and burning them.”

Valaida Benson, then 5, lived on the fourth floor of an apartment building at John R and Montcalm. The youngster gazed down to see a phalanx of whites brandishing sticks as they swarmed down the street.

Excitedly, she called out, “Mama! A parade! A parade!”

Benson’s mother looked out the window and screamed, gathered her daughter up and hid her under a bed before rushing off to collect Valaida’s brother and hide him as well. Her mother joined her under the bed, and “there was a crash and the window broke and then there was tear gas or something that burned your eyes. And I heard a lot of hollering.”

Outnumbered, police could do little. The white mob grew larger and bolder. By morning about 250 whites had gathered near what is now the intersection of Woodward and the Fisher Freeway.

They began stoning blacks who were driving to work, breaking windows. They caused a car to crash and the black driver to stumble out. As the man lumbered to safety, his car was set on fire. Mobs ranged up and down Woodward, pulling black motorists from cars and beating them senseless while their autos were turned over and torched.

By midmorning, whites crowded streetcar stops, waiting to drag black straphangers off trolleys and beat them. When motormen tried to pass through without stopping, the mobs yanked the streetcars off the wires. Blacks trying to flee found themselves falling right into the hands of the waiting mob.

Abbott insists he and his fellow officers did what they could, describing his detail as “all alone down there and spread out, only 12 of us. We mostly worked the alleys, you know, trying to keep the colored people from going across Woodward, and the white people from going across Woodward the other way.”

That’s a sharp contrast to police conduct on the near east side. Klug observes, “The police actually invade the ghetto and conduct their operations. Along Woodward … they don’t intervene mainly against the white mob. It could be that they care less, or they’re outnumbered — and I think there’s some credence to both notions.”

The whites grew bolder and took control of most of Woodward Avenue. Ron Condron was a 10-year-old pupil on the white near west side. He remembers: “We got to school that Monday, and they sent us all home. Me and a couple of other kids decided to run down Woodward and see what the hell was going on. I got to Peterboro and Woodward and I climbed one of these old utility poles that had these rungs on it that went all the way to the top. I got up there, three-quarters of the way up, and looked down and the streetcar was there and there were hundreds pushing the streetcar, and they pushed it right over and dragged a black conductor out with salt-and-pepper hair, an elderly man, beating him senseless.”

Amid this ugliness, small groups of decent white Detroiters assisted the victims. Describing the attack on the conductor, Condron adds, “Before they could kill him, another handful of whites came over and dragged him over to the side. … Then there were a couple of shots and everybody dispersed.”

By noon, thousands of whites, including women, had converged on Woodward. In front of City Hall at Cadillac Square, a mob attacked any black who wandered past, and amid the frenzy, a remarkable spectacle appeared: a crowd of about 50 whites marching down Woodward behind an American flag. Appalled by the sight, a soldier and sailor angrily snatched the flag. Despite such small acts of resistance, the mob ruled the streets.

A forceful police presence on Woodward, Klug laments, might have stopped all that.

Officials fret

Sixteen hours into the melee, Mayor Jeffries and Gov. Harry F. Kelly met with local commanders of the armed forces at Detroit’s federal building. As they debated how to get manpower on the streets, a tumult from Fort Street distracted them. They rushed to the window to see a white mob chasing a terrified black man with torn clothing and a bleeding face.

Despite this shocking scene, the men quibbled over the legal ramifications of martial law. Kelly feared giving federal authorities exclusive control of the area.

As the afternoon wore on, clashes broke out spontaneously throughout the city, and the Woodward mobs began to push farther east. All that lay between them and the ghetto was a line of exhausted — and sometimes indifferent — city and state policemen.

Many black Detroiters had vivid memories of white violence and lynchings, and they were determined to defend themselves.

On Vernor, hundreds of whites crossed John R and entered the ghetto, stoning homes and chasing away a black man who fired at them with a rifle. Efforts by African-Americans to defend their neighborhood were misinterpreted by police as sniper fire.

As reports rang out from armed defenders, and a white policemen fell to the pavement wounded, police decided that gunfire was coming from the Frazer Hotel, a black rooming house. Police and state troopers who had been unwilling to use force on the white mobs suddenly directed their handguns, deer rifles, shotguns, even machine guns at the Frazer. They pumped in about 1,000 rounds and dozens of tear gas bombs. Dazed residents of the hotel staggered out into the street.

At 6:30 p.m., the mayor and the governor went on the radio to plead for calm, with no apparent effect. The Rev. Horace White and Otis Saunders, two well-known black leaders, toured beleaguered black neighborhoods in a sound truck, pleading for blacks to act peacefully. They were jeered.

At last, having hammered out details for “modified” martial law, Gov. Kelly formally requested federal troops to help quell the disorder.

At 11 p.m., June 21, just over 24 hours after the riot had begun, more than 1,000 federal troops armed with rifles and machine guns arrived in jeeps, trucks, and armored cars to occupy the city. Soon, three more battalions were en route from Wisconsin.

Martial law

Walking to Irving Elementary School on Tuesday morning, Condron saw signs of the occupation. “We got up to go to school, and there was a tank and a machine gun nest at Alexandrine and Second,” he says.

Violence still flared, with mobs attacking black workers arriving at Ford’s Rouge plant, and police still shooting to kill in Paradise Valley.

Writing for the New York Post, NAACP leader White recounted a ride in a Detroit cab. Mistaking him for a white passenger, the driver bragged about “having driven four sailors to Belle Isle so they could ‘kill some niggers’ and of having seen many Negroes thrown over the bridge.” He described how a 26-year-old black, Julian Witherspoon, taunted state troopers by saying, “Heil Hitler,” and how “State Trooper Ted Anders emptied his gun in Witherspoon,” who staggered into the black YMCA, fell against the cash register, and slumped to the floor.

As for disproportionate arrests, White wrote, “In these figures lies the answer to the sullenness and bitter despair I saw yesterday on the faces of Negroes. … Outnumbered 12 to 1 numerically and 1,000 to 1 in machine guns and tear gas and authority, Detroit Negroes ‘gaze empty at despair.’”

The official death toll was 34, with 676 injured, and $2 million in property damage. The riot also cost 1 million hours in war production and furnished Hitler with a propaganda coup. Nazi-controlled Vichy radio asserted that the riot was symptomatic of “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.”

One of the only local institutions to stick up for Detroit’s black victims was the UAW, whose president, R.J. Thomas, wasted no time in complimenting union officers on their efforts to suppress friction inside Detroit’s war plants. Thomas presented an eight-point peace plan, including: a grand jury to investigate the causes of the riots and to return indictments; ambitious programs to immediately build and open new housing, parks and recreational facilities; and ensuring the rights of black workers to jobs commensurate with their skills and seniority.

Assigning blame

Few were satisfied with the official finger-pointing in the riot’s wake. Progressive organizations such as the NAACP and the UAW blamed factions of homegrown fascists. Sociologists blamed feebleminded or excitable juvenile delinquents. Others blamed the influx of Southerners.

Whatever the cause, the reaction marked a turning point in Detroit politics. The Jeffries administration had hitherto courted black voters with civil service jobs and such. Now officials realized they couldn’t appeal to blacks without alienating white homeowners, whose beliefs they largely shared.

Authorities closed ranks with the police and political establishment, turning their backs on black grievances. Gov. Kelly stacked a fact-finding committee with prosecutors and city, county and state police. Two members headed police agencies the panel was supposed to examine.

The report exonerated the police and condemned white violence but excused it as retaliatory. It placed blame for the riot squarely on Detroit’s blacks.

Klug observes, “The police, of course, escape any blame — nothing happens. They remain solidly white and racist through the ’60s. …

“To some extent maybe the authorities were correct in the sense that African-Americans were more militant, because they were. They were demanding. And I get the sense that it shapes the police response to them, that they need to be put back in their place.”

Mayor Jeffries’ interracial committee didn’t enjoy much prominence or publicity. The Rev. Charles Hill, a member of the committee, later remarked, “We contended and requested five different times for a grand jury to investigate so that they would find the truth that the Negroes did not start the riot, but actually the police did.” Such demands so angered Jeffries, Hill said, that he disbanded the committee.

“Waited too long”

Sitting quietly at a table, nursing a glass of red wine, Ron Condron flips through old issues of Life magazine, scowling at the coverage of the riot and its aftermath. Asked who was responsible for the bloodshed, whether it was the Southerners, African-American militants, juvenile delinquents or any of the other likely suspects, he stares incredulously.

Condron has been soft-spoken and often mournful in his reminiscences, so it is a shock to see him erupt forcefully, barking, “It was the politicians! They waited too long!”

He quietly but intensely adds, “Now they probably pick up a phone and the army is here in an hour.”

Read the accompanying piece to this feature:
The ‘I have a dream’ cruise - A June 28 march to remember Dr. King’s 1963 Walk to Freedom.
Michael Jackman is a freelance writer living in Detroit. E-mail [email protected]