In Detroit, this very day marks the beginning of a violent, race-fueled riot that lasted for days and left dozens dead and countless others injured. Of the persons killed, 25 were African American and 17 of that group were struck down by police officers.
Unfortunately, the riots were sparked by the tensions of Southern Blacks and Whites who headed north to the promise of jobs and opportunity. Tension grew as the Motor City attempted the impossible feat of housing and employing the heavy influx of new citizens. World War II was also underway, making Detroit a prime location to set up several wartime factories, which was the main attraction for many.
What the newcomers didn’t bank on, however, was the lack of services such as child and healthcare, grocery stores, and even public transportation.
With housing scarce or nonexistent, it was a blow to African Americans that they were only allowed to use one of the many public housing facilities in the city in 1941.
Beyond that, Blacks in the projects paid twice as much as their White counterparts but lived in relative squalor. By 1943, the Sojourner Truth projects were opened and were targeted by Whites who felt Blacks didn’t deserve the homes.
Although riots at the projects produced no fatalities, it was the start of the clashes to come.
Just ahead of the riot, White defense plant workers protested the promotion of three Black workers; 25,000 Packard plant employees walked off the job, with one famously saying, “I’d rather see Hitler and Hirohito win than work beside a N*gger on the assembly line.”
Sick of poor treatment by Whites, police, and others, Blacks in the city began a “bumping” campaign – essentially bumping in to Whites on sidewalks and refusing to sidestep out of their way on oncoming streets. On June 20th at Belle Isle Park, the riot would begin just a couple hours before midnight.
Two young Black men, reportedly angered that they were put out of a local park days earlier, went to Belle Isle to start a fight with a group of White men. Police, aware of the issues, searched the cars of Black park visitors but not the vehicles of Whites. At 10 p.m., roughly 200 people began fighting, sparking off a series of rumors.
Leo Tipton and Charles (Little Willie) Lyons told a Black crowd at the Forest Social Club that some White people had thrown a Black woman and her baby off the Belle Isle Bridge. The news spread, and 500 Blacks stormed the streets and damaged property. Conversely, Whites were misled by rumors that Blacks raped and killed a White woman at Belle Isle and a large number of armed White men took to the streets in revenge early in the morning.
The Whites attacked any Black person they saw, with some Blacks returning from late-night work shifts unaware of the dangerous situation. Police reportedly shot Black rioters in the back, considering them nothing more than looters even though White rioters were just as destructive, if not more. Eventually, Mayor Edward Jeffries Jr. and Governor Harry Kelly asked President Theodore Roosevelt for military assistance to calm down the riot.
Soldiers in armored cars and armed jeeps moved down Woodward, the street that divided the Black and White groups. Although fighting still happened in small skirmishes here and there, the presence of the military cooled the heads of the rioters.
In total, 34 were dead, 1,800 were arrested, and many of the killings went unsolved.
Although 28 men were charged with a variety of offenses, five Black men were slapped with 80-day jail sentences for disturbing the peace. Two of those men were later acquitted. Tipton and Lyons were hit with jail sentences for inciting the riot as well.
Shockingly, Mayor Jefferies and police commissioner John Witherspoon heaped praise on the police force for their handling of the riots — even though 17 Blacks died at their hands.
Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, then with the NAACP, was openly critical of Jefferies and the Detroit police for their mishandling of the riot. He accused officials of arresting Blacks at a higher clip while letting White looters and rioters run amok untouched.
“This weak-kneed policy of the police commissioner coupled with the anti-Negro attitude of many members of the force helped to make a riot inevitable,” Marshall said.