Remembering the 1967 Detroit Riot, part 4: “A striking ambiguity”

by Brian Matzke on July 21, 2017

“A striking ambiguity”:
Race, labor, and radical politics before and after the riot

Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW
New Edition
August Meier and Elliott Rudwick
Foreword by Joe W. Trotter

Right in Michigan’s Grassroots
From the KKK to the Michigan Militia
JoEllen McNergney Vinyard

Secret Witness
The Untold Story of the 1967 Bombing in Marshall, Michigan
Blaine L. Pardoe

Black America in the Shadow of the Sixties
Notes on the Civil Rights Movement, Neoliberalism, and Politics
Clarence Lang

1967 was not the first time Detroit experienced a large scale riot. The summer of 1943 saw a riot that can be seen as anticipating what would happen on Twelfth Street 24 years later. During the Great Depression and World War II, African American workers flocked to the city seeking better-paying jobs. In the 1930s, the Ford Motor company employed half of the Black workers in the entire auto industry, and enjoyed virtually unanimous admiration from the black community. The industry’s expansion caused the city’s population to boom: by the early 1940s Detroit had more than 2 million residents, over 200,000 of whom were black. Racially integrated housing projects and workplaces saw increasing tensions, which reached a boiling point on June 20, 1943, when a brawl between black and white youths escalated into three days of city-wide mob violence. Thirty-four people were killed, most of whom were Black, and most of whom were shot by police. Roughly 1,800 people were arrested, 85% of whom were black. The rioting only ended on June 22 when federal troops intervened.

One consequence of the 1943 riot was a closer partnership between the Black community and the United Auto Workers, both of whom were angered by Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries’s handling of the riot. August Meier and Elliot Rudwick document the history of the relationship between Detroit labor unions and the Black community in their book Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW, a relationship that, they write, “had been characterized by a striking ambiguity” (221). Through the 1940s and 50s, as Meier and Rudwick write, “The UAW had been in the vanguard of the labor movement and indeed of the larger American society in it support for black aspirations” (221-222). Sadly, this alliance would deteriorate over time, and tensions would rise again in the 1960s as Detroit began to lose jobs due to automation and consolidation in the auto industry. Leader of the National Negro Labor Council Coleman Young would lament that they had “overestimated” potential support from trade unions (Dillard 196). And the Black nationalist preacher Albert B. Cleage would boast of being the only “Negro leader in this labor dominated city to defy labor leaders” (Dillard 268). With jobs disappearing and alliances between the Black community and white allies eroding, a more militant Black nationalism had room to grow in Detroit.

However, political turbulence in the 1960s could not only be found on the left. As historian JoEllen McNergney Vinyard notes, Michigan has been a site of grassroots political activism throughout the twentieth century from all points on the political spectrum. George Romney, the state’s centrist Republican governor, was the target of much of this activism. Romney had been elected governor in 1962 and reelected in 1964 and 1966 with increasingly large margins. In 1966 he managed to win 50 percent of the labor vote and 34 percent of the black vote. These successes made him the enemy of both ends of the political spectrum, but particularly the right-wing Birch Society, who considered him to be in league with un-Americans and weak when it came to fighting Communism. The Birch Society had increased recruitment in Detroit in the mid-1960s. After the 1967 riot, they felt that their warnings about civil insurrection had been validated. The riot also pushed Romney to the right; he blamed it on failed moral character, weakened family life, and a decline in religious conviction, as well as on “power blocs within organized labor.” He also took a tougher stance on the Black Power movement:

He called for consequences; he charged that Black Power activists like Stokely Carmichael should be treated as traitors. In the aftermath, the governor expanded the state police special investigation unit (the Red Squad) from 12 to over 30, and 20 of the detectives were assigned specifically to monitor unrest and black militants in Detroit (223).

This change did not persuade the Birch Society, who still perceived him as soft on leftist movements. It was also, arguably, scapegoating. While the Black Power movement was influential in Detroit in 1967, Romney’s position largely avoided confronting the real grievances that the rioters had, such as unemployment, poor schools, and police brutality.

Also, though the 1943 riot was clearly a “race riot” between Detroit’s black and white communities, many scholars contend that it would be inaccurate to think of the 1967 riot in those terms. While racial disparities and racial discrimination certainly played a role in the tensions leading up to the riot, the uprising was not motivated by simple racial animus and the violence did not take place between racial groups. Many white inner city residents participated in the riot as well.

Still, in the immediate aftermath of the riots, the reaction of nearby, predominately white communities consisted of racial paranoia and fear. As historian Blaine L. Pardoe writes:

The Marshall Chamber of Commerce had even held a meeting to discuss what would happen if there were race riots in their city. The city manager had said that they had “spotters checking when negroes leave Albion or Battle Creek and know if they planned to come to Marshall” (30).

This paranoia would lead to one of several red herrings in Marshall police’s investigation of a bombing at a cafe which took place less than a month after the riots. While four unidentified black men were initially on the list of suspects, the police eventually arrested local resident Enoch Chism, a white man with a history of arson.

The violence and upheaval of the 1960s cast a long shadow over activists and Black communities, both in Detroit and across the country. Clarence Lang argues that that legacy is so large that it has impeded subsequent political actions:

The Sixties as a persistent historical touchstone has encouraged a poverty of thought about the contemporary challenges we face as citizens, residents, activists, and scholars desiring progressive social change. This is most acute among those of us who were born post-Sixties and who grew up in that period’s formidable shadow. For Black America, as for the rest of the United States, our outlooks and approaches in the new millennium have to squarely face post-1960s developments, most especially the violence of neoliberalism. This includes not only the corrosion of working and living conditions for the majority but also the assault on political imagination, the distortions and erasures of historical memory, and the erosion of positive group solidarities (120).

However, this has not necessarily been a challenge for Detroit. Lang points to the city as an example of a place where creative activism is still taking place, showing how local activist organizations like the Detroit People’s Water Board protested residents’ water shutoffs, eliciting support from the United Nations and pushing the city’s water and sewage department to negotiate new payment plans. By advocating for residents’ right to water and housing, Detroit’s 21st century activists are pushing for a more just and inclusive understand of who and what the city is for. Many of the difficulties that resulted in the riot 50 years ago are still present in Detroit today, but artists, scholars, and activists have also provided a range of new ways to see the city, and new opportunities for its future development.

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