By 1920, Detroit was the fourth-largest city in the USA, with a population boom driven by the rapid expansion of the automobile industry. It was an era of continuing high immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s made a foothold in Detroit. The KKK became concentrated in midwestern cities rather than exclusively in the South. It was primarily anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish in this period, but it always supported white supremacy.
The KKK contributed to Detroit’s reputation for racial antagonism, and there were violent incidents starting as early as 1915. Detroit was unique among northern cities by the 1940s for its high percentage of Southern-born residents, both Black and white.
At the start of World War II, the automotive industry converted to military production; high wages were offered, attracting large numbers of workers and their families from outside of Michigan. The new workers found little available housing, and competition was fierce for both jobs and housing.
On June 25, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt prohibited racial discrimination in the national defense industry. Roosevelt called on everyone to support the war effort. But his Executive Order was not applied fairly. Black people were often excluded from the best industrial jobs, especially the skilled and supervisory positions. Because of the labor shortage during the war, Detroit companies began employing African-Americans, who were given the most grueling and dangerous jobs with lowest pay. For the first time, Black and white citizens were working side by side, resulting in hostile encounters daily. White workers accused black workers of forming a “bump club” where members would purposely bump and shove white people in public places, on sidewalks and on the bus.
The Detroit Race Riot of 1943 lasted only about 24 hours from 10:30 on June 20 to 11:00 p.m. on June 21; nonetheless it was considered one of the worst riots during the World War II era. One of the biggest contributing factors revolved around police brutality. But faced with a profound housing shortage which many thought would be reduced by the construction of public housing, the construction of public housing for Black people in predominately white neighborhoods contributed to the racial tension.
The Sojourner Truth Homes Riot in 1942, for example, began when whites were enraged by the opening of that housing project in their neighborhood. Mobs attempted to keep the Black residents from moving into their new homes. That confrontation laid the foundation for the much larger riot one year later.
On June 20, a warm Saturday evening, a fist fight broke out between a black man and a white man at the Belle Isle Amusement Park on the Detroit River. It grew into a large confrontation between groups of Black people and whites, and then spilled into the city. Stores were looted, and buildings were burned, most of them in the black neighborhoods. The riot took place mostly around Paradise Valley, one of the oldest and poorest neighborhoods in Detroit.
As the violence escalated, Black people dragged whites out of cars and looted white-owned store while whites overturned and burned black-owned vehicles and attacked African-Americans on streetcars along major streets. The Detroit police did little to stop the rioting, siding with the white rioters in the violence.
The violence ended only after Roosevelt, at the request of Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries, Jr., ordered 6,000 federal troops into the city. 25 Black people and nine white citizens were killed in the violence. Of the 25 African-Americans who died, 17 were killed by the police. The cops claimed that these shootings were justified since the victims were engaged in looting. Of the nine whites who died, none were killed by the police. The city suffered millions of dollars in property damages. 1,800 arrests were made, 85% of them were African-American. Of the approximately 600 persons injured, nearly all were black people. Some Detroit police officers told black civilians to run and not look back then shot some of them in the back. A black civilian getting off a bus was beaten by a group of white assailants in front of four police officers that stood and watched. No one was arrested or cited.
Mayor Jeffries said:
“Negro hoodlums started it, but the conduct of the police department, by and large, was magnificent.”
The Detroit riot was just one the riots that summer; it followed one in Beaumont, Texas, earlier in June, where white shipyard workers attacked Black workers after a rumor that a white woman had been raped. Another riot was in Harlem where black citizens burned a white-owned property in their neighborhood after a Black soldier had been killed by a white policeman. During WW II, there were also race riots in Los Angeles, where the former white military men began attacking young Hispanic civilians in zoot suits simply because of their clothing.