Detroit’s National Profile, the Race Riots of 1943


These scenes of violence were common during the Detroit Race Riot of 1943.  Robert Shogan and Tom Craig's book looks at the events before and after the riot.

These scenes of violence were common during the Detroit Race Riot of 1943. Robert Shogan and Tom Craig's book looks at the events before and after the riot.

Beleaguered Detroit has been capturing a lot of attention from national magazines recently.

Sports Illustrated used  a recent Lee Jenkins cover story, “The Righteous Franchise,” to kick off a periodic series on the city.   The news division of parent company Time Inc. even purchased a house over the summer to provide a physical space for journalists to set up and do their reporting. 

Unsurprisingly, Time magazine is part of that project.  

The publication began its year long focus on the Motor City with a cover package by native Daniel Okrent with an accompanying sidebar about former NBA great and current Mayor Dave Bing and a powerful graphic that shows just how many of the city’s properties are abandoned.

Among other causes for the city’s decline, Okrent writes about the riots of 1967 that he says accelerated white flight from the city. 

I have not yet read John Hersey’s account of those tumultuous and bloody days, but look forward to doing. 

I have, however, recently read Robert Shogan and Tom Craig’s The Detroit Race Riot: A Study in Violence, a slender book that suggests that the departure of white people began decades earlier than when Okrent asserts. 

Published in 1964, the book is a bit dated-black people are referred to as “Negroes,” for example-and the authors do an effective job of establishing where the city and the nation stood when the riots occurred.  

Shogan and Craig devote some time to talking about Detroit’s comparatively robust economy during the period that earned it the name from President Franklin Roosevelt The Arsenal of Democracy, the influx of people, many of whom were black Southerners, to the city, and the more assertive posture many black people adopted toward the nation that was fighting for democracy abroad and enforcing de jure and de facto segregation at home.

From there, they move to describing the events of the riot, the main elements of which bear a disturbing similarity to many others before and since: decades of pent up frustration manifesting itself in initial racially-based skirmishes involving black and white youth; community escalation; disproportionate law enforcement being meted out on the black community; state and even federal authorities being brought in to quell the violence; the damage primarily being confined to the black community; and half-hearted measures to address the underlying causes by those in authority after the carnage had been stopped.

To their credit, Shogan and Craig probe deeper than the elected officials in identifying the various elements of discrimination perpetuated by the city’s educational leaders, real estate authorities and elected officials in creating the conditions that contributed to such an impassioned and physical response. 

Toward the end of the book they write about the restrictive covenants that real estate agents used to try to confine the surging black populations to specific neighborhoods.  The 1948 U.S. Supreme Court case of Shelley v. Kraemer made the enforcement of these covenants, if not the covenants themselves, unconstitutional.

This decision prompted much of the black movement than then triggered the white flight Okrent says began nearly 20 years later. 

Shogan and Craig end the book by talking about the activism in the black community that led to demonstration and marches, and, in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first uttering what two months later became his signature phrase, “I have a dream.”  

As he did at the Lincoln Memorial, King concluded his speech, “Free at last, free at last, free at last.”

Close to half a century after he uttered those words, Detroit residents may be forgiven for considering King’s dream an elusive reality.  But for those people wanting to go deeper than Time and Sports Illustrated’s take on the Motor City that is enduring enormously hard time, The Detroit Race Riot is a fine place to start.


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