Even in a country shaped by race relations, Detroit stands out. The story of race in the city has its own complexity beyond that of many others.

However, so often the story gets reduced down to one topic: the racial clashes in 1943 and 1967.

Those events are notable moments in Detroit history, but the long-term circumstances and story surrounding them are often lost to oversimplification.

Melba Joyce Boyd is a distinguished professor and chair of the Wayne State University Africana Studies Department, with a long list of literary accolades. Boyd grew up in Detroit. Her family started out in the southwest side of the city but eventually moved to Conant Gardens, where Boyd’s mother still lives.

While discussing the racial history of Detroit overall, Boyd is quick to point out that the topic is nuanced.

“It’s more complicated than outsiders understand,” she said. “Race relations in Detroit have sort of been dynamic depending what period of history you’re looking at.”

From the outset of Detroit’s founding, race helped develop of the city, starting with the indigenous population who had already formed a society before the French arrived and created what is known as Detroit today.

Boyd noted the unique racial dynamic of Detroit’s early years, pointing to both the role of free Black explorers accompanying the French in founding the city, as well as the fact that a large portion of the slaves held were Native Americans.

Moving forward in the city’s history, Detroit played a significant role for Blacks during the Civil War because of its proximity to Canada. The city’s Underground Railroad network out of the country offered freedom from both slavery and oppression for free Blacks.

Boyd said at the outset of the Industrial Revolution, the beginnings of the auto industry in the city and the subsequent appeal of plentiful work attracted both southern Blacks and whites to Detroit. That demographic trend meant that at the same time the city was seen as a source of prosperity for many Black families, a public sympathizer with the Ku Klux Klan was also elected mayor briefly in 1930.

On top of that, Detroit also experienced the conflict between Blacks and whites seen in most all U.S. cities, such as housing discrimination, police brutality and segregated schools and businesses. These issues would persist throughout the 20th century and shape much of the city’s racial history.

What made Detroit stand out from the broader national narrative, Boyd said, was that despite clear discrimination towards the Black community — similar to many other areas — the city also had uniquely prosperous African-American neighborhoods.

“By the time you get to 1967, Black people are probably enjoying a better economic existence than any other place in the country,” Boyd said. “In Detroit, Black people lived in houses; they didn’t live in tenement buildings. That’s a huge difference on quality of life.”

Racial clashes in Detroit

“It had this feel of being a city under siege, of being attacked.”

Marian Krzyzowski, director of the University Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy, recounted his experience living through the 1967 Detroit “race riot” as being surreal, movie-like. At 19 years old during the events, Krzyzowski recalled seeing stores in his neighborhood burned and tanks and U.S. soldiers scattered throughout the city. He remembers sleeping with his family downstairs and away from any windows to the sound of distant gunfire.

“Essentially, it was a war zone,” he said.

In Detroit’s history, two major — and at least partly racially motivated — clashes prompted federal Army intervention, caught nationwide media attention and led to brutality, extensive property damage and murder.

The first incident took place in June 1943.

History Prof. Charlie Bright and Assistant History Prof. Stephen Ward said leading up to the 1943 riot, Detroit had been experiencing an influx of new residents from the South, both white and Black, in the wake of the new jobs created through the booming auto industry.

Though jobs for the migrants were plentiful, housing was not. No new housing had been constructed since the Great Depression, and Black residents were excluded from almost all public housing projects, forcing them to cram into 60 square blocks on the city’s east side, an area that ironically came to be known as “Paradise Valley.”

According to the Detroit Historical Society, most apartment buildings did not have indoor plumbing, a fairly common amenity at the time, yet cost up to three times more than whites-only housing.

In response to the overcrowding and shortage of living spaces for both Blacks and whites, in 1941, the Detroit Housing Commission approved two sites for housing projects, one for Blacks and one for whites, in a predominantly white area. Many whites protested the project and upon its completion, when Black citizens had already signed leases, over 1,000 white residents picketed, vowing to keep out any Black residents.

The tension over housing, overcrowded public facilities and the brutal heat of the summer all led to several small-scale scuffles between Black and white citizens during the summer of 1943.

“The city was physically crammed,” Bright said.

On June 20, a brawl broke out on Belle Isle between Blacks and whites. After the brawl, rumors circulated as to what took place — many Black Detroiters claimed whites had thrown a Black woman and her baby off the Belle Isle Bridge, while white Detroiters said a Black man raped and killed a white woman.

In response to the rumors, over 500 Black residents rioted and looted throughout the night, while white men beat Black men leaving the Roxy Theatre on Woodward Avenue.

Over the next 36 hours, Detroit faced constant looting, rioting and conflict between Blacks and whites. It was not until Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries Jr. asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to send in federal troops that the mobs began to dissipate.

“It’s a crowded city full of hostility, and a rumor or an altercation can set it off,” Bright said.

The riot claimed 34 lives: 9 whites and 25 Blacks. Out of those 25, 16 Black men died at the hands of police officers.

In response to the riot and months of increasing strain between whites and Blacks in the city, both the local and federal government attempted to alleviate tension through measures like increasing federally financed public housing and working to advance Black prospects within the labor movement.

“These are responses indirectly, consequences really, of a collision between the races and crowded conditions that lead to federal policies that try to alleviate those conditions,” Bright said. “(Those policies) produce new conditions of ghetto concentrations of African Americans inside the city and suburban sprawl of whites outside the city, both products in part of federal interventions.”

However, with increasing private housing available outside the city, many white citizens departed for the suburbs in the ‘40s and ‘50s, a phenomenon referred to as “white flight.”

Ward and Bright said Black residents initially welcomed the shift, as it opened up affordable housing space in the city near the still-booming auto industries.

Both stressed that the riot in 1943 did not directly lead to factors like white flight and police brutality — factors that contributed to the ‘67 uprising — but were instead an expression of the ongoing circumstances for Black and white residents of the city.

In essence, Bright said racial tension was not caused simply through the riots, but was a long term presence in the city.

“The riots are symbolic events, but they capture and express the eruption of forces that are not resolved, and the continued inability to resolve these problems continues now,” Bright said. “We’re pushing against the notion that there are living consequences of ‘43 and ‘67 and rather seeing ‘43 and ‘67 as living consequences of unresolved race relations in the city.”


The second major conflict occurred between the police and Black residents in the city.

Before the uprising of 1967, and unlike the context of the ‘43 race riot, Black citizens held relatively more recognition and political cachet, as the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement ramped up during the 1960s and 1970s in the United States.

According to Ward and Bright, both federal and state governments were starting to recognize the rights and challenges facing Black communities. For example, Black citizens held seats in the Detroit school board.

Feeling threatened, some white residents sought to keep their privilege over Black residents primarily through the police.

“There was a population of whites in the city that resented concessions to the civil rights movement, or the movement for Blacks to be able to buy houses in neighborhoods where they wanted to live, and so on,” Bright said. “There was a resentment in the power centers of the city for going over to the other side, and they looked at the police as the last line of defense of white power.”

Bright added that though Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh attempted to reform the notably racist police force, the endeavor failed.

“Clearly a police department that’s almost all white, in a city that’s had a significant African American population, is a formula for disaster,” Krzyzowski said.

The ‘67 uprising was triggered by a police raid of a “blind pig,” or unlicensed bar, on the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount Avenue, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, during which 82 arrested patrons were arrested.

Following reports that police were using excessive force on the arrested patrons, a crowd grew around the bar and began to throw objects at police cars and loot nearby stores.

After an ensuing day of violence between police officers and residents, along with vandalism and buildings set aflame, Cavanaugh requested Army troops and the National Guard be brought in to quell the violence. They arrived one day after the police raid and stayed for four more days.

According to The New York Times, at the end of the five-day uprising, local police killed 20 residents and the Army troops and National Guardsmen killed 10, leaving 43 dead in total. Among the dead, 10 were white and 33 were Black.

“It wasn’t a race riot in the sense of white against Black,” Krzyzowski said. “This wasn’t a race riot; this was a rebellion of years and years of frustration exploding and when it exploded everything just went to hell.”

At one of the Detroiters Speak Series hosted by the University’s Semester in Detroit Program, Detroit Reverend Dan Aldridge and David Goldberg, assistant professor at Wayne State, echoed many of the same points. The two spoke to a room crowded with University students and local Detroiters on a late January evening, laying out the full circumstances surrounding the ‘67 incident.

“It’s so similar to what we see transpiring with ‘Black Lives Matter’ today,” Goldberg said, specifically discussing the police decision to hold the arrested on Belle Isle and the poor treatment they received from the police. “You have in social movements events that prove to be a spark and the event that is a spark sometimes isn’t necessarily something that’s distinctive.”

Goldenberg added there were several smaller incidents during that summer that set the stage for an eruption, creating a general racial frustration in the city.

“I mention this because Mike Brown being killed by police, that happens, according to studies, basically every 28, 24 hours right? He’s not the only one this happens to but there’s certain moments,” he said. “The blind pig being raided in the summer of 1967 wasn’t distinctive, that happened all the time.”

Aldridge also said the situation for Black Detroiters went beyond just issues with the police. The Black community had been largely deteriorating, he said, noting in particular poor economic opportunity as jobs started moving out of the city. He added that much of the city’s new development at that time only served white workers in the suburbs, saying projects like the freeways uprooted Black neighborhoods and destroyed the Black middle class.

“The Detroit conflagration didn’t just happen one night. This was some decades in the beginning and it was an explosion,” he said.

While these first and secondhand accounts tell a complicated story, according to Krzyzowski, the media portrayal of the uprising suggested a racial clash, as it tended to present Black looters when it was proven that many looters and rioters were white.

In his own experience after the riot, Krzyzowski said he found most white people tended to make assumptions that Black people had a significantly negative role to play, even though the Black citizens experienced the majority of fatalities and injuries.

“It was a confirmation or validation of their racist stereotypes of African Americans,” he said. “I wouldn’t say everyone did, but it was there significantly.”

The fraction of white residents in the city fell from 70.8 percent in 1960 to 55.5 percent in 1970 and to 34.4 percent in 1980.

In 2010, white residents only made up 10.6 percent of the city’s population.

Ward said the change in the demographics of the city was not directly caused by the riot, as many whites were already exiting the city due to the changing stereotypes of Blacks at the time.

In beginning of the 20th century, Blight and Ward described the “biggest threat” to a white family as a Black family moving in. With the emergence of the civil rights movement and growing racial acceptance, this stereotype quelled. However, through the growing number of Black citizens in cities across the nation and similar uprisings, many white citizens began to fear the “lone Black mugger in the shadows,” Bright said.

“Black people and crime and cities all came to be associated in this period, largely because of these riots or uprising,” Ward said.

Because of these growing stereotypes and increasing affordability for suburban homes, rather than specifically the riots, white people left the city en masse.

“An acceleration of so called ‘white flight’ is an impact of ‘67, but it’s often said, but it’s too sophisticated to say ‘67 caused or continued white flight. All those dynamics a part of ‘67 intensifies and those contribute to why people are leaving the city,” Ward said. “ ‘67 accelerates a process that was already happening: of whites leaving the city, of racial dynamics.”

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