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Detroit Riot 1943

World War II highlighted African American demands for the elimination of racial segregation. More than twenty years earlier during the First World War, African Americans had put aside their grievances and closed ranks behind the United States government, only to experience bitter disappointment in the wave of postwar racism and xenophobia that continued to deny them equality. Having learned from this bitter experience, between 1941 and 1945 blacks insisted on pressing their struggle for first-class citizenship. Encouraged by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies that had brought them a measure of economic and political inclusion in the 1930s, African Americans forged the wartime ideology against Nazi theories of racial superiority into a potent weapon to attack racial inequality in the United States.

Black leaders waged a "Double V Campaign" to combat fascism abroad as well as white supremacy at home. A. Philip Randolph, the black labor leader who headed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, pointed the way in June, 1941 when he threatened to lead 100,000 African Americans in a March on Washington to protest employment discrimination and segregation in the military. Fearing negative publicity as he prepared the country for war, President Roosevelt gave in partially and averted the threatened mass demonstration. He set up the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) to investigate job bias, but held off from desegregating the armed forces.144 Nevertheless, for the first time in the twentieth century, the federal government mobilized its power behind civil rights.

Although World War II provided fertile ground for the development of innovative tactics to tear down barriers to racial equality, it also heightened tensions between blacks and whites over the use of contested public spaces. Conflicts emerged from the demographic shifts produced by the war.

Rural black and white southerners migrated to southern and northern cities in search of job openings resulting from booming wartime production and the enlistment of men into the military. This huge influx of migrants placed a severe strain on public facilities and led to frequent breaches in customary racial practices. Black soldiers stationed in the South encountered hostility as they sought out places to eat and relax. In the North, black workers clashed with whites over housing and public entertainment.

Despite civil rights statutes, segregation in public accommodations existed above the Mason-Dixon Line, and racial skirmishes intensified during the war. The wartime migration of blacks and whites from the South in search of jobs in the industrial North exacerbated racial tensions in public transportation, recreational facilities, and housing.

The situation reached a boiling point in 1943 with the outbreak of over 240-242 racial disturbances in 47-48 cities throughout the country.

The most severe one occurred in Detroit on 20 June 1943. In a city swollen with a million wartime black and white transplants, trouble erupted at the Belle Island recreation park, located near the black neighborhood of Paradise Valley. On a day when 100,000 people had attended the amusement facility, sporadic fights broke out between white and black youths. Rumors spread of rapes and killings, which precipitated a full-scale race riot. Blacks attacked whites and whites pulled blacks off trolley cars and beat them. Before it was all over, 34 people were killed, 700 injured, $200 million in property damaged, and President Roosevelt had to dispatch federal troops to restore calm.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:23:09 Zulu