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Prelude to 1967: Detroit’s racial clashes of 1942-43

The Detroit News

This year Detroit marks the 50th anniversary of the most significant social unrest in its history.  But the seeds for the events of 1967 sprouted a generation before, in 1942 and ’43.

It was a time when tens of thousands of southerners had migrated to Detroit to find work in the auto industry, and then the defense industry as America ramped up for World War II.  Detroit had the jobs, but not the housing.  Private developers could build no new homes because of the demands of the war industry.

The housing crisis was particularly severe for African-Americans, who already densely populated the few neighborhoods to which they were confined due to  segregation policies.  Many lived in homes without indoor plumbing, yet they paid rent two to three times higher than families in white neighborhoods.  Landlords knew that blacks had nowhere else to go. Detroit’s 200,000 black residents were crammed into small, subdivided apartments that often housed multiple families.

In June 1941, the Detroit Housing Commission approved two sites for federally financed public housing -- one for whites, the other near Dequindre just south of McNichols for African-Americans. But federal officials instead chose a sparsely settled area on the northeast side of the city, near Nevada and Fenelon. They signaled their intent to make the project an African-American neighborhood by naming it Sojourner Truth Homes, after the heroine of the Underground Railroad movement.

Protests by nearby white residents were further inflamed by an announcement by the Federal Housing Administration that if blacks occupied the Sojourner Truth Homes, there would be no federal backing of mortgages in the surrounding neighborhoods.  Fearing racial violence, the FHA reversed itself, announcing on Jan. 20, 1942 that the Sojourner Truth Homes would be designated for whites.

Appeals from Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries, Detroit housing officials and civil rights groups convinced FHA officials to reverse their decision again, in favor of black residents, who would be able to legally move in on Feb. 28, 1942.

When that day came, the first arrivals were met by a large crowd of white protesters, who harassed the black families and threw rocks at them.  The would-be residents retreated, but later in the day two black tenants ran their cars through the picket line, and the melee was on.  Other black Detroiters showed up to back up those trying to move in.  Reportedly the National Workers League, a Nazi front group with a large presence in Detroit, was heavily involved in agitating for violence.

The fighting resulted in 40 injuries. Police arrested 217 blacks and three whites, and called off the occupation of homes.

White demonstrations continued until the end of April, when 1,100 city and state police officers and 1,600 members of Michigan National Guard were sent to the area to protect six African-American families moving into the Sojourner Truth Homes. Eventually 168 black families would live there. But the Sojourner Truth clash did nothing to resolve the raw feelings between the races.

Encountering overt racism was an everyday fact of life for blacks, who faced segregation or unequal opportunities in education,governmental policies, social services,   and pay, not to mention maltreatment by police and the justice system.

During the war, gas rationing meant that almost everyone rode the trolleys, which were crammed full and sometimes led to racially motivated shoving and fights. On the job, bigoted white factory workers refused to work alongside African-Americans and slowed down the lines, or halted production altogether to protest the promotion of their black co-workers.

To protest unfair conditions, some blacks began a "bumping campaign" -- walking into whites on the streets and bumping them off the sidewalks, or nudging them in elevators. Resentment on both sides often escalated into street fights.

On June 20, 1943, an interracial fight broke out on Belle Isle that grew to involve more than 200 people. Police broke up the combatants, but later that night, two rumors ignited violence on both sides.

African-Americans at the Forest Social Club in Paradise Valley were told that whites had thrown a black woman and her baby off of the Belle Isle bridge. An angry mob took to the streets, smashing windows on Hastings Street, looting businesses and attacking white motorists along Warren and Vernor.

Meanwhile, white men were gathering after hearing the rumor that black men had raped a white woman near the Belle Isle bridge. They waited outside the Roxy Theatre on Woodward, and when the movie let out, attacked black men leaving the theater.

Soon, thousands of whites and blacks were out on the streets. The white mob overturned cars owned by blacks, set them on fire and beat black men. A white Italian immigrant doctor, Joseph De Horatiis, was beaten to death while making a house call in a black neighborhood.  Black people were pulled off of trolley cars and beaten.

The 2,000 Detroit police officers and 150 state police troopers sent to deal with the situation were unable to keep order as tens of thousands milled around, looking for trouble.

The first death was a white pedestrian killed by a taxicab. Later four white youths shot and killed Moses Kiska, 58, a black man who was waiting for a bus at Mack and Chene. At least six Detroit policemen were shot in the melees, and another 75 were injured.

On the second day of the riot, when white gangs crossed Woodward and entered black neighborhoods in Paradise Valley, Mayor Jeffries and Michigan Gov. Harry Kelly asked for help from national troops. Twelve hours later, tanks moved in with 6,000 Army troops, brandishing loaded guns and bayonets.  The crowds quickly dispersed, 36 hours after the Belle Isle fight ignited the city.

When it was over, the death count was 25 blacks and 9 whites, with 675 others injured, 1,895 arrested, and property damages of more than $2 million.  Many of those killed died of blunt trauma wounds or multiple stabbings, a testament to the anger and hatred unleashed on the streets.  Of the African-Americans who were killed, 17 died at the hands of police violence.

Order had been restored, but not peace. Twenty-four years later, troops would return to Detroit when the city’s racial tensions would boil over once again.

Compiled from Detroit News archives, the Detroit Historical Society, and