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Detroit Riot 1943,
Detroit, Michigan
June 20, 1943

Last updated: 11 months ago

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Altercations between youths started on June 20, 1943, on a warm Sunday evening on Belle Isle, an island in the Detroit River off Detroit's mainland. In what is considered a communal disorder, youths fought intermittently through the afternoon. The brawl eventually grew into a confrontation between groups of whites and blacks on the long Belle Isle Bridge, crowded with more than 100,000 day trippers returning to the city from the park. From there the riot spread into the city. Sailors joined fights against blacks. The riot escalated in the city after a false rumor spread that a mob of whites had thrown an African-American mother and her baby into the Detroit River. Blacks looted and destroyed white property as retaliation.

Historian Marilynn S. Johnson argues that this rumor reflected black male fears about historical white violence against black women and children.  An equally false rumor that blacks had raped and murdered a white woman on the Belle Isle Bridge swept through white neighborhoods. Angry mobs of whites spilled onto Woodward Avenue near the Roxy Theater around 4 a.m., beating blacks as they were getting off street cars on their way to work. They also went to the black neighborhood of Paradise Valley, one of the oldest and poorest neighborhoods in Detroit, attacking blacks who were trying to defend their homes. Blacks attacked white-owned businesses.

The clashes soon escalated to the point where mobs of whites and blacks were “assaulting one another, beating innocent motorists, pedestrians and streetcar passengers, burning cars, destroying storefronts and looting businesses."  Both sides were said to have encouraged others to join in the riots with false claims that one of "their own" had been attacked unjustly.  Blacks were outnumbered by a large margin, and suffered many more deaths, personal injuries and property damage.

The acts of the police were a big contributor to the riots. While African Americans were trying to move into the Sojourner Truth Housing Project, white folk would stand outside their tenants armed with rocks, sticks, and other weapons to attack them. When police were called to the scene, all that they did was direct the African Americans away from their homes, and search any of them that came close to the scene, head to toe. White people weren't searched, or disarmed. During the race riot, police would only persuade white people to stop their wrong doings, while the African Americans were beat with night sticks, and shot with riot guns and revolvers. Out of the 34 people killed by police, 24 of them were African American.

The riots lasted three days and ended only after Mayor Jeffries and Governor Harry Kelly asked President Roosevelt to intervene. He ordered in federal troops; a total of 6,000 troops imposed a curfew, restored peace and occupied the streets of Detroit. Over the course of three days of rioting, 34 people had been killed. 25 were African Americans; 17 were killed by the police (their forces were predominantly white and dominated by ethnic whites). Thirteen deaths remain unsolved. 9 deaths reported were white, and out of the arrest made, 85% of them were African American, and only 15% were white. Of the approximately 600 persons injured, more than 75 percent were black people, and of the roughly 1,800 people arrested over the course of the three-day riots, 85 percent were black.

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