Memory Hole History: Detroit – Ground Zero of the Urban Crisis

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Detroit has always fascinated me. I consider it the greatest city America ever produced largely because of what it brought to the world over the last 100 years. From the automobile and other various industries to the “Arsenal of Democracy.” It’s the birthplace of organized labor, as well as many of the most important civil rights and radical political movements of the 20th Century. It is also the birthplace of The Nation of Islam and today the Detroit metro area holds the largest Arabs population in North America. From the art of Diego Rivera and others to the music of Hastings Street, Motown, the Grande Ballroom and beyond, the city over and over again has made its mark. In short, Detroit’s impact on American society, politics, religion and culture can never be understated.

If one truly wants to understand what has happened to Detroit during its rise and fall over the last century, they need to begin by reading Thomas J. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.

I had already done a lot of research into post-Word War II Detroit when I wrote, narrated, directed and edited the radio documentary, Motor City Burning, in 2007. Nevertheless, Sugure’s book blew me away. It is a masterpiece of scholarship that deserves much greater attention. The following are the notes I used – largely based on Sugrue’s book – when giving presentations about 20th Century Detroit over the last couple of years.

The following – which will be supplemented by excerpts from Motor City Burning as well as Ira Katznelson’s 2010 book, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America – is just a cliff notes version of what Sugure’s book holds and I hope that some of you may seek out the book as a result.

In my opinion, the rise and fall of Detroit is one of the most incredible stories in world history. It’s current chapter is just beginning and what the future holds for what was once America’s fifth largest city is anyone’s guess. And the wake of what has happened in Motown will be felt, studied, debated and lamented for many years forward.


The evolution of the Detroit we see today began with the Great Migration – Detroit’s black population grew from 5,741 in 1910, to 40,838 by 1920.

Meanwhile, Detroit’s overall population grew by a half-million (993,675).

By 1930, Detroit’s black population stood at 120,066 while Detroit surpassed 1-point-5 million (1,568,662).

Just 54,790 people migrated to Detroit during the 1930s, 29,000 of those migrants were African American.

It was during the Great Migration during the teens and twenties that municipal governments and their partners in business, real estate and finance began to create a systematic, institutional system of residential apartheid in Detroit and other northern cites.

In 1923, the Detroit Realtors Association instituted restrictive covenants as official policy to bar blacks from moving into white areas.

Banks and insurance companies also during the 1920s began to restrict access to home and business mortgages and improvement loans to blacks in Detroit.


In addition, the Klu Klux Klan made major inroads into the North during the Roaring Twenties. Sending their first recruiter into Detroit in 1921 – the Invisible Order amassed 35-thousand members in Detroit by 1924. In Chicago, that number had reached 50-thousand. In the 1924 runoff election for Mayor of Detroit, the Klan – in a write in campaign – elected an unknown lawyer named Charles Bowles by over 7,000 votes over his GOP and Democratic opponents.

It was only by the actions of the two-major parties and their pals on the Detroit Election Commission, who managed to throw out 17,000 Klan votes on technicalities, that burning crosses and white sheets did not join automobiles as Detroit’s biggest exports.


These and other events helped shape the racial order in Detroit during the 1920s and 1930s. Housing, economic, educational and job discrimination resulted in most of Detroit’s 149,000 blacks being locked into a 60-square-block area on the city’s Lower East Side, ironically called ‘Paradise Valley.’

By the start of World War II, the geography, politics and culture of Detroit had come to be defined in terms of black and white.

At the outbreak of the second World War, nearly 90 percent of Detroit’s white population would have had to move from one census tract to another for there to have been an equal distribution of black and white over Detroit’s 140-square mile area.


World War II saw Detroit’s white majority trade-in their shop aprons for combat rifles. The result was a massive local labor shortage that created new job opportunities for Detroit blacks – both male and female – as industry would use them to fill the void.

Yet as late as 1942, 119 of 197 Detroit manufactures surveyed by the UAW had no black employees. That had changed by 1944 as a report found that ”a 44-percent increase in wartime employment brought with it an advance of 103 percent in the total number of Negroes employed.”

Overall, between 1940 and 1943, the number of unemployed workers in Detroit fell from 135,000 to a mere 4,000.


But as employment opportunities grew, so would the level of racial backlash.

Between 1941 and 1944, white Detroit workers staged dozens of wildcat and hate strikes as they protested the hiring and promotions of black workers to formerly restricted jobs and positions.

In 1942, on the city’s Northeast Side, whites fought blacks as the city attempted to move a black family into the public Sojourner Truth housing project.

Life Magazine proclaimed in 1942 that ”Detroit is dynamite . . . it can either blow up Hitler or blow up the U.S.”

In June, 1943 the former occurred as racial brawls on Belle Isle spilled into downtown as blacks looted Paradise Valley’s white-owned stores. The following day, more than ten-thousand whites – aided by a sympathetic police force – stormed through Paradise Valley. The result was the deaths of 34 people, 25 of them black – 17 blacks were shot by police – 675 serious injuries and 1,893 arrests before federal troops restored order.

Those events further galvanized racial tension in the city and caused local officials to kick the problem of adequate and abundant housing in Detroit down the road. That lack of action would reverberate with devastating consequences for decades to come.


Despite popular misconceptions about how 20th Century Detroit became Ghettoized such as:

Liberal corrupt leadership & policies

Union militancy

Single-parent families

Lack of morality

Commie Marxist Pinkos

The facts show that it happened because of systematic, institutionalized policies created during the Great Depression by the Federal Government and local bankers, insurance companies and real estate brokers.

At the outbreak of the Great Depression, Federal Home Loan Bank Board officials in collaboration with local real estate brokers and lenders designed maps to divide Detroit and other U.S. Cities into sections ranked from A (Green) through D (Red), based on a survey of age of buildings, their condition, the amenities and the infrastructure of the neighborhood. Most important to the grade was the level of racial, ethnic and economic homogeneity and the absence of ”a lower grade population.”

Every Detroit neighborhood with any black folks was rated D or “hazardous” by federal appraisers. Areas with a shifting or ”undesirable population” likewise warranted a D rating. Federal appraisers would award higher ratings to white neighborhoods whose properties were covered by restricted covenants. This program was implemented not only in places like Detroit, but in cites as small as Jackson, Michigan.

As a result the FHA regularly denied blacks home loans while underwriting the construction of new homes for whites only a few blocks away. Federal housing policy legitimized systematic housing discrimination against blacks and led directly to what became known as white fight and the construction of the urban ghetto.

These appraisals ”became self-fulfilling prophecies in the hands of real estate interests – brokers, speculators, developers and banks – built on the base of racial animosity to perpetuate racial divisions in the housing market’.’

By the 1940s more than 80 percent of property in Detroit outside of the Grand Boulevard boundary fell under the scope of racial restriction. Whereas no land developed before 1910 was restricted – deeds in every subdivision developed between 1940 and 1947 specified the exclusion of blacks.


Congressional Southern Democrats played a vital role in helping pass – and effectively neuter – FDR’s New Deal programs. And how they did so is one of the most important and overlooked histories of 20th Century America.

Jim Crow Democrats – whose votes were needed to bypass GOP opposition to FDR’s reforms – built walls inside the legislation to preserve the Southern racial and economic order. They did so through their high ranks and heavy numbers inside Congressional committees; their skill with legislative rules and procedures and by exploiting their less determined Congress members.

First, when possible they crafted legislation to leave out as many blacks as possible. For example, farm workers and domestic servants were left out of the Social Security Act. And were not allowed into the program – therefore they received no benefits from it (union representation, minimum wage & work hour rules, retirement benefits) until the 1950s. Farm workers and domestic workers made up more than 60 percent of the black labor force in the 1930s.

Second, they successfully insisted that the administration of these and other laws, including assistance to the poor and veterans, be placed in the hands of local officials who could Jim Crow the aid and subsequent results.

Third, they prevented Congress from attaching any anti-discrimination provisions to community health, school lunch, hospital construction grants and any other social welfare programs that distributed New Deal dollars.

These loopholes allowed Southern as well as Northern institutions to shut out blacks whenever and wherever they pleased.


Much of the housing battle in Detroit from the Great Depression until the Great Society centered on the flow of federal funds between public housing and subsidized private home ownership. Because of the FHA and HOLC insistence that mortgages and loans be restricted to racially pure neighborhoods – white Detroit came to expect a vigilant government to protect their segregated neighborhoods.

And although the landmark 1948 U.S. Supreme Court case Shelly v. Kraemer unanimously ruled that restrictive covenants could not be enforced by the state – it would take another two decades before blacks would be allowed to move freely and safely from beyond the Detroit’s ghetto walls.

Despite the law, real estate brokers and developers encouraged the formation of neighborhood improvement associations to enforce restrictive covenants.

In addition, realtors who obeyed the Supreme Court and breached the color line faced penalties or expulsion from the Real Estate Board and they were denied access to the board’s cross-listing service. They also faced harassment from angry whites who made up the ranks of the new improvement associations.

Between 1943 and 1965, Detroit whites founded at least 192 neighborhood organizations throughout the city. These groups shared a common bond of whiteness and Americaness.


While Detroit was a haven for white southern migrants, there is no evidence that their presence was a major force in these associations. A 1951 survey found that southerners living in Detroit had no more negative attitudes about Negroes and were no more in favor of segregation than people from other parts of the county. As the KKK movement in 1920’s Detroit had shown, the race politics of Detroit’s neighborhoods associations were engrained long ago.

A 1951 Wayne State University Study found that race relations followed a close second to housing as the most pressing problem. 68-percent of white respondents called for some form of racial segregation and 56-percent called for residential segregation. Breaking it down further – 85-percent of poor and working-class whites; 56-percent of middle-income and 42-percent of upper-income whites supported racial segregation.

Using the fear-mongering rhetoric of negro-invasions, race-mingling and Communist infiltration and agitation, these associations had a powerful effect on Detroit politics, as the Jefferies and Cobo administrations backed them at every turn. And when the Jerome Cavanagh administration tried to drag Detroit housing policy into the 20th Century during the 1960s, the associations put a pro-segregation Homeowner’s Rights Ordinance on the ballot in 1964. The initiative passed by a 55-to-45-percent margin – was declared unconstitutional by the Wayne County District Court in 1965 – and was never implemented.

And when lawful methods of Motown Jim Crow failed, Detroit whites got violent. In the post-WWII era White Detroiters instigated over 200 incidents of harassment, mass demonstration, picketing, effigy burning, window breaking, arson, vandalism and physical attacks against black homeowners.

25 cross-burnings happened in 1965 alone after the defeat of the Homeowners Rights Ordinance.

Sugrue writes: ”In the area of housing, violence in Detroit was organized and widespread, the outgrowth of one of the largest grassroots movement’s in the city’s history. It involved thousands of whites, directly affected hundreds of blacks, mainly those who were among the first families to break the residential barriers of race, and indirectly constrained the housing choices of tens of thousands of blacks fearful of harassment and physical injury if they broke through Detroit’s residential color line. The violent clashes between whites and blacks that marred the city were political acts, the consequence of perceptions of homeownership, community, gender, and race deeply held by white Detroiters.”

As a result of this history, between 1930 and 1960, Detroit’s black population actually became more isolated from their white neighbors. During that 30-year period, blacks living in areas with a 90-percent or more black population increased from 15.8 to 23 percent. Those living in areas with a 50-to-89 percent black population rose from 33 to 61.8 percent. In 1930, slightly more than half of Detroit’s black population lived in white-majority neighborhoods. By 1960, that number had fallen to just 15.2 percent.


Common Council member/former UAW organizer/public housing administrator/New Deal Democrat George Edwards

City Treasurer/corporate executive/real estate investor/Republican Albert Cobo

Cobo’s anti-public housing/Negro invasion campaign overwhelmed Edwards – despite massive support from the United Auto Workers and the minority community. The election baffled liberal leaders and showed that Motown’s divide between the politics of home and the politics of workplace were truly separate and unequal.

The Edwards defeat marked the beginning of a retreat of the UAW from labor politics in the city. Coupled at a time when the Red Scare was rearing its ugly head in Detroit and elsewhere – the era of organized labor as a driving force for social justice came to an abrupt halt from which it has never recovered.

Cobo wasted no time in paying back the forces who swept him into office – vetoing eight of the twelve public housing projects in the city; stacking the Detroit Housing Commission with his cronies and turning the cities energies from public housing to urban renewal projects which turned Detroit’s black entertainment and business districts into memories.

Lower East Side/Paradise Valley/Hastings Street = Chrysler Freeway (I-75)

Lower West Side/12th Street/Highland Park = John C. Lodge (M-10)

West Side = Edsel Ford (I-94)

In addition, a mere 1,500 of the 186,000 single-family houses constructed in metro-Detroit in the 1940s were open to blacks.

Black buyers faced large down payments, difficulties in financing, and high-interest land contracts, as well as the expensive maintenance costs of old houses, all of which added to their housing expenditures.

”The Mayor’s Interracial Committee reported in 1950: “Vast amounts of new housing on the periphery of the city are being marketed to white buyers. These conditions result in a situation where properties in older neighborhoods tend to command higher price from Negro buyers than from white.”

Detroit’s already large gap between blacks and white in public housing grew during the 1950’s. Unlike other major cities like Chicago and New York, Detroit had relatively little permanent public housing. Only 8,155 units of public housing were constructed in Detroit between 1937 and 1955. From 1950 through 1956, Detroit saw smaller cities like Boston, Newark, Norfolk, St. Louis and New Orleans all built more public housing for their citizens.


As the black migration from Black Bottom increased during the 1950s, the Detroit Board of Education redrew school districts to keep a Motown version of separate-but-unequal intact. By the early sixties, almost a decade after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and over a decade before forced busing became a four-letter word in Michigan; Detroit’s education system was highly and systematically segregated. One hundred-six of Detroit’s public schools had a 90 percent or more white student body. Meanwhile, seventy-eight other schools had a 90-percent or more black student body. The skin color of the teachers in these facilities fell along the same segregated backdrop.


By 1960, 69.6 percent of white Detroit lived in homes built before 1939. For black Detroit, 91 percent. In addition, the median-value of those pre-39 homes was 23.5 percent less for a black owner than a white owner.

Not only were Detroit’s black neighborhoods highly contained; many of them, especially in the poorest areas, were bursting at the seams. In 1960 the population of the Twelfth Street area, the epicenter of the 1967 riot, averaged 21-thousand-376 people per square mile, a number that was almost double the city’s average.

As the housing crisis worsened in Detroit, it was not uncommon for black renters to pay 20-to-40 percent more for rent than white tenants. As late as 1960, the median monthly rent for blacks was $12 more per month than for white tenants. Because of higher rents, substandard housing, job and housing discrimination and lower pay – blacks in Detroit experienced a four-pronged assault on their standard of living.

Another problem for black Detroit was the economic exploitation they suffered at the hands of neighborhood merchants. In a 1968 survey conducted by the Detroit Archdiocese, which was the biggest local shoppers survey conducted in the United States to that point, showed that inner city residents paid about 20 percent more for grocery items than suburban shoppers. Considering that those same city residents spent upwards of 40 percent of their incomes on food, the extra cost impacted them substantially. The study brought one of the black community’s oldest complaints into the light, proving it to be much more than just urban legend.




As World War II open up job opportunities for blacks across the country, organized labor began to flex its muscle and make inroads into areas outside of the industrial Midwest and Northeast. The American Federation of Labor, the UAW-CIO and the even the Teamsters began to organize south of the Mason-Dixon Line during the war years. As a result, the very Democrats that had helped FDR pass the New Deal reforms – including the groundbreaking pro-labor Wagner Act – began to sweat with the thought of Jim Crow being dismantled as poor whites and blacks alike began to experience the kinds of economic gains that Northern workers had been experiencing for nearly a decade.

”They shifted their votes from the pro-labor column to join with Republicans during and after the war to make it more difficult for workers to join unions and to limit their rights in the workplace.”

After an unprecedented strike wave in 1945 and 1946, the 1946 elections saw Republicans gain seats in Congress – including a 51 seat total in the Senate. However, with Harry Truman’s veto at the ready, the GOP needed a substantial number of Democrats to join with them if they wanted to roll back the power of organized labor.

Southern Democrats became the pivotal voters in undercutting legislation they had once backed.

The biggest of these votes came when the Taft-Hartley Act was passed – overriding a Truman veto – in 1947. The act banned closed shop provisions outright requiring union membership to be hired. It authorized states to pass ‘right-to-work’ laws. It barred the use of secondary boycotts, picketing or strikes, and limited the ability of unions to pressure employers through picketing to gain recognition of a union or to engage in mass picketing that interfered with access to the employer’s premises. It also punished employees who engaged in wildcat strikes while a no-strike agreement was in place.

”Congress’s “solid South” Democrats closed ranks to join Republicans and reshape the institutional regime within which unions and the labor market would operate. . . . This was a tidal shift that would affect mid-century American politics as nothing else.”


In addition to the Southern Democrats neutering of the New Deal; the GI Bill was also undermined sop as to keep the American Negro under the heel of racial oppression. Once again the administration of the GI Bill was left up to local officials and anti-discrimination provisions were wiped out in committee.

Of veterans born between 1923 and 1928, 28-percent of whites but only 12-percent of blacks enrolled in college. Blacks also spent fewer months in GI Bill schooling than whites. In addition, white incomes showed a much greater increase than blacks who also attained advanced education. Instead of narrowing the economic and educational gap between blacks and whites, it actually exacerbated it.

This discrimination extended into vocational education and the administration of home loans. For example New York and the Northern New Jersey suburbs, fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages issued by the GI Bill supported home purchases by non-whites.


The 1950s marked a decisive turning point in the development of Detroit – a systematic restructuring of the local geography and economy from which the city has never recovered.

Between 1947 and 1963, Detroit lost 134,000 manufacturing jobs, while its population of working-aged man and women actually increased. How did this happen?

Advances in communication and transportation – the development of the computer chip and the federal highway system being prime examples – allowed the Big Three and other major industries to cut jobs through automation and systematically move their operations to non-union areas in the South and West.

This de-industrialization and de-centralization strategy gave employers the upper hand during post-war periods of labor unrest. General Motors became the first major corporation to decentralize on a wide scale. In the 1930s they began to build plants in rural areas as a means of reducing wages and inhibiting union militancy in Detroit, Pontiac and Flint.

Between 1946 and 1956, GM spent $3.4 billion on new plants and facilities. Ford likewise spent $2.5 billion from the end of WWII thorough 1957. And Chrysler spent $700 million on the same programs. Between 1947 and 1958, The Big Three built 25 new plants in Metro Detroit – all of them in suburban communities –and most more than 15 miles from the center city. But the lion’s share of new construction took place in Ohio, Indiana, California and the South. As a result, just 40 percent of automobile employment in the United States remained in Michigan by 1960.

The often cited reason for this development is ”wrongly based in an ahistorical argument about the inevitable and neutrality of technological decisions” which is a fancy way of saying it was simply the price of progress.

Instead, history shows that ”Corporations made decisions about plant location and employment policy in a specific political, cultural and institutional context, in the case of postwar-Detroit in the aftermath of the rise of powerful union movement and in the midst of a shop-floor struggle over work rules and worker control.”

Automation was a major weapon Big Business’ arsenal. The hope was that self-regulating, computerized machines would eliminate worker-led slowdowns and other sabotage along the line. Above all, automation counteracted the increasing costs of labor as a result of the UAW triumphs of the 1930s and 40s.

”A manager in the newly automated Ford engine plant in Cleveland reminded UAW President Walter Reuther that “you are going to have trouble collecting union dues from all those machines.”

Reuther was said to have responded “and not one of them buys new Ford cars either.”

Automation also gave a competitive advantage to Ford and GM over Chrysler and the other smaller independent auto makers in Detroit. It allowed the Big Two to take on productive capacities that they used to part out to independent parts suppliers and manufacturers. Car companies Nash, Hudson, Willy’s, Kaiser-Frazier, Studebaker and Packard combined market share fell from 18 percent in 1948 to just 4 percent in 1955. By 1960, most of these companies – and their jobs – had disappeared from the landscape completely or had their operations consolidated into the Big Three and the new American Motors Corporation. Many independent parts suppliers and other auto-related industries suffered the same fate as GM and Ford squeezed them out.


One of the most glaring examples of automation’s damage to organized labor came at Ford’s legendary Rouge River facility. The Rouge was home to UAW 600, one of the most militant unions in the industry. The plant was also one of the largest employers of blacks in Detroit – many of whom supported the left-wing caucus of Local 600 – which as a whole had 1/3 of its membership comprised of black workers.

Sugrue writes: ”Local 600 recognized that deindustrialization was not simply an economic issue. The flight of manufacturing jobs in the 1950s raised fundamental political questions about rights responsibilities, power and inequality that were unresolved in mid-twentieth century America. What obligation, if any, did corporations have toward the communities in which they were located? Should workers have a say in corporate decisions that affected their livelihood? How should government respond to job flight? What about the troubling fact that African American workers, because of entrenched workplace discrimination, bore the brunt of economic restructuring.”

Local 600 was ahead of the curve in addressing these issues and would pay a heavy price during the Fabulous Fifties because of it.

Shutdowns, wildcat strikes and general worker disruption at the Rouge could shut down Ford production nationwide. As a result, Ford targeted the Rouge for automation by shifting – stamping, machine casting, forging, steel production, glass-making and dozens of other operations from the site.

As a result, employment at the Rouge fell from 85,000 in 1945 to only 30,000 by 1960.

In addition, at this time industry began to perfect a propaganda campaign to capture the hearts and minds of Cold War America. Sugrue writes that the:

“trend against structural understanding of poverty and unemployment was reinforced by the work of industrial psychologists and manpower experts who stressed the importance of individual skills in the workplace. The reason that large numbers of workers had been displaced was because of their lack of human capital. . . . to solve the problem of unemployment meant behavior modification. . . . The pro-business sentiment of the 1950s bolstered that individual deficiencies rather than structural economic and racial barriers were the roots of urban joblessness. To highlight the problems of industrial workers, to emphasize workplace inequality, was fundamentally un-American.

After World War II, as Elizabeth Fones-Wolf has argued, major corporations orchestrated an extraordinarily successful propaganda campaign that associated big business with “true” American values, and tainted its critics with charges of communism. To challenge corporate policy was to risk political marginalization and disdain.”

In August of 1951 Ford hauled machines out of the Rouge plant in the dark of night because they feared action by Ford workers to protect their jobs. Ford and GM also had begun to institute overtime as a way to reduce workforce costs and erode even more UAW jobs.

In late 1951, Local 600 workers frustrated by the UAW leadership’s refusal to negotiate a reduction in work hours – descended on Detroit’s Solidarity House – with 30 thousand petitions calling for a 30-hour work week to stem job loss and decentralization. UAW leaders dismissed their demands, convinced that the militant unionists were trying to subvert the recent five-year contract with the Big Three and sabotage the Korean War effort.

The leadership instead began pouring their energies into cushioning the effect of job elimination and layoffs through extended unemployment benefits, improved pension plans and preferential hiring plans for misplaced workers.

The strategy would be continued for decades to the UAW and workers’ long term detriment.

Beginning in the late 1940s, UAW and NAACP leadership in Detroit began an effort to purge the left-leaning – aka communist and socialist – elements from their ranks. The final steps of that purge took place in February 1952, when UAW International took Local 600 into trusteeship, removed their left-leaning officers, took over the Local’s newspaper and assumed control of the Local’s daily operations.

”By the 1950s, under the leadership of Walter Reuther, the UAW was increasingly unwilling to challenge corporate leadership openly on controversial issues such as plant location and discriminatory hiring policy. The reluctance of the UAW International (and most other unions) to challenge sacrosanct business practices limited the possibilities of resistance to deindustrialization.”

Among the victims of that joint UAW / NAACP pogrom were NAACP Detroit Branch President Reverend Charles Hill, UAW Fair Practices Committee Chairperson George Crockett, Wayne County UAW-CIO staffer and former Ford employee Coleman Young, and UAW leader William Hood.

The NAACP membership plummeted as a result of the Red Scare strife, going from a wartime peak of 25,000 to just over 5,000 in 1952. By the early 1950s, the major roles of the Detroit NAACP consisted of funding national litigation efforts and doing battle for power and influence with leftist organizations like the Civil Rights Congress and the Detroit-based National Negro Labor Council.

In Coleman Young’s 1994 autobiography entitled Hard Stuff, the longest serving mayor in Detroit history said of Walter Reuther, ”There are hundreds of thousands of people in Detroit and in labor unions around the country who regarded former UAW President Walter Reuther as a great man. To me and those of us on the disenfranchised left, which he purged from the industrial union movement in 1948, he was a great adversary.”


Until the State of Michigan passed a Fair Employment Practices Law in 1955, employers regularly specified racial preferences in job listings.

The Michigan State Employment Service reports that in December 1946 – 35-point-1 percent of job orders had discriminatory clauses. By 1947, it was 44-point-7 percent. By 1948, 65 percent.

In 1951, 55-point-5 percent of job orders with the Michigan Employment Security Commission were ”closed to non-whites by written specifications.”

In 1951 the MSES listed 1,650 jobs as unfilled – despite the fact that 1,554 black applicants were available for immediate employment. In many cases employers recruited out-of-state workers before they would hire local blacks.

It wasn’t until 1952 that The Big Three agreed to stop sending discriminatory job orders to the MESC – and only after extensive discussions with MESC and Urban League officials.

On the surface the United Auto Workers were on the forefront of battling racism – but a closer look shows a different story.

The UAW rank-and-file were less than cooperative than their leadership on issues of race. Hate Strikes continued well into the 1950’s as rank-and-file and bigoted local leaders fought to protect the color line. Walter Reuther and the UAW hierarchy were especially reluctant to challenge the powerful skilled-tradesmen in the UAW. The result was that separate seniority lists for black and white workers limited job advancements for blacks. And often charges of discrimination by black workers were ignored by white local UAW officials.

The UAW was even less effective at integrating their leadership ranks. At plants such as Dodge Main in Hamtramick – which more black workers than any other Detroit plant – plant leadership gerrymandered elections to dilute black voters influence. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s, through the efforts of the Trade Union Leadership Council that the UAW appointed a black to its executive board.

Most strikingly, the UAW repeatedly failed to make nondiscrimination a major issue in contract negotiations – and instead devoted its energy to seniority clauses, higher wages and benefits packages.

Because of these shortcomings, by 1954, only 43 blacks held management positions in the automobile industry. By 1960, only 24 of 7,245 skilled-position Chrysler workers and only 67 out of 11,125 skilled-position GM workers were black. And among Ford’s ”white-collar” positions open to blacks in 1963 were valets, porters, security guards, messengers, barbers, mail clerks and telephone operators.

Other Detroit industries from steel, beer, retail and grocery, showed similar disparities.

By 1965, only two Detroit steel companies, Detroit Steel and Great Lakes Steel, had a greater than 20 percent black work force.

As late as 1962, fewer than 120 blacks were among the 12,000 brewing industry workers in Detroit – 15 of those employed by the mighty Stroh’s.

Another striking example of how Detroit failed in the post-WWII world was in the union apprenticeship programs in the skilled trades. In the 1940’s, admission to building trades apprenticeship programs required a high-school diploma. However that rule was selectively enforced for white dropouts. In addition, applicants still faced a gauntlet of applications, tests and interviews.

The numbers from 1957 to 1966 show the results. Only 59 of Detroit’s 3,009 apprentices – a mere 2 percent – were black in 1957. By 1966, that number had shrunk to 1-point-7 percent – 41 out of 2,363.

To this day the skilled trades remains a bastion of what the Detroit Branch of the NAACP called in 1963 a vocational iron curtain which protects a self-contained monopoly for white labor.

Not surprisingly, the overall income level of white workers versus non-white workers was immense. In 1959, a study conducted by the Detroit Commission on Community Relations revealed that the median family income for whites was $7,050. For non-whites, it was just $4,370 – a difference of 38 percent.

During the 1950’s, Detroit’s higher earning white population decreased by 23-point-4 percent; while the number of non-whites, all but 5,000 of whom were not black, grew 37-point-7 percent. Not only did this influx of population make less money – and hence produce less tax revenue for the city – they were also much younger. By 1960, 42-point-8 percent of Detroit’s black population was 19 years of age or younger. As the 1960’s wore on, this larger, younger and poorer population would stress Detroit’s housing, education, and civil services to the breaking point.

Most alarming at this time was the number of blacks between the ages of 18 and 29 who had no connection to the labor force. A 1960 study by the Detroit NAACP showed that 41-percent of black 18-year olds were not attached to the labor market. Compared to just 15 percent of white 18-year olds.


The area worst hit by deindustrialization was Detroit’s East Side. In 1953 the MESC reported this area to be its busiest – serving an area with 23 plants and 102,967 workers in March of that year. By 1960, that same area had lost 10 plants and over 71-thousand jobs. By 1961, a survey of 25-miles of commercial streets in Detroit showed a vacancy rate of 11 percent. The inner core of the city (within a three-mile radius of downtown) showed a vacancy rate of 22 percent. Detroit’s suburbs, by contrast had just a 4 percent vacancy rate.

Overall the death of Detroit can be marked by the decline in building permits for factories and shops in the city. In 1951, 148 permits had been issued. By 1963, that number had plummeted to just 14.


”The form that building trades discrimination took was a direct consequence of the structure of Detroit’s labor market. Because black men suffered high unemployment rates and were especially venerable to layoffs in other Detroit industries, they formed an easily exploitable labor surplus, desperate for work. Taking advantage of the ready supply of black men, many white construction workers subcontracted black workers at a fraction of the regular hourly wage.

. . . Because black were hired temporarily, they were more venerable to the cyclical fluctuations of the construction industry than the workers who hired them; their jobs were day-to-day rather than week-to-week.

. . . The fact that black construction workers were trapped in the casual labor market explains the extraordinary $2,228 gap in median earnings between black and white construction laborers in metropolitan Detroit in 1960. The per capita annual income of blacks in the building trades was just $3,530, just above the poverty line for a family of three; whites made an average of $5,758, enough to place them in the top half of Detroit’s income range.”

Detroit’s black day laborers gathered at an informal outdoor labor market along Eight Mile Road near the corner of Wyoming and Livernois Avenues from the 1940s through the 1960s. The site became known to local whites as the slave market.

The sight of a casual labor market would have been no stranger to the eyes of anyone from the South. But in Detroit, it became a target for both middle-class blacks and white citizens alike, who pressured local authorities to combat the loitering, gambling and other so-called vice that occurred in and around the area.

”The sight of underemployed African-American men hanging out on street corners on the city’s northern boundary had an important and unintended effect that reinforced patterns of racial discrimination and ensured the persistence of a racially segregated labor market.

. . . In the 1960s, the street corner society of African-American men became one of the most potent symbols of the culture of poverty and the subject of several important sociological investigations into African American urban life in the North. Street corner life, shaped by informal labor markets . . . fostered a pathological sense of present-orientation, self-defeat, personal failure and hopelessness. Conservative politicians and the police saw the informal labor markets in less sympathetic terms.”



At the time, the Detroit Riot/Rebellion of July 1967 was the most deadly and destructive urban uprising in American history.

According to the American Insurance Association, 2,509 stores were looted, burned or destroyed by the riot and that insured losses totaled $75-80 million. Detroit Hospitals treated nearly 1,200 people for injuries, which nearly doubled the total the Detroit Police Department published.

The official death toll was 43 – 30 of which were slain by law enforcement.

After 1967, white flight and homicides went into overdrive. Between 1964 and 1966, an average of 22,000 whites had left the city each year. Between 1967 and 1969, 173-thousand whites fled the city. In 1960, the city had 150 homicides. By 1974, the number had exploded to 714.

Former Wayne County Sheriff Roman Gribbs succeeded Jerome Cavanagh as Mayor in 1970. Gribbs’ Police Commissioner, John Nichols, instituted an anti-crime unit called STRESS, which stood for “Stop Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets,” in January 1971. Officer X – a retired 30-year vet of the DPD who wished to remain anonymous – explained to me how the unit worked in 2007.

Three years after STRESS was put into operation, 22 citizens, most of them black had been shot dead by STRESS officers.

The city’s 1973 mayoral race pitted Police Commissioner Nichols against State Senator Coleman Young. Young won the race by 14,000 votes and ushered in a series of police reforms. He abolished the STRESS unit. And for the first time in Detroit history, the city government put integration of its police force as a top priority.

However, just as Detroit’s black population had elected the city’s first black mayor, the backbone of Michigan’s economy, the auto industry, took a turn for the worse and has remained in a bout of fits and starts ever since.


A class action suit was filed in August 1970, by parents of students in the Detroit, Michigan school system and the Detroit NAACP against the Michigan State Board of Education and various other state officials, including then-Governor William Milliken. The suit alleged that the Detroit school system was racially segregated as a result of policy and proposed a plan of desegregation by busing Detroit public school students across district lines among 53 school districts in metropolitan Detroit.

The landmark case became known as Milliken versus Bradley and in 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, found that because there was no evidence showing a systematic program of Jim Crow segregation amongst the suburban Detroit districts, they could not be forced to bus their students into Detroit or receive Detroit students into their districts.

The result is that America’s once Model City has become the nation’s crown jewel of urban blight.


On July 28, 1967, the 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders – also known as the Kerner Commission – was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to study the causes behind the urban rebellions of the 1960s. On February 29, 1968, they issued their final report, which in part stated:

“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal. . . . Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.

This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution.

To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values. . . . Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.

What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Nearly 44 years later . . . our government and many of us refuse to acknowledge those truths

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” – MLK Jr. 1967

One year later, Dr. King went to Memphis and sacrificed his life to support striking sanitation workers who picketed with signs that simply read “I AM A MAN.”

Dr. King’s American Dream has become an American Nightmare. . . . And Detroit, Michigan is ground zero of that nightmare. And just as the Detroit was on the frontlines of the American Dream in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s . . . it will once again be the battleground to determine what direction American chooses to chart for the rest of the 21st century.

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