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Wild on 12th Street: The Riots of 1967

The Legacy of the 1943 Riots

Black Day in July

compiled by Chris Edwards & Elaine Weeks
Research from The Detroit News: Rearview Mirror (

While the Detroit Riots of 1967 remain etched in our collective memories, seeds of discontent were sewn much earlier.

Even as World War II was transforming Detroit into the Arsenal of Democracy, cultural and social upheavals brought about by the need for workers to man the bustling factories threatened to turn the city into a domestic battleground.

Recruiters toured the South convincing whites and blacks to head north with promises of high wages in the war factories. They arrived in such numbers that it was impossible to house them all.

Blacks who believed they were heading to a promised land found a northern bigotry every bit as pervasive and virulent as what they thought they had left behind in the deep south. And southern whites brought their own traditional prejudices with them as both races migrated northward.

In the Motor City, black workers mixed with Europeans immigrants on the assembly lines and in the city, and violence often broke out, in spite of all earning wages nearly beyond their wildest dreams.

Between 1933-43 the number of blacks in Detroit doubled and racial tensions in the city grew accordingly. Still, blacks were excluded from all public housing except the Brewster project, and housing shortages were acute.

The Detroit Housing Commission chose a housing project site for blacks in a predominantly white neighbourhood. Called Sojourner Truth, growing resentment by whites led to riots in 1942.

Local and national media anticipated more trouble. Life Magazine called the increased tensions “dynamite.”

On June 20, 1943, blacks and whites clashed in minor skirmishes on Belle Isle. Two young blacks, angered that they had been ejected from Eastwood Park five days previous, went to Belle Isle to even the score.

Police searched cars of blacks crossing to Belle Isle but not cars driven by whites. Fighting on the island began around 10 p.m. but police declared it under control by midnight. More than 200 blacks and whites had participated in a free-for-all.

Then, Leo Tipton and Charles (Little Willie) Lyons told a black crowd at the Forest Social Club that whites had thrown a black woman and her baby off the Belle Isle Bridge. More than 500 angry– and fearful patrons took to the street. The angry crowd moved to Woodward, near Paradise Valley, and began breaking windows and looting stores.

Nearby, just west of Woodward in an area inhabited by southern whites, another rumor swept the neighborhood– blacks had raped and murdered a white woman on the Belle Isle Bridge. An angry mob of whites spilled onto Woodward near the Roxy Theater around 4 a.m., beating blacks as they were getting off streetcars.

The toll was appalling. At least six Detroit policemen were shot in the melees, and another 75 were injured. The 36 hours of rioting claimed 34 lives– 25 of them black. More than 1,800 were arrested for looting and other incidents, the vast majority black. Thirteen murders remained unsolved.

As a result of the 1943 riots, improvements to the plight of Detroit’s inner city blacks were often promised, yet little changed. In an era of growing disenchantment, racial tensions would boil over almost 24 years to the day after the riots of ‘43.

In 1967, it began simply enough: police raided an illegal bar in the inner city, known as a “Blind Pig”- a place to get a drink after the bars closed.

On a hot, humid Motor City summer night, a small crowd gathered to protest the raid and arrests. Within a short time, mobs of young men were engaged in burning, looting, and acts of random violence–the embers of racial tension were rekindled and it would be some days before the fire was extinguished.

Earlier riots had been blamed on police “overreaction” to minor incidents, so authorities did not at first dispatch large numbers of officers to the area. They further tried to keep things in check–based again on presumed lessons from disturbances elsewhere–by persuading the media to impose a news blackout. Neither tactic worked, however, and things were soon utterly out of control.

The rioting quickly spread to encompass over fourteen square miles of Detroit’s neighborhoods. Unlike earlier outbreaks, the ‘67 riots were indiscriminate: mobs torched and plundered black businesses as freely as white ones and burned down a number of black homes. Both blacks and whites participated in looting, burning and rioting.

Forty-three people lay dead by the time the 1967 Detroit riot ended five days later on July 28.

The toll of the ‘67 riots included:

467 injured:
181 civilians, 167 Detroit police, 83 Detroit firefighters, 17 National Guard, 16 State Police, 3 U.S. Army.

7,231 arrested:
6,528 adults, 703 juveniles; 6,407 blacks, 824 whites. The youngest, 10; the oldest, 82. Half of those arrested had no criminal record. Three percent of those arrested went to trial; half of them were acquitted.

2,509 stores looted or burned:
One month after the riot, a city tally showed 388 families homeless or displaced and 412 buildings burned or damaged enough to be demolished. Dollar losses from arson and looting ranged from $40 million to $80 million.

(source: Detroit 300)

Beyond the statistics are the human stories.
The following accounts are by those who witnessed what Gordon Lightfoot called “Black Day in July”.

Next Story: Panic in Detroit



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