Race Riots Erupt in Detroit and Harlem Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The race riots in Detroit and Harlem were among the most violent of the 250 such outbreaks that occurred in 1943, as wartime America experienced growing racial and ethnic tensions on the home front. They vividly demonstrated the contradiction between the United States’ fight for freedom abroad and the denial of basic freedoms to African Americans at home.

Summary of Event

The entry of the United States into World War II required the complete mobilization of the U.S. economy to produce the materials necessary to defeat the Axis Powers. One consequence of this national mobilization was the migration of millions of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial centers of the north in search of high-paying factory jobs vacated by whites inducted into the armed forces. In addition to economic betterment, African Americans hoped to escape the harsh legacy of Jim Crow Segregation relations that characterized the South, a system that effectively maintained segregation of the races and negated black political power by preventing African Americans from voting through mechanisms such as the poll tax. As they migrated northward, African Americans hoped to make better lives for themselves and their children. [kw]Race Riots Erupt in Detroit and Harlem (June 20-21, 1943, and Aug. 1, 1943) [kw]Riots Erupt in Detroit and Harlem, Race (June 20-21, 1943, and Aug. 1, 1943) [kw]Detroit and Harlem, Race Riots Erupt in (June 20-21, 1943, and Aug. 1, 1943) [kw]Harlem, Race Riots Erupt in Detroit and (June 20-21, 1943, and Aug. 1, 1943) Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans African Americans;riots Civil unrest;United States Detroit riots (1943) Harlem riots (1943) Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans African Americans;riots Civil unrest;United States Detroit riots (1943) Harlem riots (1943) [g]North America;June 20-21, 1943, and Aug. 1, 1943: Race Riots Erupt in Detroit and Harlem[00840] [g]United States;June 20-21, 1943, and Aug. 1, 1943: Race Riots Erupt in Detroit and Harlem[00840] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 20-21, 1943, and Aug. 1, 1943: Race Riots Erupt in Detroit and Harlem[00840] [c]Social issues and reform;June 20-21, 1943, and Aug. 1, 1943: Race Riots Erupt in Detroit and Harlem[00840] [c]Civil rights and liberties;June 20-21, 1943, and Aug. 1, 1943: Race Riots Erupt in Detroit and Harlem[00840] Jeffries, Edward J., Jr. Kelly, Harry F. La Guardia, Fiorello Henry Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;civil rights

There was, however, little real change for African Americans African Americans;northern migration upon their arrival in northern American cities. Some white workers resented their arrival and participated in “hate strikes.” In addition, few cities were prepared to handle the sudden influx of tens of thousands of African Americans. With domestic production oriented primarily to the war effort, there was increased competition between blacks and whites over scarce amenities. Some blacks sought escape from the bleak conditions confronting them by enlisting in the military, only to suffer further injustices. The armed forces remained strictly segregated Segregation;U.S. armed forces throughout World War II, as blacks were excluded from the Marines and the Coast Guard and were relegated to the Navy’s mess section.

It is against this backdrop that the 1943 riots in Detroit and Harlem must be understood. Detroit, the reputed “Arsenal of Democracy,” experienced lesser racial disturbances prior to the riot of June, 1943. The most notable such disturbance occurred when African Americans were forcibly prevented from moving into the Sojourner Housing Project Sojourner Housing Project in 1942 by police armed with guns and tear gas. This ongoing racial antagonism culminated in the June riot.

The immediate impetus of the riot occurred late in the evening of June 20 at the Belle Isle municipal park. Minor clashes between blacks and whites took place throughout the day. The bloody riot that would eventually leave thirty-four people dead (twenty-five of them black, seventeen of whom were killed by the police) was precipitated by two rumors. The first rumor held that an African American man had raped a white woman at the amusement park and that a group of African Americans had begun to riot. Shortly afterward, the second rumor began at a popular black nightclub. This one said that some white sailors had killed an African American woman and her baby by throwing them off of the bridge that connected Belle Isle to Detroit, and that the police had begun to beat African Americans in the city.

The actual rioting began early in the morning of June 21. Police reported stabbings, store windows being smashed, looting, and indiscriminate interracial beatings of pedestrians and passengers in cars and public transportation. At the riot’s end, in addition to the thirty-four dead, more than one thousand people had been injured. Detroit suffered more than two million dollars in property losses and lost 100 million work hours in war production, according to one account. Detroit Mayor Edward J. Jeffries, Jr., conceded that much of the loss of life and property could have been prevented had federal troops been requested earlier from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, especially considering that the Detroit Police Department was understaffed by approximately one-third because of the draft. It was with the arrival of federal troops that order was finally restored in Detroit very late in the evening of June 21.

In the riot’s aftermath, Michigan Governor Harry F. Kelly appointed a committee to investigate what had caused it. The committee found no evidence of foreign subversives instigating the riot; it blamed the riot on the militancy of the African American press and on African American leaders. The panel exonerated the Detroit Police Department (which was less than 1 percent black) of any wrongdoing. Jeffries’s administration rejected repeated calls for a grand jury inquiry into the causes of the riot and of the actions undertaken by the police to quell the riot.

African American leaders such as James J. McClendon McClendon, James J. , president of the Detroit Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;racial uprisings (NAACP), as well as the black press, disputed the committee’s findings. They charged that the police had not been fair in their treatment and protection of African Americans during the riots. They also maintained that the police generally failed to protect blacks from attacks by whites, even assisting white attackers in some cases, and that police had authorized a shoot-to-kill policy for black rioters. African American leaders also accused the city administration of Detroit of failing to act on previous committee reports specifying necessary improvements for African Americans in Detroit, especially regarding housing and education. The committee pointed out the hypocrisy of the United States fighting Nazi and Japanese racism abroad while condoning and maintaining similarly racist behavior at home.

As was true for the Detroit riot, the precipitating event of the Harlem riot of 1943 was a rumor. On Sunday night, August 1, 1943, a white New York police officer wounded an African American army private, Robert Bandy Bandy, Robert , who had intervened on behalf of an African American woman being questioned by the officer at a Harlem hotel. A rumor began to circulate that a black soldier had been shot and killed by the police.

The rumor found a receptive audience. As in Detroit, the residents of Harlem, the majority of whom were African American, faced job discrimination. For example, the aircraft industries in nearby Long Island refused to hire African Americans, even though newspaper advertisements clamored for workers needed by that industry. The complete lack of African American faculty members in permanent teaching positions at any of the city’s four municipal colleges was also a sore point to the community. A critical shortage of housing confronted residents, and existing housing in Harlem was dilapidated. Even so, New York Mayor Fiorello Henry La Guardia had recently authorized a semipublic housing development for lower Manhattan that would be all white. Added to this situation were continual accounts of police brutality and verbal harassment suffered by Harlemites, especially African American servicemen. Harlem had become a tinderbox, and it needed only the Bandy incident to ignite it.

Upon hearing the rumor, a group of African Americans immediately took to the streets of Harlem. They began to destroy white property. Residents initially confined themselves to breaking the windows of white merchants; only later did looting occur. Almost none of the interracial clashes that characterized the Detroit riot occurred. When the riot ended at daybreak on August 2, the damage totaled six deaths (five African Americans and one Caucasian), five hundred injuries, five million dollars worth of property damage, 550 arrests, and 1,450 stores either damaged or destroyed. Further destruction probably was prevented by Mayor La Guardia’s prompt and effective leadership at the scene of the riot, pleas for calm by recognized African American leaders who toured the area in sound trucks countering the rumor about the Bandy shooting, and the dispatching of biracial teams of military police to Harlem.

A committee was empaneled to investigate the riot. Again, no evidence was found of foreign instigation of the event. In marked contrast to the Detroit administration, La Guardia acknowledged that the black community had legitimate grievances and pledged to take steps to remedy them.


The race riots in Detroit and Harlem represented the most destructive of the almost 250 racial battles that occurred in forty-seven cities throughout the United States in 1943. Such disturbances had immediate effects on the country during the war, as well as a long-term impact on race relations in the postwar era.

In New York, the City-Wide Citizens Committee on Harlem City-Wide Citizens Committee on Harlem[City Wide Citizens Committee on Harlem] was formed to articulate black needs. It achieved limited success in obtaining jobs for blacks and in keeping black concerns before the general public. In Detroit, the findings of the governor’s committee intensified the already strained relations between blacks and whites. The panel overemphasized the militancy of African American leaders and the stridency of the African American press, while minimizing the serious discrimination affecting the black community. Social, economic, and political conditions in Detroit would continue to deteriorate, ultimately setting the stage for the United States’ most extensive urban riot in the summer of 1967.

On a national scale, the riots were a visible testimony and ugly reminder of the wide chasm that existed between the expressed ideals of the United States—freedom, democracy, justice, and equality—and the reality of the black experience in America. Despite the riots, however, the plight of African Americans remained largely ignored by the United States’ white population through the end of the 1940’s. President Roosevelt, for example, studiously avoided using the riots as a springboard to discuss racism and necessary social reforms. He sought to avoid mentioning them at all, fearing that highlighting the nation’s internal strife would harm its unified war effort. The underlying problems that led to the riots of 1943 would achieve national prominence only in the following two decades, with the Supreme Court’s decision desegrating schools in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans African Americans;riots Civil unrest;United States Detroit riots (1943) Harlem riots (1943)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Carol. Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Study of petitions to the nascent United Nations by African Americans seeking human rights in the decade following the Harlem and Detroit riots. Extremely useful for understanding both the causes of the riots and their immediate aftermath.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dalfiume, Richard M. “The ’Forgotten Years’ of the Negro Revolution.” In The Negro in Depression and War, edited by Bernard Sternsher. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969. Very well-done piece in which Dalfiume argues that the roots of black militancy in the 1960’s began to take hold in the 1940’s. Easily understood and enlightening discussion of white discrimination against blacks during the 1940’s. Useful analysis of Roosevelt’s ambivalence regarding race relations and a good bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Alfred M., and Norman D. Humphrey. Race Riot. New York: Octagon Books, 1968. Probably the most widely cited work concerning the Detroit race riot. It is a chronology of events leading up to the riot, listing all pertinent people and places. Includes a critical assessment of the investigatory committee’s final report.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marshall, Thurgood. Crisis 50 (August, 1943): 232-233. Angry and defiant in tone, this short essay represents the black response and rejection of the report of the governor’s committee charged with investigating the Detroit riot. Essential reading regarding the disturbance, for it views the events from a black vantage point.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shapiro, Herbert. “Wartime Violence.” In White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988. An outstanding summary of the black situation in The United States during World War II, especially within the military and the labor movement. Contains probably the most extensive and best bibliography related to the Detroit and Harlem riots.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shogan, Robert, and Tom Craig. The Detroit Race Riot: A Study in Violence. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1964. A good general overview of the factors that led to the riot as well as the actual riot itself. Contains supplementary information about the riot gleaned from government memoranda obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sitkoff, Harvard. Journal of American History 58 (December, 1971): 661-681. A first-rate analysis of the plight of blacks, especially soldiers, in the United States during World War II. Contains a brief discussion of events in Harlem and Detroit. Indispensable reading for an understanding of the national context in which the Detroit and Harlem riots occurred.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Walter. A Man Called White: The Autobiography of Walter White. New York: Viking Press, 1948. This highly readable account of racism and discrimination in the United States in the twentieth century, by one of the leaders of the NAACP, contains separate chapters on the Detroit and Harlem riots. The latter is especially interesting as it is a firsthand account of the event and White’s general impressions as he witnessed it.

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Categories: History