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Fourth International, July 1943


David Ransom

The Detroit Pogrom


From Fourth International, vol.4 No.7, July 1943, p.206-208.
Transcribed, marked up & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


The “race riots” which have flared up in Mobile, Beaumont, Los Angeles and, a dozen other cities are best described as anti-Negro pogroms. In each case a lynch mob has wrought violence upon an innocent colored minority: The Detroit “riot” fits into this same reactionary pattern.

On Sunday night, June 19, a scuffle between a Negro and white took place on the bridge leading to Belle Island park. Rumors spread like wildfire among the Sunday bathers on Belle Island. Among the whites the rumor circulated that a woman had been raped by a Negro; among the Negroes that a baby had been thrown into the Detroit river by a white marine. By ten o’clock fighting had broken out on Belle Island. At midnight gangs of white hoodlums were already roaming through Paradise Valley, the Negro slum area. 5 a.m. Monday morning the first victims of the anti-Negro pogrom lay dead in the streets of Detroit. Three Negroes had been shot by the police who claimed, as police will forever claim, that they killed in “self-defense.” Hour by hour the fury and size of the white mobs multiplied. They roamed the streets unchecked by the police.

Acting in an organized fashion, the hoodlums set up a battlefront along Woodworth avenue, Detroit’s main thoroughfare. From behind this battline they carried out their raids into the adjacent Negro area. Time and again they pushed into the Negro districts only to be repelled by courageous groups of Negroes. Meanwhile other gangs scoured the streets of Detroit dragging Negroes from streetcars and automobiles and beating them into bloody insensibility. Overturned cars to which the hoodlums had set fire littered the streets.

The role of the police is a matter of public record. Most of the police were stationed in the Negro section. Of the 1,400 arrested, at least 1,000 were Negroes. Most of the 600 injured were Negroes. Of the 33 people killed, 26 were Negroes. And 16 of these 26 met their death at the hands of the police.

That Monday afternoon a stormy meeting took place between a committee of Negro and white citizens and the Mayor of Detroit. The June 26 Pittsburgh Courier, the leading Negro weekly, describes the meeting:

“At a noonday meeting in the Lucy Thurman branch of the YWCA, Negro and civil leaders complained to the mayor about the obvious partiality shown by members of the Detroit police department. They stated that police are confining their activities to shooting and clubbing Negroes. They said that Hastings, St. Antoine, and Brush streets are the scenes of police brutality, and that Negroes are being roughly handled and warned to ‘get off the streets.’ They claimed that whites are permitted to roam at will on Woodward avenue, a boulevard running parallel to the aforementioned streets and the police don’t stop them from congregating.”

The same newspaper gives an account of the police machine-gunning of an apartment house in the Negro area:

“According to information I have been able to gather, it seems that one colored occupant had fired out of one of the windows.

“Immediately, state troopers and police machine-gunned every window in the building, killing two occupants immediately and seriously wounding more than half a dozen others. They then invaded the building and brought out every occupant. Using Gestapo methods, they forced the occupants to stand on the Brush street sidewalk against the building, with hands up for more than an hour while the police searched the building. It is said the law enforcement officers numbered at least 200, and that more than 1,000 shots and rounds of tear gas were fired into the building.”

The Causes of the Pogrom

What incendiary had lit the fires of race violence in Detroit? The Stalinist Daily Worker, anxious to whitewash the Roosevelt regime and preserve “national unity,” sees in the atrocities the handiwork of Axis agents. But every union militant, every Negro in Detroit, knows what happened: a lynch mob had been permitted to run wild. Even the capitalist press, which at first spoke of “fifth columnists,” later retreated to safer ground; it referred to the indubitable facts about “economic antagonisms” in Detroit. But it did so only to place equal blame on Negro as well as white.

Detroit overflows with a population of two and a half million workers. Into this greatest of industrial centers has poured a continuous stream of southern migrants, Negro and white. The war boom swelled and quickened this migratory stream. The racial antagonisms of the South are thus reproduced against an industrial background. Competition for scarce housing, transportation, and recreational facilities creates new and sharpens old frictions.

The intolerable conditions created by the war drive the Negroes to try to break down the barriers of segregation. In housing segregation means higher rent. In industry segregation chains the Negro worker to unskilled jobs at low pay. To survive the Negro must burst from the overcrowded ghetto and win skilled jobs that bring higher wages. The rising cost of living is driving the Negro to demand, as never before, the equality of treatment without which economic survival begins to appear well-nigh impossible.

The native fascist gangs who have made Detroit their headquarters – Ku Klux Klan, Knights of the White Camelia, National Workers League, etc. – stand guard at the edge of the Jim Crow ghetto. They are prepared to kill and lynch to keep the Negro in the prison of economic and social segregation. And the tune of race hatred played by these reactionary pied-pipers is listened to by thousands of backward workers. To these dissatisfied workers they offer a scapegoat as the cause of their difficulties: “the Negro does not know his place.” And a cure: the pogrom.

This, in brief, is the immediate background. This far in the description of the situation even the capitalist press has gone. But in and of itself this “economic” explanation is a half-truth as misleading as the Stalinist story of Axis agents and fifth columnists. The “economic” explanation fails to explain the boldness with which the native fascists operate. If fails to explain why the reactionary gangs killed with relative impunity. It covers up the central fact that the legions of reaction have on their side the ruling class and its agencies of “law and order.” The fascist gangs brazenly stalk their prey in broad daylight because they feel armed with the moral authority of the Jim Crow system which the government itself enforces. The same capitalist press which today deplores “interracial riots” yesterday incited violence against Negroes and Mexicans, under the guise of an attack on non-existent “zoot suit” and “mugger” crime waves. The press and the government deplore the methods of the fascist gangs but share with them their hostility to the Negro’s attempt to escape the ghetto.

Examine, first, the record of the Detroit police and Mayor Jeffries. We have already given the casualty figures which show their anti-Negro bias. But their hostility to the Negroes did not begin on June 19. The attack on Negroes at the Sojourner Truth Housing Project a year and a half ago seems now to have been a dress rehearsal for the later pogrom. Then as now Mayor Jeffries displayed his anti-Negro attitude. When this housing project for Negroes outside the Negro slum area was announced, Jeffries asked Washington to build it inside the Negro ghetto. The police played the same part then as now – instead of repelling the white rioters they clubbed and arrested Negroes. In the face of the casualty figures, Mayor Jeffries has now had the effrontery to blame the Negroes for a large part of the June 19 explosion. If the Negroes didn’t strive for better jobs, he says in effect, there would have been no “riots.” According to Jeffries many manufacturers have been “forced to hire as high as ten per cent colored help where, in many instances, no colored help had ever been hired before.” This, says Jeffries, “aggravated the situation.” Jeffries adds this astounding admission: “It was taken by surprise only by the day it happened.” Asked by a PM reporter what he had done to prevent the “riot,” the Mayor replied: “I’ve had two luncheon conferences with the editors of Detroit papers ...”

The Role of the Federal Government

Examine, next, the record of the Federal authorities, and you will find that the Detroit authorities are following in their footsteps. The Federal Housing Agency, in Detroit as elsewhere, Jim Crow’s the Negroes in its housing projects. Two Jim Crow projects have just been finished in the suburbs of Inkster and Ypsilanti. The June 25 Negro weekly Michigan Chronicle makes this editorial comment:

“Outside the city limits of Detroit, two extra social housing projects have been designed and build to accommodate war workers who have dark skins, one at Ypsilanti and the other at Inkster. In these two modern asylums the colored war workers will be herded together in order not to ‘contaminate’ the white war workers with whom they work side by side everyday. These projects are owned and operated by the United States Government ...”

As in housing, so in industry the government yields to the pressure of the Jim Crow elements. Examine the record of the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Roosevelt created this committee only after a group of Negro leaders threatened to lead the Negro masses in a march on Washington. But he gave it no powers except that of holding hearings. And it even suspended hearings in the South when poll-taxers took offense at plans to air discriminatory practices of Southern railroads. Now the pressure of the poll-taxers has transformed this committee, ostensibly created to end discrimination in industry, into a means of furthering segregation. That is the tenor of the recent Mobile decision of the FEPC.

Toward the end of May a violent attack on Negro workers was staged by reactionary whites in the Mobile shipyards of the Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding Company. They were resisting the upgrading of Negro workers to skilled jobs. Thereupon Father Haas, chairman of the FEPC, approved a plan for separating skilled Negro and white workers in the shipyard. The Pittburgh Courier writer, John B. Davies, reported the reaction of Negroes:

“The point out that the Alabama decision threatens to establish a Jim Crow pattern of frightening proportions, that every industry all over the country will seize on the formula of a segregated section or plant for Negro workers, and that after the war the Negro will be driven out of industry completely.”

Does the FEPC, which is scheduled to hold hearings in Detroit, intend to bring this Jim Crow formula there to “solve” the “riot” danger? It was after a similar riot that Father Haas brought it to Mobile. The government does not frown on Jim Crow in industry. Witness the statement of Lawrence Kramer, the executive secretary of the FEPC to the June 12 Pittsburgh Courier: “The FEPC has in the past refused to decide hypothetically that segregation of Negro from white workers was discrimination ...”

Roosevelt sent in the army to restore law and order in Mobile, Beaumont and Detroit. But who is going to restore order inside the army? A permanent pogrom against Negroes rages inside the armed forces. Negro soldiers are beaten, killed and lynched for daring to protest against the Jim-Crow setup in the army and civilian life. In the south the struggle has taken on the character of a civil war. We cite only two instances. On January 11, 1942 in Alexandria, Louisiana, 700 Negroes, including 500 Negro soldiers, engaged in a battle with 300 town police; the fight was caused by the beating and shooting of 28 northern Negro soldiers two weeks before. The same week in which the army patrolled the blood-stained streets of Detroit, Negro soldiers stationed at Camp Stewart, Georgia, rebelled against the brutality of Jim Crow officers, MPs and local civilian authorities; one white MP was killed and four were wounded. These and hundreds of similar incidents are the inevitable consequences of the segregation of the Negroes in the armed forces.

Thus all forces of government, from the mayor’s office in Detroit to the White House in Washington, seek to keep the Negro in the ghetto. It is this which explains the confidence with which the reactionary gangs are hurling themselves upon the Negroes. This all-important fact is being grasped by an increasing number of Negro people. Their views were reflected in the statement of A. Phillip Randolph in the July 2 Negro Call:

“I consider that the official Jim Crow of the Negro by the Federal government itself in the armed forces, the government departments and defense industries is a major cause of the wave of race riots sweeping the country.”

The Duty of the Trade Unions

The Negro people have the right and duty to defend themselves from these assaults. But the Negro people are a minority. They need allies. Their natural ally is the labor movement, for the enemies of the Negro people are also the enemies of the workers.

The Detroit pogrom struck a blow at the Negro people, – and the labor movement. Detroit unions – which means primarily the United Auto Workers – are composed of different racial, religious and national groupings. Without the solidarity of black and white, foreign and native born, Jew and gentile, the UAW is nothing. The pogromists have driven the dagger of race hate at the heart of the UAW. It is a life and death question.

Native fascist cells exist in the union. The KKK is reported to have more than 18,000 members in Detroit. The recent anti-Negro walkout at the Packard plant is a measure of the inroads the fascists have made into the union.

The auto companies, of course, have been stirring up race hatred among the workers. In the Packard incident, UAW President R.J. Thomas declares:

“When the men entered the plant Sunday night and the Negro workers appeared to take their places at their machines, [three company officials] C.E. Weiss, Schwartz and Watts appeared and urged the white workers to ignore the position of the local union and the international officers. These company spokesmen, Weiss claiming to speak for George Christopher, president of Packard, said the white workers did not have to work with the upgraded Negroes if they did not choose to do so.”

The union of course ordered the men back to work and upheld the right of the Negroes to upgraded jobs. But the UAW leadership failed to arouse the union to take decisive steps to eradicate this dangerous cancer. When the pogrom came, the UAW leaders issued strong statements against it. But a thousand statements cannot cover the harsh truth. The UAW leadership failed the Negro people and the union in an hour of crisis. Individual acts of courage by union members during the pogrom were plentiful ... but the union membership was not organized to defend the Negro people.

What Must Be Done

Why did the Thomas-Reuther leadership fail to call a meeting of the Executive Board of the International to take stock of the situation? Why did they fail to call a mobilization of shop stewards and bring out the veteran flying squadrons to defend the Negroes? The lynch mobs could have been stopped dead in their tracks by an organized and disciplined defense.

Had Thomas and Reuther rallied the men who built the union for a struggle against the fascist gangs, mass murder could have been prevented. By their failure to act, no small guilt for the blood that was shed rests with the top union leaders. Cowardice, stupidity, and lack of initiative characterised the behavior of the Reuther-Thomas leadership.

Nor has Thomas learned anything from the pogrom, for after it he issued an 8-point program, which follows the same policy of dependence on government officials, courts and agencies. Does Thomas have the illusion that an investigation will reform the police and rid them of their anti-Negro attitude?

To repel further assaults by the fascist gangs, union defense squads must be formed and held ready. Such action by the UAW will restore the shaken faith of the Negro people in the labor movement. The mere existence of such defense bodies will compel the fascists to think twice before they stir again.

Thomas calls for a grand jury and a mayor’s interracial committee to probe the causes of the pogrom and make recommendations towards eliminating racial friction. But only the union can set in motion committees that will really expose the peddlers of race hate. What is necessary is a Labor Committee to hold public hearings, where the whole truth will be told. This dramatic step would begin the education of backward workers, who must be systematically taught the anti-labor consequences of race prejudice.

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