Looking to start some trouble? Some good trouble? Boy, do we have a story for you.
1942, Detroit. A city in the grips of a housing crisis. Fast-growing due to the war effort overseas—all those automotive industries retooled for armaments, the famous ‘Arsenal of Democracy’—but still deeply segregated by race, ethnicity, and class, the Motor City is bursting at the seams.
While the Detroit race riots of 1943 are widely remembered, less well-known is a major riot that took place a year before in February 1942, laying the groundwork for the conflicts to come. Today on Crime Capsule, we offer a recipe for a riot, courtesy of longtime Detroit-area historian Gerald van Dusen and his book Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Housing Riot of 1942.
Ingredient 1: Ensure housing for minority communities is poorly constructed, unhealthy, and demeaning.
Ingredient 2: Enforce official and unofficial segregation laws, creating specific racially-based districts such as Black Bottom, Paradise Valley, and North End across the city.
Ingredient 3: Build a wall between white and black neighborhoods (‘nuff said).
Ingredient 4: Begin construction on new federal homes for African Americans war workers, then reverse course under political pressure and declare that the homes will be for whites instead.
Ingredient 5: Spread race-based propaganda far and wide.
Ingredient 6: When protestors arrive seeking justice, fire tear gas, and let chaos reign.
Ingredient 7: Once the dust settles,with racial discrimination having shown its ugly face in full display, watch as the federal government mandates that the homes be used for their original intended purpose, regardless of any corrupt, racist, or crooked local officials seeking otherwise.
Ingredient 8: Watch even more as after this event and others like it, cases of housing injustice move higher and higher up the legal system, eventually culminating in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, part of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, breaking the power of homeowners’ associations, brokers, and landlords from maintaining racial boundaries in housing. And thank Representative John Lewis (1940-2020) for giving us a name for what we knew was the right thing all along: good trouble.