Before the Unrest: 1940 - 1967
No one cause explains the events of 1967. Detroit’s Civil Unrest was the result of many factors, each one intersecting with and compounding the other. In reviewing this history, the events of and following World War II offer a meaningful timeframe for understanding how an uprising would happen 25 years later.
Locally administered federal home loan programs, restrictive real estate and mortgage policies, and homeowners associations established by white residents collectively kept Black residents in segregated and dilapidated communities. Urban renewal and highway construction projects in the 1950s simultaneously razed Black communities and paved the roads, literally, for white residents to move to suburban areas where jobs were beginning to relocate.
Black Detroiters struggled to find good jobs and were often given the hardest, most dangerous, and lowest paying work. The growing union movement made efforts to empower all the workers they represented, but white workers often benefitted from “last hired, first fired” policies that disadvantaged Black workers. During and following World War II, white workers occasionally walked out of their jobs rather than work next to Black employees.
The police posed another challenge, as the number of documented complaints of targeted racial abuse grew. Many within Detroit’s Black community saw the police as an occupying power designed to keep them in their place, both physically and figuratively. Even when the police had legitimate reasons to apprehend Black suspects, members of the community noted that they were treated more harshly than white suspects.
A growing number of voices argued that the status quo had to give way. Black Detroiters’ rising expectations, fueled by a growing consciousness of their denied rights, meant that by July 1967 they could no longer remain silent in the face of systemic discrimination.