In the summer of 1943, in the midst of World War II, tensions between blacks and whites in Detroit were escalating. Detroit's population had grown by 350,000 people since the war began. The booming defense industries brought in large numbers of people with high wages and very little available housing… 50,000 blacks and 300,000 whites had arrived, mostly from rural Appalachia and the American South…. A historian of Detroit's Poles found that they were scared into seeing African-Americans as "threatening their jobs, homes, communities, and churches."
Recruiters convinced blacks as well as whites in the South to come up North by promising them higher wages in the new war factories. Believing that they had found a promised land, blacks began to move up North in larger numbers. However, upon arriving in Detroit, blacks found that the northern bigotry was almost as bad as that they left behind in the deep South. They were excluded from all public housing except Brewster Housing Projects, forced to live in homes without indoor plumbing, and paid rents two to three times higher than families in white districts….
The completed housing development that was designated for blacks was named Sojourner Truth, in memory of the black Civil War abolitionist and women's rights advocate. Many racist whites fiercely opposed allowing blacks to move into an all-white neighborhood. On January 20, 1942, Washington DC informed the Housing Commission that the Sojourner Truth housing project would be for whites and another would be selected for blacks. But when a suitable site for blacks could not be found, Washington D.C. housing authorities agreed to allow blacks into the finished homes, beginning February 28, 1942. On February 27, 1942, with a cross burning in a field near the homes, 120 racist whites vowed to keep out out any black homeowners. By the end of the day, there were more than 1,200 racists, many of them armed. Blacks who had already signed leases and paid rent attempted to get through the white racists' picket line, leading to a clash between white and black groups. Despite the mounting opposition from racists, black families moved into the project at the end of April. To prevent violence, Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries ordered the Detroit Police Department and state troops to keep the peace during the move. Over 1,100 city and state police officers and 1,600 Michigan National Guard troops were mobilized and sent to the area around Nevada and Fenelon streets to guard six African-American families who moved into the Sojourner Truth Homes. Eventually, 168 black families moved into the homes.
Later in June 1943, three weeks before the riot, Packard Motor Car Company promoted three blacks to work next to whites in the assembly lines. In response, 25,000 whites walked off the job, effectively slowing down the critical war production. It was clear that whites who worked with blacks in the same plant nevertheless refused to work side-by-side with them. During the protest, a voice with a southern accent shouted in the loudspeaker, "I’d rather see Hitler and Hirohito win than work next to a nigger."
Altercations between black and white youth started on June 20, 1943, on a warm Saturday evening on Belle Isle. A fist fight broke out when a white sailor's girlfriend was insulted by a black man. The brawl eventually grew into a confrontation between groups of blacks and whites and then spread into the city. The riot escalated with a rumor that a mob of whites had thrown an African-American mother and her baby into the Detroit River. Historian Marilynn S. Johnson argues that this rumor reflected black male outrage over white violence against black women and children. Another false rumor swept white neighborhoods that blacks had raped and murdered a white woman on the Belle Isle Bridge. Angry mobs of whites spilled onto Woodward near the Roxy Theater around 4 a.m., beating blacks as they were getting off street cars. Stores were looted and buildings were burned in the riot, most of them in a black neighborhood in and around Paradise Valley, one of the oldest and poorest neighborhoods in Detroit. The clashes soon escalated to the point where black and white mobs were “assaulting one another, beating innocent motorists, pedestrians and streetcar passengers, burning cars, destroying storefronts and looting businesses." Both sides were said to have encouraged others to join in the riots with false claims that one of "their own" was attacked unjustly.
The riots lasted three days and ended once Mayor Edward Jeffries Jr. and Governor Harry Kelly asked President Roosevelt to intervene. Federal troops finally restored peace to the streets of Detroit. Over the course of three days, 34 people were killed. Of them, 25 were African–Americans, 17 of whom were killed by the police. Thirteen murders remain unsolved. Out of the approximately 600 injured, black people accounted for more than 75 percent and of the roughly 1,800 people who were arrested over the course of the three-day riots, black people accounted for 85 percent.
After the riot, leaders on both sides had an explanation for the riots. White city leaders including the mayor blamed young black “hoodlums”. The Wayne County prosecutor believed that the leaders of the NAACP were to blame as the instigators of the riots. Detroit's black leaders pointed to other causes ranging from job discrimination, to housing discrimination, police brutality, and daily animosity received from Detroit's white population. Following the violence, Japanese propaganda officials incorporated the event into its materials encouraging black soldiers not to fight for the United States, most notably in a flyer titled "Fight Between Two Races."
Future Supreme Court Justice,Thurgood Marshall, then with the NAACP, assailed the city’s handling of the riot. He charged that police unfairly targeted blacks while turning their backs on white atrocities. He said 85 percent of those arrested were black while whites overturned and burned cars in front of the Roxy Theater with impunity while police watched.
“This weak-kneed policy of the police commissioner coupled with the anti-Negro attitude of many members of the force helped to make a riot inevitable,” Marshall said.