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Walter Jason

Is Another Rate Riot Nearing in Detroit?
KKK Forces Mobilize Against Negro Housing

(12 March 1950)

From Labor Action, Vol. 14 No. 12, 20 March 1950, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DETROIT. Mar. 12 – Warning signals that Detroit’s racial tensions were reaching an explosive point came from important sources this past week as bigotry, race hatred and anti-unionism broke out into the open at an agitated public hearing of the city’s Common Council on the question of a proposed cooperative housing project.

The pattern of today so closely resembles the tragic events which preceded the anti-Negro riots of 1943 that even such a conservative group as the Detroit Interracial Committee sounded the alarm, declaring flatly that Detroit has reached another crisis period.

An open manifestation of the mounting tension developed because of the cowardly action of the council in calling the public hearing to reconsider, its twice-approved decision to permit the Schoolcraft cooperative housing project on a site in Northwest Detroit.

More than 500 violently partisan persons tried to squeeze themselves into the council chambers for the hearing. It was a clearly divided crowd, with the rabid enemies of the Negro people there in considerable numbers.

Why did the city council decide to reconsider its previous actions? Because the tightly organized and highly vocal real-estate and “home improvement” groups, fighting cooperative and public housing, and the prejudiced home owners in that area banded together and put pressure on the petty politicians who comprise the overwhelming majority of council.

Only recently this same council turned down the presentation of a United Nations flag at a special ceremony, under the pressure of some crackpot groups which argued against any foreign flag being put by the American flag.

It`s the KKK’s Voice

What caused the alarm over the Schoolcraft project? Out of the first 54 units, three are to be owned by Negro families!

At this hearing, the AFL, prominent spokesmen of the Catholic, Jewish and Protestant churches, and other civic leaders spoke in favor of the project going on according to plans.

Against them stood the usual assortment of home owners, embittered individuals, and the smooth if vicious spokesmen for the neighborhood real-estate organizations. (They seem to spring up by the minute in Detroit.)

In spite of every effort to conceal the flagrant prejudices which they hold, these spokesmen revealed their ideological forefathers were the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Legion, and the fascist fringe which once worshipped the silver voice of Father Charles Coughlin.

The evidence was overwhelming and indisputable. Prominent churchmen in Northwest Detroit told the council how the campaign had been carried out among their congregations. The individual would be called at home by a member of the neighborhood improvement association: “There’s a n----r housing project moving into our neighborhood.” Other variations on the theme of alarm were: “There’s a Communist project moving out here. There’s a slum project coming in. Do you want our neighborhood to look like Paradise Valley [the Negro ghetto of Detroit]?”

Hatred of the Negro was preached by these elements, along with the dire warning of “what will happen to your property values if they move in.” This grew to such alarming proportions that it disturbed almost every minister in that area, since it agitated the neighborhood. One minister pointedly reminded the council that its action in calling the hearing was a victory for the organized campaign of the race-baiters.

Race-Haters in Saddle

The flavor of the discussion in Northwest Detroit was indicated inadvertently by another minister who declared: “After checking the facts I told my congregation that this was a decent project even though the labor unions were connected with it.”

Another explained that his difficulty came from the fact that a distribution of the Stalinist Michigan Worker in that area had excited his middle-income church members. “The Communists are trying to foment this and exploit it for all its worth.”

Vic Reuther and Frank Martel, AFL spokesmen, used as the main theme in their speeches the idea that denial of this project would be a blow at American democracy and a boon to Communism if the Negro people were deprived of their rights.

The opponents of the project were determined in their manner, and blunter than they thought. A gentleman from the South – “I came here 20 years ago with just a suitcase and I made good” – was one of the chief spokesmen. With a fine Southern drawl he explained, “I have nothing against the colored folks. I was raised by a colored mammy. I have 17 colored men working for me, and only five whites. That shows how I treat them. I have no prejudices. But I wouldn’t move into Grosse Point where I don’t belong, and where I am not wanted. I don’t see why anyone would want to do otherwise.” Then he indignantly denied accusations that “this is a Black Legion or Ku Klux Klan move. Everyone in our neighborhood knows I helped break them up out there.”

Of. course, he is one of the key organizers, against the housing project, and he did not understand what he had revealed by his remarks. Nor did he understand that he had tipped off the audience that now KKK elements and others were no longer working in their own organizations but through these front organizations. (The city interracial committee points out that these real-estate improvement groups are joined together in a tightly-knit city federation and act together, as when they crucified George Edwards by their racebaiting campaign.)

The second main attack on the Schoolcraft project took the form of defending the sanctity of the private home against the first step towards socialized housing. Spokesmen included the “mothers” type, speaking emotionally and ignorantly for the children and “family life.”

Points the Finger

Who is directly responsible for the deepening of the crisis? George Schermer, director of the Interracial Committee, ascribed it to ”mounting organized resistance from neighborhood property improvement associations to the spreading out pf the Negro population into new areas, and a strong tendency in our city government to act in relationship to group pressure rather than in terms of overall good of the community or in terms of certain basic principles of justice.”

It’s very unlikely that he will last very long after that statement. Only last week Mayor Cobo fired a prominent Negro minister, The Rev. Bradby, from the Detroit Housing Commission after Bradby blasted the failure of the commission to carry out improvements in housing for all the people of Detroit.

What factors make another crisis in race relations inevitable? As seen from the standpoint of the terrible housing shortage, Schermer reports:

  1. The Negro population is now near 300,000, having doubled in the past ten years.
  2. This population was terribly crowded into existing Negro communities during the war years, with only some small expansion at the edges and with a small fraction accommodated in temporary war housing.
  3. During and since the war Negro buying power has been increased, even though the patterns of racial discrimination in employment change very slowly.
  4. The increased purchasing power has made itself felt on the housing market.
  5. Most of this is being expressed in older sections of Detroit where population shifts are becoming very noticeable. However, a considerable number of Negroes are trying to get newer, better-quality homes in outlying areas.
  6. The trend of the federal courts and agencies to limit facial discrimination has intensified the drive of Negroes for decent homes.

A City of Fear

Such factors do, of course, indicate how situations like the argument around the Schoolcraft housing project arise, in which, the cooperative movement, carrying. out the ideas expressed by the UAAV-CIO, makes some concessions-no matter how small to the insistence of the Negroes that they have the right to decent housing.

Even where the housing situation ostensibly has been settled, like the Sojourner Truth Project, the situation has a tinder-box character. Schermer reported that this particular area is the most tense in all of Detroit, although by no means the only one!

All of these violent antagonisms are aggravated today by the overall atmosphere in Detroit. The city is nervous and edgy. It has 200,000 unemployed. They are sharpened by the Chrysler strike, with embittered workers smoldering under the pressure of prolonged hardship. It is a city of fear, of insecurity, of clashes, of depression, memories, and guilt complexes over race riots.

The Negroes grow more bitter in Paradise Valley. The bigotry of the South roots itself into the minds of the anxious home owner of the lily-white areas. The ideas of the Ku Klux Klan find fertile soil among the uprooted and unemployed workers from the South. And the housing scandal remains a terrible sore spot, in which fester the tensions of an already tense city, geared to the ruthless demands and needs of the industrial octopus that feeds on the lives of the restless masses.

Here we have pure social dynamite, and only a blinded city government of small minds and small men to grapple with it, a labor movement that makes the record against the growing crisis and tries inadequate measures to resist the impending events, and social institutions like the churches whose spokesmen talk of brotherly love while their audiences practice race hatred.

Time is running short in Detroit. The UAW leaders know it. Unless the UAW faces up to the test, it will find itself in a deep-seated crisis too.

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