From the September-October 2017 issue of News & Letters
Detroit—On the 50th anniversary of the Detroit rebellion, The Origins Of The Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, written in 1996 by Thomas Sugrue, is again timely. What stands out is the deindustrialization of Detroit that began in about 1950. Before the many General Motors, Ford and Chrysler factories began disappearing from Detroit and nearby Dearborn after the 1970s, the factories of now-vanished automobile manufacturers and suppliers began closing in the 1950s.
PACKARD PLANT SHUTDOWN
There was once a huge Packard manufacturing complex covering 40 acres. It closed in 1956, and most of the abandoned buildings still stand. The nearby Studebaker and Murray Auto Body plants were also closed by 1957, as was the Hudson plant. Motor Products and Briggs Manufacturing also closed plants by the late 1950s.
Until at least 1948 the Black population was, with a few exceptions, confined to a small area on the east side of Detroit known as “Paradise Valley.” Discrimination in the 1940s was open and blatant, and Black workers were the last hired and first fired. Racial discrimination was almost complete in shutting Black workers out of skilled trades jobs. The resistance of white workers to working with Blacks was a major cause of discrimination.
Charles Denby, the founding editor of News & Letters, recounted in his book Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal that the hardest and dirtiest jobs at Chrysler, such as painting, were reserved for Black workers. Sugrue in fact includes Denby’s experience in getting rejected for a riveting job despite his citing a riveting background in the shipyards of Mobile, Ala.
DECADES OF AUTOMATION
Much of the loss of jobs in the auto industry was the result of automation, which began at about the same time as the major plant closures. There were, however, new plants in Detroit suburbs such as Warren and Livonia that did not share Detroit’s deindustrialization until many years later. As auto plants moved to the suburbs, segregated housing patterns barred the Black population from following.
By 1967, the combined effects of deindustrialization, unemployment, housing segregation, and police acting as an army of occupation created the conditions that led to the Detroit rebellion. Fifty years later, with the exception of a large GM complex, more factories have closed and living conditions in Detroit, except in some newly gentrified enclaves, are far worse than they were in 1967.
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