Life Magazine and the Detroit Riots (plus some other history)

During the summer of 1982, I worked at the City of Houston Tax Office.  Listening to homeowners grouse about their taxes 8 hours a day was not fun, but the job paid well, and it beat working at McDonald’s for the summer.  Lunch hour was literally that – one hour long and it gave me a lot of time to explore downtown Houston.  Across the street from City Hall was the central library.  On the first floor was a nifty bound periodical section that included all the issues of Life Magazine from its run starting in 1936 and ending in 1972.  The release of the movie Detroit this week concerning the 1967 riots brought me back to that summer.

Typically, to read old issues of a magazine such as Life, one had to head towards the microfilm room.  It was a treat to spend my summer lunch hours reading the real deal.  Historians will usually claim that history can’t truly be understood until 50 years afterwards.  It often takes that long for classified documents to become public.  However, I think there is certainly value in experiencing history as the people did during any given time period.  And for most of its run, Life was the go to source for photojournalism.  Being a World War II buff, I made it a point to examine every issue from 1939 to the end of the Nuremberg trials.  And it was the Detroit riots that provided a first crack in the edifice for me of standard World War II history, where America was entirely united in wartime.

I was nineteen and by then, I had a pretty good background on the war, the politics, and the battles, but was still lacking in nuance.  How did the Detroit riots of 1967 play into this?  To understand what happened in 1967, you have to understand the 1943 Detroit riots.  And those riots are not typically addressed in high school history or encyclopedia accounts of World War II.  Life magazine gave me a first glimpse into that aspect of American history and later in the 1980’s, Studs Terkle and Paul Fussell, among others, provided a more comprehensive understanding of America during that period.

Google has partnered with Time-Life and has all the issues of Life online.  Besides allowing me to relive the summer of ’82, we can take a look at how the Detroit riots were covered at the time.  It started in 1942, when a white mob attempted to block African-Americans from occupying the Sojourner Truth Homes.  As the war resulted in intense labor shortages, blacks were recruited from the South to work in the war plants.  Life’s coverage of that event can be found here.  Five months later, Life followed up with a series on the racial factions in Detroit and the ongoing tensions still existing.  Tragically, Life’s reporting was prescient of things to come.

The 1943 riots lasted from June 20-22 and left 34 dead.  The start of the riot, as is often the case, was generated by false rumors of both white attacks on blacks and vise versa.  The root cause was ongoing racial discrimination from housing and the best jobs in the auto industry.  Detroit’s population surged from 465,000 in 1910 to 1.6 million in 1940 resulting in a housing shortage that left blacks in sub-standard dwellings.  The casualties of the 1943 riot were mostly black as both white mobs and police outnumbered black residents.  The Life coverage of the riot notes that, “Detroit can either blow up Hitler or blow up the U.S.”  In the end, Detroit blew up Hitler, but as Life noted, the riots were a huge propaganda tool for Nazi Germany.  Life’s nine page coverage of the riot can be found here.

The 1967 riot was a link in a long chain of racial tensions in Detroit.  The 1967 riot was more deadlier – 43 died and it came just after the Newark riot.  Life begins its coverage by referring to the riot as “the Negro revolt” akin to the phrase rebellion used today.  The economy was booming in 1967 with a national unemployment rate of 3.8%, even lower than it was in the late ’90’s boom.  However, it was 11% for blacks in Detroit.  Also, the decade saw the migration of whites and jobs out to the suburbs and out of reach for inner city blacks.  Add in the additional stress caused by the Vietnam War and you got a toxic brew of racial tension.  Life’s coverage of the 1967 riot can be found here.

Riots weren’t the only thing I read about in 1982.  Here are some links to articles that stand out to me 35 years later.

Germany invades Poland

Life Looks Back at a Year of Disaster – an end of year 1940 article covering fall of Western Europe to Nazi Germany.

War in Russia – Germany invades Russia.

America Goes to War – coverage of Pearl Harbor.

Battle of Midway

Red Army Fights for Mother Russia

Beachheads of Normandy – images of the first wave hitting the beaches.

Allies Squeeze the German Bulge

Iwo Jima

Concentration Camps Liberated

War Ends in Europe

Victory in Europe issue

Allies Round Up War Criminals

Atomic Bomb Dropped in Japan

Japan Signs the Surrender

Nazi Leaders Sing Their Swan Song

First Image of Earth From Space – taken by captured V-2.

The Feat That Shook the Earth – Sputnik launches space age.

JFK Memorial Issue

Week of Shock – MLK assassinated, LBJ declines to run for 2nd term.

Death of Robert Kennedy

To the Moon and Back – Apollo 11 Special Issue

The Big Woodstock Rock Trip/Norman Mailer’s Fire on the Moon/Manson Murders

Apollo 13 Returns Home

Attica Prison Riot

Nixon’s Great Leap into China

Local Interest (Buffalo – where I currently reside)

The Big Snow – 1945 blizzard

Coal Strike Affects Buffalo in 1950

Can This be Buffalo – 1965 Albright-Knox Festival of Art

These, of course, reflect my personal interests.  To explore the Google Life archives you can go to its homepage.  Also, the Google Life photo archive has millions of photos and you can take a gander at that here.  The online search function makes it easy to locate issues of interest, but browsing through issues and randomly looking at articles and advertisements can provide some nuggets as well.  The dichotomy between the articles on the war front and home front is particularly striking during World War II.

And what of the collection at the Houston library where I originally read these articles?  Its been moved to the closed stacks and replaced by a computer lab.  Like everything else, progress sometimes comes with a price.


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