Academic journal article Social Justice

Material Conditions of Detroit's Great Rebellion

Academic journal article Social Justice

Material Conditions of Detroit's Great Rebellion

Article excerpt

Abstracts

This article analyzes the conditions, and political significance, of Detroit's Great Rebellion in 1967. We first discuss the pre- and postwar political economy in Detroit. Second, we analyze the state of technology and automation at the plants and its relationship to the class struggle. Third, we address the uniquely high levels of class and race consciousness in the city. Finally, we take a critical look at Detroit, a recent Hollywood film that makes a spectacle of the Great Rebellion, and we analyze the lasting impact of the Rebellion and the radical organizations that formed in its wake. We insist that a dialectical analysis of race and class illuminates contemporary political issues in Detroit and across the United States, such as mass incarceration, police violence, and wealth inequality.

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We learned from Detroit to go to the cities. --General Vo Nguyen Giap of the Vietnam People's Army, 1968 (quoted in Mullen 2002,189)

AS ONE OF THE LARGEST PERIODS OF MASS UNREST IN US HISTORY, THE 1967 Great Rebellion in Detroit inspires questions about life under US capitalism at the height of postwar production. There were uprisings (or riots) in at least 300 US cities from 1964 to 1972, involving half a million African Americans and resulting in 250 deaths. The largest of these conflicts occurred in the summer of 1967 in Detroit, where 43 people died during a week of armed confrontation between working-class militants on one side and the police, and eventually the army, on the other (Kelley 2002, 78).

A 2017 Hollywood film, Detroit, turned this event into a blockbuster, a spectacular tale of irrational violence pitting young, angry, and unruly Black men against a group of racist rogue police officers. It is tantamount that leftists interrogate and challenge this hegemonic articulation of the events in Detroit and across the United States as simply a series of "race riots." What were the causes of such dramatically articulated outrage? What did people demand, and of whom? Was this a political rebellion with targets and demands or merely an ineffectual symptom of the mass exploitation, unemployment, and racism endemic to advanced capitalism? As Jodi Dean (2016) quips, going beyond being a symptom is the very definition of politics. Did the Detroit Rebellion go beyond this symptom status? And what can the response from the state and from capitalists illuminate about the current political constellation? We return to these questions more directly in the conclusion; but first, we examine three conditions leading up the rebellion. We first discuss the pre- and postwar political economy in Detroit; second, we analyze the state of technology and automation at the plants; and finally, and perhaps most importantly, we address the uniquely high levels of class and race consciousness in the city.

Detroit, the Center of the World

During the 1910s and 1920s, 1.2 million Black workers left the South. From the onset of World War I through the 1920s, 34 percent of these Black migrants settled in Detroit, where the auto industry was burgeoning. Detroit's Black population increased from less than 6,000 in 1910 to more than 120,000 in 1930. As Carole Marks has pointed out, although a good deal of this migration can be explained by the mechanization of agricultural industry, "much of the mobilization of the migration was orchestrated in the board rooms of northern industrial enterprises" (Marks 1989,3; see also Marable 1983). Black workers were routinely deployed as strike-breakers and otherwise functioned as a cheap labor pool used to keep wages down and perform the most menial and dangerous tasks (Robinson 1993, 288; see also McRae 1991). At the time, Ford and other capitalists worked to create a racialized aristocracy of labor. A tacit compromise was offered: capitalists would give privileged access to higher paid, less degrading positions to white, English-speaking,US-born workers and to immigrants from Western European countries like Germany; these, in return, were expected to shun the union movement (Meyer III 1981,77-79). …

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