Riot Acts – The Surprising History of Wartime Civil Unrest

When racial tensions engulfed Detroit in the summer of 1943, Washington ordered in the troops.

When racial tensions engulfed Detroit in the summer of 1943, Washington ordered in the troops.

“A number of cities were rocked by widespread violence and civic unrest during the war years. Here are some examples.”

AMERICA LIKES TO REMEMBER the Second World War as an era in which the Greatest Generation selflessly set aside their difference and pulled together to help save civilization as we know it. While certainly, the United States’ industrial and military might, not to mention the bravery and sacrifice of its fighting men and women, certainly made the Allied victory possible, the popular narrative of a united America papers over some of the long-standing and deep racial tensions that continued prevent the country from becoming what the Constitution described as a more perfect union.

Evidence of this forgotten discord can be found in the Detroit riots of 1943. The three-day disturbance, which ground wartime production in the city to a halt in June of that year, came as black factory workers rose up to resist racial discrimination.

The unrest played out during America’s second year of World War Two, as armaments factories in the city of 1.6 million were drawing in an additional 350,000 labourers and their families, many of which were African American coming from the racially segregated Southern states. 

Tensions began to heat up when the city’s white landlords, almost en masse, denied housing to the newcomers. The crisis worsened as longtime workers walked off the job following attempts by factory managers to integrate the shop floors.

When a minor dispute between a group of black youths and some whites escalated into a street fight, the months of simmering resentment finally boiled over into a full-out racial confrontation. Vast sections of the city were soon engulfed.

Sixteen people were killed in the ensuing riot, while another 17 (all of them African American) were shot dead by police and National Guard. That’s when Washington dispatched federal troops, who locked down the streets with troops and even tanks.

“The popular notion that the American home front during World War II was a place of unclouded unity, sacrifice and common purpose is — like most overly simplified characterizations of history — only partially true,” wrote the author of the Time Life piece commemorating the riot. “For millions of people, America in the 40s was a tough place to make a living. Add simple, brutal race hatred to the mix, and conditions are ripe for serious strife.”
Interestingly enough, the Detroit riot isn’t the only incident that challenges the popular narrative of wartime unity on the home front. A number of cities were rocked by widespread violence and civic unrest during the war years. Here are some examples:

The logo of the South African right-wing nationalist OB movement.

The logo of the South African right-wing nationalist OB movement.

The Ossewabrandwag Uprising

In the years leading up to the Second World War, many in South Africa’s white Afrikaner population felt a certain kinship with the Third Reich. Dutch-speaking white nationalists were particularly inspired by the dynamism and energy of Nazi Germany. When the British Empire found itself at war against Hitler in 1939, militant Afrikaners flocked to the pro-German Ossewabrandwag (OB) movement as a form of protest. On Feb. 1, 1941, OB activists rioted in the streets of Johannesburg. British and South African troops were ordered to crack down on the disturbance. More than 140 casualties were reported.

The Zoot Suit Riots

It wasn’t an army of right-wing nationalists that caused mayhem in the streets of Los Angeles, but rather American servicemen and legions of stylishly dressed Mexican American youths. The so-called Zoot Suit Riots first began in May of 1943 and continued for some weeks. Named for the often-colourful oversized jackets and pleated baggy trouser popular among young Latino males of the time, the riots were really the by-product of simmering resentment among sailors and marines towards the carefree urban street culture of L.A. in the 1940s. Following a series of brawls between military personnel and Latino youth, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of servicemen prowled the streets, bars and movie houses of the city looking for ‘zoot suiters’ to attack. Policemen who were dispatched to quell the unrest reportedly did little to stop the violence and in some cases cheered the troops on as they mobbed and stripped any fashionably attired young Latino men they encountered. Charges were eventually laid, but not against the servicemen but more than 500 of the zoot suiters for everything from disturbing the peace to loitering. Local media actually praised the uniformed mobs for cleaning up the streets and local government officials proposed seemingly un-Constitutional regulations restricting the wearing of flamboyant clothes in public. Congress even investigated whether the zoot suiters were somehow being organized by the Axis. Eventually, local military commanders revoked soldiers’ passes and kept personnel confined to bases until the furor died down, but similar riots soon spread to cities across the U.S.

African American soldiers on Guam were targeted by fellow marines in a violent disturbance that rocked Guam over Christmas of 1944.

Trouble on Guam

Racial tensions between white and black marines on the island of Guam went from a brawl, to a riot, to a deadly firefight during Christmas in 1944. The incident began when nine black marines from a supply and logistics company were celebrating the holidays in the town of Agana. On Christmas Eve a handful of white combat troops fired at the off-duty marines as they fraternized with some local girls. The black soldiers scattered and made their way back to their outfit. When news of the attack spread through the camp, forty black marines commandeered vehicles and returned to Agana to confront the attackers. The impromptu convoy was intercepted by military police and the group was ordered back to their barracks. The following day (Dec. 25), a group of white soldiers randomly shot and killed two black marines in separate incidents near the town. Twenty-four hours later, jeep-loads of armed white marines assaulted the black soldiers’ outpost. Sentries returned fire driving the attackers off. One MP was wounded in the action. When the black marines set off in pursuit, the entire group was detained and later charged with everything from unlawful assembly to attempted murder. No white marine was ever identified or arrested. Eventually, all of those charged and imprisoned were released as press coverage of the incident drew the public’s attention.

Bad Manners on Manners Street

Hundreds of U.S. military personnel and ANZAC troops openly clashed in the streets of Wellington on April, 3, 1942 after the latter complained that local bars and restaurants on the popular Manners Street seemed to serve the Yank patrons before the native Kiwis. For two hours, more than a thousand supposedly “Allied” servicemen traded jabs, that is until armed troops and police descended onto the scene and restored order. The entire event was quickly suppressed by military censors in the interest of morale. Prior to the advent of Twitter, it would take 20 years for details of the incident to finally be made public.

Servicemen and local residents of Halifax Canada celebrated the downfall of Nazi Germany by destroying the city.

Servicemen and local residents of Halifax Canada celebrated the downfall of Nazi Germany by destroying much of the city.

The Halifax Hangover

When Germany called it quits on May 7, 1945, soldiers, sailors and civilians alike in the bustling Canadian port city of Halifax spilled out into the streets to celebrate. The revelry soon turned ugly however as more than 9,000 servicemen and merchant mariners began smashing windows, setting fires, flipping cars and trolleys as well as looting shops, bars and liquor stores. Ironically, civic leaders and military commanders predicted the destruction, but a fleet admiral disregarded these warnings believing that his sailors deserved the chance to toast the victory they helped produce. Not surprisingly, commanders’ admonishments to the sailors to enjoy responsibly went unheeded. An orgy of chaos ensued. Three sailors died in the melee and more than 350 were arrested. Before marshal law was finally ordered on May 8, an estimated 16,000 gallons of liquor was looted along with nearly 200,000 bottles of beer and 18,000 bottles of wine. That’s enough booze to fill about three typical suburban in-ground swimming pools. Canadian authorities quickly convened a Royal Commission to investigate the causes of the riot, which they placed at the feet of naval commanders. To see archival footage of the famous riot, click here.

7 comments for “Riot Acts – The Surprising History of Wartime Civil Unrest

  1. 2 August, 2013 at 11:20 am

    This was an eye-opener regardless! One thing I would like to add (if my memory serves me correctly), the “rioting” against the Zoot Suiters centered around Whittier Blvd. in East Los Angeles, primarily between Atlantic and Arizona Blvds. The reason I recollect this is because my father ended up getting a house just south of Whittier Blvd. This “recollection” was from talking with my very young Hispanic buddies so some (if not all) may be exaggerated or wrong…

  2. 2 August, 2013 at 11:23 am

    Regardless, when “we” went overseas to free the European continent of Hitler and his unreined hatred towards Jews and discrimination against “non-Arian” races, we had it here too. Even as late as 1947, a barber in Chicago told my dad, “I don’t cut Jap hair.” This was when he was in his US Army uniform with the US 8th Army patch on his shoulder.

    • 2 August, 2013 at 8:10 pm

      Thanks for that, Mustang. And thanks for tipping me off about the Life pics too.

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