Civil Rights & Activism in Detroit

“When I was born, I was black. When I grow up, I'm black. When I'm ill, when I die, I'm black. But you - When you're born, you're pink. When you grow up, you're white. When you're ill, you're green. When you go out in the sun, you go red. When you're cold, you go blue. When you die, you're purple. And you have the nerve to call me Colored?” -Oglala Lakota, Sioux chief

While the above quote may be misattributed often and altered even more often, the main point of it remains the same: that the method of ‘othering’ that Americans of west European descent choose to use is ironic and hypocritical. One thing that gets overlooked is that the person saying this was not an African-American, but actually a member of the First Nation Peoples, and part of a culture that mostly doesn’t get looked at or talked about in terms of civil rights. Detroit has a rich history in civil rights from speeches that inspired thousands to demonstrations and riots that killed several people. And Detroit hasn’t been limited to one ethnic group either as it has seen the suffering of many different types of ethnicities through the years even before the ‘black migration’ and ‘white flight.’ When looking at issues with civil rights, it is important to note that the black/white paradigm concept is obsolete and that there are many more issues across the board including those of Asian Americans, Latino and/or Hispanic Americans, First Nation Peoples, Irish Americans, etc. Therefore, it simply wouldn’t be appropriate nor accurate to only discuss the African-American civil rights movement when talking about civil rights in Detroit.

Civil rights are “the rights of citizens to political and social freedom and equality” according to a quick search, so it sadly isn’t surprising how these rights were so easily denied and/or ignored for First Nation Peoples all over the country. In order to have political freedom you have to first be a part of that political structure or at least represented within that political entity. Even though the First Nation Peoples tribes from Michigan or around Michigan aided the French and were allied with the French, they were not considered as French and so were not protected by the French unless it was in France’s best interests. This one sided alliance led to many Native deaths such as what occurred in the Fox Indian Massacre. Another ironic side of the political argument is that First Nation Peoples were a part of the American Revolution for Independence and were involved in raiding parties that attacked settlements in the southeast.

It makes it even more ridiculous that even though First Nation Peoples were born on American soil and fought in all major American wars/battles they were unable to gain citizenship until 1924 with the Indian Citizenship Act. Even though this act was designed in order to grant First Nation Peoples citizenship, it still wasn’t until the Nationality Act of 1940 that all born on US soil were granted citizenship. Even then First Nation Peoples weren’t granted full citizenship and suffrage rights in at least seven states until 1948.

Back in Detroit, it was around this time (1940) that the North American Indian Club was being founded and starting their first office off at the local YMCA on the seventh floor. Several different tribes were represented from Northern US and Canada with the main focus of the group being to provide opportunities for different First Nation Peoples to meet and enjoy social, recreational and cultural activities, sporting events, dinner dances, pow-wows, and employment resources. The club was granted exemption from federal income taxes as a non-profit business in 1973 and changed their name to the North American Indian Association.

Another ethnic group that has traditionally suffered quietly and was forced to raise their voice against civil rights violations in Detroit are Asian Americans. The term “Asian American” itself was not created until the murder of Vincent Chin. Vincent Chin was an auto worker in Detroit who was out celebrating his upcoming wedding at a strip club. Different reports claim that two white auto workers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, grew jealous because of all of the attention Chin was receiving from the strippers and began an argument-turned-fight with the soon to be groom. Because of the fighting, both parties were kicked out of the strip club where, according to the reports, Ebens and Nitz began to search for Chin even going so far as to hire another unnamed man to help them find him. Once they found him, Nitz restrained Chin as Ebens proceeded to take a baseball bat and break Chin’s shins before bashing in his skull.

There were several witnesses including two off duty police officers who saw what occurred but neither Ebens nor Nitz ever served a single day in jail even though Ebens actually plead guilty to murdering Vincent Chin. What allowed this case to go from a simple manslaughter charge to a civil rights violation was a testimony from one of the strippers who overheard Ebens making a racial slur towards Chin. While Chin’s family never received justice for his death, this event allowed the many different Asian American communities to come together and create a network and support group for fighting oppression and for finding justice for the hate crimes committed against them.

Latino and Hispanic Americans faced a humiliating and violent form of racism in the 1940’s that led to a series of race riots commonly referred to as the Zoot Suit Riots. These riots were a result of a misconception that the Latino and Hispanic youth were being lazy and purposefully avoiding military service. During the wartime, certain materials had to be rationed out and a lot of cloth materials were necessary for military uniforms and bandages. Because of the material zoot suits were made of, many stores stopped making them in accordance with the rationing laws; however, this just pushed the youths into making their own. Because the majority of zoot suit wearers were apart of ethnic minorities, it meant that when large numbers of angry servicemen began patrolling through the city of L.A. they were able to target only ethnic minorities which resulted in the race riots. How does this relate to Detroit? Cooley High School experienced it’s own zoot suit riot that was written off as an imitation. That imitation was three weeks before the 1943 Detroit Race Riots broke out on Belle Isle.

Even though Latino and Hispanic Americans have suffered a long history of being perceived as dirty and as thieves, according to statistics in Detroit they have actually been very productive in generating businesses and restaurants that help stimulate the local economy. According to one report, many Latino Americans are moving to Detroit because of the low cost of housing and the need for more service based establishments. Mexican Town in Detroit has become a well known popular place to go when visiting Detroit for lunch and dinner.

Many of the different race riots and racial violence in Detroit has come from the black/white race relations and animosity. There have been several demonstrations that have erupted into violence over the segregated-turned-poor and failing education system for African American children, segregation of housing, the lack of fund going back into metro Detroit, and especially due to police brutality. When the race riots of 1943 broke out in Detroit, the number one reason given in a survey was police brutality. The same in the riots that broke out in Detroit in 1967, police brutality.

The number two reason given in surveys before and after the riots in Detroit about what made the citizens of Detroit the most unhappy was segregated housing. Looking at the layout of the city of Detroit overlayed with ethnic demographics, there are obvious parts of the city where certain ethnicities are pushed/forced to live in. Much of the civil rights movement for African Americans began from the desire to end all of the segregation and the misery that came along with it in order to push for a better and more peaceful society. There have been peaceful, non-violent marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. in Detroit as well as speeches given by famous inspirational speakers such as Malcolm X.

Detroit has seen intense violence as well as peaceful demonstrations over the issues of civil rights and human rights. While these movements have made some progress since then, the still present issues surrounding housing, education, and how to bring money back into Detroit remain similar if not the same as they were back then.