Eddie Brown plopped down on a cracked curb and flicked a thick sheen of sweat from his forehead.
“It’s a hot one,” he told me yesterday at sunset, along a quiet, sweltering stretch of Woodward between Midtown and downtown.
In the same spot 69 years ago today, under the same scorching sun, race relations boiled over as white mobs pummeled black passersby and bus riders with rocks, fists and bats in what became known as the 1943 Detroit Race Riot.
Hours earlier, black residents did the same to white people in an adjacent part of the city following violent racial clashes on Belle Isle.
By most accounts, the riot, which claimed the lives of 34 people – 25 black, nine white – erupted because of false rumors about racial violence. Relations were so tense that anything seemed to trigger violence.
“Wouldn’t surprise me if it happened again,” Brown, 58, said matter-of-factly. “Shit’s getting serious.”
Brown, a janitor, wants no trouble and is just happy to have a job, apartment and a family. But he worries about today’s kids – the ones stuck in violent neighborhoods and substandard schools at no fault of their own. They grow up among abandoned buildings, overgrown parks and gangs.
“They’re trapped,” Brown said. “Their parents don’t care. The government don’t care. These kids, they gotta fend for themselves.”
The unsteady climate has been publicly noted recently by council members, pastors and police.
Consider the times: The state is taking over the city’s already scarce finances and resources; banks are seizing homes and letting them rot in increasingly violent neighborhoods; and the gap between poverty and a living wage is increasingly wide.
When the 1943 riot broke out, Detroit was a promising destination for black southerners who wanted to escape bigotry and poverty. But the city was anything but a haven of tolerance. Jobs, schools and housing were segregated. Black residents received less pay for more grueling work and paid more for subpar housing.
The city has never healed – or been allowed to. White flight, escalating violence and widespread poverty have left the city broke.
On my walk home, two bedraggled men asked for change. A man palming a bottle of vodka slept in a small grassy field. And the painted words, “Welcome to Detroit,” were scrawled on a sidewalk marked with dried blood.
Detroit has a long way to go. Until the state and federal government realize the role racism played in the city’s demise, problems will fester. Children will continue facing unparalleled challenge. And neighborhoods won’t find peace.
Instead of incessantly blaming Detroiters for problems created generations ago, let’s focus on bridging the racial divide and creating equal opportunity.
In the words of the late Rodney King, “Can’t we all get along?”
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.