After the Rainbow Sign:
Jerome Cavanagh and 1960s Detroit
Dr. Kevin Boyle

The following lecture was delivered by Dr. Kevin Boyle November 30, 1999
in conjection with the opening of the Jerome P. Cavanagh Historical Collection
and the opening of the Jerome Cavanagh Exhibit at the Walter P. Reuther Library.

In the spring and summer of 1963, American public life experienced a seismic shift. The quake's epicenter lay in Birmingham, Alabama, where in April the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his army of schoolchildren mounted a final assault on the southern system of segregation. The shock waves spread across the nation: into dozens of towns and cities across the south, from Danville, Virginia, to St. Augustine, Florida, where the oppressed mounted their own marches to demand freedom; into the Mississippi delta, where African-American activists and desperately poor sharecroppers risked everything to secure the right to vote; into the churches, schools, and union halls of the north, where thousands of blacks and liberal whites rallied to support the southern movement and to demand racial justice in their own communities.

As the racial ground shifted beneath their feet, many public officials tried to cling to the old structures upon which their power had long rested. Southern officials unleashed the full fury of their police power: Bull Connor's Birmingham police assaulted and arrested hundreds; Alabama's George Wallace ordered his brutal state troopers to suppress dissent; Mississippi's governor prepared barbed wire holding pens large enough to imprison 10,000 detainees. Northern politicians were also shaken. Attorney General Robert Kennedy insisted that African Americans were "getting mad for no reason at all." Chicago's Richard Daley complained to the president that African Americans in his city no longer feared Chicago's finest. In Detroit, though, matters took a very different turn, as the events of June 23, 1963 made clear. That day, a glorious summer Sunday, Detroit staged its Great March for Freedom.

The Rev. C.L. Franklin of New Bethel Baptist Church had planned the march as an act of solidarity with the southern freedom struggle and of a sign of the surging movement within Detroit. Martin Luther King had agreed to lead the protest, which was to move down Woodward Avenue to a rally at Cobo Hall. Many other mayors undoubtedly would have opposed the event or, at least, kept a safe distance from it. Not in Detroit. Thirty-five year old Jerome Cavanagh, a mere year and a half into his first term as mayor, not only endorsed the march; he promised to join King and Franklin in leading it.

The march was scheduled to begin at 4:00 p.m. But by 3:00 p.m. the crowd was so great -- 125,000 strong -- that organizers could not conceivably control it. The marchers surged forward, a mass of peaceful protesters, most of them black, propelled by the promise of freedom so long denied. By the time King arrived from the airport, the lead marchers were already at Cadillac Square. The crowd roared at the sight of him, swarming around King as he tried to join the line of dignitaries. The march was now a tide of humanity, its leaders simply pushed forward by it. King reached out to link his arm with Cavanagh's, who could not stop to wait for him. Afterward, the mayor recalled saying only one thing to King: "Hang on."

In that moment lay the great promise of the Cavanagh years. After centuries of struggle, African Americans in the early 1960s shattered the power of white supremacy. In the process, they created a movement driven by a moral force so great that for a while it seemed to sweep away all the rules of politics and governance. Jerome Cavanagh dared to link himself and his administration to that movement. He had the courage to ride the wave it had created, the vision to imagine the new city that could be built once the old structures had been obliterated. But what Cavanagh did not know -- could not have known -- as he marched down Woodward that day was that many of the old structures would withstand the earthquake begun in Birmingham. In the coming years, there would be no new city to build; instead, there would be the terrible aftershocks and the fires they triggered.

When Jerome Cavanagh won his improbable victory over incumbent mayor Louis Miriani in 1961, he earned the right to govern a city that, as Look magazine put it, "was noted for three things: automobiles, bad race relations and civic sloth." In fact, Detroit's grip on the auto industry had already begun to weaken. In the 1950s the city had lost over 100,000 manufacturing jobs, as Packard, Studebaker, Hudson, Murray Auto Body, and hundreds of smaller firms shut their doors. Workers followed the jobs out of Detroit: the city's population fell by 140,000 between 1950 and 1960. The unemployment rate hovered at 10 percent, double the national average.

Look was right about the state of race relations; they were poor indeed. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans had come to Detroit from the south in the 1910s and 1920s and again in the 1940s in search of then-plentiful factory jobs. In response, white Detroiters, many of them also newcomers to the city, mounted a vigorous defense of racial privilege in their neighborhoods and on the job. The result was a reign of anti-black violence, from the Sweet case of 1925 through the hate strikes and bloody race riot of 1943. Such overt violence had become less common in the 1950s. But hate strikes continued to occur in the city's factories into the mid-1950s, and black homeowners who moved into all-white areas still risked being attacked by their new neighbors. More commonly, they watched as whites fled to the suburbs: in the 1950s Detroit's white population fell by 23 percent, while African Americans's share of the city's people rose from 16 percent to 30 percent. These changes then intersected with Detroit's economic decline, which burdened African American Detroiters to a much greater extent than it did whites. When Cavanagh took office, unemployment stood at an appalling 18 percent in the black community.

Civic sloth made the problems worse. Mariani had done nothing to adjust city policy to address Detroit's economic problems. As the tax base decayed, city coffers emptied: Mariani left Cavanagh a projected deficit of $28 million for 1962. He also left Cavanagh an explosive racial problem. Detroit's African Americans had long seen the virtually all-white Detroit police department as the brutal arm of white power. When a crime scare spread through white Detroit in December 1960, Mariani and his police commissioner ordered a "crackdown" on street crime. White officers read the order as giving them the right to stop, frisk, and harass black Detroiters at random. African Americans rightly bristled at such police state procedures, so reminiscent of the Jim Crow south.

Cavanagh confronted these problems with amazing speed. In his first act as mayor, he ordered the city to institute non-discriminatory hiring practices. He named African Americans to several important positions in his new administration, including its chief financial officer. By the end of his first year in office, he had pushed Detroit's first income tax through the state legislature, thus assuring the city of the revenue it needed to balance its books. And, in perhaps his most inspired move, he appointed George Edwards as police commissioner. The Texas-born Edwards was a veteran of the city's socialist left. He had begun his career as a union organizer for fabled UAW Local 174, Walter Reuther's local, in the late 1930s; as Detroit housing commissioner during World War II, he had taken a courageous stand in support of integration; when he had run for mayor himself in 1949, he had been defeated in a vicious race-baiting campaign. Now Cavanagh put him in charge of the 4,000-man police force, his to reform.

It is difficult to say precisely why Cavanagh had moved so aggressively and in such a liberal direction. In large part, it was a matter of background. Cavanagh and many of his advisors were products of the New Deal revolution. They were the sons and daughters of ethnic working class parents, who even a few decades before probably would have followed their fathers into the trades. But the benefits of the New Deal era -- government promotion of unionization, minimum wage laws, the G.I. bill -- gave Cavanagh's generation extraordinary new opportunities. Unlike their fathers, they would have high school diplomas, college degrees from city schools like the University of Detroit and Wayne State University, graduate training, professional careers as lawyers and academics. People such as these had no fear of government power; they knew government could create opportunity. They were determined that it would do so now that they held the reigns of governance.

Cavanagh was also responding to the pressure brought to bear on the political system by the surging civil rights movement. Since at least the late 1940s, African American activists had been building an ever-more powerful movement to secure racial justice. By the time Cavanagh took office, the southern wing of the movement had reached full force: the sit-ins had begun just a year-and-a half before his inauguration, the Freedom rides a few months before. But civil rights was not just a southern concern. Black Detroiters, like African Americans across the urban north, were also organizing to break down the walls of discrimination that prevented them from enjoying the full benefit of American society. The northern wing of the movement naturally sought different goals than the southern wing. There was no Jim Crow to defeat. Instead, black Detroiters demanded equal access to jobs, better schools, improved housing, and an end to police brutality. They did so through traditional civil rights organizations, such as the Detroit NAACP, the largest branch in the nation. They also created new organizations and found new leaders: union activists like Horace Sheffield and Willoughby Abner; clerics like the Rev. Franklin and the Rev. Albert Cleague; aspiring politicians like the young John Conyers; and hundreds of men and women who never made the headlines but who worked quietly in their block clubs, their classrooms, and their factories to demand justice.

From the start, then, the Cavanagh administration and the city's civil rights movement were tied together. Cavanagh was willing, even anxious, to use government power; African American activists demanded that he do so. Nineteen sixty three sealed the alliance. At the March to Freedom, Cavanagh symbolically embraced the now-triumphant southern movement. More fundamentally, he vigorously supported the burgeoning civil rights movement in Detroit. He endorsed black demands for an open housing ordinance banning neighborhood discrimination, one of the most explosive issues in the city. He joined black unionists in demanding that the Detroit building trades abandon their discriminatory hiring practices. He pushed the police department to hire more African American officers and dared to integrate the Big Four police cruisers so hated in black areas. Cavanagh certainly did not meet every demand: despite the obvious need, for instance, he refused to establish a civilian police review board. But in the heady days of 1963, 1964, and 1965, he moved farther on racial issues than any other big city mayor. "While Negroes have not deluded themselves that the Messiah has come," the head of the Detroit NAACP said in 1965, "they know that we now have a mayor who ... recognizes that they are part of the city."

By then, Cavanagh dreamed of more than that; he dreamed of an entirely rebuilt city, where physical changes would dovetail with social changes to create a new model of urban life. A few years earlier, when the Cavanagh administration was trying just to get the garbage collected, such a vision would have seemed utterly fanciful. But when the southern civil rights movement broke the Jim Crow system in 1963, it opened vast opportunities not only in race relations but in other parts of public life as well.

The most profound changes came in Washington, D.C. For a generation, southern conservatives within the Democratic party had blocked any reform they feared might undermine white supremacy in their benighted region. Now their power was broken, their conservatism seemingly de-legitimized. Racing to adjust to this new political configuration, Lyndon Johnson, himself a son of the south, launched the greatest reform initiative since the New Deal. In January 1964 LBJ committed his new administration to an unconditional war on poverty. By May of that year he had expanded that promise, dedicating himself to building a Great Society. Needs long unmet would now be addressed, Johnson pledged: children, from pre-school to college, would get better educations; the aged and the indigent would get health care; the poor would get better housing; the unemployed would get job training. Suddenly reform, begun in the streets of the south, promised to stretch into every corner of the nation.

Cavanagh leapt at the opportunity to bring the Great Society to Detroit. Even before Johnson announced the war on poverty, Cavanagh had launched several small, experimental social service programs for young people in the most impoverished areas of Detroit. And he had proved himself adept at getting the federal government to foot the bill. In 1964, he expanded those programs dramatically. Detroit, he hoped, could become a "pilot area" for the war on poverty, the focus of a vast, coordinated effort to give the city's poorest citizens -- overwhelmingly African American -- the skills and services they needed to take advantage of economic opportunities. By June 1964, the administration had created a sweeping program, grandly named Total Action Against Poverty, to provide job training and counseling, medical and dental exams, legal aid, preschool education, summer day camps, and adult education to a large swath of the inner city. Impressed by Detroit's initiative, Washington gave the city a disproportionate share of poverty funds: by 1967, only Chicago and New York had received more federal dollars for poverty programs. Cavanagh wanted still more. Serving on a presidential panel in 1964, he had suggested to Johnson that the federal government target one city for an intensive program of urban rehabilitation, creating a "demonstration city" that would combine the war on poverty with the physical reconstruction of poor neighborhoods. UAW president Walter Reuther picked up the idea in 1965 and, using his powerful connections, convinced Johnson to make it the centerpiece of his administration's urban policy. Renamed Model Cities, the idea became law in 1966. Even as the measure wound its way through Capitol Hill, Cavanagh submitted his bid for Detroit to become the model city. If chosen, the mayor said, Detroit would use federal funds to rehabilitate all the buildings that could be saved in a nine square mile section of the inner city; it would eliminate those that could not be save; it would create new parks and build community centers that would coordinate social services; it would improve police protection; it would build new neighborhood schools. Out of these efforts would come not simply a renewed area but a new Detroit. "There isn't a city in America that doesn't have a physical master plan," Cavanagh said. "What we don't know so well is how to live in a large American city, how to get on with each other, how to renew our human and social values."

It was so extraordinary to imagine. In four short years, Cavanagh had moved Detroit from civic sloth to model city. Praise poured in from across the country. "A new consensus is abroad in the city," Fortune magazine proclaimed in June 1965, "All the diverse elements that make up Detroit's power structure ... are being welded together in a remarkable synthesis.... And the achievement of the city is discernible as much in the almost palpable determination of its citizenry to confront its problems and attempt their solution as it is in the marked changes ... already wrought." City officials and local activists basked in the accolades, of course, but they were not naive. They understood that the city had a long way to go to achieve its grandiose goals. But in the new America that the civil rights movement had created, it was possible to dream.

For all the startling changes it had caused, though, the civil rights movement had not completely transformed the United States. The old structures of power and privilege had been weakened, to be sure, but they had not been toppled. Try as they might, Cavanagh and his supporters could not build their model city as long as those structures remained in place.

Traditional politics was one of the most important of the structures. As early as 1965, powerful southern and northern conservatives, such as Mississippi's John Stennis, Ohio's Wilbur Mills, and Chicago's Richard Daley, were demanding cutbacks in the vaunted war on poverty. Its programs, they insisted, were funding dangerous radicals and were costing too much money, particularly as the price of the Vietnam war spiralled upward. LBJ bravely talked of fighting any cuts in his beloved programs, but privately he backpedalled before the conservative resurgence. By the end of 1966, poverty funding was already in decline, the poverty warriors in retreat. Detroit immediately felt the effects. Federal dollars continued to flow into the city, but they fell far short of the mayor's grand plans. The initial federal grant for Detroit's model city program -- a planning grant awarded in 1967 -- was one fourth of the amount Cavanagh had requested.

In any case, poverty funds did nothing to address the most basic economic problem the city faced. Throughout the 1960s, Detroit continued to lose factory jobs. Between 1963 and 1967, 400 manufacturing firms left the city. An economic upswing during those years had masked the effect of that loss; Detroit's unemployment rate had fallen to 3 percent by 1965. But unemployment rates were much higher in poor areas, particularly among young adults, the sort of people who had once relied on entry-level factory jobs that were now disappearing. Job training and similar poverty programs were pointless under such circumstances; to combat poverty, the federal government needed to create well-paying jobs, something the war on poverty never tried to do.

White privilege also withstood the civil rights tide. White Detroiters were particularly vigorous in their defense of neighborhood segregation. In 1963, the Common Council voted down the open housing ordinance that Cavanagh had endorsed. The next year, the racial demagogue Thomas Poindexter, a long-time conservative activist, mounted a petition campaign in support of a Homeowners Rights Ordinance that essentially endorsed discrimination in the housing market. Whites rushed to Poindexter's standard; he gathered twice as many signatures as he needed to place his proposal on the ballot, and when the issue was put before the electorate, the ordinance passed with 55 percent of the vote. White flight, meanwhile, continued unabated. Between 1960 and 1970, Detroit's white population fell by over 300,000, a number comparable to that of the 1950s.

The most enduring pillar of white privilege in Detroit was not the neighborhood, though; it was the police force. Despite the best efforts of George Edwards and his successor, Ray Girardin, the force seemed impervious to change. Edwards and Girardin had pledged to hire more black officers but as late as 1967 African Americans still made up only five percent of the force. Reports of police brutality against African Americans continued to pour into the department, but police officials refused to cooperate with any and all efforts to establish an effective civilian complaint board. In fact, they responded to any reform initiative with outright hostility. "It's a son of a bitch to stop," Girardin complained. These guys [police officers] are hard to handle, [and] they can screw you in ninety ways."

Together, political constraints and white resistance severely limited Cavanagh's ability to remake the poorest sections of the city. In fact, those sections lost ground: between 1961 and 1967, poverty actually intensified within the area Cavanagh had designated for rehabilitation. De-industrialization was taking a heavy toll. By the summer of 1967, the unemployment rate for African Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 hovered at an astounding 30 percent. Police-community relations continued to worsen. Determined to regain status after a tense stand-off between the force and the Cavanagh administration in the spring of 1967 -- the "blue flu" strike -- officers increased arrests for petty crimes in the inner city. Little wonder that frustration mounted in poor neighborhoods. Detroiters there had heard the promises, the pledges of a new Detroit. But they saw few tangible results. "People have been telling me if you can't make it in Detroit, you can't make it nowhere else," an unemployed man in the 12th Street area said. "That's bullshit, man."

In retrospect, it is not surprising that the frustration exploded into anger. The riot that began on the oppressive summer night of July 23, 1967 was not inevitable. As the finest historian of the riot has said, it was a chance event, triggered by a needless police raid in a neighborhood already simmering with discontent. It quickly became much more than that. It was a massive expression of rage, the rage of those to whom much had been promised, to whom little had been given.

By early Sunday afternoon -- another glorious summer Sunday -- portions of Twelfth Street were already in flames; by nightfall, the fires had spread to other parts of the city. Throughout that night, and the next and the next, Detroiters could hear and see the sounds of war: the reports of riles; the tramp of soldiers' boots; the rumble of tanks. Above them lay a pall of black smoke, hanging over a city ablaze. When the riot was over, almost a week after it began, the devastation was stunning. Forty-three dead, 650 injured, $11 million in property destroyed. "Today," a haggard, aged Jerome Cavanagh said in the immediate aftermath, "we stand amidst the ashes of our hopes. We hoped against hope that what we had been doing was enough to prevent a riot. It was not enough."

Already terribly weak, white support for Cavanagh-style reform utterly collapsed after the riots. One post-riot survey showed that 67 percent of white Detroiters believed that poor African Americans had themselves to blame for having "worse jobs, education, and housing than white people." Even more disturbing was the palpable sense of anger and fear that swept through white neighborhoods. Gun sales skyrocketed in the months after the riots, up 90 percent from the previous year, as whites armed themselves. Rumors of black attacks on white neighborhoods ran rampant, particularly once the Detroit newspapers went on strike in November 1967. Cavanagh tried to calm the situation by establishing a rumor control center. Whites flooded it with calls: over 1,000 a day were logged in the days after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s murder in April 1968. The most common rumor --- rife with Biblical symbolism -- was that African Americans would exact retribution on Good Friday.

By then, the great March to Freedom seemed a thing of the distant past. But it was not. Less than five years before, Jerome Cavanagh had linked arms with the now martyred King, the two of them propelled forward by a tidal wave of hope. Then it had seemed that so much was possible: a new age of race relations, a new city built on justice and opportunity. The great American writer James Baldwin had captured the moment, rich with possibilities and fraught with dangers. In January 1963, five months before the March to Freedom, he published a slim book of essays, the most powerful of which is entitled "Down at the Cross." It could serve as an epitaph for the Cavanagh years, of its hopes and of its defeats, its terrible defeats. "Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands," Baldwin wrote. "We have no right to assume otherwise. If we -- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers insist on, or create, the consciousness of others -- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: 'God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!'

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