Civil Rights in Michigan

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Civil Rights have been a big deal in Michigan for a long time. In this lesson, we'll look at the state's long history with these issues and see how they impacted the lives of Michigan's citizens.

Michigan and Civil Rights

In the 1960s, the closed fist became a symbol of black power and civil rights. Well, open up that fist and you've got another symbol often associated with civil rights: the shape of Michigan. Michigan, everyone's favorite hand-shaped state, has a long history of dealing with civil rights.

Race in 19th-century Michigan

When Michigan became a state in 1837, the issue of race was becoming pretty important in American society. The country had decided that states in the north would not allow slavery, so that wasn't a question for Michigan, but the role of free blacks in society was. Michigan didn't grant African Americans the right to vote, but did offer them a greater degree of social freedom than in many states.

As a result, Michigan developed a reputation for being a place that was relatively friendly towards African Americans. It became a major destination of the Underground Railroad, and the population of both fugitive slaves and free blacks in Michigan increased rapidly over the next few decades.

Of course, life was far from perfect. In major cities, notably Detroit, the growing number of African Americans led white citizens and immigrants to worry that black workers would steal their jobs. This fear was heightened during the Civil War by the Emancipation Proclamation, and tensions boiled over into the Detroit Race Riot of 1863. A mob targeting black businesses and citizens cut a destructive path through Detroit.

After the Civil War ended, Michigan's state government tried to demonstrate solidarity with the pro-equality sentiments of Washington's Republicans. In 1867, Michigan became one of the first states to voluntarily ban segregation of public schools (although the city of Detroit resisted integration). In 1883, Michigan removed the last state-sanctioned discriminatory law from its books by dropping the ban on interracial marriage. In 1885, the state passed its own Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination. While a definitive win for civil rights, in theory, the law ended up very unevenly enforced across the state.

Civil Rights of the 20th Century

The early 20th century saw an entrenchment of segregationist policies across the United States, particularly in major urban centers, and Detroit was no exception. The city's reputation as an industrial powerhouse inspired African Americans across the country to migrate to Detroit, looking for work. Just as had happened in the Civil War, the competition for jobs resulted in tensions that boiled over into violence during World War II. The Detroit Race Riot of 1943 left over 30 people dead and over 400 wounded, and had to be broken up with federal troops.

Sign posted at a suburb outside of Detroit
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After World War II ended, black workers in Michigan often found themselves pushed out of jobs in order to make room for white GIs. They were also further segregated into inner cities and denied opportunities to move into the suburbs.

The state recognized that civil rights issues needed to be addressed in a consistent and efficient way. In 1962, Michigan opened a constitutional convention to draft a new state constitution. One of the provisions worked into this draft was the creation of an independent bureau called the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. Inaugurated with the adoption of the new constitution in 1964, the MCRC was designed to investigate issues of discrimination within the state.

So, that was it, right? Michigan resolved all of its civil rights issues? Not quite. Just three years later, another race riot erupted in Detroit. Motivated by tensions over housing and limited job opportunities, the Detroit Race Riot of 1967 was the most destructive one yet, leaving 43 people dead, over 1,100 injured, and destroying 2,000 buildings.

Labor issues were a major source of tension in Michigan
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The Detroit riot was one of the several riots which occurred that summer, prompting President Lyndon B. Johnson to create the Kerner Commission, a body tasked with figuring out why destructive race riots like the one in Detroit were occurring, as well as how to fix the underlying problems. The Commission identified a lack of economic opportunities for urban African Americans as the root issue, something that was confirmed in Detroit.

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