Michigan's Economy from 1941-Present

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Michigan's economy has always been a major part of the American economy. In this lesson, we'll look at the changes in the state economy from 1941 to the present and see how they reflected national trends.

The Michigan Economy

The United States is a big place. While the nation boasts a fairly unified national culture, it's still rare to find local experiences that can practically embody the lives of all Americans. So, when we find these moments, they're worth paying attention to. The state of Michigan, located along the Great Lakes, served as one of America's most important industrial and economic centers for nearly the entire 20th century. Michigan production was American production. Basically, Michigan drove the American economy.

Michigan in World War II

The modern American economy really begins with World War II, so that's where we'll start. When Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, America was just pulling out of the Great Depression. While many areas were still struggling, Michigan was one of the epicenters of new economic growth. The state had access to major shipping routes and contained some of the nation's most successful industries, especially around Detroit, where nearly the entirety of the American auto industry was centered.

When America entered WWII, the government needed to dramatically increase military production and saw an opportunity to restore the economy as well. Rather than build new factories, existing private industries were commissioned to make military supplies. Ford, for example, stopped making cars and started making jeeps, tanks, and even B-24 Bombers. National economic recovery was achieved through this process, and Michigan was squarely in the center. With its numerous industrial centers, the state became the epicenter of wartime production. By 1945, Michigan industries had produced over 8,500 bombers, 25,000 tanks, and 4 million engines for the war.

Detroit factory in WWII
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Michigan After the War

After WWII, the industrial economy boomed. There was growth across the nation, but nowhere was it as sustained or dramatic as in Michigan. The war allowed companies in Michigan to grow in size and scale of production; when they transitioned back to commercial products in 1945, they were producing more than ever before. This meant that Detroit was flush with new jobs, and Americans from other parts of the country migrated en masse to Michigan. Some scholars estimate that up to 1/6th of the nation's jobs were held in Detroit alone.

Race and Economy

Detroit grew in terms of landmass, population, and wealth, attracting a number of new workers. Many of these workers were African Americans leaving the still-recovering South to seek employment. In fact, by 1953 Detroit claimed more African American-owned businesses than any other city in the country.

This ended up introducing a new and unexpected industry into the state's economy. The growth of population and prominence of Detroit, as well as the rise of its Black population, led to a rise in live music as one of the definitive traits of the city. Thanks to the dominance of the automobile industry, Detroit had long held the nickname of the ''Motor City''. The music of the Motor City was called the Motown sound, drawing on prominent Detroit blues and jazz musicians like John Lee Hooker and Donald Byrd. From this sound, a new genre of R&B emerged, redefining American popular music under the label of Motown Records. From Stevie Wonder to the Temptations to Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, the Jackson Five, and Marvin Gaye, this new wave in popular African American music was Detroit.

Artists like Stevie Wonder made Detroit a cultural center
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This didn't mean, however, that race was not an issue in Michigan. Deep racial divides in the nation pushed racial tensions to extremes. In 1943, a race riot in Detroit nearly shut down the city's economy. In 1967, racial tensions again flared due to racially unequal economic opportunities and hiring practices. After an arrest of a crowd of Black citizens celebrating the return of soldiers from Vietnam, onlookers began protesting. The protest turned into a riot that swept across Detroit. In the end, over 40 people were killed, 1,000 were injured, 7,000 were arrested, and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed. The 1967 Detroit Race Riot was one of the most destructive in American history.

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