In the spring and summer of 1943, widespread racial violence broke out in major urban centers across the United States.1 In response to this rash of riots and racist attacks, poet Langston Hughes2 wrote "Beaumont to Detroit: 1943." It is a powerful example of his ability to give insightful artistic commentary on the events of his day. In this poem, Hughes draws a comparison between the oppression of Jews under Nazi rule and Black Americans living under Jim Crow.3 This theme was familiar to readers of Black newspapers at the time.4 Hughes' poem—published in the left-wing journal Common Ground that autumn—was one of many literary reflections on the parallels between the struggle against fascism in Europe and the campaign against racism in the United States.5
In the early 1940s, cities like Beaumont, Texas, and Detroit, Michigan—both manufacturing centers during the war—saw a great influx of people seeking work.6 These growing urban centers often struggled to adapt to the scale and pace of change. Government allotments of basic rations ran short, a lack of housing placed Black workers and white workers in closer proximity than ever before, and competition for jobs added to interracial tensions. In these circumstances, Black workers often became the targets of racist aggression and violence.7
On June 15, 1943, a false rumor circulated in Beaumont that two white women had been raped by Black men. A crowd of approximately 2,000 white workers from the Pennsylvania Shipyard gathered and marched on City Hall.8 When they were turned away, the mob—now numbering close to 4,000 people armed with hammers, axes, and guns—descended on the city's Black neighborhoods. The mob looted and burned homes and businesses, and they assaulted many Black people. Two people were killed, and a third died later from wounds sustained during the riots.
The violence only came to an end when the Texas State Guard, the Texas Rangers, and the state police arrived in Beaumont later that night. The city was placed under martial law and a curfew was imposed. In an Associated Press interview the next day, one commander of the Texas State Guard compared the condition of the city to the destruction he had seen in a World War I battle zone. The city's Black neighborhoods, he said, had been "literally stomped into the ground."9
Just days later, widespread racial violence erupted in Detroit. On June 20, fights between Black youths and white youths sparked a city-wide race riot in Detroit. More false rumors—that Black men had raped a white woman and that white rioters had thrown a Black woman and her baby into the Detroit river—fueled further confrontations. The violence came to a crescendo as armed white mobs traveled to the city's Black neighborhoods to destroy property and assault individuals. Black residents retaliated by attacking white-owned businesses. After two days of chaos and bloodshed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dispatched 6,000 troops to Detroit to quell the riots. By the time peace was restored, 36 people were dead. Two-thirds of the victims were Black.
In Beaumont's aftermath, a military tribunal reviewed 206 arrest cases. Twenty-nine people were found guilty of unlawful assembly, assault and battery, or arson. The remaining cases were dismissed for "lack of evidence." Detroit city offiicials, state prosecutors, and special investigators blamed the violence almost exclusively on the city's Black residents.
German and Japanese propagandists quickly seized on the riots as evidence of inequality and discord in American society. Propaganda was created specifically targeting Black soldiers, suggesting that they would enjoy better treatment behind Axis lines.10