In the spring and summer of 1943, violent clashes between whites and African Americans broke out in major urban centers across the United States.1 In response to this rash of riots, poet Langston Hughes2 wrote "Beaumont to Detroit: 1943," a powerful example of his ability to express immediate and insightful artistic commentary on the events of his day. In this poem, Hughes draws a comparison between the oppression of Jews by the Nazis and African Americans by Southern whites.3 This theme was familiar as well to readers of African American newspapers.4 Indeed, published in the left-wing journal Common Ground that autumn, Hughes's poem represented but one of many contemporary literary reflections on the parallels between the struggle against fascism in Europe and campaigns against racism in the United States.5
In the early 1940s, cities like Beaumont, Texas, and Detroit, Michigan—both manufacturing centers for munitions during the war—saw a great influx of both black and white migrants 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 African Americans and whites in closer proximity than ever before, and competition for jobs worsened the friction. Amidst these simmering tensions, African Americans increasingly became the targets of violence and hostility.7
On June 15, 1943, in Beaumont, after a false rumor circulated that two white women had been raped by African American 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 and armed with hammers, axes, and guns—descended on the neighborhoods populated by African Americans. The rioters looted and burned homes and businesses, terrorizing and assaulting residents. The violence subsided only when the troops and police arrived in Beaumont around sunset. The city was placed under martial law and a curfew 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 African American district, he said, was "literally stomped into the ground."9
Just days later, on June 20, brawls between black and white youths sparked a city-wide race riot in Detroit. Another false rumor—this time that white rioters had thrown an African American woman and her baby into the Detroit river—fueled further confrontations. The violence came to a crescendo as groups of armed whites traveled to the city's black neighborhoods to destroy property and assault inhabitants. 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, 24 of them African American.
In Beaumont's aftermath, a military tribunal reviewed 206 arrest cases. Twenty-nine persons were charged with unlawful assembly, assault and battery, or arson and found guilty; the remainder were released for "lack of evidence." In Detroit, city offiicials, state prosecutors, and special investigators blamed the violence almost exclusively on African Americans.10
German and Japanese propagandists were quick to seize upon the riots as evidence of inequality and discord in the West, suggesting in leaflets targeting African American soldiers that they would enjoy better treatment behind Axis lines.11