Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City

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America's urbanites have engaged in many tumultuous struggles for civil and worker rights since the Second World War. Heather Ann Thompson focuses in detail on the struggles of Motor City residents during the 1960s and early 1970s and finds that conflict continued to plague the inner city and its workplaces even after Great Society liberals committed themselves to improving conditions. Using the contested urban center of Detroit as a model, Thompson assesses the role of such upheaval in shaping the future of America's cities. She argues that the glaring persistence of injustice and inequality led directly to explosions of unrest in this period. Thompson finds that unrest as dramatic as that witnessed during Detroit's infamous riot of 1967 by no means doomed the inner city, nor in any way sealed its fate. The politics of liberalism continued to serve as a catalyst for both polarization and radical new possibilities and Detroit remained a contested, and thus politically vibrant, urban center.Thompson's account of the post-World War II fate of Detroit casts new light on contemporary urban issues, including white flight, police brutality, civic and shop floor rebellion, labor decline, and the dramatic reshaping of the American political order. Throughout, the author tells the stories of real events and individuals, including James Johnson, Jr., who, after years of suffering racial discrimination in Detroit's auto industry, went on trial in 1971 for the shooting deaths of two foremen and another worker at a Chrysler plant. Whose Detroit? brings the labor movement into the context of the literature of Sixties radicalism and integrates the history of the 1960s into the broader political history of the postwar period. Urban, labor, political, and African-American history are blended into Thompson's comprehensive portrayal of Detroit's reaction to pressures felt throughout the nation. With deft attention to the historical background and preoccupations of Detroit's residents, Thompson has written a biography of an entire city at a time of crisis.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Using as a pivot the spectacular riots that gripped Detroit in July 1967, Thompson (history, Univ. of North Carolina, Charlotte) casts the Motor City turned murder capital as a symbol of America's post-1945 urban crisis. She traces Detroit's fragmented civic, labor, and racial politics from the 1930s through the 1980s to argue that more than black-white racial polarization determined the transformation of American inner cities. Thompson argues that Detroit and other northern cities in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were battlegrounds between contradictory visions of a revolutionary, uplifting Great Society and of a reactionary, repressive, law-and-order society. The clashes were no less divisive and fierce than those of the Civil Rights Movement, which were occurring in the South at that time. On city streets and shop floors and in courtrooms, the struggle for equitable housing, worker dignity, and an end to discrimination and police brutality enlisted a biracial cast of reformers, she argues, while featuring the determination of a militant black middle class. Thompson's engrossing work challenges an array of interpretations about postwar urban America, race relations, labor relations, the triumph of Reagan conservatism, and more. Essential for any collection on the history, politics, or society of post-World War II America. Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Thompson's engrossing work challenges an array of interpretations about postwar urban America, race relations, labor relations, the triumph of Reagan conservatism, and more. Essential for any collection on the history, politics, or society of post-World War II America."—Library Journal, February 2002

"Thompson. . . uses Detroit in the 1960s and early 1970s to consider how the battles for civil and workers rights have shaped American cities. . . There's plenty here for readers eager to think deeply about our hometown's challenges."—Marta Salij, Detroit Free Press, 11/26/01

"Thompson illuminates themes of race, labor, and politics in Detroit's history during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, revealing much about the interplay of forces central to American life. . . . Thompson presents a vivid portrait of key courtroom battles against racial injustice. . . . This first-rate contribution to a better understanding of the dynamics shaping US cities captures the flavor and drama of the Detroit struggle. All levels and collections."—Choice, September 2002

"Thompson has spent much of her adult life researching Detroit's recent history. The result is a book that describes how a ferocious battle for control of the city took place after the 1967 riot. Her conclusion: White conservatives lost. Black liberals won."—Bill McGraw, Motor City Journal, March 22, 2002

"The author presents a study of social conflict in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, which remained unabated despite a massive infusion of Great Society programs."—Business Horizons, January-February 2003

"Thompson's study is a triumph of social and political history. She connects in a most engaging style events on the street, the factory floor, and the courtroom, and convincingly shows the political realignments that have remade Detroit."—John F. Lyons, Joliet Junior College, Labour/Le Travail

"A valuable addition to literature on race, labor, and urban life in postwar America. Whose Detroit? identifies the crucial link between shop floor and labor union issues, on the one hand, and broader urban political developments on the other."—Robert H. Zieger, University of Florida

"Heather Thompson uncovers as few others have the rich variety of black community and workplace organizations in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s. Her effort to show the different responses of city leaders and union leaders to racial issues challenges the tendency either to merge these two groups or to overlook the distinctions between them."—Nancy Gabin, Purdue University

"Heather Thompson powerfully rewrites the narrative of the collapse of late-sixties liberalism and of the liberal/labor alliance. The 1967 riots were a turning point in the history of the Detroit Left, perhaps the most important radical community in the country during this period. Rather than accept the riots as a product of rising black militancy, impatience, and scapegoating of 'whitey,' Thompson argues that they played a key role in the ascendance of the Black Power movement."—Robin D. G. Kelley, New York University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801435201
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2001
  • Series: 6/30/2008
  • Pages: 295
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.46 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Table of Contents

Introduction: Reassessing the Fate of Postwar Cities, Politics, and Labor
Chapter 1 Beyond Racial Polarization: Political Complexity
in the City and Labor Movement of the 1950s
Chapter 2 Optimism and Crisis in the New Liberal Metropolis
Chapter 3 Driving Desperation on the Auto Shop Floor
Chapter 4 Citizens, Politicians, and the Escalating War
for Detroit's Civic Future
Chapter 5 Workers, Officials, and the Escalating War for
Detroit's Labor Future
Chapter 6 From Battles on City Streets to Clashes in the Courtroom
Chapter 7 From Fights for Union Office to Wildcats in the Workplace
Chapter 8 Urban Realignment and Labor Retrenchment:
An End to Detroit's War at Home
Conclusion: Civic Transformation and Labor Movement Decline in
Postwar Urban America
Notes from the Author
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