Before 1968, America’s small African-American middle class operated mostly in a segregated world. Black-owned funeral homes, pharmacies, restaurants and clubs served a mostly black clientele in neighborhoods like Detroit’s Black Bottom, soon to be razed for "urban renewal" — decimated like many others by new freeways.

Many college-educated blacks were able find jobs only in a few places open to them, such as the post office. When Ford Motor Co. was asked in 1963 to list its white-collar occupations open to African-Americans, it had to include service jobs such as valets, porters, messengers and mail clerks just to have any at all. Blacks then at Ford were relegated mostly to the worst dead-end jobs in assembly plants.

But after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 and the report of the Kerner Commission on urban unrest, America began, slowly and painfully, to offer more opportunities to people of color.

Yet, a white backlash grew along with the greater opportunities for African-Americans. In another momentous change wrought by 1968, the white working class began to drift to the right politically, with enormous implications for the nation's political scene that resonate today.

No place did the struggle for opportunity and the backlash against it play out more dramatically than in Detroit.

Among those who witnessed it all was the Rev. Doug Fitch, a black Methodist pastor from Los Angeles known for his ministry to the Black Panthers. He was recruited in 1968 to help run the Detroit Industrial Mission, a task force designed to open up auto industry jobs to African-Americans.

“Often, those who were poor were relegated to the very dirty jobs,” Fitch, now 81, said recently. “They were on the assembly line, but they were not in the organization as managers."

Industry responds to Kerner report

During that dramatic year, some of Detroit's corporate elite, including Henry Ford II and financier Max Fisher, mandated more opportunities for blacks in industry, including Detroit's many auto plants. Some civic leaders sincerely believed change was needed, while others cynically referred to such affirmative action programs as "buying riot insurance" in hopes it would tamp down black resentment.

Veteran labor official Nelson Jack Edwards, the only African-American to be a ranking United Auto Worker policy maker, is congratulated at a 1964 dinner in his honor at Cobo Hall Saturday night by Walter Reuther, UAW president. Director of a UAW department that represents 52,000 foundry workers, and thousands more in supply plants, Edwards was a member of the UAW international executive board.
Fred A. Plofchan, Detroit Free Press

Not everything changed, by any means. Schools and housing patterns in Detroit would remain segregated for decades. But over time, Fitch said, more economic opportunities opened up for African-Americans, from the factory floor to professional offices.

"What happened is that corporations began to think seriously about new employees coming into their business that would change the face of that corporation," Fitch said. The face of work began to “look a lot like us.”

Statistics bear out that a new black middle class was emerging. Historian Thomas Sugrue notes in his book Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North that in 1960 the entire state of Michigan had just 324 black doctors, 142 black lawyers, 201 black engineers and 95 black college teachers. Those numbers rose dramatically in the years after 1968. By 1990, black doctors in Michigan numbered 1,076; lawyers, 1,178; engineers, 2,658; and professors, 1,509.

Yet it remained a tense time. Rod Gillum, later a vice president and senior member of General Motors' legal staff and chair of the commission that built the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, grew up in northwest Detroit in the 1960s at a time when a distinguished legal career for an African-American youth remained unusual at best.

Gillum remembers vividly how it felt to grow up black in Detroit in 1968. At the time, he had a job at the Northland Mall in suburban Detroit, where as a black youth, he stood out among the mostly white clientele.

“You would pause a little bit, look over your shoulder, because you’d have some concern,” he said. “That was just the reality, that was your normal. You always wondered how others kind of viewed you at that time; and then with the death of Dr. King, whether they viewed you with some trepidation or they viewed you with more of a welcome. But that was your normal as a teenager.”

During the civil disturbances of 1967, which in Detroit left 43 people dead, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner to head a 12-member advisory panel on civil disorders. The famous Kerner Report, issued on Feb. 29, 1968, found that black resentment of white racism fueled the unrest. 

In its most famous passage, it warned: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal."

Gary Gilson, a broadcast journalist, documented black resentment during the five months he spent in Detroit in late 1968 and early ’69 filming Do You Think a Job Is the Answer? His documentary was about efforts by Detroit industry to integrate more African-Americans into the workforce. It ran on public television in March 1969.

Driving around Detroit, Gilson saw long lines of blacks lined up outside a movie theater. Puzzled, he stopped to look into it. They were there to see The Battle of Algiers, a film  about Algerians rebelling against French colonial rule by organizing themselves into secret cells to defeat the occupying French authorities.

“There’s no way that the cops can crack that secrecy,” Gilson said recently. “Well, all these people were lining up to learn this! It was a symptom of what was the mood of the town. Resentment that so many black people felt toward the police was one of the major issues in town.”

President Johnson's administration rejected the Kerner Report when first issued. But when King was murdered just weeks later in Memphis, at least some white Americans began to take the concerns of black America more seriously.

Sugrue, a professor at New York University, said the dramatic events of the year demonstrated the need for real change.

The streets of Detroit during the 1967 riot.
Tony Spina, Detroit Free Press

“The long hot summers and the 1960s all the way up through the riots that accompanied the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 sent a very strong signal to government and to civic elites, particularly in riot-affected cities, that they needed to address the grievances and concerns of African Americans,” he said.

But as more opportunities began to open up for African Americans, the white backlash grew, too.

Backlash, then flight

In the presidential race that year, the winner, Republican Richard Nixon, running on his law-and-order message, and independent George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, together garnered 57% of the national popular vote, while liberal Democrat Hubert Humphrey took just 43%.

Holding Michigan for Humphrey that year became a major goal for Detroit union leader Walter Reuther, president of the powerful United Auto Workers and a national leader of progressive liberalism.

In 1968, Reuther faced criticism from within his own union, both from angry African-American members who had formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement to demand greater opportunities for blacks, and from resentful white autoworkers resisting black progress.

As Reuther biographer Nelson Lichtenstein writes in his book The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, Reuther confronted that growing opposition during one visit to a UAW town hall meeting featuring a Wallace-friendly crowd. Attempting to respond to a white woman's question, Reuther addressed her in union vernacular. "If the sister will sit down, I'll explain that," and the woman shot back, "Don't you call me a sister!"

For the legendary Reuther, who had led sit-down strikes in the 1930s, survived beatings and assassination attempts, and negotiated landmark contracts for his members after World War II, the rebuke from his own ranks was stunning.

Sensing his UAW members drifting toward Wallace with his angry anti-Washington message, Reuther poured huge resources into saving Michigan for Humphrey. As a result, Humphrey carried Michigan that year and Nixon and Wallace did several percentage points poorer than their nationwide averages.

But the writing was on the wall. "It was the last heyday of labor liberalism," said Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "It sent this jolt across the liberal labor leadership that this whole world was turning against them. They saved the day (in Michigan), but it was an auger for what would happen in the future."

Many whites already believed that the equal opportunity movement was pushing too aggressively for change. White flight to Detroit's suburbs became a flood, ultimately costing the city of Detroit more than half its population. White discontent fueled calls for more law and order and more aggressive policing in cities in particular.

Members of the Midwest leg of the Poor People’s March on Washington turn into Woodward Avenue as they began their march down Detroit’s Woodward Avenue in Detroit, May 13, 1968. Approximately two hundred Detroiters were expected to join the group.
Paul Shane, AP

Within a few years after 1968, the rightward shift of working-class whites was obvious. A key moment came in 1970, when hard-hat construction workers attacked anti-war demonstrators in New York City. In January 1971, producer Norman Lear launched his iconic All In the Family TV show with Archie Bunker as the stereotypical working-class bigot. Labor and liberalism were no longer synonymous. 

Historian Sugrue notes, "urban unrest in the 1960s was decisive in pulling working- and middle-class whites rightward politically. … Recall that even Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t have the support of a majority of whites north or south by the time he was assassinated in 1968."

The rightward shift of white workers has been evident since, with the importance of "Reagan Democrats," epitomized by suburban Detroit's Macomb County, key to the 1980 presidential election — and the same cohort helping Donald Trump win the state in 2016.

The opening of more opportunities for African-Americans and the white backlash against it were only two of the ways the year 1968 changed the American economic scene.

Years of debt-fueled government spending on both the Vietnam War and Johnson's Great Society programs started inflation bubbling by 1968.

From a modest 2.8% inflation in 1967, overall prices jumped 4.3% in 1968 and 5.5% the following year. In a few short years, that inflation would soar all but out of control, hitting 11.1% in 1974, worsened by the OPEC oil embargo of the mid-'70s.

In the years that followed, recession marked by waves of corporate and personal defaults and bankruptcies shattered the American sense of economic security.

It was the twin threads of black opportunity and white backlash that most dramatically changed America in 1968. It's those threads that still underlie much of the unrest and culture wars in America today.

Contact John Gallagher: 313-222-5173 or gallagher@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @jgallagherfreep

For more stories in the 1968 project, visit 1968.usatoday.com