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Jerome Cavanagh
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Jerome Cavanagh

Jerome Cavanagh, also spelled "Cavanaugh," (1928 - 1979) was the mayor of Detroit, Michigan from 1962 to 1970. Initially seen as another John F. Kennedy, his reputation and his city were doomed by the riots of 1967.

In his first campaign ever, 31 year old Jerry Cavanagh stunned political observers by defeating incumbent Louis Mariani. Mariani had an enormous amount of institutional support, but he had managed to alienate both Detroit's growing black community by condoning police brutality and Detroit's white reactionaires by not doing anything to halt residential integration.

Cavanagh got off to an popular start as mayor, appointing a reformer to be chief of police and implementing an affirmative action program for most city agencies. Unlike Richard J. Daley, who stonewalled the American civil rights movement, Jerry Cavanagh welcomed Martin Luther King, Jr to Detroit, and marched with him in 1963 down Woodward Avenue in the 100,000 strong March for Freedom.

Cavanagh was successful in getting money from Washington, DC through the "Model Cities" program. New skyscrapers were built downtown. People were very hopeful about where Detroit was going; well-informed observers believed that Detroit had extinguished the burning embers of resentment left over from the 1943 race riot.

From Fortune magazine:

"the most significant is the progress Detroit has made in race relations. The grim specter of the 1943 riots never quite fades from the minds of city leaders. As much as anything else, that specter has enabled the power structure to overcome tenacious prejudice and give the Negro community a role in the consensus probably unparalleled in any major American city.

"Negroes in Detroit have deep roots in the community, compared with the more transient population of Negro ghettos in Harlem and elsewhere in the North. ... more than 40% of the negro population own their own houses.

Nor was Detroit doing so badly economically. From the National Observer:

"The evidence, both statistical and visual, is everywhere. Retail sales are up dramatically. Earnings are higher. Unemployment is lower. People are putting new aluminum sidings on their homes, new carpets on the floor, new cars in the garage.

"Some people are forsaking the suburbs and returning to the city. Physically Detroit has acquired freshness and vitality. Acres of slums have been razed, and steel and glass apartments, angular and lonely in the vacated landscape, have sprung up in their place. In the central business district, hard by the Detroit River, severely rectangular skyscrapers—none more than 5 years old—jostle uncomfortably with the gilded behemoths of another age.

"Accustomed to years of adversity, to decades of drabness and civil immobility, Detroiters are naturally exhilarated. They note with particular pride that Detroit has been removed the Federal Bureau of Employment Security's classification of 'an area with substantial and persistent unemployment.'

(All quotations found in BJ Widick, Detroit: City of Race and Class Violence. Quadrangle Books, Chicago. 1972. 156-159.)

However, deeper problems existed under the surface.

After WWII, the auto industry, requiring more lateral space than was available in a city, and desiring to get away from the United Auto Workers and city taxes, decentralized its operations. Detroit lost 134,000 jobs from 1947 to 1963, despite a growth in population. Between 1946 and 1956, GM spent $3.4 billion on new plants, Ford $2.5 billion, Chrysler $700 million, none of that in Detroit. 25 auto plants were opened in Detroit's suburbs, none in the city. Whites could escape Detroit, but due to closed housing, blacks were trapped there, like people holding onto a sinking ship.

All the federal moneys in the world could not help a city losing jobs. Detroit, which was not a large financial, entertainment, educational, or government center, was a city in serious trouble. Cavanagh had inherited a $28 million budget gap in 1962. To close the gap, and to pay for the new programs he wanted to implement, Cavanagh had pushed through the legislature income and commuter taxes for Detroit, thereby further driving out businesses and middle class residents.

Detroit was actually not a city of squalid tenements in 1967, in fact, it had the highest black homeownership rate in the nation. The blacks who rioted in 1967 were responding just as much to conditions in Newark, New Jersey and Chicago as they were to conditions in Detroit.

July 1967. 12th Street. 3:00 AM. Over 80 Detroiters were celebrating the return of two friends from Vietnam. It was an after-hours, underground bar known as a "blind pig." Detroit police attempted to break up the party, but there was an altercation. More Detroit police arrived and the disturbance grew. Rumors circulated of police brutality. The riot had begun. Coleman Young in his biography _Hard Stuff_:

"The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit's losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The riot put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could. They white exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the rebellion [sic], totally twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion—the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty-thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969." (Hard Stuff, 179)

Cavanagh acted slowly to stop the riots. He felt a large police presence would make things worse. George Romney and President Johnson argued with each other about the legality of sending in federal troops. Johnson said he could not send federal troops in without Romney declaring "a state of insurrection." Romney did not want to declare a state of insurrection because if he did insurance companies would not have to pay for the damage being done. Eventually, Johnson sent troops in without a state of insurrection being declared.

The Detroit riots were the worst of the four hundred or so riots that American cities experienced in the 1960s. The riots lasted for five days, killed 43 people, made over 5,000 people homeless, and required two divisions of federal paratroopers to be put down. Contrary to popular belief, black-owned businesses were not spared. One of the first stores looted in Detroit was Hardy's drug store, owned by African-Americans, and known for filling prescriptions on credit. Detroit's leading black-owned clothing store was burned, as was the city's best black restaurant. In the wake of the riots, a black merchant noted "you were going to get looted no matter what color you were." (Thernstrom, Abigail and Stephen. America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible: Race in Modern America. 162-4)


Cavanagh embodied the hopes of the 1960s. He ran for Senate in 1966, and had ideas of higher achievement. Cavanagh wanted to show the nation that cities could be relevant and livable. His hopes were dashed by large macroeconomic forces, generations of anger, and tragic fate.

Cavanagh himself had to admit in July 1967, "Today we stand amidst the ashes of our hopes. We hoped against hope that what we had been doing was enough to prevent a riot. It was not enough."

Jerry Cavanagh died of a heart attack in 1979 at age 51. He is buried in Mt. Elliott Cemetery in Detroit.