The Harlem Riot of 1943

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Many people believed that the end of the Second World War would provide an opportunity for financial and social advancement, especially for African Americans, because the war provided an opportunity for them to prove their value (Riley para 3). Unfortunately, attempts to make those improvements had stalled by the end of the war. As a result, the aspirations of Black people in the United States for an increase in their economic fortunes during the 1940s and 1950s were never fulfilled. The social inequality that the African-Americans had previously experienced was still in existence in 1943, and to a significant extent, played a vital role as a contributing factor to the riots later in the same year (Riley para 3). The Harlem Riot of 1943 is a critical aspect of study in the history of United States’ social perspective. Based on such a consideration, this paper analyses the occurrences during the Harlem Riot of 1943, especially on the point of view of how its coverage was conducted by the different quarters.

Cause and Effect of Harlem Riots of 1943

World War II became a significant period in the lives of many African-Americans. Their participation in the war was an opportunity to showcase their worthiness to gain respect from the white Americans (Mazón 128). However, despite their excellent performances during the war, the whites still harassed them because of the color of their skin. The series of riots experienced during the same period were from an in-depth analysis a way in which the black Americans were expressing their grievances against the mistreatment from the whites. For the case of Harlem’s riot of 1943, the underlying cause was mainly the poor conditions in which the Black people were subjected to (Krajicek). From the early 1940s, the Blacks population in the United Sates had grown significantly with New York holding approximately 485,000 and another 300,000 in Harlem. With such numbers, the Black-Americans faced the challenge of overcrowding in their residential areas, which when coupled with the unequal employment opportunities, creates an element of racial tension. As such, Harlem was indeed an area of racial tension.

Similar to the case of Detroit riots, Harlem was no stranger to race-based riots as an attribute of rumors (Swan 83). Previously in Harlem, the 1935 riots had been sparked by rumors of a white manager at a shop beating a black teenager he accused of shoplifting. In 1943, the situation was never any different, and the Harlem riots were sparked by an inciting rumor of a white police’s brutality against an African-American who had previously participated in the World War II. With the spread of the rumor, chaos erupted in three different areas, without an explicit verification of the information. Since African-Americans had always been bitter about the whites’ treatment of them, such rumors were nothing but opportunities of expressing their bitterness. Unlike the previous race instigated riots, the Harlem’s riot of 1943 was of vital importance to the Black Americans. The excellent contributions the black soldiers had made during the World War II were mainly to gain recognition and have equal treatment as the whites. However, with the continued race-based discrimination against the African-Americans, the Harlem riots of 1943 provided the needed opportunity after the completion of the World War II to show displeasure in how the whites discriminated against them (Riley).

The Harlem riots of 1943 took place for two days between the 1st and 2nd of August 1943 in Harlem. The riots happened because of James Collins, a white police officer having shot and wounded a World War II veteran of the African-American race Robert Bandy (Riley). Contrary to such an occurrence, rumors went around that Robert Bandy was shot and killed, thus sparking the riots. From the events witnessed, it was evidently clear that riot was directed by the African-Americans towards the property owned by the whites in Harlem as a continuation of the series of riots attributed to racial tensions between the whites and blacks (NYC). Other areas that had previously experienced riots from racially based tension included Detroit, Michigan, Texas, and California among others. In the Harlem’s case, Bandy the African-American World War II veteran had witnessed the arrest of a black woman for a disorderly behavior by James, the white officer. In the pursuit for the release of the black woman, Bandy hits the white officer, who then fires and injuries Bandy in the process. With crowds gathering rumor of the African-American veteran having died from the white officer’s shooting started spreading resulting in the start of riots.

The pattern taken by Harlem’s riots of 1943 was a clear indication that the underlying cause of race-based. The riots mainly comprised of vandalism, theft, and damage to the white-owned property and businesses in Harlem rather than an attack on individuals (Ransford 581). By the end of the riots, it was evident that the significant effects were monitory damages resulting from property damage in the case of the whites; however, for the African-Americans, the end of the riots saw six people dead and hundreds injured with as many arrests as the wounded also being witnessed. Restoration of the order came from the deployment of officers of diverse categories in their thousands to contain the rioters (Clark 319).

From an in-depth analysis, the underlying causes of the Harlem riots of 1943 were mainly the hard feeling by the blacks who resided in Harlem on the disparity of values as required by the American democracy as well as other aspects of their social and economic wellbeing . African Americans regularly faced brutality and discrimination from the whites, especially those in the police force. Despite the fact that Black troops that served the state had done so to get some recognition and equal treatment both in the social aspects as well as in economic perspectives like in equal access to employment opportunities (Swan 88). However, upon return from the World War II, the wartime shortages created harsh conditions for living in Harlem and the most affected were the African Americans. Such occurrences only created much tension among the blacks in an urge to make improvement of their lives and experience equality in treatment as was the case with the whites. A scenario, therefore presented in the commotion situation that led to the start of the riots was that Bandy represented the disgruntled African American World War II servicemen, who even after making an excellent contribution to the World War II never got the appreciation of promotion as it was with the white participants in the troops. On the other side was Collins the white officer, who by default of race and color discriminated and suppressed against the black residents of Harlem, thereby dealing with them on a daily basis. When the underlying conditions that present inequality within the systems plays a critical role in the enhancement of the people’s feeling of being captives to others within an area’s setting. Moreover, the sense of limited economic opportunities, as well as unaddressed grievances and antagonistic relationship with the law, will at all times cause some element of tension among the concerned group.

Coverage of Harlem Riots by Mainstream Press

Among the vital aspects of the Harlem riots of 1943 was the coverage the occurrences received from the different quarters. The coverage was a significant issue of concern during the riots considering that the manner of the coverage would work towards halting the riots or increasing their occurrence. According to the mainstream press, the Harlem riot of 1943 were contributed to by a black woman named Polite who misbehaved after forgetting her manners. While in the original details of occurrence of the incident that resulted in the riots were sketchy, more layers of gauze have been added over time. One critical piece of information as covered by the mainstream press provided a key insight into the contributing factors into the black woman’s misbehavior that contributed to the whole commotion. While from the war, some soldiers and sailors had been affected by some venereal disease, and as such the military had asked the police to provide assistance in keeping safe the enlistees considering that it was wartime and that a majority of the military men and woman were busy in the war . It was, therefore, the duty of the cops to ensure that GIs was kept safe from Braddock’s sexual bed bugs (NYC).

Upon the shooting of Bandy, and later being taken to the hospital for medication, wild rumors quickly spread across Harlem that Bandy had been shot and killed as reported by the Daily News. Also, Daily News made reports that approximately 3,000 African Americans had gathered around Syndenham while shouting and yelling, while those with the intention of causing trouble making cries that a white cop had ‘murdered’ a black soldier . Following the Harlem riots of 1935, a commission had been formed to address the underlying issues, which included elements of employment, relief, housing, education, and crime . While some of the issues got addressed, a majority remained only on paper without any implementation.

Communist President vs Black Press

For the communist president, the riots were occurrences that one would not ignore and as such, it was important to address them in ensuring that no further riots were witnessed in Harlem (Johnson 261). Basing on some of the concerns given by the commission, the communist president gave orders that would ensure that the concerned individuals played their role appropriately in ensuring that the grieved black race felt part of the society. One of the main issues during the riots was the overcrowding of the black family an attribute of the high housing costs against the blacks without any stable sources of income to counter. From such occurrence, the communist president through the administrators gave an order that required landlords to make compliance with the cost controls that had previously been set in ensuring that the blacks afforded the houses so as to reduce the overcrowding that was previously the case (Riley). Whereas such a directive made some improvement to the housing conditions of the blacks in Harlem, it was just but a little part of the major reforms that the black race needed to feel part of the society.

On a different perspective, the Black press had its approach to the coverage of the Harlem riots of 1943. From the previous riots of 1935 in Harlem, some issues had come up as the primary causes of the riots that needed an address, but until the occurrences of the 1943 riots, no measures had been put in place in addressing the issues earlier araised issues. From the availed report, it was revealed that the hiring practices of the public utility companies left out the blacks with the reason being the rationalization of policies and practices, which from an in-depth consideration had no base both in logic and facts (Swan 91). Moreover, the lack of employment, as well as the union policies against the blacks, was also a contributor to the riots. Until 1943, the issues of concern had never been addressed and as such, with the happenings between the unruly black women, while police and the black war veteran provided another platform for the black to address their grievances once again. Based on such a perspective, it is evident that mainly, the black press contributed much to the start and continuation of the riots.

In times of crisis, information relay is an important aspect as it determines whether the crisis gets a solution or it is made worse In this particular incident, the blacks had previously wanted a way of addressing the hardships they were undergoing but getting such a platform was never easy. Thus from the commotion that occurred between the white cop and the black soldier was nothing but an opportunity to make the address. The Black press was responsible for the spread of the rumor that Bandy the black soldier had been ‘murdered’ by Collins the white cop, the piece of information that resulted in the riots. For the blacks, the racial tension had always existed in Harlem and with the news that one of their soldiers had been ‘killed’ by a white cop was only but an opportunity to stage revenge, which involved the destruction of property that belonged to the whites. Indeed, the Harlem riots of 1943 seemed to have won more redress and the necessary and needed attention by the blacks towards the discriminatory institutions and practices against them as compared to other legal protests that had previously been staged . With the black press providing information, though rumors that contributed to the airing of grievances that would later bring some change to discrimination it is evident that for the blacks, its coverage of the Harlem riots of 1943 was the top most approach.

A critical analysis of the black press and the communists’ president in the coverage of the Harlem riots of 1943, the two present some similarities and differences in almost equal measure. From the similarities perspective, it is evident that at the end of the coverage, the major underlying issues that contributed to such occurrences came to the attention of the concerned and some action taken. In both cases, the major similarity is the fact that the needed action was taken. On the contrary, while the black press used rumors and lies to realize their grievances addressed, the communists’ president had to follow the due procedure of forming a commission that would identify the underlying issues and make an appropriate address from such (Lestz 96).

View of the Harlem Riots through Rashomon-like Lens

Rashomon effect is the situation in which an occurrence gets conflicting interpretations by different individuals or witnesses based on their personal understanding of the circumstances involved . While Rashomon effect is a typical scenario observed in the society today, the Harlem riot of 1943 cannot be viewed from a Rashomon-like lens. Taking a deeper understanding into the occurrences of the events and the manner in which the reporting was conducted, it is evidently clear that the person that started the rumor that a white cop had shot and ‘killed’ a black World War II veteran was a black. The rumor reporter did so intentionally as a provocative measure of the fellow blacks against the whites. While it is clear that the true information from the occurrences of the day that resulted in the riots was the commotion between the white cop and the black soldier, which later led to the white cop firing a shot at the black soldier. The black soldier was then taken to the hospital for treatment and had not died as the black reporter had presented the information. From such a view and understanding, it is clearly evident that the Harlem riots of 1943 cannot be regarded from the Rashomon-like lens. The primary focus of such an opinion is the fact that no contradicting news was presented in the situation; rather, an opportunity for the black residents of Harlem to air their discriminatory feelings against the manner in which the whites treated them was presented. With such a possibility, creating and spreading a rumor was the only way to ensure that the already existing tension was taken a notch higher. Ideally, the feeling among the black residents was that since the previous riot of 1935, nothing tangible had changed, yet they needed such a change to end the life of oppression that they led.

Harlem Riots of 1943 vs Zoot Suit Riots

The Zoot Suit Riots also of 1943 involved a series of attacks by the white American servicemen and civilians against the Mexican-American youths (“Harlem Riots of 1943” para.6). Zoot suits were considered as unpatriotic outfits, most especially on the fact that it was during the wartime while the clothes had lots of fabric. The Zoot Suits riots had some similarities and differences as compared to the Harlem riots of 1943. First, both riots occurred in the same year with differences only being on the months with the Zoot Suit riots coming two months before the Harlem riots. The Zoot Suit riots involved the white servicemen and civilians attacking and stripping youths that wore the suits (Cosgrove 18). While the primary focus of the assault was of the Mexican American young men, African American young men, as well as Filipino American young men, were also attacked in the situation. On the different occurrences between the two riots, it is evident that in the case of the Harlem riots, it was the blacks who were rioting and destroying property belonging to the whites as a way of expressing their grievances from the social and economic inequalities. In the case of the Zoot Suit riots, it was the whites attacking the minority groups. Besides, while the Harlem riots resulted in the death of six African Americans, the Zoot Suit riots only resulted in injuries without fatalities (Cosgrove 9). As such, to a significant extent, the riots were different; however, similar in almost equal proportions.


According to a majority of African Americans, World War II provided an opportunity to prove their worth and importance in society. However, upon the end of the war, nothing much had changed. The social and economic inequality that the African-Americans had previously experienced was still in existence, thereby creating much tension between the whites and the blacks in Harlem. With such tension, it is evident that any minor trigger of the peace in the area could result into chaos and riots as the case with Detroit and Harlem. For the case of Harlem riots of 1943, a perceived mistreatment of a black woman by a white cop resulted in commotion between the white cop and a black American World War veteran. With the white cop having shot and wounded the black soldier, rumor went round that the soldier had died from the shooting, thereby triggering the already existing tension between the blacks and whites. Conclusively, the Harlem riots of 1943 were an attribute of the existing tension between whites and blacks concerning the social and economic inequalities against the blacks in Harlem.

Works Cited

Clark, Kenneth B. Group violence: A Preliminary Study of the Attitudinal Pattern of its Acceptance and Rejection: A Study of The 1943 Harlem Riot. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Cosgrove, Stuart. Zoot Suits and Second-Hand Dresses. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 1984.

Johnson, Marilynn S. "Gender, Race, and Rumours: Re‐examining the 1943 Race Riots." Gender & History 10.2 (1998): 252-277.

Krajicek, David J. “The Harlem Riots of 1943 Ignited When False Rumors Spread About A Cop Fatally Shooting A Black Soldier During A Dalliance At The Hot-Sheets Motel”. New York Times, Accessed 23 May, 2017.

Lestz, Diana. Like a Mad Geyser in the Moonlight: The Harlem Riots of 1935 and 1943 and the use of Surrealism in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man". Senior Theses, Trinity College, Hartford, CT 2013

Mazón, Mauricio. The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation. Texas: University of Texas Press, 2010

“Harlem Riots of 1943”. New York Times, 25 Aug. 2015, Accessed 23 May 2017.

Ransford, H. Edward. Isolation, Powerlessness, and Violence: A Study of Attitudes and Participation in the Watts Riot. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Riley, Ricky. “Atlanta Black Star; 8 Facts You May Not Know About The Harlem Riot of 1943.” Atlantablackstar, Accessed 2 August 2014.

Swan, L. Alex. "The Harlem and Detroit riots of 1943: A comparative analysis." Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 23.1 (1978): 75-93.

November 23, 2022

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