It would be naïve and inaccurate to say that people rioted in Newark, NJ and Detroit, MI because they were hot. But the long, hot summer of 67 certainly didn’t help.
Legislation mandating equal employment opportunities (which some contractors resisted) was advancing, but at the time it was at a slow, regional pace.
Construction of the St. Louis, MO “Arch” that spring created both a landmark and landmark legislation. The News reported in May, 1967 that “In a case with racial overtones, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled that five St. Louis labor organizations violated the NLR Act by striking the general contractor and various subcontractors working on the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (the Arch).
“The board said the unions’ unlawful objective was to force the contractors to cease doing business with E. Smith Plumbing Co., a contractor who used Negro plumbers, members of the Congress of Independent Unions. The ruling upheld the findings of the trial examiner, Horace A. Ruckel.
“The trial examiner ruled that the unions’ threats and subsequent strike were unlawful because their objective was to force the various contractors with whom the unions had no dispute, to cease doing business with Smith.”
That same month, the government urged that “Mere freedom from discrimination is not enough.
“Active recruitment of [youths] from minority groups into the building trades and active assistance in helping them qualify for apprenticeship programs is needed.
“That was the message Stanley H. Ruttenberg, assistant secretary for manpower in the U.S. Dept. of Labor, brought to the convention here of the Sheet Metal & Air Con-ditioning Contractors’ National Association.”
Indeed, some in the construction industry were trying to comply. In Detroit that June, “A government-finance project designed to bring more minority group members into building trades apprenticeship programs and to prepare youths for apprenticeship tests has been launched here.
“The project was inaugurated with a $94,980 federal grant to the Trade Union Leadership Council (TULC), a predominantly Negro labor group.
“The TULC and the Detroit Building Trades Council have teamed up to prepare 200 Negro youths for apprenticeship programs. This is said to be the first major effort to introduce such a program in the building trades.”
It was a start, but it wasn’t enough. And it didn’t address other problems facing the black community, such as harrassment from police and others.
VIOLENCE ERUPTSThe riots in Newark and Detroit affected some in the air conditioning industry, especially the wholesalers with outlets in the areas of town were rioting broke out. One wholesaler in Newark’s Central Ward was prepared by what he had seen two years earlier in the Watts District riots in California.
“Precautions taken two years ago were credited with saving the complete building and stock of Tesco Distributors Inc., a refrigeration wholesaler located in the heart of this city’s looted and fire-bombed Central Ward,” reported Gordon Duffy in the July 21 News.
“Converted into what president Ted Yecies described as a ‘fortress,’ following the 1965 riots in the Watts District of Los Angeles, Tesco and its staff were not counted in last week’s toll of 24 dead, more than 1,000 injured, and millions of dollars in property damage.
“‘We knew it had to come,’ Yecies said. ‘And when it did we were ready.
‘Over the years we have watched the character of the neighborhood change,’ said Yecies in a phone interview with the News. ‘After the Watts riots we installed a forced ventilation system, filled in all of the windows with concrete block, and installed a heavy steel door to cover the main entrance.’”
Shortly afterward, violence erupted in Detroit that was still more severe. At the end of five days there were 43 dead, 7,000 arrested, 1,300 buildings destroyed and 2,700 businesses looted.
According to a July 31 report from George Hanning and Phil Redeker, “Despite the extensive destruction from fire, looting, and riot that makes some sections of the city look like a war area, refrigeration and air conditioning contractors and wholesalers, even in the areas affected, appear to have come through unscathed.
“Only one contractor or wholesaler contacted by the News had suffered any damage to his plant. None knew of any others who had.
“Most took the normal precaution of staying closed on Monday [July 24], the day after the first night of rioting, looting, and burning — and some on Tuesday.”
AFTER THE FACTIn an August editorial, Frank Versagi wrote that “Before the start of summer, those close to the problems that plague our cities predicted trouble ‘when hot spells come and the people crowd out into the streets.’ And when the trouble came to Detroit, top officials not only prayed for rain, but gave serious consideration to cloud seeding to bring rain and this drive the street crowds back into their homes.
“It would be ridiculous to infer from this that air conditioning for everyone would be the entire solution to civil disturbances. But it would also be shortsighted for those trying to find solutions to disregard the role that air conditioning can play. It is not merely that air conditioning will keep people off the streets — the comfort conditions that it provides will help relieve the tensions that seemingly have had to find an outlet in rioting and pillaging.
“It is to be hoped that all who have to do with urban renewal projects of any kind will give consideration to the role that air conditioning can play in keeping peace in the cities. Certainly air conditioning must be given consideration as something more than ‘frill’ or ‘extra’ which the mass of the people cannot afford.”
Publication date: 04/25/2001