July 14, 1973 was a hot Saturday for Detroiters, with temperatures reaching the low 90s

The Cold War was in full swing, and some Detroiters with eastern European roots might have stopped by the three-day Captive Nations ethnic festival by the riverfront. This festival honored the 15 countries living under Soviet rule — including Albania, Armenia, Bulgaria, Byelorussia, Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Romania and Ukraine. 

“We are here to call attention to the plight of millions of people living under oppression,” said Sigurds Rudzitis, the chairman of the festival at the time.

Residents celebrated their cultures, wore native costumes, and a Ukrainian folk dancing group performed. Some criticized the festival for turning into a capitalist “carnival.”

By 1973, Detroit’s racial landscape was rapidly changing. For decades, racist policies kept Black residents segregated in certain neighborhoods: Restrictive covenants prohibited Black people from purchasing land in white neighborhoods, and redlining maps labeled Black neighborhoods as “hazardous” investments — making it impossible to get mortgages.

As neighborhoods integrated in the second half of the 20th century, thousands of white residents fled the city for the suburbs, and the city’s demographics shifted dramatically — going from 29% Black in 1960 to 63% by 1980. 

The city’s 1973 mayoral election came in the midst of this shift to a majority-Black city, leading the Trade Union Leadership Council to sponsor a poll to gauge the Black community’s most significant concerns. On July 14, 1973, the Michigan Chronicle reported that the “economic rehabilitation” of Detroit was the top priority of Black residents, along with “adequate financial support” of Detroit public schools, and safe and affordable housing. Lower-ranked issues included abolishing the infamous Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets (STRESS) program, the firing of then-Detroit Police Commissioner John Nichols, and improving public transportation. 

Nichols, who introduced the STRESS program in 1971, told the Detroit Free Press he would run for mayor in the 1973 election.

The UAW opposed Nichols’ candidacy and struggled to decide which of the several mayoral candidates to endorse. Coleman Young, who had already served as a state senator, had close ties with the UAW and decades of history as a union activist in the Democratic Party. However, the union leaned toward City Council President Mel Ravitz. Some believed Ravitz had the best chance of beating Nichols in the election. 

But Black UAW members worried that an endorsement for Ravitz, a white man, would be a blow to Young’s campaign. And some UAW leaders worried that endorsing Ravitz would “polarize the union along racial lines.

The UAW ended up endorsing Ravitz, but Young won the election — becoming the city’s first Black mayor.

Alex (she/her) is an urban studies and public history student at Wayne State University and a Detroit Documenter. She has a special interest in researching Metro-Detroit history and seeks to connect current issues with historical context to find solutions. She believes we must understand our past to...