Where Do We Go From Here? Part 1: A Contested Commemoration

Until Sunday, no marker commemorated the site where the 1967 unrest began.

[This is the first part of a three-part series on the past, present, and future of Detroit in the light of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 rebellion.]

“I think it’s best to leave that night in the past.”

“You sure it’s gonna stay there?”

  – from Dominique Morriseau’s play Detroit ’67, performed at Rosa Parks and Clairmount on July 23, 2017

This past Sunday, July 23, as the Motor City’s top elected officials gathered to commemorate the most traumatic event in Detroit’s 316-year history, they painted a hopeful portrait of a city on the rise.

Not everyone in the crowd agreed with that optimistic picture.

As a teacher of mine once observed, anniversaries are not only a means of linking the past and present, but also a means of remaking past and present alike.

Many people today might like to put the memory of 1967 to rest under a tidy memorial – if not an unmarked grave. But as Sunday’s event suggested, the present being what it is, the ghost of rebellion past is not resting easy.

“It does not define us”

A half-dozen politicians, ranging from Congressman John Conyers, Jr. to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, had taken the stage in Gordon Park at Rosa Parks (formerly Twelfth Street) and Clairmount, where it all began in the early hours of July 23, 1967, following a police raid on an after-hours bar at that site.

The dignitaries were there to mark the anniversary, but more importantly, they said, they were there to celebrate the progress that had been made.

Congressman Conyers had tried in vain to calm the crowds on Twelfth Street 50 years earlier. Now 88 years old, the longest-serving current member of Congress, he began his remarks by asking the audience, roughly equal parts black and white, to repeat after him: “Never again.” Continue reading “Where Do We Go From Here? Part 1: A Contested Commemoration”

Duggan Does Race

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan points out the city’s Birwood Street segregation wall, built in the 1940s to satisfy federal housing policy mandating separation of blacks and whites.

Sometimes, maybe it does take Nixon to go to China. Or, in this case, a white guy from Livonia to school a bunch of rich white guys about the history of official racial apartheid in Detroit. (Full video here.)

Not that others didn’t try before. Coleman Young (senior) did, with more humor (and expletives). But there was no way the lily-white suburbs were going to listen to frank talk about racism from the first black mayor of Detroit.

Indeed, none of the history Duggan described was news to most black Detroiters, or anyone who’s read Thomas Sugrue’s “The Origins of the Urban Crisis,” the main source for Duggan’s talk, first published more than twenty years ago.

Still, it means something for the mayor to have made a public acknowledgment of decades of state-sponsored white supremacy. Duggan deserves some credit – as do the aides (likely including Maurice Cox, and perhaps Aaron Foley) who pushed him to speak these truths. Even if he is, after all, the mayor of the blackest big city in the nation. Even if the comments did include some back-handed swaps at his mayoral opponent, Coleman Young II, who Duggan implicitly compared, rather laughably, to the white supremacist 1950s mayor Albert Cobo.

What Duggan didn’t mention – and perhaps could not have mentioned, given the politics of the region – was how the apartheid city policy of the 1940s and 1950s became a system of metropolitan apartheid in the decades that followed. How the racist policies of mayors like Cobo, a champion of expressways and a foe of desegregated public housing, rapidly became the regional segregation enforced by suburban sultans like Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, a champion of expressways and a foe of desegregated schools (as well as regional transit). Or like Duggan’s own departed mentor, former Livonia mayor and Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara.

Fifty-plus years after the fact, it remains, to some extent, astonishing to hear a leading white elected official in metro Detroit talk about racial segregation and inequality. But that, in itself, should give us pause.

When it comes to confronting the demons of metropolitan segregation and inequality – the forces that stripped democracy from Detroit and a dozen other cities, that have prevented regional transit, poisoned the children of Flint, and this year will bring about thousands of water shutoffs and foreclosures in the city of Detroit alone – well, let’s just say we have a long way to go.

“Detroit” Movie Sets Sights on Algiers Motel, Police Violence

Up against the wall in the Algiers Motel: screenshot from the “Detroit” trailer.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the upcoming movie, scheduled for an August release, about the 1967 Detroit rebellion.

But the two-minute trailer released this week suggests that the movie, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) and titled simply “Detroit,” could, fingers crossed, be one of the stronger artistic efforts so far to dare to try to come to terms with the Motor City’s biggest unfinished business.

The biggest revelation from the trailer is that the movie is centered on the rebellion’s Algiers Motel Incident, the never-resolved killing of three black teenagers by law enforcement personnel. The Incident became a cause célèbre for Detroit’s black community in the months after the rebellion and the subject of a 1968 book by investigative journalist John Hersey, author of Hiroshima.

Hiroshima broke ground by presenting the gut-wrenching stories of ordinary Japanese residents of that city in the wake of U.S.-induced nuclear annihilation. In The Algiers Motel Incident, Hersey dramatized the cost of state-sanctioned violence on the home front, placing police brutality at the center of discussions of the Detroit rebellion at a time when most white Americans were still struggling to comprehend it.

By choosing to follow in Hersey’s footsteps, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal appear to have made a fateful, and laudable, choice to focus attention on the police violence and official racism that brought the rebellion about, rather than rehashing the all-too-common white narrative that the “riots” were an inexplicable outburst of random violence by blacks. Continue reading ““Detroit” Movie Sets Sights on Algiers Motel, Police Violence”

Revenge of the Reagan Democrats

A Trump rally in Macomb County. Detroit Free Press

“Good riddance, my Macomb barometer,” wrote Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg in a New York Times op-ed in the wake of the 2008 election of Barack Obama. “I’m finished with the Reagan Democrats of Macomb County in suburban Detroit after making a career of spotlighting their middle-class anger and frustrations about race and Democratic politicians.”

Two decades earlier, Greenberg had coined the term “Reagan Democrat” to describe the white, largely non-college-educated voters who turned against the party of Roosevelt in the wake of the 1960s – a shift he attributed largely to their racial resentments. In focus groups Greenberg conducted in Macomb, he found that his white, working-class respondents “expressed a profound distaste for black America…Blacks constituted the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that had gone wrong in their lives.”

In 2008, Greenberg returned to Macomb County and found that its people were far more preoccupied with the nation’s economic crisis than they were with racial resentments. The majority were ready to elect a black president who promised to help restore middle-class prosperity – and on election day, they did. Obama won Macomb by eight points.

In his post-election op-ed, Greenberg concluded that Macomb County had become “normal and uninteresting.” The more politically interesting place was now neighboring Oakland County. Long Macomb’s  wealthier suburban twin, Oakland was now considerably more diverse as well, and while Macomb’s sprawling factories represented the declining landscape of American manufacturing, the “teachers, lawyers and high-tech professionals” of Oakland embodied the new service-oriented economy.

Oakland had once been as reliably Republican as Macomb had been reliably Democratic. Yet in 2008, Oakland went for Obama by 15 points, which Greenberg described as a symbol of emerging Democratic dominance in “the country’s growing, more diverse and well-educated suburbs.” In future elections, Greenberg predicted, it would be to Oakland, not Macomb, that presidential candidates from both parties traveled, “to see the new America.”

As the disaster of November 8, 2016 unfolded, however, it became clear that the so-called “old America” was still very much alive. Continue reading “Revenge of the Reagan Democrats”

Forgotten School’s Story Holds Key to DPS Woes

The old school is just visible above Spain Elementary (foreground) and Ben Carson (right).

Half-hidden behind two newer school buildings, a stone’s throw from busy Mack Avenue in the heart of the Detroit Medical Center campus, a hundred-year-old brick structure in Midtown Detroit hides an extraordinary story.

In 2016, as the Michigan Legislature debates the future of the Detroit Public Schools, the tale of Detroit’s forgotten Lincoln School holds the key to understanding what has become of Michigan’s largest public school district.

It’s a story that Michigan has forgotten for a reason. Continue reading “Forgotten School’s Story Holds Key to DPS Woes”