Barbara Ransby, a longtime activist, is a professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is author of “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement,” and “Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson.” Her new book, “Making All Black Lives Matter,” will be published in 2018.
The film and publishing worlds this year have rediscovered the 1967 Detroit rebellion. Fifty years ago, the five-day uprising triggered by decades of police brutality and racism left 43 people dead and hundreds injured; thousands were arrested. Its eruption in bloodshed and flames is now playing out on the big screen in director Kathryn Bigelow’s searing film “Detroit.” Scholar and journalist Herb Boyd also revives that era in his comprehensive and compelling new book, “Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination.”
Both the film and the book carried me back to my childhood on the streets of the Motor City during the vibrant and volatile years of the 1960s and ’70s, a time that marked the beginning of my political consciousness. Boyd’s book, carefully researched and enhanced by the author’s personal reflections, provides readers with a necessary framework for understanding Detroit, both before and after ’67.
In his sweeping account of the city, dating back to the 18th century, Boyd, a onetime Detroiter, identifies three important themes to carry us through the decades: the centrality of black labor in building and rebuilding Detroit, the creative spirits of black people, and the power of creative resistance and steel-willed resilience as driving forces in the city’s history.
Like Boyd, I have vivid memories of the robustness of Detroit’s cultural and political landscape. From the colorful and flamboyant language of radical lawyer and activist Ken Cockrel to the home-grown musical genius of Motown, black Detroit was never short on grit or talent. There was, in the 1960s and ’70s, a sense of vitality and toughness. Perhaps it was an inadvertent byproduct of the grueling assembly-line work that my father and so many other black Southerners who migrated north ended up doing. If they could deal with the grind of accelerated production lines, the shouts and growls of the racist foremen, the noise and dirt of the factory floor, they (and by extension, their children) probably felt they could take on just about anything. It was these conditions that motivated activists such as General Baker and James Boggs to organize black workers to fight against the exploitative conditions on the job and simultaneously the often biased and exclusionary practices of unions. This dual struggle led to the creation of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and spinoffs in other auto plants throughout the city, the amalgam of which led to the founding of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in 1969. These were groups of insurgent black workers that organized wildcat strikes, which were unauthorized by the union, and demanded that the United Automobile Workers leadership take on the issue of racism inside and outside the plants.
The Motown years can be read in many different ways. For me, as for Boyd, they were at least indirectly political. I did not marvel at the wealth and material success of Motown Records founding mogul Berry Gordy and his associates. Rather I was struck by the profound talent, discipline and magical musicmaking of artists such as the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha Reeves and Stevie Wonder. Poor, black and largely self-taught, many of the Motown artists dazzled listeners with their lyrical prowess and instrumental arrangements. This was a slap in the face to theories that suggested that artistic excellence was impossible unless basic material needs of the artist were met first. In fact, it was hunger and want, oppression and discrimination that propelled many Detroit artists to do their best work. They created art as forms of catharsis, protest and survival. Boyd reminds us of those who created in obscurity and those who rose to fame out of the notorious Brewster-Douglass and Jeffries housing projects.
Boyd surveys the sights and sounds, personalities and events that defined Detroit as it rose to become the hub and pulse of black working-class life and later devolved to a struggling post-industrial ghost town. Ossian Sweet and Gladys Sweet, who defended their home against a white mob in 1925; Coleman Young, the city’s first black mayor; Erma Henderson, the first black woman on the Detroit City Council; the fierce community activist Marian Kramer, a leader of the Welfare Rights Organization; the Fox Theater, where Motown legends performed; Broadside Press, which gave a platform to African American writers; and the Shrine of the Black Madonna Church, an incubator for radical black Christian nationalism, are all part of the eclectic mix of characters and institutions that made an indelible mark on Detroit’s social, cultural and political landscape.
And then there was Detroit’s economic downturn, when auto companies fled, public spending on schools and services shriveled up, people lost their homes to foreclosure, and investment in the city was almost nonexistent. In 2009, the governor of Michigan appointed an unelected emergency manager to supposedly rescue Detroit’s public schools from a spiraling set of crises. In 2013, Detroit was broke, and city leaders filed the largest municipal bankruptcy claim in U.S. history (estimated at more than $18 billion). And to top it off, there was the scandalous career of Detroit’s youngest black mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, elected in 2001, whose “pay-for-play political machinations,” to use Boyd’s words, forced his resignation in 2008 and ultimately got him sentenced to 28 years in federal prison.
Yet after all the crises, corruption and emergencies, Boyd insists that Detroit is resurgent yet again. His words embody that dogged optimism I remember so fondly that was characteristic of another important Detroit icon, Asian American activist Grace Lee Boggs (1915–2015), a left-wing intellectual and committed builder of black liberation struggles and institutions. She married a black autoworker and organizer, James Boggs, made Detroit her home for more than 50 years, and refused to give up on the city or its people.
Boyd’s final chapters (and Detroit civic leader Ron Lockett’s afterword) optimistically suggest that the city of soul music and steel-shaping labor is on the rise again. One of the last times I was back in Detroit, I met with brilliant young activists, visited community gardens and delivered a book reading at a wonderful independent bookstore, Source Booksellers, in an area of the city known as the Cass Corridor. But then I visited my old neighborhood on the city’s west side, my husband’s former middle school, and the streets and street corners that were my playground as a child. I felt I was on another planet. This was not my Detroit. There were abandoned blocks, not just buildings, and a sense of hopelessness on the barren terrain that had once been flooded with sights, sounds, color and struggle. I was overcome with sadness.
However, in reading Boyd’s eloquent prose, in being reminded of what Detroit once was, I have renewed optimism of what it can be again, a feeling bolstered by the work of water rights activists, school reformers, artists and organizers such as Tawana Petty, Kristian Davis Bailey, Chazz Miller, Ill Weaver and many others.
Readers will be reminded of the personal nature of the stories Boyd tells when they reach the epilogue, the author’s tribute to his 96-year-old mother, Katherine Brown, a devoted Detroiter since 1943, whose impeccable memory and apparent talent as a raconteur aided and inspired Boyd in writing this book. We owe them both a debt of gratitude.
By Herb Boyd
Amistad. 432 pp. $27.99