Charles M. (“Charlie”) Beckham will retire from his position as Mayor Duggan’s Director of Neighborhoods on September 1, 2018, after more than four decades of service to the City of Detroit. During his tenure in municipal government, he also led the City’s Recreation and Water and Sewerage departments, among other assignments. Over the years and from one administration to the next, Beckham gained the singular distinction of advising each of the City’s last six mayors while serving in various executive positions, starting with Coleman A. Young, Detroit’s first black mayor.
Regarding Beckham’s retirement, Mayor Mike Duggan said, “Over the course of more than 40 years, Charlie has helped six different mayors shape Detroit and its future. His impact is undeniable. For me, he has been an invaluable leader and advisor, spearheading our neighborhood work and ensuring that all voices are heard and included. Even in his retirement, he will continue to be a strong voice and leader in our community, and I wish him all the best.”
Charlie Beckham’s long and distinguished civic career continued his family’s legacy of public service that started when his father, William J. Beckham, Sr., was selected by legendary UAW President Walter Reuther in 1957 to serve as his administrative assistant. It is a note of pride for the Beckham family that Charlie’s dad was the first African American to hold that strategic position within the union’s executive ranks.
“Most people think I’m a lifelong Detroiter,” Charlie said, “but that’s not the case. I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and my family moved to Detroit when I was eleven because my dad received a job offer that he couldn’t refuse.”
Like their father, Charlie’s older brother William J. (“Bill”) Beckham, Jr., made his mark in both the public and private sectors. Bill was a member of U. S. Senator Philip Hart’s staff, served as Mayor Young first chief of staff and deputy mayor, and accepted President Jimmy Carter’s appointments as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and Deputy Secretary of Transportation. Bill subsequently returned to his adopted hometown to lead New Detroit, Inc., and, later, the Skillman Foundation, before his untimely death in 2000.
In addition to following the pathways his father and brother trod, Charlie attributes his focus on public service and his can-do attitude to the neighborhood in which his family settled when they moved to Detroit—Russell Woods. A small enclave on the city’s near-northwest side, the area was teeming with African American achievement during Charlie’s formative years—the late 1950s and 1960s. Black business owners, physicians, dentists, clergymen, and educators lived on every block. Surrounded by all that success, Charlie soon learned that he could achieve anything he could conceive. And, because of the environment in Russell Woods, there was no ceiling on his dreams.
After graduating from Cass Technical High School in 1965, he entered the University of Michigan and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. “It may be a surprise to some,” Beckham said, “but I started my professional life as an automotive engineer at General Motors.”
While at GM, he moved quickly up the ranks. And true to his family legacy of community leadership, Charlie was instrumental in organizing the annual Soul Picnic that brought hundreds of black GM employees, regardless of rank or position, and their families together for a day of fun at Kensington Park. “People still talk about how much they enjoyed the Soul Picnic, even after all this time,” he said.
Charlie’s skills and abilities were also well known to Mayor Young who was a family friend. And soon after Young took office, the youngest Beckham received his first mayoral appointment to the City’s Public Lighting Commission. He wasn’t in that unpaid volunteer position long before Mayor Young appointed him to serve on the Board of Water Commissioners in 1975.
Charlie quickly rose to the chairman’s seat on that body, which he held until 1977, when Mayor Young tapped him to serve as the Water Department’s deputy director. He was granted a leave-of-absence as a “loaned executive” from his regular job at GM to accept the appointment, a move that was personally approved by the company’s then-President and CEO Thomas Murphy, after a call from Mayor Young.
At that time, the City’s Water Department was under fire from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) due to violations of the Clean Water Act of 1977 at the wastewater treatment plant. Mayor Young called on Charlie to lead the City’s efforts to correct the situation because of his technical and engineering background. Up to challenge, Charlie poured himself into the job, and, as the City’s chief negotiator, hammered out a consent judgment with the EPA to halt the release of untreated sewage into the river and get the system back on track.
A few years later, when the Mayor decided the department needed a different leader at its helm, Charlie was promoted to the position of director. And, at age 32, he took on the leadership of one of the largest water systems in the U. S., along with the monumental task of cleaning up the City’s wastewater treatment process.
No one knew, least of all Charlie Beckham, where this challenging assignment would lead. He was looking forward to fixing the Water Department’s sewerage problems and returning to General Motors, where he aspired to be the company’s first black chief engineer. As it turned out, the feds, who were out to get Coleman Young by any means necessary, had other plans and soon placed all of their focus on a single sludge-hauling contractor known as Vista Disposal, Inc. Not surprisingly, Vista was owned by one of Mayor Young’s closest associates, Darralyn Bowers, a prominent African American real estate broker.
Mayor Young described the situation with these words in his autobiography: “I was riding high (after the 1981 election) for a month or two, anyway, before the federal government and local media, in a tacit but enthusiastic partnership, moved to take me down with an elaborate program of eavesdropping, entrapment, innuendo and collusion.”
And before he knew it, Charlie Beckham, who was only doing his job, was swept up in a federal investigation that involved 6,000 hours of wiretaps, hundreds of agents, and at least $6 million in expenditures, all designed to catch Mayor Young—or someone close to him—with his (or their) hand in the cookie jar. When the feds couldn’t get to Coleman Young, who was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the first trial, they turned their attention to Charlie Beckham, the only public official named as a defendant in the original indictment. The crimes with which he was charged included a laundry list of bribery, fraud and public corruption counts. Daily news coverage kept the investigation and trial in the public eye constantly for months and months.
The first trial ended with a hung jury for Beckham, while all the white defendants entered guilty pleas on a variety of charges, but were not required to serve any prison time. When the feds decided to retry the case, only Beckham and Darralyn Bowers were left as defendants. Each was convicted by a jury of their so-called peers, and, in Charlie’s case, despite the government’s glaring failure to produce evidence of him receiving a cash payoff of any type. Sentenced to three years in the custody of the federal prison system, Charlie exhausted all appellate opportunities before reporting to a high security facility in the heart of downtown Chicago.
When asked how he withstood the constant barrage of negative media coverage and attempts to wreck his reputation as well as the undeserved time in the federal prison system, Beckham responds, “My innocence got me through it all. The government never proved its case in either trial, and I was secure in knowing I’d done nothing wrong. Plus, I had such tremendous support from friends, family and strangers—even suburbanites. I knew I would get through it somehow.”
And get through it he did. After serving his prescribed sentence, during which he received more than 500 letters from loved ones and other supporters, Charlie returned to Detroit to a big welcome-home party. He was determined to move forward as he reunited with his then-teenage daughter, reinvigorated his consulting business, and began to concentrate on helping black-owned businesses get their fair share of the contracts that were being generated by a building boom in the city of Detroit.
As a vocal advocate and strategic partner for minority contractors, Charlie founded the Association of African American Businesses and Contractors (A3BC), along with several other prominent local business leaders. The group’s mission was to ensure that black businesses received a fair share of the contracting pie and to connect general contractors with qualified black suppliers. Over the years of its existence with Charlie Beckham at its helm, A3BC helped generate millions of dollars of revenue for the local African American business community and assisted in the growth of numerous successful black-owned companies.
Even with that success, Charlie felt he had more to give, especially to his hometown. So, when incumbent mayor Dennis Archer, Sr.— for whom he had served by whom Beckham had been appointed to serve on several business-related boards, commissions and committees—decided not to run for a third term, Charlie saw an opportunity to bring fresh leadership to the Office of Mayor. He decided to throw his hat in the ring.
The field was wide open, although political pundits thought Gil Hill, the then-current president of the Detroit City Council and a retired homicide detective who had gained celebrity through his appearance in the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies, was a shoe-in. Other candidates included another City Councilmember, Rev. Nicholas Hood III; William Brooks, a retired GM executive; and a rising political star State Senator Kwame Kilpatrick, whose political pedigree through his mother, Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, was well known.
Despite the long odds that were facing him, Charlie mounted a vigorous, but underfunded, primary election campaign and came in fifth in a field of seven candidates. Kwame Kilpatrick the youngest person in the race came in first, and when Kilpatrick bested Gil Hill in the general election, he ushered in a new era of youthful leadership to City government, and invited Charlie Beckham to join him as director of the City’s recreation department.
In recognition of the experience and knowledge he gained through his tenure as a public servant, Beckham was called upon by each of the City’s succeeding mayors to serve in a variety of positions: public lighting director for interim Mayor Kenneth V. Cockrel, Jr.; chief of administration for Mayor Dave Bing; and finally, as director of neighborhoods for the current mayor, Mike Duggan. Through it all, Beckham has maintained his steadfast devotion to the city of Detroit and its citizens.
“People often ask me which of the six mayors I served was the best,” Charlie said with a laugh. “I always respond by explaining that each of them was the right person for the city for the time he was called to serve. It was my privilege and honor to be a part of each of their administrations.”
Having lived such an interesting life, friends, colleagues and acquaintances have encouraged Charlie to write his autobiography. And, after years of giving little weight to those requests, Charlie is now preparing a one-man, live stage show that will give the audience an intimate glimpse into the life and times of a man who, by all accounts, should have been down for the count after being targeted for prosecution and incarcerated by the federal justice system. But like the motto of the city he loves—“We hope for better things; it shall arise from the ashes.”—Beckham overcame obstacles that would have defined and devastated, if not destroyed, a lesser person’s existence.
Entitled, “The Charlie Beckham Story: Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time,” the performance will premier on Saturday, September 15, 2018, at 8 pm, in the GM Theatre at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Tickets to the performance are $20 each (general admission) and $40 (VIP). They may be purchased at www.charliebeckham.eventbrite.comor www.charliebeckham.com. Proceeds will be donated to the William J. Beckham Fund or the William J. Beckham Academy, charities that honor the memory of Charlie’s older brother William J. Beckham, Jr.
As for what he’ll do when his retirement truly begins, Charlie, an avid player, looks at his tennis racket and smiles.