How to un­der­stand De­troit, be­fore and af­ter the 1967 up­ris­ing.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY BAR­BARA RANSBY 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 the au­thor of “Ella Baker and the Black Free­dom Move­ment” and

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 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.

He also re­minds us of the racism and vi­o­lence of the in­dus­trial ur­ban mecca: the leg­endary wall, built in the 1940s, that di­vided the in­creas­ingly black city from its sub­ur­ban neigh­bors; the anti-black riot in 1942 as­so­ci­ated with black fam­i­lies mov­ing into the new So­journer Truth hous­ing units, sit­u­ated in a white neigh­bor­hood; the bloody race riot the fol­low­ing year; and fi­nally the killings of black civil­ians, from the vig­i­lante mur­der of Joshua Boyd in 1863 to the fa­tal po­lice beat­ing of Mal­ice Green in 1992.

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.


ABOVE LEFT: Build­ings burn on July 25, 1967, af­ter racial ten­sions erupted into ri­ots in De­troit. Over five days, 43 peo­ple died. ABOVE RIGHT: The one­time head­quar­ters of Mo­town Records, now a mu­seum, in De­troit.


BLACK DE­TROIT A Peo­ple’s His­tory of Self­De­ter­mi­na­tion By Herb Boyd Amis­tad. 432 pp. $27.99

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