Dr. Karl Gregory, September 1st, 2015
**Publisher’s note: This is the edited version of an interview with Dr. Karl Gregory by Tobi Voigt for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit ’67 Oral History Project.
TV: Today is Tuesday September 1st, 2015. My Name is Tobi Voigt. I’m with the Detroit Historical Society and I’m the Interviewer today and my interviewee is…
KG: Karl D. Gregory, Karl with a K.
TV: Great. Welcome, thank you Karl. Can you let me know a little about yourself? When and where you were born and a little but about your family?
KG: I was born in Detroit. I’m a Detroiter although I have lived many other places throughout my life, Even though I’ve left Detroit a lot of times, I’ve always come back. I have a spouse and three children. I worked as a professor of Economics at Wayne State University during the Civil Uprising in 1967. At that time, I lived on Appoline Street in Northwest Detroit and was very active in several community organizations - an activist professor. In fact, there were three professors at Wayne State at the time who were very active in the Detroit community. They were Mel Ravitz, a City Council person and Marian Mahaffey, another City Council person. I was the third active professor. There’s a great difference… I was a distant third [chuckles], but nonetheless quite active in the community, particularly the year before 1967 when I was involved in a major incident in Detroit that could have led to an uprising at that time, had that incident been handled differently, say in an Alabama Mayor Bull Connor fashion.
TV: Are you referring to the school walkout?
KG: Yes. I was the volunteer principal of the Northern High Freedom School trying to help the students there receive responsible attention in place of an initial hostility from the school board to their walkout. I recognized that it was a highly combustible boycott that could have led to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. My supporting the students was important because they were being abused by the Detroit school system, as were many students in the predominantly black central city schools at the time. The active seeking by students of a hoped-for higher quality education could be, I thought, the cutting edge for reinvigorated better performance in a new non-racialized school system.
TV: Would you tell me a little more about that?
KG: The Northern High School student body walked out in rebellion against a repressive school where very little learning and much student harassment took place, complete with an aggressive policeman within the school overly exerting his authority, according to the students. The building was badly maintained. Several senior teachers who were there many years ago when the school had mostly white students were not comfortable with a virtually all black student body. Students regarded younger teachers as having more positive attitudes about black students, but they tended to be rotated out due to seniority provisions in labor contracts.
This was a troubled school on the verge of becoming a none-too-subtle institution of incarceration pretending to be a school. It was a place of declining learning requiring a change agent to turn it around. The students became the change agent. I and my volunteer assistants at the Freedom School were administrative non-policy making volunteers, without pay or assets for operating the freedom school other than what could be scrounged from the community.
There were three major leaders of the student walkout. The relationships each had with significant parts of the student body explain the marvelous coordination the students had. One was an intellectual named Charles Colding. He was the editor of the student newspaper. His article describing the school’s deteriorating condition and strife led to the principal stopping the publication. It was too penetrating and too complete a description and could perhaps have led to embarrassment for the principal. That action was the trigger, piled on many other grievances, that subsequently initiated the school boycott and the formation of the Freedom School. This in turn could have led to an inner city-wide conflagration more than a year before July, 1967, were it not for a well-led strategy by students with some responsiveness ultimately by community leaders and the Detroit School Board chaired by Remus Robinson, the first black school board member and board chairman.
Judy Walker was the second student leader. She is now a well-known real estate broker and owner who has bought buildings for her own account. At the time of the walk-out, she lived east of Oakland Street, at that time, the dividing line between the black middle class and the families in her neighborhood who were not as well off. She was looked up to by all of the students east of Oakland and some on the west, the more affluent side.
Another student leader, Michael Bachelor, became a prominent attorney in Detroit. He is now dead, I understand. He was a football player and was respected by the athletes at Northern High. Many of the athletes supported his leadership.
These three student leaders, with connections to, and loyalty from, several different and influential student groups, brought cohesion to and loyalty from the student body. Efforts to divide them by police, employees of the school board, an initially misunderstanding daily press, and others, were unavailing. Together with other supporting student leadership, the student body became organized to carry out their strategies for their negotiation with the school board and to confront factors that led to a decreased quality of education in inner-city high schools.
The students of Northern believed that they could not compete equally with graduates from other better-resourced schools in the suburbs and the virtually all-white outlying districts within the city of Detroit. This was one of many interlocking issues of racism. If one looks closely enough at that period, one cannot avoid seeing that efforts having the impact of maintaining white supremacy citywide precipitated that school walkout and also, for that matter, the subsequent 1967 civil uprising. Fortunately, this walkout did not result in any violence, but it could have been different without a Freedom School to challenge the students, contribute to their learning and provide the time and leadership sustenance for successful negotiations with the initially hostile Detroit School board .
TV: This was Northern High School…
KG: Right, on Clairmount and Woodward. Incidentally, Clairmount is the same street at which the Rebellion in ’67 started. It is about 12 blocks west of Northern High.
TV: Yes. I understand, from what you’re saying, the students were boycotting because they were not getting an equal education.
TV: And I understand correctly, the administration (the principal, the vice-principal and most of the teachers) were white [and] it was a majority African-American school and there was blatant mistreatment.
KG: Yes. And under resourced unlike many mostly white schools in the city. The basketball floor had nails protruding from the floor. If one was playing a basketball game there, one would have to know where to run or else the nails would pierce one’s gym floor shoes.
There were three floors in the school. Railings on some of the stairways (from first to second, second to third) were off. One couldn’t hold on to them, increasing the possibilities of falls. Academic standards were very poor such that the students felt that they were handicapped and they couldn’t compete with students from other schools who had better supervision, more caring instruction, more books and other resources.
Needless to say, the Board of Education did not treat all high schools equally. Historically there had been a flight of middle class whites out of Detroit and to a lesser extent a flight of whites from central city to outer city Detroit. This had been going on for years at that point, but it was beginning to pick up. The school board was faced with the situation that the inner-city schools were predominantly black because of rigid racism in housing patterns, including the segregation that public policy condoned and in fact subsidized. This left African Americans with a limited residential area permitted by segregated patterns enforced by real estate agents. By that time, the black population had grown out of Black Bottom westward, across Grand River, from being heretofore densely within the Boulevard and largely on Detroit’s east side. It had by then expanded to many adjacent areas of the city to heretofore primarily white and often Jewish areas as they, in turn, moved out of Detroit to Southfield and beyond increasingly as the years passed. The outer areas of Detroit were predominantly white and remained white for several years, as did the schools their children attended.
The school board was concerned with the departure of whites predetermining a mostly black school district. Whites generally had higher incomes and higher valued homes, which meant they usually paid more taxes than inner city dwellers who were increasingly black. The school board wanted to maintain an interracial population and the tax yield. It seemed to give priority to resources for the white schools. At that time, the schools were financed primarily by property taxes. There was not then an allocation per student such as the State has now. The interest was in maintaining revenues for the school system by giving preference to those most likely to flee, who were mostly white. Consequently, more resources were placed into the schools that were in outer Detroit. Less money was spent for the schools in lower income communities in the central city. Race was undoubtedly not a neutral factor in these decisions.
The central city students understood this disparity. They felt underserved and they were really angry because their whole lives were at stake just at a technological time that a college education was becoming more important for viability in later life. If one did not go beyond high school, and the students recognized this, one would be handicapped for the rest of their life.
A tragedy of that situation in the late 1960s is that the state and city are today in the third millennium still under investing in schools, and with a heavily disproportional impact on African American youngsters in communities like Detroit and elsewhere. That this area of the city has a large African American population is not coincidental. Sensitivity and understanding by public officials in the state continues to be lacking to this day.
TV: I understand that the students came to you and asked you to be a principal for a new school that they were creating. Can you tell me a more about that and your role?
KG: Let me give a little back story before addressing the role of the volunteers of whom I was just one. When the students walked out, they were being harassed by the police and truant agents. The students decided that they needed to do something to stop this harassment and to get the Detroit School Board to change its policies. The media was playing the walkout negatively. The impression that followers of the media received – and that some of the public school leaders including the then principal was that these were “hooligans”. They didn’t really appreciate an education. They were just “acting up” as “these” kids – (silently understood to mean black kids) are inclined to do.
The first days of the walkout, there seemed not to be much belief that students were really fighting for a higher quality education. Hence, the students understood that something had to be done to get this pressure off of them, because, among other forces, their parents were reading the newspapers and pressing them to return to school. Parents did not realize how badly operated and racist Northern High was until the evening meeting at the Freedom School when parents were invited to hear from the students collectively why they walked out. These students explained their reasons. They became heroes to their parents and to the Freedom School staff. Most of the parents then came to understand support their children more than before.
Regarding how I became involved, on my way to teach at Wayne State University, I heard about the walk-out on the radio. I stopped by the high school, parked my car and went up to the picketing students and enquired what was happening. I was introduced to Charles Colding and identified myself as a WSU professor who had graduated from Northern years before and went on to my class at the university. He called me later in the afternoon and said, “Most of the student body has walked out. The police are after us as well as the school agents that deal with truancy. We would like to establish an alternate school and we were wondering if you’d be the volunteer principal.” I was at my Wayne State University office in the Department of Economics. I asked a few questions and responded “OK. When do you want to start?” He replied, “Tomorrow.” [Chuckles]
I went home after my day at the university and made many phone calls for the rest of the evening; I knew many faculty from and around Detroit and found diverse professors who didn’t have all-day classes at their universities who could come and meet me at the school a few hours the next afternoon and at various times during the following days.
I knew that it would take the first morning to form a curriculum, prepare teaching schedules, find nearby churches in addition to near-by St. Matthews St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church on Holbrook and Woodward, a Freedom School Site that the students had already arranged with Father David Gracie, the Rector and a community conscious priest. He knew many of the students because their parents were members of the church. The volunteers including Frank Joyce, my Deputy Principal, and I knew that we had to plan something for the students that first morning while the organizing took place. Frank and I along with other volunteers would plan in another part of the church while the students met in a large group with spillover room arrangements. We arranged to have an initial program featuring local civil rights activists who had worked in the south with the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other organizations to lead in freedom songs and talk about their experiences until formal classes started that first afternoon.
We did not have any financing. At least 1,000 students ultimately came to the school, although not that many came the first day. The public high school had an enrollment of about 2200. The principal placed pressure on some students not to walk out. The balance of students either didn’t show up for us, stayed home and/or returned to Northern. We had to find added space, so we recruited churches that were nearby to cooperate.
The leading church to volunteer was St. Mathew’s/St. Joseph’s.
Students came early in the morning and stayed throughout the day except for lunch. The school subsequently expanded to other churches.
Much of the night time was spent recruiting faculty and revising the curriculum based on the strengths of the volunteer teachers, largely college professors. We had no food or any other supplies for the students. I was very active in the Civil Rights Movement and there were a lot of Detroiters who had been active active in Freedom Summer and the voting rights movement in the South who were back in Detroit. I called a few of them and said, “Hey, we’re going to need you in the morning to conduct a session in the large chapel and a few of you to work out a curriculum on the afternoon of the Freedom School. Can you come and lead them in freedom songs, talk about what’s going on in the south, about Freedom Summer, and so on?” They came and we had a mass assembly in the church – where the congregation would sit.
In one of the side rooms, volunteers planned who was going to be there in the afternoon, who’s going to take what classes, where and so on, and how we’re going to structure things henceforward. We completed a tentative curriculum. There’s a lot to say about this, but we could use up the whole time talking about that.
TV: I know, but it’s so interesting!
KG: The story was in the papers daily during the walk-out. It was also the subject of a play given two consecutive weekends by the Mosaic Youth Theatre, headed by Rick Sperling of Detroit, in May 2011 at the Detroit Institute of Arts Theater. Each presentation was sold out or almost so. Mosaic youth teenagers played all the roles: the principal, students, school board, police, etc. I thought it was an outstanding presentation.
A point the play made clear was that the Freedom School bought the students time to negotiate with the Detroit school board which did not want to negotiate with them. The school board said, “We do not negotiate with students. We’ll negotiate with your parents.” But, some of the parents had not reached high school themselves. The students felt better off negotiating for themselves. They knew the circumstances of the schools since they lived them, but school board policy was “we don’t negotiate with the students.”
The students had to create a crisis so they would receive attention and they did that beautifully. They were at risk because they never knew when the police or the truancy officer would crack down physically. Other volunteers and I were also at risk for helping the students while they confronted the school system. In fact, I heard statements from people who knew legislators in Lansing who reported to me that “legislators were discussing passing legislation criminalizing activities of volunteers like you!”
That students could conceive such a strategy as they did and carry [it] out so well was unbelievable to them. They probably thought outside adults were misleading them. It’s like in the South during the fifties and sixties; it was never the system or authorities at fault. They would also say, “we know our local Nigras, they wouldn’t do this by themselves. [Thumps fist on table as he talks]. It’s the outsiders that are agitating!” The volunteers were seen in the role of the outsiders here with much of its risk, but it turned out beautifully and I’m so glad.
I just loved that experience and the accomplishment. I played a similar but less visible role in the aftermath in the Rebellion of 1967. We shall come to that later.
TV: Yeah, that’s great. That was a good story to hear because the detail help us understand the kind of role you play generally and I know you had a long career in Washington and the Civil Rights Movement before even that incident. Sometime I would love to sit down and learn about that [laughter], but I just realized we could be here for a week and I really want to hear it all, but let’s talk a little bit about that.
KG: Regarding a particular role in Washington D.C., I worked for the Kennedy and the Johnson Administrations in the Executive Office of the President, in the height of the Civil Right Movement in 1961 to ’64, while on leave from Wayne State University. Just to mention one of many experiences, following when Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner , civil rights workers, were murdered in Mississippi, I was the Chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality in District of Columbia, a U. S. colony without complete self-government, a colony somewhat like Detroit during the recent bankruptcy and the Detroit Public Schools for a much longer period. CORE wanted to make sure that the murders of these three civil rights workers was not given low priority at the presidential level. I had extreme personal challenges because I was an economist working the Office of the President of the U. S. and heading up D. C. CORE in my non-working hours, while trying to encourage federal actions to help secure justice regarding the Mississippi murders. Somehow I had to find a way to heighten the consideration of this while I stayed in the background in order to avoid a conflict of interest. I finally decided to let others lead the way and remain personally uninvolved.
TV: That’s amazing. Now was your group instrumental in preparing Johnson and the administration for the signing of the Civil Rights Act?
KG: No, no, no, no, no. I can’t claim that [laughter]. CORE at the local level was trying to make sure that there was the understanding locally of the role racism played, opening up job opportunities in D. C., desegregating housing and supporting national efforts across the board there. The national office of CORE had the dominant role in dealing with the White House on national issues.
For example, in July 1963, our chapter of CORE helped many other organizations prepare D. C. for the March on Washington and worked as marshals for the March. We operated rest stations, etc. for the 250,000 marchers according to the understated official count.
For another activity, among several, in July of 1964, the protest of highest priority for the Civil Rights Movement nationally at that time was the seating of Mississippi Freedom Democratic delegation at the Democratic National Convention for the nomination of the President held in Atlantic City, where Johnson was to be nominated following his first partial term after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The Mississippi delegation was then, and had been historically, all white. The 1960 U. S. Census reported blacks were 42 percent of the population of Mississippi. But, they couldn’t have even any members [slams fist] of the Mississippi delegation.
A well-organized black political group with Fannie Lou Hamer as the head went to Atlantic City in full strength insisting that they be seated as the authorized delegation, pointing to the racism in the selection of the delegates in Mississippi. Actually, there were similar circumstances in lots of other states, but in Mississippi, it was worse than most other places.
How to handle this gave the Democratic Party a colossal problem. The party didn’t want these circumstances to reflect on their choice of President and his re-election, for Johnson had to win a national vote that included African American citizens in some states where they could vote.
Civil rights groups urged the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation, as they were called, to be seated as a group in place of the regular all-white delegation. CORE chapters and other civil rights groups all over the U.S. converged in Atlantic City and protested on the boardwalk for almost the entire convention, sleeping at night on the Boardwalk just outside of the Convention Center. I led a delegation consisting of members from Washington D.C. CORE, nearby Northern Virginia CORE and Baltimore CORE, all in that Northeast section of the U. S. We had two busloads and stayed on the boardwalk in Atlantic City for almost the entire convention until the Mississippi Freedom Party delegation incident was resolved.
It was resolved much to our dissatisfaction. Lyndon Johnson, with V.P. designate Hubert Humphrey being his point person, devised a so-called compromise. The Rules Committee decided the Democrats could not reject the Mississippi delegation in its entirety. Johnson’s negotiators offered a compromise to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation. They were to have a token of one delegate to join the regular delegation. It may have been that they could have compromised for two or three. Who knows? But, it would have been extremely difficult. Fannie Lou Hamer and the delegation rejected that compromise on obvious grounds. One delegate is like being a little bit pregnant.
The matter ended with continued racism in the Mississippi delegation, even though the state had a large number of African-Americans. It remained an all-white supremacist delegation from Mississippi. That same kind of attitude made it possible for the murders of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner to occur with an attempted cover up with the involvement of local law enforcement.
It should be noted how strongly white supremacy mattered in voter representation. Johnson realized this. To his credit he pushed through the Voting Rights Act afterwards knowing fully that white southerners would shift their allegiance from the Democrats to the Republicans where they and their views would be more welcome and to change the latter party to representing the southern Democrats.
TV: That is a lot of history.
KG: Circumstances like those in Mississippi made racial problems worse and helped lead to situations like the 1967 Rebellion.
TV: Yeah, let’s talk a little bit about that. I know that we’ll get into it more a little bit later. You know Detroit being the quote, unquote “Model City” and the kind of feeling that the North is racist based on…
KG: There were slaves in New York and elsewhere!
TV: There were slaves in Michigan [chuckles].
KG: Yeah, that’s true, that’s true.
TV: Yeah, there were… Anyway, let’s scale back and go back to the events of ’67.
TV: Particularly, what was your familiarity with the scenes of the uprising and the rebellion?
KG: I lived on Hague Street in Detroit between John R and Brush. That’s about eight blocks south of where the Rebellion started on Clairmount and Twelfth Street and about 14 blocks east of it. I lived there with my parents most of my youth and college years. My brother and I went to Northern High School that was on the same street (Clairmount) where the Rebellion occurred. I was very familiar with Twelfth Street also because my father owned a tailoring, cleaning and pressing shop on Twelfth Street and Delaware just a few blocks south of where large police arrests precipitated the Rebellion to break out. My father’s business was subsequently broken into, all the clothes taken and the building set of fire as the Rebellion turned into a riot.
On the second or third day I believe, I went into the 12th Street area in the early stages of the Rebellion with Chuck Colding, who was one of the leaders of the Northern High School boycott a year and a few months earlier. Together, we saw a group of fifteen [or] twenty adults in a close circle and we looked in the center. At the bottom was a cadaver who had a wound. I was told it was a police-inflicted bayonet wound. What struck me –and I’m always looking at symbols that are passed on to future generations – is that there was a little boy (no more than four) who stood beside I guess his father, holding his hand. The child was looking between the legs of the adults to see the cadaver. To me this represented the hostility and the violence of the current generation being passed to future generations, through the eyes of this kid. So I took a picture of it, with Chuck Colding there by me. I gave the picture to an editor of the Michigan Chronicle – whom I knew well. His name was Al Dunmore, who turned out to be one of the leading spokespersons for the Michigan Chronicle and the African-American community in Detroit for interpreting to the entire community what was transpiring during the uprising. He was very objective. He liked that picture so much he published it as a space filler in several individual issues later on in the Michigan Chronicle.
When I told that story of the photo to Sidney Fine, author of the Violence In The Model City (which is reputed to be the definitive discussion about what occurred then, next to the Kerner Commission report), his response was he researched all the deaths and did not find any death that corresponds to that one. Recently, I checked with Charles Colding. His recollection is the same as mine. I wonder how many other deaths official records did not count at all or counted incorrectly by location.
KG: The impression given by Fine was [that] I was mistaken, that this was not real. I elaborate on that because I think there’s a real need for this project that the Detroit Historical Museum is undertaking, because there is probably a lot of that the public does not know now. I also believe they will never know about some incidents that actually occurred. Yet, the more the public knows the better.
In fact, one of the major incidents that happened concurrent with the Rebellion --we only found out about it afterwards– was a truly heinous event. It happened five blocks from where my parents lived. The public only found out about it because a black reporter for a daily newspaper, one of a few reporters of color then to be sure, did not give up in trying to get further information on a rumor he heard. He heard police killed people in a motel on Woodward and Virginia Park named the Algiers Motel Annex. He heard … and he investigated with persistence despite initial resistance. He was like a bulldog. I happened to know him and noticed those bulldog characteristics.
He may have died because of that determined attribute, because he went to Boston afterwards and was, I have been told, investigating drugs and was killed there [under] unknown circumstances. This is unconfirmed. But, this reporter did the investigation and what he discovered has now been documented as the Algiers Motel Incident:
Three African–American males were killed and two reported white streetwalkers were involved. How that story could have escaped recognition and exposure instantly, except for the determination of one bulldog black reporter, is something the police and the daily press needs to understand and correct. Just imagine how many other similar circumstances may have happened.
Another of several things with which I experienced: I was also involved in an incident where I could have been killed during the 1967 rebellion. I received a call from a community organizer named Alvin Harrison. He worked with black youth on the east side Detroit in a very needy area. Those youth had an altercation with the police department during what’s known as the Kercheval Street Incident in the mid-1960s. I won’t go into this in detail because there are too many other things to talk about that are more related to 1967. Al called me. He was deeply involved in the community activity on the east side and he said, “Look, I just heard the National Guard is coming to the east side. There are lots of people on the street who do not know anything about this and I’m afraid [of] people getting killed.” He asked, “Can you come out with me to inform as many people as we can? And we’ll try get people off the street.” I said, “OK.” So we went over on the east side in my car and patrolled as much area as we could telling people ”the National Guard is coming, we do not know how well trained they are or if they are integrated. You have got to get off the street.” We got a lot off the street. But, I recall we drove around Mack and McClellan, Kercheval – some places like that and near where Northeastern High School used to be.
We continued until late that evening during a curfew. The National Guard stopped us. There was a young white guardsman who dismounted from his vehicle, approached and told me, “Pull your window down.” I was driving. [He] pointed his gun at me. I was concerned, but I wasn’t afraid then. His hand was shaking… on the trigger. And I said, “look, I’m a college professor, I am just trying to get the people off the street.” And he looked like he was trying to determine whether or not I was a rioter (or what have you) and a sergeant came by and said something like, “cool it.” But, this guardsman [the kid] was more afraid of me than I was of him. I don’t know how many black persons, if any, that youth had been in contact with before in his entire life.
Other incidents like that one have come to my attention subsequently from friends and students. The first military who arrived were National Guards personnel. They were fairly untrained, those I saw were white, volunteer National Guard. I presume they had little or no experience with African Americans. It wasn’t until later that the Army sent in the regular military. They were more diverse and were better trained and they weren’t as unfamiliar with black folks and didn’t feel challenged because they were dealing with a section of the population that very few of them had any connection with before and were frightened by.
With that experience, I don’t really believe that we, the public, have heard everything important that happened. That further makes me wonder how much we really know about matters in depth.
I have a friend named Paul Lee, who was a kid at that time, but he has researched 1967 widely. He has written several articles for the Michigan Citizen that go into the depth on the things that occurred which I did not know about before. For example, the authorities arrested so many folks in July 1967 that they didn’t have any place to put most of them. They took some of them out on buses to Belle Isle and kept them on the buses for days. They had no lavatory, no food, not anything but buses. If there is any violation of civil liberties, this is it! And they converted a bath house and perhaps other structures into incarceration facilities. I have not seen discussion of this in any media prior to seeing it in the Michigan Citizen years afterwards and I read voraciously. Again, I wonder, how many other incidents like this were, if not covered up, not relayed to the public, apart from the revelations of the Kerner Commission Report. A disturbing thought is: how much would the public know if there had not been a Kerner Commission report and Sidney Fine’s study. One wonders how complete were they.
An enlightened democracy needs more factual information conveyed to the public on what is really transpiring about which they should know to be informed citizens. I am glad to see the Michigan Historical Society bringing these stories through our interviews and other planned programs.
My major discretionary activity during that week was taking 35 mm slides and 8 mm movies of various uprising scenes. I took hundreds of slides, and several 8mm films. For example, I have film showing early during the Rebellion on Grand River in mid-town and north of there going up in flames. One wonders, why on Grand River between ten or so blocks north and south of the west Grand Boulevard and elsewhere, businesses were in flames at the outset of the Rebellion. One has to ask “Why there?” Of all the other places… and if you knew Detroit you knew then that on Grand River there were a lot of businesses that were really exploitative of the poor and the black community. Furniture and appliance stores would charge very high prices, accept a down payment and layaway goods. Customers could reserve furniture, put five dollars down and sign an “I owe you.” They couldn’t get the furniture until they paid the entire remaining balance.
It was well known that many people who purchase such items, largely overpriced to begin with, on layaway will never come back, or if they do come back, they will not pay off the entire bill and thereby lose their partial payments. These items could be sold over and over again. All sorts of businesses operated like that, just exploiting the community, particularly those who were poor and could not pay the entire price and hoped for better income allowing them to pay off their debt.
The day of the month that welfare checks were issued was well known. It was called “Mother’s Day”. Some commercial establishments would raise the prices of some goods temporarily on Mother’s Day on which the poor spent more.
One of my students while I was teaching courses in economics did a project where he compared prices of a basket of goods in suburban grocery stores with those in Detroit ghetto grocery stores and commented on the contrast in the price and quality of sample goods he observed. He discovered higher prices and lower quality in lower income neighborhoods in central Detroit. The quality was often much lower in the latter. Bread that was stale or older would be more frequently found in the inner city. There are stories like this of which the total population may be unaware. There is a huge foundation for many forms of alienation that would explain the dissatisfaction culminating in a rebellion. (I will not speak to a leading factor, police brutality, for it has been covered elsewhere.)
All this exploitation and lack of services and few food stores in very low income areas, falls with huge force on the people least able to afford it who also need the nutrients from fresh food, vegetables, and so on. Prior to the early 1950s when the Detroit population was just below 2.0 million, there were many services and commercial establishments which left the city after the Rebellion with the continued process of deindustrialization, globalization, disinvestment in the city and white flight followed by some black flight ramped up. Many more grocery stores and other service establishments existed then which thinned subsequently with the loss of businesses and population. That is when parts of Detroit continued to become commercial and food deserts.
TV: Wow… Those are pretty significant experiences. I know we wanted to talk a little bit about your involvement after the rebellion and post the uprising. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
KG: Right after the rebellion, before Thanksgiving, 1967 there was a huge concern among black community leaders about “what do we do now?” Forty-three persons or some such number officially dead, dozens of buildings burned down, economic activity brought to a standstill for several days, people not having services that they depend on, what do African Americans do about all of that, it was asked. Charles Diggs, a well-known Congressperson at that time, called a group of business and other activist leaders in the African-American community to meet to begin to answer this question. They were businessmen, preachers, and professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, business persons) and a cross section of the black leadership community, focusing on doers and not spotlight seekers or newspaper headline hunters.
The Congressman and others made an introductory statement expressing that we really have to do some creative strategizing beginning quickly. We have to think about rebuilding local institutions for African Americans in their interest so that events similar to the Rebellion would not recur and to eliminate the oppressive circumstances leading to such a Rebellion. Attendees discussed what happened and why it happened, in addition to offering ideas for redevelopment covering some of the points made in this interview.
Out of that group came several messages, but one was that people who owned and managed property tend to protect it. If one wants to increase interest in property value preservation and enhancement in our neighborhoods, one has to create service institutions and to organize businesses for generating jobs, fuller employment, and more residential ownership. Most importantly, however, one also has to address the exploitation that generates the motivation for Rebellion in the first place, such as, but not limited to, particularly police brutality, under education, huge income and wealth inequality, extensive residential segregation, racism and various forms of other repression and overall lack of opportunity.
TV: Now is this because just thinking back to the little bit I know about demographics in Detroit, but especially I know in the neighborhood of Twelfth and Clairmount in that neighborhood [there were] very few African-American homeowners and most were renters? Is that kind of the powerlessness behind it?
KG: That’s partly true. Many apartment buildings had absentee landlords who subdivided units to maximize rents. Many houses were sold on land contract. Some homes that were said to be owned were really bought on land contract, since mortgages were hard to get from white-owned banks. Houses bought on land contract were not really owned. The seller kept the title until the last installment payment was made. Many buyers paid for years but never built up any equity, so that when they missed a few payments, the seller reclaimed the property to repeat the cycle with other prospective purchasers. Please realize the bitterness when one pays for years for a house and then misses a few months and loses the house, particularly after many improvements one has paid for, to see it sold again to another of the exploited.
With regard to apartments, the Diggs-convened group talked about landlord exploitation. Investors would buy large buildings. They’d subdivide them into much smaller units, sometimes sharing bath rooms while the government code enforcers looked the other way. There were all sorts of building codes on the books. The code violations were enforced in the white communities to preserve conditions there. (The reader should realize that the fairly recent significant degree of desegregation of city government management jobs, particularly in middle and upper level decision making ranks, did not really begin to develop until under Mayor Cavanagh and picked up substantially after 1974 with the advent of the Coleman Young administration. Much of the disgust some white leaders had for the latter Mayor was due in part because he changed Detroit from being ruled primarily by whites and that he desegregated employment and particularly the police department.)
The mass media did not cover much such stories about landlord abuse and the failure of code enforcement in the central city. The larger community was somewhat unaware of this extreme oppression, or if they were aware, they often ignored it if they were not victims. The prevailing philosophy seemed to be, “let sleeping dogs lie.”
Landlords and businessmen often charge high prices because they know people don’t have alternatives. Consumers are only protected in markets when there is adequate information, good transportation, fair competition, and the absence of racism, among other requirements for markets to work well. We mentioned the welfare checks that came out at the beginning of the month. Right at that time some commercial prices went up in ghetto stores. A few days after the welfare check had been distributed, prices went back to normal. But, normal in the ghetto is usually higher than elsewhere, sometimes much higher. There is a for- profit system with devastatingly weak provisions for avoiding consumer exploitation. Some business persons believe that consumer exploitation is consistent with the often overused term “free markets.” Such heresy creates distrust of capitalism and the real meaning of free markets as Adam Smith used the term.
TV: I didn’t mean to get you off track. You were talking about one of the things was, you know, encouraging ownership of property.
KG: Right, right, right. You did not get me off of track. I wandered off myself. We were talking about the group that Charles Diggs brought together. Another major conclusion of the group was that a self-determined economic development thrust had to be developed. An organization to plan for and is committed to that purpose had to be founded. It must be focused on developing businesses, housing and jobs. In short, it must be about community economic development. A checklist of deliverables to which priority is to be assigned should be created and new agents chosen to implement those priorities.
Out of this meeting a group of leaders decided to organize this economic development thrust. That organization was subsequently was called ICBIF (the Inner City Business Improvement Forum).
Another recommendation dealt with the fact that the community did not have a self-determined political organization representing African American priorities and enabling independent leaders to strategize together and share ideas so that the black community speaks with one voice. Everyone would know that if it came through that political organization, the recommendations would be authentically in the interest of all, and that the positions advocated would not be beholden to any external interests. The paramount focus should be, it was said, on community self-determination. It was thought that if Detroit’s African Americans have a group that everybody knows speaks for all of its members, they could act in a more coordinated and forceful way and resist the influence of captive gatekeepers.
Such an organization was established subsequently. It was called CCAC (the Citywide Citizens Action Committee). Revered Albert Cleage, who later became known by his African name, Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, was elected as Chairman. It had a wider and more militant and lay membership than ICBIF and supervised the negotiation of a planning grant proposal with New Detroit in formation.
In summary, the two major organizations were CCAC (which was political, focused on community cohesion, voice of the community) and ICBIF ( focused on inner city economic development, housing, business formation and economic opportunity including job creation).
Both organizations came into being and developed agendas that were put into operation. ICBIF then developed a governing body, raised money from the Ford Foundation, from New Detroit (when it was organized, that was later). ICBIF was chaired initially by Revered Charles Morton, a Morehouse College man. Graduates of Morehouse, a prime historical college for black men in Atlanta, played a big role in our community. Lawrence Doss, the unpaid President, was relocated from outside of Detroit, was not a Morehouse man but also played a major leadership role. He was formerly a top administrator in Detroit for the IRS. The IRS began a data center in the city and he came to head it and brought with him Walter Douglas as the Deputy Administrator; African Americans, both were talented administrators and became very active in ICBIF and lent professional management.
I was elected Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors. The Board had businessmen, attorneys, clergy, educators, architects and other professionals. It hired trained business persons led by a black Bank of the Commonwealth banker named Walter McMurtry.
ICBIF refined a strategy that involved large sums to start it and a complex associated economic firms. The strategy was initially prepared in an outline form by another organization to be discussed shortly, called the Federation For Self -Determination (FSD). ICBIF needed funding to make it operational and to put it into a posture where the officers could raise money. They approached New Detroit, which was then being organized.
At that time Joe Hudson of the J. L. Hudson Department store family and former Chairman of the HudsonWebber Foundation was a central leader in trying to find strategies for the white business leadership beginning to respond to the crisis in Detroit. This led after a while to the founding of New Detroit. The major auto CEOs and the CEOs of the large utilities and some of the banks became involved in providing top community leadership and themselves (not staff) forming one part of the proposed Board of New Detroit at that time.
Henry Ford II became personally involved as a key participant; he had a large self-interest, as did the other corporate leaders. During the Rebellion, production came to a halt in the auto industry. Plants and department stores were closed. These large plants operated with huge investments having high fixed costs. When the plants and some retail outlets shut down operations for several days, no product was produced. Cars could be sold out of inventory temporarily, but losses could be substantial. Even if the losses were small, the UNCERTAINTY created by the Rebellion would diminish added investments, particularly if a longer disruption of production were possibly to take place. The business sector had a big vested interest initially in what could be done from a profit preservation among other perspectives.
Business leaders became genuinely involved. Henry Ford II in particular visited the low income community and met some of us. In fact, I think the January ’69 issue of Fortune magazine has a photograph of Henry Ford with his trusted administrator who dealt with Detroit issues, named William Schoen. Sitting at the same table in the Shrine of the Black Madonna and right across from them (in full face view) is Reverend Albert Cleage, the leader of CCAC, the political arm to negotiate with New Detroit. Right beside him was this author. We had an in-depth conversation.
Henry Ford wanted to know how Rev. Cleage perceived the Detroit post-uprising scene and possibilities. He asked about Cleage’s thoughts to turn the city around, how Detroit could get back to the status where most people were working, there were more jobs and there was a community that’s progressing? He asked some very general questions. Rev. Cleage would answer some and he would turn to me particularly for detail on the economic programming. Rev. Cleage and I laid out brief elements of a strategy. Bill Schoen took copious notes.
I asked Schoen subsequently about Ford’s reaction; he answered by stating that his boss was impressed by the constructive proposals and wanted to hear more about them.
Bill Schoen and others spent many hours, in addition, talking to Detroit grass roots community organizers. He would have Lorenzo Freeman (Renny), who was head of West/Central Organization at that time go around with him to places in the community. He talked to Kenneth Cockrel, Sr., a much admired figure among the young black community leaders – an attorney and subsequent Detroit City Councilperson, and according to some a likely prospect for mayor had he not died early. Schoen would pry him with many questions. Don Roberts was very active in the Congress for Racial Equality and was involved in the Northern High School Boycott. He spent time with Schoen also as Schoen gathered intelligence from many grass roots leaders.
Henry Ford also brought a sociologist from one of the major universities to consult with him on urban issues and strategies applied by other municipalities nationally. The sociologist met with me to ask a lot of questions. Ford probably felt there was information other activists and I had that an academic professional could gather which Ford and his staff could not obtain directly. We had lunch together. The professor posed many questions. I subsequently saw a partial report on the meeting which noted that the professor was reporting to Henry Ford, and that he regarded me as “testy” on some of his questions. I gather that Henry Ford had other persons become involved in order to help arrive at independent solutions and to test CCAC’s and ICBIF’s ideas for reasonableness.
I suppose that out of those and other discussions the decision to form and fund New Detroit, Inc. was made firm. The corporate community needed an organization seemingly independent of it that was keeping in touch with the community on racial tensions and other matters with persons representing the grass roots, including the militants in the community. Henry Ford had been known to have said that he had previously been talking to the wrong people. The CEOs then wanted to establish and keep communications particularly with the activist leaders, it seemed to me, for keeping up with developments, particularly for early warnings if developments were to go badly. They hoped to find out at an early stage and be able to do something about it, if all else failed. The fundamental hope however seemed to be improving communications of leadership with the grass roots to observe better how conditions could be improved and better community relationships be established.
The corporate leaders forming New Detroit, Inc. started off by appointing Kent Mathewson, a former head of a metropolitan Fund, an issues- oriented organization before he was made something like a coordinator and transitions manager in the post-uprising discussions and the corporate reaction to it.
If I remember correctly, Mathewson was originally from Texas and spoke with a southern accent. He worked with Joe Hudson, the critical guider of the post-Rebellion organization of New Detroit, working closely with Henry Ford and other top CEOs. Hudson seemed to be the vigorous point person in the beginning with Mathewson as the official temporary administrator.
After a while, I think the CEOs observed – I believe, this may be a conjecture - that this white guy from Texas was probably not the guy to bring the black and white community together. But, be that as it may, they decided they needed to have an interim manager to lead the transfer out of the preorganization to New Detroit into operating status. The corporate CEOs wanted, I believe, someone they could talk to, someone they were comfortable with, and with whom they could establish an amenable and productive track record. They didn’t want to take any unnecessary chances at this, it seemed to me.
William T. Patrick was appointed temporarily. He was a player in the community. I had known him since I was a pre-teenager, though he was much older than I was. My father was a Black Elk (IBPOEW, Independent Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World). The Elks had annually an oratorical contest in which students could debate an issue. The winner would give an award as the outstanding debater. Patrick was one of the debaters. He performed magnificently, so I, just a little boy then, was really impressed. He became later the first black council person in Detroit. I think he was before Erma Henderson and Rev. Nicholas Hood Sr. Patrick moved upward from that position to become a corporate attorney for Michigan Bell, then the major telephone company locally before AT&T bought it.
Patrick became titled something like interim coordinator of New Detroit. My impression was the decision makers wanted to have someone who was on comfortable speaking terms with the entire community, including militant leadership, and was respected by them. Patrick was not believed to be such a person. They knew the head of New Detroit would be a critical person for the credibility of that power structure organized group.
A search for the president was organized. I only knew of three candidates identified in that search. All three of them were African-American. I will comment on only two. These two communicated well, had good leadership skills and had not burned any bridges with any sector of the community. One was a professor in political science at a major university in this state. He published a lot, was a very positive and effective spokesperson, and was analytical, resourceful, and also respected by all groups who knew him and his objectivity.
The second candidate was very much like the first but was a consultant not a professor. He had been a public school teacher, attended law school but decided against that career, received a graduate degree and became an organizational development consultant for large corporations and had several clients and a good track record. He had close friendships among the leaders of the activist community.
The third candidate I shall not characterize for he is myself. We were all interviewed.
KG: … All three declined. I don’t know why the others did so because they had a lot to offer, including being seen by the black community as professional and independent on their own terms, which was important. I cannot speak for the other two candidates on why they rejected being considered for the position. I was not interested because I investigated various items like the expected budget for the organization. The apparent commitment was not consistent with my understanding of the massive problems that I realized existed. Further, I wondered how strong the corporate support would be when and if conditions in Detroit became more normal. Would the CEOs remain engaged or would their interest wane? Plus, I was reading reports of what the city government was doing defensively; tooling up militarily. I guessed that corporations were very supportive of such militarization. So, it seemed to me like an effort…an attempt to give the appearance of really dealing with the problems but not putting enough resources in to really make a significant difference. Better communications without adequate resources are helpful but insufficient, I thought.
Also, I preferred to stay in a professorial tenure track. At a professorial level one has more independence and self-determination.
Without a successful search result, Patrick became the President. New Detroit subsequently selected some excellent initial leaders, given the limitations, like Lawrence Doss and Walter Douglas, who did as much as they could, but the constraints were great.
More recently, New Detroit’s focus has shifted from race relations, communications and racial equity to a new goal: diversity. This multiplies by a factor the beneficiary group members with little increase in resources, thereby decreasing, I believe, the resources per affected member of the target population. A much stronger commitment of resources would be required for the much larger target population given the new wider focus to be pursued effectively.
Also and more importantly to me, there is a question of priorities. Many of the forefathers of African Americans were brought to this country involuntarily in chains as slaves, merely chattel or personal property, who were deliberately encouraged to have children, for their offspring increased the assets of their owners, just like cattle. These slaves produced with their unpaid labor large parts of the U. S. gross domestic product and tax base annually for over more than two centuries. Taxes were then largely derived from levies on exports of the crops the slaves tended.
Shifting the focus of New Detroit from the descendants of slaves to voluntary immigrants and their descendants does not seem to me to be progress. I am not demeaning diversity as an important cultural value to be sought. Diversity is very important. It just does not seem to me to be on the same high moral ground as repairing for the impact of slavery and its legacy for which reparations have never been paid, as with the Japanese after World War II when they were interned for the war period, as contrasted to slavery for over two centuries, followed by periods of Jim Crow, segregation, and disproportionate incarceration, etc.. It puts voluntary immigrants and their offspring at the same moral level as slaves and their descendants, despite the involuntary nature of their status.
This topic becomes a significant part of this discussion, for New Detroit was an integral reaction to the Rebellion, a racial incident growing out of the legacy of slavery. When its focus was changed from improving race relations to diversity, New Detroit denied its birthright and diluted its effectiveness, it seems to me.
TV. Can we turn now to developments in 1968 as a result of 1967?
KG. The major innovative redevelopment thrust from the African American community involved CCAC and ICBIF. When CCAC was first organized, it had a meeting at the Detroit City Council chamber – the officers of CCAC all sat on the 13th floor of the City County building at the big curved table where the city Council sits in the large auditorium. CCAC had that meeting there shortly after the 1967 uprising began. I recall they billed themselves as the “New Black Establishment.” Rev. Cleage had the center seat and some other members of the group were seated on both sides in an arc with many other members in the audience. (I was not at the table because I was a volunteer advisor to CCAC, along with Grace Boggs of the Boggs Center and Nadine Brown of the UAW. In addition, I was a consultant to Rev. Cleage.) CCAC held those hearings there and other meetings elsewhere.
The speakers reviewed their interpretation of the events that had occurred, why they happened, and the urgency of developing a program to achieve more self-determination for the residential community and to negotiate a transfer of power. Rev. Cleage frequently stressed the desirability for a transfer of power. Many leaders of the more militant African American organizations were in attendance and were influential members of a diverse CCAC membership. A promise was made to develop programs for a transfer of power to Detroit residents and away from corporations and nonresidents and to move toward ending racism in Detroit. Some persons spoke to types of programs which were needed for greater self-determination and to deal with the many problems confronting the community. Ending police brutality and desegregating housing and employment were the focus of many comments, along with suggestions for doing so.
An interesting and revealing incident occurred at that meeting which helps to explain why the Detroit community at large knew so little about the anger felt by the local grass roots leadership that led to the Rebellion. The CCAC meeting was attended by a stranger to the local activist members of the audience. A short stocky dark skinned person attended with a large Afro hair-do, a thick beard and a white tee shirt with a dominant black power symbol on it. The press photographers and journalists seemed to ignore the speakers and were around this newcomer taking many pictures of him. It was almost as if a very important national leader was in attendance. The press gathered around him at the end of the meeting firing questions at him. He responded by giving the standard militant answers as if he had been a long time resident of Detroit, had a constituency here and was accustomed to speaking for Detroiters. He seemed to relish his new found notoriety.
I asked other long time activists who this stranger was and was told he just arrived in town from out of town. He was quoted a lot in the newspapers the following day. Overnight, he became a black leader in Detroit because of the mass media treatment.
Largely not observed were the leaders who had been very active for years, some for decades, and did not seek ostentation or wear a symbolic uniform, but who just provided, selflessly, service to the community steadfastly. The white newsmen did not know to photograph and pose questions to these real leaders and therefore could not write about them. A predominantly white media staff then, including few, if any, editors with a history and direct knowledge of black leadership in Detroit, at the time did not help bring insightful understanding of local conditions and leadership to the citizenry at large.
CCAC’s major responsibility in the self-determined scheme was to help raise funds for financing the outlined list of projects that had been prepared for it by the Federation for Self –Determination (FSD). I don’t remember the exact amount. I think it was about $5 million, some amount like that, to get many of the activities begun, including completing the planning, some seed capital funds for the several planned corporations, including a bank, MESBICS, housing corporation, business consulting center, etc.
CCAC could not raise funds for all these activities since they were starting from scratch and therefore without operating experience. FSD had the idea of approaching the large church denominations in New York. Most of them had in New York a central or regional administrative unit and at least one African-American executive on staff who was involved in budgetary decisions. We researched them and arranged a meeting in New York. Attending from Detroit and representing CCAC and the FSD were Rev. Albert Cleage, Don Roberts, Lorenzo Freeman, and myself. I may have forgotten someone. The representatives of the assembled denominations were eager to learn of our plans. Rev. Cleage had been developing a national reputation. The news of the attempted recovery in Detroit from one of the larger of several U.S. rebellions in that time period enlivened their interest. Their attendance was 100 per cent. They wanted to participate and saw this as an example of what could be done in other communities like Watts in California, Newark, in New Jersey and elsewhere, if they could help make Detroit rebuilding successful. They were so interested in it that it was easy to establish the meeting in a short time frame.
FSD was led by Rev. Cleage and smooth Lorenzo Freeman. When we described the content of the outlined plans, the discussion was enthusiastic. Then we turned to the millions of dollars sought, even in part. The decline in enthusiasm was palpable. Before then, they were really into the presentation. We used an overhead projector with transparencies. The last thing we did was discuss money and that made the difference. After having preliminary discussion of the overall plan and getting to the money required, one church representative looked at us, and said, “if you put all the parts of budgets – we here combined can influence- from all these church denominations, this amount you are seeking vastly exceeds it.” They were prepared for small grant requests.
The Detroiters left and decided they would have to look elsewhere or be less comprehensive and more incremental in the plans at the outset.
CCAC decided to disband after a few of years when it came into conflict during the approval discussions of a proposal to New Detroit in organization for funding. ICBIF continued in operation and grew stronger.
The background of the decision to disband is interesting and instructive. CCAC through the FSD made an application to New Detroit in organization for seed funds to help further develop an economic plan for ICBIF to implement. It was attempting to help get the planning funds. ICBIF had a board that was strictly economic/business development and not political in the partisan sense of that term; it was also seeking tax exempt status. CCAC was political and community leadership focused.
I made a presentation to New Detroit in organization similar to the one made in New York to the religious denominations but revised somewhat. William Patrick, and Kent Mathewson, I believe, were present. The feedback I received was that they were impressed. They wanted to see the programmatic elements completed so years from then they could either point to the progress made or learn from the effort. That presentation set off conflicting and unanticipated dynamics.
I was informed that the proposal for seed funding for a fuller proposal and some other elements would be funded, I recall, for $300,000 subject to a contract. In the interim, another group of black leaders, after reading about the proposed contract in the press with CCAC, decided, “that group is getting money, why can’t we get funded also?” They put together a quick plan to submit to New Detroit in organization. Staff from New Detroit told me point blank that the quality of the newer proposal was not competitive in the least.
New Detroit was then put in the position they regarded as untenable, of choosing between two black leadership groups; they did not want to do so, regardless of the differences in the quality of the proposals.
The people I was representing did not sympathize with New Detroit’s dilemma. CCAC, with a commitment for self-determination, saw the contract providing funds with a string attached, such that it could be jerked back at any time the grantors were displeased with the community efforts. New Detroit decided that since it had two black groups –committed to various redevelopment plans – two different plans all together, but one very detailed one, one not, New Detroit decided, it would just split the money between the two groups.
I took the New Detroit decision to split the funds and copies summarizing the proposed contract with the reduced award back to a CCAC assembly. They were, to say the least, very displeased. (This CCAC meeting incidentally took place at the old Fischer YMCA building, which is on West Grand Boulevard at its intersection with Grand River, and Dexter, right across from the old Northwestern High School. At that meeting, in a greatly spirited gathering, a large consensus developed not to surrender self-determination by signing the contract. “We would subject ourselves to being evaluated, critiqued, money drawn back because we didn’t do what they wanted us to do? We’d be puppets on a string! We cannot represent our constituents and put ourselves in such a noose…”
I offered the comment, “If you’re going to get resources, there are somethings you’ll have to submit to. So tell me – I am a liaison. What sort of change do you want me to propose?” There was none suggested. A motion was made, seconded and passed to disband CCAC rather than continue to participate.
I communicated with New Detroit in organization that CCAC would not accept those terms and rejected participation. I must give Joe Hudson credit; he called me promptly thereafter and asked me to meet him at a place convenient for both of us. He said, “How about meeting me at Northland?” I said fine and we met and talked. He thought CCAC made a mistake in rejecting the funds and wanted to know if it would reconsider. I explained the decision and indicated the group would not change.
New Detroit went ahead and committed half of the proposed initial grant to the other group, the Detroit Council of Organizations (DCO), consisting largely of black moderate leaders, mostly of ministers, black labor union officials and traditional organizational heads; I have not heard of anything that came out of grant. Sidney Fine’s book states that DCO could not raise the matching funds and therefore could not finance their proposed programs.
In contrast, community development activities continued despite the setback. The organizers of the Inner City Business Improvement Forum (ICBIF) completed a study, starting with the outline prepared by the Federation of Self-Determination, which listed important projects to establish a stronger economic base in support of more self-determination in the city’s black community. One of many completed projects was to establish a black owned and operated bank.
If one reviews the structure of banking in Detroit at that time, one saw a few, very few white-owned and operated banks, with many dozen branches, some in the virtually all the various city Detroit neighborhoods in the 1950s when Detroit’s population was at its peak, with declining numbers thereafter. Afterwards, an outflow of population and a trend of bank closings was apparent. Each of these branches would draw money through attracting demand (checking), savings and time deposits from households and businesses in the neighborhood and beyond. A study of how these deposits were invested showed them primarily supporting new housing and other development in Florida and Arizona and other places plus other out-state and foreign placements and very little re-invested back in Detroit at that time. When there was investment remaining in Detroit, it was largely to provide funds for white-owned businesses. Rejection rates for black businesses were very high.
The large banks denied vigorously any discrimination in lending to minorities. One of the daily newspapers imported reputable objective researchers from outside of the state to study bank lending. They documented the large racial bias long denied by the banks in articles published in a daily Detroit newspaper.
The huge siphoning of the deposits from local black and local white communities went to financially empower others. This drainage of purchasing power from the black and lower income community is exactly the opposite of a view held by some whites. That view holds that funds from outstate are drained into poor Detroit black areas and squandered there. The truth is greatly different and complex as indicated in a conclusion of the Kerner Commission report: “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White society created it. White institutions maintain it and white society condones it.”
ICBIF drew from the analysis that Detroit needed to have a bank which hopefully would take deposits from blacks and whites in Detroit and elsewhere but which would be more open to making loans to African-American and white households and businesses doing business in Detroit. Such a bank was therefore a high priority for ICBIF. It was created and opened for business on May 17, 1970. It was one of several goals in the FSD outline of an economic development plan that that was completed despite the early problems in seeking funds and CCAC’s dissolution.
Supporting black businesses with a larger variety of financing options was another priority. Banks can make loans providing that there is the ability to repay and a significant cushion of equity to offset risk. Providing equity funds beyond savings of the owner and the family and friends required other kinds of capital institutions. One source of equity capital was a Small Business Investment Company (SBIC) which is chartered and supported by the U. S. Small Business Association. The FSD outline called for two of these. Through ICBIF’s efforts at least two SBICs were established to provide financing to minority businesses. The two MESBICs (Minority Enterprise Small Business Investment Corporations) were called Independence Capital Formation (ICF) and Pooled Resources Invested in Minority Enterprises (PRIME).
ICF and PRIME lasted several years but only the Bank is in operation today; it is currently under other black ownership and management. Originally called the First Independence National Bank of Detroit (FINB), it is now called the First Independence Bank (FIB).
After New Detroit was finally organized, ICBIF received some help financially from New Detroit over several years, and also from the Ford Foundation, as well as several other sources. I would not be surprised if there were some invisible sources of support from white Detroit business leaders involved in the funds raised from out-of-state. Members of the Ford family and perhaps a few others of the power structure did buy modest stock in First Independence National Bank. The Commonwealth Bank top leaders and Fred Matthaei invested in Accord Inc., the housing operation. A few local banks, particularly Commonwealth, Manufacturers National and National Bank of Detroit (NBD), gave a helping hand in initial staff training and start-up bank issues. NBD lent FINB for a short time a young black star employee, Walter Watkins, who later became a local president for NBD. Esther Gordy Edwards convinced her father, Berry Gordy, Sr. to become a board member of the bank and otherwise supported ICBIF. The name, Gordy, meant a lot with its Motown significance.
As stated elsewhere, Congressman Charles Diggs’ assistance to the bank was quite consequential. He monitored the approval of the application for a national bank charter to the Controller of the Currency in Washington, D. C. Without his frequent monitoring the application for a national bank charter for a Black organized bank, it would probably have died. That bank in 2016 is in its 46th year. In four years it will have existed for half a century.
KG: Another service called for by the FSD and organized by ICBIF was a small business consulting service. When people typically launch a business, they usually do not have all of the complex and myriad skills required to put a business plan together. Without a good business plan failure is most often the result for a new start-up or a major expansion of an existing business. It is helpful for one to know strategic planning, management, marketing, fund raising and capital structuring, inventory control, budgeting, site selection, personnel and risk management, record keeping, accounting and other specialties.
ICBIF hired and trained staff to help clients to secure and/or execute such services and recruit specialists to help clients. It did a lot of initial business planning and almost hand holding, as it were, during the launching of a new business and expansion of an existing one. Staff often went to the bank or to city offices with the client. Numerous businesses were assisted, existed businesses expanded, and hundreds of jobs created.
After the Rebellion, access to affordable low cost housing for African Americans was even more of a challenge that before. ICBIF decided its portfolio of functions was large enough without the housing being added to it. An independent organization named Accord, Inc. was established. An interracial board of directors was selected including, among others, Rev. Albert Cleage; Don Parsons and Steve Miller of Bank of the Commonwealth; Edgar Brazelton, a local florist and Chairman of the Booker T. Washington Business Association; Howard Sims, a local architect whose firm was to significantly help determine the Detroit’s skyline; Fred Matthaei, a U of M regent and owner of local businesses; Reverend Charles Butler, a prominent pastor, a Morehouse graduate, and the pastor of Mayor Coleman Young; Alan E. Schwartz, a prominent young attorney; and several other community leaders. Another board member, yours truly, was elected Board Chair, CEO and President.
The contextual setting was important for the strategy FSD had developed that ICBIF and ACCORD inherited. White absentee apartment owners were fleeing the city after the Rebellion. They wanted to sell and get out, because they didn’t like the uncertainty, while the getting out was possible. ACCORD wanted to help them get out and to transfer ownership to community persons.
ACCORD could, for example, buy a twenty-unit apartment building for 1,000 to 1,500 dollars a unit soon after the Rebellion, that would sell for much more during good times after some rehabilitation costing $5,000 to $10,000 per unit. The strategy however was not to sell it as such, but to organize tenants into cooperatives so that they would own it much upgraded. Over time, the previous rents paid would transition to management fees and capital gains, if and when the entire cooperative was subsequently sold; the occupants could sell their ownership in the coop as a whole.
The housing corporation, called Accord Inc., wasn’t organized until late 1969. It failed afterwards a couple of years. It bought a few structures and was in the process of rehabilitating them. Prior to completing rehabilitation and to organize them into coops, there was a major change in the national economy. Inflation went up and unemployment rose. The prime interest rate which impacted Accord’s borrowing rate rose unanticipatedly. The banks added several points to the prime rate for Accord and other companies of similar risk. Accord’s ability to finance its rehabilitation completely on the private market with its small capital base became decimated. Accord went bankrupt. It was a good idea at a bad time.
As an aside, this was during Nixon’s term of office when he was involved in the Watergate scandal. Despite this catastrophe, Nixon did some very good things about which Detroiters should know. He advocated for “black capitalism”, a term with which many black activists had problems but took advantage of anyway. ICBIF’s programs benefited from it. The concept helped legitimized and make popular white business support for black business development.
It is difficult to resist, when mentioning President Nixon in the context of black business development in Detroit following 1967, stating how he personally interceded to make sure that a black Detroiter, Rev. Dr. William V. Banks, received a TV license. This is a digression for ICBIF was not involved with this business. The founder of the TV station, Rev. Dr. Banks, was a great entrepreneur, a prominent lawyer and an organizer of a national black fraternal order, the International Masons and Order of the Eastern Star headquartered in Detroit.
TV: And you’re talking about WGPR-TV founded in 1975, first black owned television station?
KG: That’s right, first black owned television station in the United States.
TV: I had no idea of the Nixon connection to that.
KG: Oh yes. As Rev. Dr. Banks told me, it was virtually impossible then for an African-American to get a license for a TV station. It had never been done in the U. S. and was not likely to be done without support from the highest level. It also was consistent with Nixon’s black capitalism initiative.
At this point, to partially summarize the major projects ICBIF had helped organize: the First Independence National Bank, two MESBICs, the business consulting operation with many independent businesses being serviced with varying results, and Accord Inc., the latter to establish and promote housing development to transfer ownership of apartment buildings to a cooperative. However, these were only part of ICBIF’s accomplishments.
The FSD’s strategic outline had called for establishing for the first time in Detroit a black operated and managed charitable organization somewhat like a foundation. The rationale grew from the observation that while several large foundations did support activities benefitting African Americans in Detroit, there were smaller African American, nonprofit (by design) organizations with potential for growth in size and effectiveness, who served the community that were not likely to be supported by the large foundations. A local black charitable fund also would have a better knowledge of the black community and had advantages in assessing of risks, reputation, personal commitment, local history and community acceptance.
FSD saw a need to have a local Black United Fund and ICBIF concurred, for it believed it knew the community better than the large foundations; but, it did not proceed directly to establish such an organization. An impressive person, Brenda Rayford, visited ICBIF seeking help. She had heard of Black United Funds (BUF) in other states and planned to begin one in Detroit. She had the idea with few resources other than her commitment, high energy and dedication and sweat equity. She approached Larry Doss and Walter McMurtry who gave her free office space in ICBIF’s offices, supplies, use of its typewriters, mailing and duplicating room, desk, etc asking nothing in return but dedication to her goals. ICBIF’s offices first on East Grand Blvd. and then on Fourteenth Street became her free address for the first two or three years while she launched BUF. ICBIF also helped her get some initial external funding and helped to develop her business plan. She was able to move out on her own to serve independently.
The Black United Fund is still in existence today. Its office is on West Grand Blvd across the street and just east of current location of Northwestern High School. It is near its 50th year.
TV: You are still in the 1970s?
KG: Yes, early 1970 to 1995, ICBIF had a staff of about 20 people. Several have gone on from there to work for banks, operate their own companies, join the staffs of companies they assisted, enter the music business and do lots of other things. Several of our board members made large contributions to the community. Walter Douglas moved on to buy and expand a company, Avis Ford, and to be involved in several other businesses. Lawrence Doss had lots of business involvements on his own (communications, transportation, including helping others through his employer, Coopers Lybrand, etc). ICBIF was just a wellspring of ripples that gave rise to waves, some of which became bigger as they spread. Some vanished.
KG. ICBIF stayed in business for about 19 years, but it closed when funding dried up. It did not charge for its services. New Detroit stopped finding ICBIF which had leveraged its resources maximally; however, when the basic bottom line funding was removed, the source of leveraging was gone. ICBIF decided to close after almost two decades of operations.
Much was accomplished: there were hundreds of businesses assisted, many hundreds of jobs from companies for which ICBIF had provided financing and helped with their business plans. Some of the businesses assisted failed. Some went on to do better.
The cyclical nature of the Detroit economy with its concentration then in the durable goods industry with its ups and downs was not a force for stability. When the auto industry laid off workers and sales dropped every so many years in the Detroit area, it was hard for businesses, particularly underfinanced ones, to survive. ICBIF was caught in that cyclical behavior.
Reverend Cleage, the titular leader of CCAC and who was really the only person who could hold all of those diverse groups together, deserves applause for his efforts during the short period of his leadership. He had the foresight, the analysis, and the commitment to self-determination. He became inactive outside of his church and its related programs. I don’t know why, I never asked him. I suspected that he wanted to give his wholehearted effort to expanding his Pan-African Orthodox Church denomination. He had begun to establish churches in other states and he wanted to give that priority, I suspect. I also think that he gave up on the possibility of there being any receptiveness to a transfer of power. When he pulled out of the combined leadership, there was a vacuum without someone with the charisma and the deep understanding of the complex situation and selflessness who could get and keep the attention of very diverse group of activist community leaders and the power structure.
When CCAC ended, Reverend Cleage concentrated on growing the Shrine of the Black Madonna and sister churches. Members of his church organized the Black Slate which was an effort to get approval for preferred candidates so that they would be elected. This has been a very successful thrust and has intensively influenced the Detroit political landscape producing an increased number of black elected officials chosen by the community and not imposed upon it.
Again, I would encourage the Detroit Historical Society to review and make available, if possible, a copy of Cleage’s sermon on the Sunday morning the Rebellion began. Much of his analysis of it is in that very early sermon that was prepared almost instantaneously with the sermon’s delivery.
TV: That’s Amazing.
TV: Hello, My name is Tobi Voigt and I am with the Detroit Historical Society. Today is Thursday, September 3, 2015 and I’m here with Dr. Karl D. Gregory for part two of our oral history. Well alright, we were talking a little bit on Tuesday about the Rev. Cleage’s sermon on the morning the uprising began. I want to talk little bit about that first?
KG: Yes. I just wanted to encourage you, in particular for preparing for the 1967 Exhibit to be launched in 2017, to get a copy of and read the text of Rev. Albert Cleage’s sermon. He preached about it a few hours after the Rebellion began and was taking place for days afterwards. Following that Saturday evening where there was a gathering on 12th and Clairmount and the police entered. You know that story. It’s been well documented. The results of the police action and the version of it that was circulating in the community made people angry. That’s very morning, Rev. Albert Cleage gave an explanatory sermon and termed the reaction a Rebellion. He was the pastor of what subsequently became named, The Shrine of the Black Madonna. He explained it the first morning, just a few hours after it began; he gave an in-depth analysis of what occurred and why he thought it occurred. I think you need to highlight his view for it represented much of the black activist community. There is a book of his sermons including that one. I know that historian Paul Lee has a copy. He is one of our able local historians, or perhaps you could get it through the church.
TV: Great, thank you. OK. When we left off on Tuesday, you were giving a great background on the post-uprising involvement and activities, and the self-determination movement, and we were just starting to get more philosophical about it. One of the concepts that has come up is that Detroit was considered ‘the model city’ because it had leveraged a lot of federal funds to work on issues of equity and racism during the Cavanagh administration. Several folks were therefore surprised when the uprising happened. My question for you is what do you think about Detroit being the ‘model city’? And your thoughts on if the uprising was predictable or not.
KG: Let me take the last part first, I think the civil disorder, as it was called in the title of the Advisory Commission On Civil Disorders or the Kerner Commission report, was predictable by persons who were aware of the intensive reaction of many of Detroit’s black residents to racism and white supremacy in their various local forms and the numerous impacts of racism on the lives of African Americans in the city. To them the only surprise was the scale of it and the specific incident that would set it. If one were to happen, police involvement as an initial spark would surprise very few informed persons
I doubt that the federal funds received by the City during the Cavanagh administration were ever used to truly address racism. Through the anti-poverty and other programs Cavanagh did support modest measures to achieve greater equity, and undoubtedly more so than by former mayors. There was indeed the leveraging of sums from the federal government for social programs that influenced opportunities.
However, the Rebellion was indeed predictable from the several other prior uprisings elsewhere in black communities across the country in overcrowded central cities. Racism is not isolated in one area of the country but is widely spread. Detroit itself had other similar circumstances of different scales in its history. Further, there were several very recent events that could have led to local uprisings to give guidance, not to mention many additional instances of alleged police misconduct in racial incidents.
Looking back within two or three years before July 23rd, 1967, a few incidents could have expanded into a significant uprising. For example, in the Kercheval Street Incident, a group of youths on the east side were organized to participate in various kinds of youth activities, in terms of community building and creating good experiences for young folks. The police were said to have clamped down on them with unnecessary force. That led to what could have exploded into a large-scale racial incident.
There was the Northern High School boycott in 1966 that we talked about in the first session at some length. That school had what the students regarded as a racist principal with police inside the school and an inferior education being provided. If the incident had been handled differently, a conflagration could have occurred there. Students from other schools had planned to join in by supporting the walkout in their schools thereby spreading it widely. It was that likelihood that the chairman of the school board, Remus Robinson, understood, that motivated the school board to finally agree with the demands of the students, indeed to go beyond them. Resolution was accomplished by constructive black student behavior and leadership in organizing a freedom school; that freedom school enabled their leaders to concentrate on negotiating with the Board of Education for relief and for getting then-current policy changed after a citywide review of schools to examine the unequal circumstances of inner city schools and what could be done about them, ending in a set of recommendations that were adopted.
The students were focused on changing their inferior education and what they could do to initiate change. If they had not left the school to establish a school of their own, while they negotiated with the school board, or if it had not been handled in some other satisfactory way, a strong negative reaction could have occurred.
Too, it was interesting that Northern High school is so close to where the Rebellion first began. The same neighborhood, the same sociological and psychological forces were operating there. Yes, I do think it was predictable.
If a story I was told is true, not only was the possibility of an uprising predictable, but it was predicted. Conrad Mallett Sr. (who coincidentally is the father of Conrad Mallett Jr., a former Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and Chief Administrative Officer in Detroit Medical Center and the brother of two sisters who are well placed in senior positions in the corporate world) was a Black appointee in the office of Mayor Cavanagh around that time. As the Director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Cavanagh, he had read about rebellions in other cities that occurred before Detroit’s. He approached the Mayor and said, and I paraphrase, look: an uprising could happen here, and if we really want to be on top of something like that if it happens here, we have to train our department heads. I recommend Mr. Mayor that you have a meeting, a retreat for the department heads, to discuss what’s transpired elsewhere, what went wrong, and what went right, so we have guidance of what to do if something like that happens here. The Mayor had that “model city” super confidence and rejected the proposal. Mallet, Sr. persisted. Cavanagh finally decided to approve Mallet’s recommendation. So they held it!
Planning for it, they had to describe a likely precipitating incident or scenario. I know the following is incredible but believe it: Conrad Mallett Sr. suggested: let’s assume there is a car accident on 12th St. and Clairmount (sic) (which was exactly where the actual rebellion began). He said, let’s assume two cars. One car had a black couple in it, and the other car had whites. I forgot the exact nature of the collision that was described to me, but it involved police who were seen by bystanders as being more supportive of the white couple and rough on the African Americans. I was not told which car was at fault in this scenario. People gathered to watch and rumors circulated in the community about police treating African Americans roughly and not treating the whites similarly or something like that.
That’s the incident that was hypothesized as spreading in the community resulting in inciting a vigorously hostile reaction. People started gathering, the story spread. A brick was thrown at a window. One reaction led to another and so on.
The training session for the department heads was completed. If the story is true, the answer to your question is that the possibility of a rebellion in Detroit or something resembling it was perceived. This story became known to me by someone who was a friend of Conrad Mallet, Sr.
The next logical question is why was it generally believed not to be reasonably predictable. It is very important to answer that question honestly, because the circumstances that existed then, could exist now. Then, the city had a mass media, business leaders, and those in the local community who really wanted to see the “good side” of current events. They tended to downplay the “bad side” of current circumstances and to ignore or at least overlook or play down extensive racism, white supremacy and segregation, huge inequalities in wealth and income (then and more so now now), as well as issues like extensive neglect of circumstances impacting the poor, inadequate mental health care, extensive over-incarceration particularly of black males (the latter a more recent phenomenon), underinvestment in schools and huge inequalities in many areas by income level, wealth and health care, etc.
The more a society looks the other way and refuses to address such issues, the more likely it is for them to result in compiled grievances that accumulate and fester, and subsequent reactions to break out in costly ways. These issues have to be addressed directly and resolved or the problems compound or are pushed elsewhere were they can subsequently erupt, the latter as seems to be a likely current policy outcome.
Regarding officials not perceiving the real climate of the city, effort was put into painting Detroit as a model city, as a place to which everybody should look and admire. It was one thing to advertise an exaggerated bright side in order to get investment dollars and federal grants coming in, and to attract residents, including hopefully those with needed skills. But, it was another thing to self-delude so one doesn’t see the festering impact of racism, concentration and isolation of the underserviced poor and insensitive public policies, particularly for disadvantaged households. Some of us have a predilection to see the city, then and now, with rose colored glasses that screen out the reality for many of our deprived current citizens.
You know the popular vision today. There are huge investments being made in the city, particularly the downtown and the Midtown, and more recently beginning in a few neighborhoods. The city of Detroit has come out of bankruptcy. The city now knows what to do, how to do it, how to become fiscally secure. In time this growth will encompass most neighborhoods. While a beautiful future is not securely established, the outlook is very promising in a reasonable time period. Progress is being made and Michigan will become a top 10 state. Could this vision be the counterpart now of the “Model City” image in the mid-1960s? Could it discourage the comprehensive analyses and actions, including regional equitable policies, a proportional statewide combined tax structure (i.e. progressive enough at the state and/or local level to offset all of the other regressive state and local taxes) and other changes necessary to really make such a popular vision achievable?
For example, it seems to be overlooked (except for persons like Professor Peter Hammer of Wayne State University’s Law School in a paper he wrote and submitted to the bankruptcy judge in Detroit without any reaction of which I am aware), that the bankruptcy expert’s analysis, presented to the judge to undergird his decision, focused narrowly upon what could be done within and despite the considerable limits of bankruptcy law. There was no analysis, much less corrective action solutions that were based upon a complete study of the major reasons why Detroit became so fiscally depleted, built up much of that cumulative debt and had such a poor level of public services.
A complete analysis of the circumstances that would have to be changed, including areas beyond the limits of current law, needed to be explored to craft a comprehensive conclusion and to understand how incomplete the proposed legal solutions were. A total analysis of the fundamental causes of Detroit’s decline was and is still necessary. What really, if there were no legal or other limits, would have to happen to turn Detroit once again into a viable, much less a leading, central city in a cooperating metropolitan area and state? There was no consideration, for example, of the racism in the metropolitan area and in the state that impacts Detroit and other central cities severely, of the biases in state public policy and how this short-changes central cities across throughout the state, the failure of fiscal systems to fund infrastructure needs and education adequately, etc.
These issues are destined to be made much worse by the recent Michigan Legislature’s gross distortion of legislative districts through gerrymandering after the 2010 Census count and the rejection of voting on issues by party probably in the creation of long lines at voting districts, discouraging voters without maids or a stay-at home-parent to look after the children while another voter votes. The state in this respect is moving backwards away from democracy and equality, not forwards towards it.
Some important regional issues were also not explored comprehensively in the bankruptcy. There are issues that can only be resolved with dialogue between and within state government jurisdictions that impact both central cities and other areas. Many relevant issues were not Detroit’s alone. All of these dynamics play into required changes in state legislation for optimal positive results.
There are dysfunctions and inefficiencies caused by overlapping functions among jurisdictions, fractional jurisdictions in the state, areas without needed public services, excessive numbers of districts like those for schools, all of which waste and continue to waste valuable resources and cause an inadequate and unequal distribution of public services.
Just a fiscal approach alone within legal limits to which the bankruptcy process recommendations and discussion restricted itself is not adequate for visualizing, much less addressing, the most important causal factors. I am not saying that the Judge should have gone beyond what the law required in his written decision, just that a more complete analysis particularly by his chosen expert would have been appropriate in forming his decision to maximize the effectiveness of his recommendations within the law. Partial analysis often leads to insufficient analysis. The force of excluded factors, such as has been addressed above, can defeat those of included factors.
TV: Have we applied the lessons learned from 1967?
KG: I don’t think the understanding of the information that came out of 1967 has been processed enough to point to corrective actions not taken before that should be taken now, or that should have been prescribed and taken then within and beyond the recommendations of the Kerner Commission. Also, the motivation and the will to address better and more comprehensive corrective action must be created. I do not think they exist now. The inclination in the State house of Representatives now may be punitive in the opposite direction of a real solution.
I also don’t think we have learned the right lessons from 1967 and there are lots of lessons that should have been learned. One of them is that decision-makers have to see what’s really going on in the community, be involved with the citizens to get input and have a commitment to democracy. Current Emergency Manager laws are in conflict with this and provide a foundation for continuing catastrophes, as in the water crisis in Flint and Detroit School issues. This dysfunction has to be corrected and that is a statewide task.
Another lesson that should’ve been learned is that one has to deal with the huge inequalities in public services and the lack of opportunity in some areas. Human potential outcomes should not be decided by the zip code in which one is born. Kids born in some low-income areas in Detroit probably have the worst objectively predictable futures in the state and perhaps in the country. They just did not and do not have the opportunities in several areas, or the access to the mechanisms for becoming involved positively in the future and taking care of their families and so on that many other others have. Decision-makers really have never given adequate consideration to that. They fail to determine and effectuate policies to remove the huge inequalities that exist.
A lesson we should have learned then is that communities have to invest in their children and protect them equally and make sure that they have many opportunities for reaching their potential. Policy has to be made as if people are the most important resource in this state; that is, policy impact should be person-centered while treating all persons equitably. Instead, Policy appears to be centered on land use, businesses and private profits. These are important but people should come first.
There have to be opportunities created to first educate people, and secondly, to make sure that there are equal opportunities to advance and to achieve one’s potential. That is far from being applied across the geographic areas in this state, much less equally among jurisdictions and for minority groups. In many ways the situation is probably worse now than it was in ‘67, given the concentrated impacts of deindustrialization and globalization over the last half-century and the factors pointed to by Thomas Sugrue in The Origins of The urban Crisis, Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, (published in 1996).
Many middle- income families have left the city, some the state, along with numerous businesses particularly from the neighborhoods. These gave much more of a sense of stability then than has existed recently.
Nationally, the middle class is a much smaller proportion of the total population then before and the decline appears to be continuing. In the last 30 years, the middle class has greatly narrowed, and the degree of inequality in income and wealth has increased immensely. I presume the same has been happening in Detroit and much more so, particularly with regard towealth ownership in downtown and midtown Detroit.
KG: What was the other part of that question?
TV: I think that was good, but I did want to ask, going back a little bit, about not even learning the lessons and not being able to apply them. I was kind of thinking about the different government reports that Kerner commissioned, the inquiries done by government officials, and other non-profit groups --so it seems like there was data collected that could have been used for analysis. So what didn’t happen for the city to not learn the lessons, when there was a lot of raw data and evidence right there in front of our face? Does that make sense?
KG: Yes, that makes sense. Analysts and researchers do the studies. They may not explore all the needed issues. Decision-makers may or may not review the analyses and understand them. Even with the best data they may not view it realistically. They are confronted with limited resources and have other real or imagined priorities and political constraints such as getting re-elected or reappointed by persons with clear and strong biases. However, to answer this question much beyond my previous statements, as I would like to do, I would have to review again the various reports you mentioned. Their content in the detail I would need is not fresh in my recollection, for it has been over 35 years since I studied them.
Yet, some of my prior discussion herein is relevant, particularly the reluctance to deal frontally with racism, regional issues, extending our democracy to all groups with equal opportunities and narrowing the huge disparities in wealth, health and income. There is also a reluctance to invest adequately and nonracially in education, training, health care and other public and private services with special emphasis on the poor and the disadvantaged. Facilities for mental health care are a disaster; prisons are not the solution.
Local citizens should be able to give input and be heard. Currently, it almost seems as though decision makers have decided what Detroit’s future is and the current residents of low-income by and large are being written off. The model now is to create an image that will attract outside investors and people with high skills. The prevailing thought seems to be that there is no need to concentrate on adequate education and training of the existing population, apart from the Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation, etc., and instead to rely on the processes of gentrification, rising property values and low appraisals of current residential property that will force out from the central city the existing low-income and primarily black and Hispanic population such that they will be some other jurisdiction’s challenge. Then there will be more land in the city for persons with great wealth to acquire further concentrating wealth and income in this area and state.
A few of the policies needed now include, but are not limited to: every child is made ready for school before kindergarten, ensure that all children can read by the third grade; that youth obtain a high quality of education and training, including preparation for blue collar careers, at least to replace persons retiring, and boost training in STEM and other skills required by current and future technologies, and for continuous learning throughout one’s lifetime. Since technology is changing so rapidly, persons learning how to learn and gain new skills is more important that mastering a specific skill that might become outdated.
Such schooling for all current residents in Detroit is not of priority, much less high priority. Further, charter public schools in Detroit and other urban school districts under the present system are centrally unregulated and uncoordinated. Current policy decisions, or the absence thereof, suggest that the best approaches are not in the current policy mindset for meaningful implementation. Visitors from Mars reviewing such issues in Michigan, might wonder how such mismanagement and misinformation could prevail in one of the world’s wealthiest countries? How much is spent and how little is achieved, relative to the achievements of other advanced countries on this planet, would baffle them.
There are several positive measures underway in the Detroit area, for example with the mass transit, other transportation and public lighting, blight removal, police administration, etc. There are still other positive things being done. I don’t want to paint with a red brush across the entire board. However, to really reinvigorate Detroit in a manner to benefit in significant part the existing citizenry, a lot of person-centered issues that have to confronted that are not being addressed adequately, if at all. Racism is one such issue, along with other conflicts between geographical areas, as we have discussed above. Policy is now land and building centered.
Looking at this from another perspective, a most fundamental challenge is to make opportunities available to individuals fairly throughout the region without regard to the citizen’s area of residence.
TV: That makes a lot of sense, and that speaks to equity. It’s not just equality, it’s equity, equity of access, equity of resources. One thing that we should talk about was your using the term Rebellion when referring to the events of ’67. Why do you use that word, when you discuss 1967?
KG: I think that how an issue is framed is very critical for understanding the causes and problem solving. A given set of circumstances framed one way may make assumptions and bias the inquiry and lead to one set of solutions. Framed in another way, they will raise other issues, the answering of which will help close in on fundamental causes and point to questions the answers to which suggest basic solutions resulting from an objective analysis.
If one frames what happened in 1967 as a riot, there is very little attention likely to be paid to why that conflict happened. It is categorized as violence and the implication is that everything was going well; a group of irresponsible law breakers, violent people caused a riot without provocation. The assumption can be made that justice prevailed before. The initial causative acts had no long standing or immediate justification. Hence, the solutions of that mindset are frequently repression focused. There is little reason to explore for a deeper understanding to prevent similar events from recurring. Just kill or incarcerate subjects hopefully in privatized prisons for greater profits, increase investment in the military and perform other repressive acts, just like was done in the South during voter registration drives in Selma and elsewhere. Such framing is loved by racists and some conservatives, for it gives the appearance that there is no responsibility for the ruling public to take. There is official blamelessness and harsh reprisals are warranted for all the rioters with little caring for true justice. Such thinking often results in state governments spending more on prisons that on higher education.
Some in the mass media find that framing attractive, for it makes some decision-makers (read advertisers) look uninvolved and innocent of the conditions leading up to the uprising. Their hands are entirely clean.
Those relying on the mass media for their information repeat the “riot” terminology without thinking of its implications. All instances of uprising are regarded as riots without distinction. The terminology can have dire implications for the “rioter” particularly if the charging and conviction of all the participants is understood to follow automatically. All without due process, guilt often tends to be assumed.
In contrast, if the framing is as a ”rebellion,” this suggests a question: why did the people rebel? Were there circumstances that lead to it? Not that you are justifying it, but in order to have effective public policy, one has to understand things as they are. One has to ask questions that deal with causation, because one can not avoid in the future a similar set of circumstances that result in violence without analyzing those prior circumstances. They may or may not have been criminal actions. They may just have been lawful protest to which needless police provocation incited a reaction. They may have broken laws under attenuating circumstances for the judge and/or jury to assess. Or, they may not have broken any laws or they may have. It is for the justice system to decide in objective non-biased deliberations.
In short, the word “riot” provides little or no incentive to look for the back story. It is not that a violent reaction is justified, not in a nation led by laws.
There is also the companion issue of how fair are the laws? Do they apply to everybody equally? When they’re applied, are alleged law breakers of different races equally likely to be arrested, have equal opportunities for the same quality of defense counsel, jailed across the board with the same set of penalties for the same crimes, etc.? Is the term of each class of the incarcerated uniformly consistent with the crimes it was reported to have committed? Are the terms for similar crimes the same without regard to race?
One is not given comfort to the answer to some of these questions by the findings of the Innocence Project and other interventions by neutral parties reviewing legal judgements, convictions and sentences which have found that many innocent parties have been convicted, jailed and some executed as a result of erroneous judgements.
I am not denying that some people were violent, broke the law, destroyed property and that the term riot might be appropriate for some stages in the totality of all that happened. Marauding robbers who take advantage of the resistance of rebels and destroy property are in one category. The resistance of rebels seeking change and exercising their legal rights is in another category. The initial and early stage resisters are often in the latter category. I would hate to see a world in which peaceful law abiding resisters to injustice are penalized. The use of the word rebellion would be better for such rebels.
I don’t think violence has any peacetime justification in a just society except for self-defense. But, I like to see used the nomenclature about uprisings that focuses upon what happened, why did it happen, what do we need to do to correct what happened, so that that won’t happen again, that promotes equality of opportunity without regard to race, ethnicity, nationality, gender and whom one loves, all within the terms of Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution and still to provide for justice in a larger sense.
TV: Great, thanks. Well, I think we made it through our initial questions but is there anything else that you want to talk about for this recording? You had just mentioned that you were around 1943 when there was a riot, if you will, of 1943. Could you talk a little bit about that?
KG: Well I can talk a little about my experiences there. I returned to Detroit in 1941 where I was born but had left for seven years. That was two years before the uprising of 1943.
TV: How old were you in 41?
KG: I was 10 years old. At the time of that uprising, I also lived at 287 Hague, between John R and Brush. I heard on the news rumors about someone being thrown off the Belle Isle Bridge and the ransacking of stores along several thoroughfares, including Oakland Avenue near where I lived.
I was told white people were crossing Woodward from the west going east where African Americans lived committing violent acts, but my understanding was that they were coming across Woodward further south below the West Grand Boulevard. I did not actually see them.
I went three blocks east from my home to Oakland Avenue and saw commercial establishments that had been ransacked, goods taken. I did not understand a lot of the occurrences at that age but personally watched people going in stores and helping themselves to merchandise. There was chaos.
Shortly before that time my parents bought our home in that area. The residents at the time were changing from being predominantly white and with many being Jewish. Most persons of my color were in Black Bottom, the east side and south of the Grand Boulevard. There had also been the opening of some residential areas in the northwest area around Tireman where there had been efforts to stop blacks from moving into those areas. The Orsel McGhee Case on the legality of restrictive covenants barring sales of housing to African Americans went to the U.S. Supreme Court which overruled the use of such covenants in land titles.
Blacks were moving steadily north of the boulevard, with a few higher income blacks that leap-frogged north towards Boston and Chicago Boulevard, but there were still lots of whites there. In fact, Northern High School had a lot of white student when I moved in the area. But, still there were enough Black residents to support a few black-owned stores on Oakland Avenue.
I remember hearing that people south of where my family were in more densely occupied African American areas had been targets of white physical aggression.
At that time the police department was, as I recall, almost 100 percent white, very few, maybe 2% were not white, very much unlike the racial make-up of the population. According to the 1970 Census 43 % of Detroit’s population was black.
I can remember more rumors of how the riot of 1943 started, but I’d rather not talk much about that for I did not observe such personally. I visited Hastings Street where my father had a business but do not remember much of what I saw there. I heard all sorts of stories about injustices, violence against blacks, and so on. As a young boy at the time my recollections are not as focused or as well-defined as my memory of the 1967 Rebellion, where I observed it and was very much involved during and after it.
TV: Do you recall ever talking about what happened in 1943 with your parents at all? Did they have any reaction to it?
KG: They were very fearful that this would continue and that their business would be destroyed, as it actually was in 1967 and that whites would come into our residential area and be violent as we were told they had been in the heavily segregated mid-town area, south of where we lived then. My impression was that some police were involved in the black areas offensively rather than defending the community. I understand that a lot of the aggressiveness there was not all from whites, but I don’t know from personal observation. My parents did not let their children get too far from home then in those circumstances.
I didn’t study that ‘43 time period and several uprisings before then, but it is clear that uprisings were far from being unprecedented. Kevin Boyle wrote a book on the “Arc of Justice” about another circumstance in 1925, when a white mob attacked the house of a black doctor who had moved into an all-white area.
TV: Ossian Sweet?
KG: Yes, Ossian Sweet was the doctor. His house is still there on Crane Street on the east side of Detroit with a state historical marker. After several years that became an all-black neighborhood. Given then the rigorously enforced practice of racial segregation and block busting by real estate agents, integrated housing was defined as the short period of time between the entrance of the first black family in an area and the departure of the last white family. I think that is a cynical definition, but it fit the behavior then. Research has shown that when African Americans move into an area and are accepted without whites panicking, there can be continuously stable and integrated areas. It is the panic caused by the whites and some African Americans, and most importantly, it is the aggressiveness of real estate agents who will not sell to blacks in previously all-white areas, but who will select one area at a time, panic whites to get them to move out and steer blacks into that selected area. The panicked whites will sell cheaply, and the housing sold to African Americans who pay high prices to get out of the over-crowded and underserviced ghetto. Real estate agents historically would open one area at a time for exploitative profit maximization through discriminatory racial housing turnover.
That’s what I remember, but I know my parents were fearful and so were my brother and myself in 1943. Fear plays extensively in impacting behavior in these turbulent circumstances.
In contrast, in 1967, I remember that I was apprehensive when my father’s tailoring and cleaning establishment got broken into. Also there were rumors of whites coming into black areas and doing damage. I felt, if attacked, I could not defend my family for I did not have an effective weapon. I had a wife and kids and so went out and bought a gun and ammunition. I felt like my major responsibility was to defend my family, if people were going to come and attack my area.
All the weapon stores that I knew were white-owned. The owners were fearful and reluctant to sell to me. They were experiencing heavy traffic. Weapons were flying off the shelves, just one after another. They didn’t seem anxious to sell to someone of my color, but I imagine they did not feel like they could deny me. I do not know that they would react the same way if a white person came in to buy a gun, but I sincerely doubt it as confirmed by looking at the sales persons serving whites, and observing the difference in how they reacted hospitably to them in contrast to the sourness with me. This is what fear does. They insisted that the gun not be loaded within the store and watched my departure. To be clear, that was in ‘67, not ‘43.
There is a major difference between both 1943 and 1967 and currently. Racism had a major role in all three periods. Now, it is accompanied by income and wealth systems transferring from the poor (and in the last three decades, the middle class also) to the highest income groups. This transfer has been institutionalized to a much greater extent, and has become automatic the way current systems operate. Only deeply systemic change can bring about equality of opportunity and the stopping of these automatically built in harmful transfers of income and wealth. The recent Great Recession was extremely impactful in transferring home equity from the poor to the rich and particularly for African Americans who were often the target of pressure to take out ultimately overpriced subprime mortgages for amounts they did not understand they could not afford and did not qualify for under normal, responsible bank standards.
These systems transferring wealth and income are complex, multi-faceted, and numerous. They include, to mention just a few, regressive tax systems at the state and local level and on the surface a progressive tax system at the national level with huge loopholes for the wealthy, high income persons and corporations with high nominal (but low effective) rates that few of the wealthy actually pay. Huge tax loopholes exist that the U.S. Congress has passed to please its large contributors. Tax havens abroad help the rich and corporations shelter income. Investing abroad and keeping income there helps high income groups avoid U. S. taxes. Relocating U. S. corporate ownership abroad can not only relocate income abroad but also jobs that were formerly stateside. And so on.
All of this and more are part of the processes to which I referred earlier that redistributes income and wealth from the poor and the middle class to the highest income groups and produces much dissatisfaction among the non-rich. This is the dissatisfaction that a few candidates are appealing to in 2016 political races and that will sow the seeds for conflicts in the future unless they are addressed well in a reasonable time frame.
As stated by the Kerner Commission, the only way to break the frequent cycle of black revolt and white repression is to address the underlying problems of racial injustice and to remove the barriers to equal opportunity. The U. S. is not much closer to doing that now than it was in 1967.
Some earlier anti-racism gains are being lost again. With regard to a most fundamental right, voting, past progress is being reversed, not only without opposition by the Supreme Court of the U. S. at the point of time this document was prepared, September, 2015, but with its assistance by its interpreting corporations as individuals with the right of free speech in their use of campaign contributions. Policy appears to be going in the wrong direction.
Cleage, Rev. Albert