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Detroit: The forgotten center of crisis and hope | Race-Talk | 87

Detroit: The forgotten center of crisis and hope

Filed under: Featured,Racial Equity |

By Austin C. McCoy,

Many Americans tend to forget that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first articulated passages from his famed “I Have a Dream” speech in Detroit a few months earlier than the one he performed at the March on Washington. Dr. King addressed a crowd of 125,000 demonstrators after leading a march down Woodward Avenue. Referencing the city’s residential segregation and employment discrimination, King declared, “I have a dream this afternoon that one day, right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them, and they will be able to get a job.”[i] Despite delivering “a longer and richer version of the ‘Dream’ sequence,” according to the preeminent chronicler of Dr. King, Taylor Branch, Dr. King’s delivery of his “Dream” address in Washington, D.C. overshadowed his Detroit speech.[ii]

Many Americans and the media overlooked collective action in Detroit again this past weekend. This time, Detroit was not overshadowed by any stellar oration, but by the media fascination with Glenn Beck’s demonstration. Although most of the media outlets like CNN and the Huffington Post focused on Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” and Rev. Al Sharpton’s “Reclaiming the Dream” rallies, Rev. Jesse Jackson and his organization, Rainbow/PUSH, collaborated with the United Auto Workers (UAW), and its president, Bob King, to organize a march for jobs, justice, and peace this past weekend.

I marched and attended the rally and was intrigued by how the speakers focused less on Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” demonstration and concentrated more on the structural analysis of urban decline, the connections between U.S. foreign policy, and how these issues were linked to Detroit’s current economic predicament. While many speakers at the “Reclaiming the Dream” like Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial sent rhetorical barbs at Beck’s demonstration, those who spoke at the Detroit rally concentrated on a platform to “Rebuild America”:

Jobs:  economic reconstruction driven by targeted stimulus, reindustrialization and trade policy that will create jobs, support manufacturing in America, and put workers first.

Justice:  enforcement of the law regarding workers rights, civil rights, industrial regulation, and creation of strong urban policy, and fair and just education, economic, and health policy.

Peace:  ending the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, saving lives and redirecting the war budget to rebuilding America.[iii]

These proposals sound more positive than just blaming big government, immigrants, and other people of color, right? Just like Dr. King throughout the 1960s, speakers argued that sound public policy could help alleviate short-term pain and construct more just ways of redeveloping our urban and rural areas.

And similar to Dr. King in the last two years of his life, speakers at the Detroit rally drew connections between the billions of dollars being spent in Iraq and Afghanistan for prosecuting wars and rebuilding their societies without focusing on reconstructing American cities. They also identified the banks that control financial capital and the multinational corporations as responsible for choking America’s cities.

When Rev. Jackson and Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) declared Detroit the epicenter of industrial decline, they were not being hyperbolic. Detroit has gone from being known as the “arsenal of democracy” to the poster child for government disinvestment, deindustrialization, and capital/white flight. All of these factors contributed to the city’s inability to adjust to broader economic restructuring.[iv] Detroit has lost almost half of its population between 1950 and 2002.[v] According to sociologist William Julius Wilson, the city shed 51 percent of its manufacturing jobs between 1967 and 1987.[vi]

Further, as Wilson writes in More Than Race:  Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, “less than 20 percent of the jobs are now located within three miles of the city center.”[vii] This explains why one notices that the central business district resembles a virtual ghost town after business hours. Detroit has remained racially segregated. And the lack of revenue has led to crises in public education and transit.[viii]

Detroit has also closed almost half of its schools since 2005. It is safe to conclude that Detroit is spatially unjust for its residents and workers. Now, my recitation of these facts are not meant to contribute to negative perceptions that many Americans unfairly have of Detroiters, but to corroborate Rev. Jackson’s and Representative Waters’s claims that Detroit is a crucial site for redevelopment. Many Detroit activists have been hard at work addressing these issues on a local level. Jackson and his allies are just arguing that they need help rebuilding their city.

Of course, not all activists in Detroit agreed with the march. Longtime Detroit freedom fighter, Grace Lee Boggs, was the most notable dissident. In a challenging and rather inspiring article entitled, “If Not Now, When?,” she argues that we should think “outside the box” like Malcolm X and work in the spirit of Dr. King’s call for a revolution of values. She contends that activists should “stop dreaming and protesting” and work to build “sustainable local communities” and aspire to “live more simply.”[ix]

Boggs’s critique of the Detroit march and the strategy she advocates are important. It is true that mobilizing affairs such as marches have their limits and that self-help community building projects can empower workers and residents and address immediate concerns. But her approach should represent one arm of the struggle to achieve justice and rebuild our communities. I also fear Boggs’s strategy runs the risk of depoliticizing itself because of her antipathy for oppositional protest. Yes, we want self-sustained communities, but we want a better political/economic/social system—for everyone. Her article fails to address the question of how we change the system.  I agree that we need a revolution of values and conversation around that, but, ultimately, we need some measure of political power (something that some liberals and many leftists don’t want to admit).

We can expect some success with provoking Americans to rethink their values, but we cannot expect those who run the system to just change how they think or the way they live. We will have to consider political protests as a supplement to self-help forms of urban revitalization, especially if the visible hands of the “free market” seek to appropriate Boggs’s model should it become “too” successful. Boggs’s criticisms are valid despite my concerns, of course. Boggs and her allies see another path towards achieving justice. And their organizations like the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center and programs such as the annual Detroit Summer push the boundaries of what is possible in our dismal economic climate.[x] They demonstrate that if one can build independent and sustainable communities successfully in Detroit, then one can build them anywhere.

I do not intend to sensationalize the apparent divisions between groups of activists. I maintain that the implicit opposition between engaging in oppositional protests and making claims on the government, corporations, and banks, and organizing independent community-building projects is a false one. Those who prefer protest should do so, while those who favor community-building should focus on that. Dr. King had a way of reconciling two seemingly opposing approaches and outlooks during moments of internal conflict. We should seek to do the same. None of us should focus on our particular strategies so much that we miss the exciting opportunities for creating alliances and offering support to one another. This could be a fruitful combination. And I think we need to advance a multi-pronged approach to prevail politically and address immediate problems facing workers, inhabitants, and our children in impoverished areas.

Structural critiques of the U.S.’s economic crisis that Rev. Jackson, Rep. Maxine Waters, President Bob King, and their allies continue to offer, and community building projects spearheaded by activists and organizations like Grace Lee Boggs and the Boggs Center in Detroit, are precisely the ones that are needed to build effective policy proposals and help revitalize our cities. If we work hard to do both, it may become too difficult for Americans to dismiss or ignore Detroit and the struggle for jobs, justice, and peace. Another Detroit and another United States and another left may not just be possible, as the U.S. Social Forum proclaimed this summer at their forum in Detroit, but, in fact, we are coming. Let’s make sure we continue to keep each other honest and follow through.


Austin C. McCoy is an activist and Ph.D. student in the department of history at the University of Michigan. His research interests include 20th Century American Politics, African-American politics and activism in Chicago, and metropolitan history.

Photo: The Detroit News

[i] Quoted in “47 Years Ago in Detroit:  Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Delivers First ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech,” Democracy Now, http://www.democracynow.org/2010/6/23/47_years_ago_in_detroit_rev (accessed August 29, 2010).

[ii] Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters:  America in the King Years, 1954-63 (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1988), 843.

[iii] CNN, “Rally Aims to ‘Reclaim the Dream,’” http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/08/28/us.march.on.washington.anniversary/index.html?iref=NS1 (accessed August 29, 2010). For the “Rebuild America” platform see, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, “Why We March,” http://rainbowpush.org/pages/why_we_march (accessed August 29, 2010).

[iv] Detroit is also an example of a city unable to adjust to more post-fordist of economic production. This is where companies move towards a slimmer and more decentralized form of production. Post-fordism is also characterized by a shift from manufacturing- to service-based economies. New information technologies and quicker forms of transportation also undergird this economic structure. Chicago also suffered from deindustrialization, but Chicago, unlike Detroit, historically has had a diverse economy, which included (and still does) a robust financial sector.

[v] Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis:  Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, New Jersey:  Princeton University, 2005), xvi.

[vi] William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears:  The World of the New Urban Poor (New York:  Vintage Books, 1996), 29.

[vii] Wilson, More Than Just Race:  Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), 41.

[viii] See the recent Detroit Free Press Editorial, “Statewide, transit needs a big push,” for a discussion of the state’s public transportation woes. See http://www.freep.com/article/20100829/OPINION01/8290435/1231/opinion05.

[ix] Grace Lee Boggs, “If Not Now, When?” http://hosted.verticalresponse.com/386635/e4737de20c/1615000809/99d762037a/ (accessed August 29, 2010).

[x] Detroit Summer is a multi-racial and inter-generational collective. The program preaches self and social change through collective action. They do so by organizing youth-led media arts projects and community-wide potlucks, speak outs, and parties. See their website for more details:   http://www.detroitsummer.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=24&Itemid=4. The James and Grace Lee Boggs Center is a non-profit organization that seeks to nurture visionary leadership for community activists and organizers. See their website for more details: http://www.boggscenter.org/.


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