Last week, the leaders of Michigan’s 30 largest corporations and the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce released a joint statement opposing Michigan Republicans’ efforts to make it harder to vote.
“The right to vote is a sacred, inviolable right of American citizens,” they declared. “Our democracy is strongest when we have the greatest level of participation by our citizens in a representative government.”
It was stirring stuff, nearly enough to make you forget that just a few years ago, when it came to the right of the nation’s largest black-majority city to elect its own government, the same people were singing a very different tune.
“Bring it on,” cheered Detroit Regional Chamber president Sandy Baruah in 2013 when Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced he was appointing an “emergency financial manager” to take control of the city of Detroit.
Baruah explained to the New York Times that doing away with Detroit’s democratically elected leadership would “send a positive message to business.”
Dan Gilbert, the billionaire founder of Quicken Loans, announced Thursday morning that he is donating his fortune to the residents of Detroit following a realization he had at a Passover seder this week.
“We were getting things started by watching The Prince of Egypt, as we traditionally do in our family,” Gilbert recounted, “and about halfway through the opening chariot race scene, I got this sneaking suspicion that there was something familiar about the story of an autocratic, extremely wealthy individual [Pharaoh] trying to immortalize himself by building giant monuments to his ego.”
Gilbert, who broke ground in 2017 on a downtown Detroit skyscraper intended to be Michigan’s tallest, had already announced plans to donate $500 million towards Detroit neighborhood revitalization efforts the previous week. But thinking through the Passover story prompted him to go several steps further.
In light of the uprisings that have swept the country since the horrific killing of George Floyd, it’s more important than ever that Americans – and particularly white people – educate ourselves on the history and present reality of American racism, and the history of resistance to it.
I’ve seen lots of people sharing various anti-racism resources and reading lists, like this one, on social media. This is great, especially seeing as many of us are still at home and looking for stuff to read.
As a white person who grew up with little understanding of the dynamics of racism in my own state and region, I’ve also found it important to educate myself on the history of racism and resistance in this particular place on the planet.
Fortunately, there are plenty of books to help, seeing as Detroit – currently the nation’s largest majority-black city – has a storied place in the ongoing African American freedom struggle.
Here, then, are ten twelve books that form the beginnings of a reading list on racism, resistance, and rebellion in Detroit.
Obviously, this is just a start, not a definitive list. The potential literature is vast. Please don’t hesitate to add your picks in the comments! (Fiction and poetry would be welcome too.)
Hard Stuff: The Autobiography of Coleman Young (with Lonnie Wheeler)
The extraordinary story of Detroit’s first black mayor, including his upbringing in the Black Bottom neighborhood, his education as a labor activist, and his battle to reform the Detroit Police Department, all told in his inimitable style. From Chapter 1: “If you don’t want to read about racism, close the book right now and let’s agree to stay out of each other’s lives.” Inexplicably out of print but easily available for order online.
2. The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue
Destroys the myth, still popular in the suburbs, that everything was just fine in Detroit prior to the 1967 rebellion. On the contrary, in the wake of World War Two, black Detroiters were hit with a triple whammy of deindustrialization and discrimination; racist city policy; and violent, organized resistance to desegregation from white Detroiters (including some of the author’s own relatives, as Sugrue discovered in the archives).
3. Pages from a Black Radical’s Notebook: A James Boggs Reader
James Boggs, a self-educated Detroit factory worker, became one of the most thoughtful theorists of black power with such essays as ‘The American Revolution” and “The City is the Black Man’s Land.” Along with his wife, Grace Lee Boggs, whose autobiography Living for Change is also well worth a read, he set an example for revolutionary thinking and practice that continues to resonate.
4. Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle
In 1925, a black doctor named Ossian Sweet and his family tried to move into an all-white neighborhood on Detroit’s East Side. They brought guns, with good reason. Boyle tells what happened next in a work of history that reads like a novel.
5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley
It just seems wrong not to include the story of “Detroit Red” in this list, even if he grew up in the Lansing area and left after the eighth grade. (“If I had stayed on in Michigan,” he reflects, “I might have become one of those state capitol building shoeshine boys” – quite a thought.) Ultimately, he did return for a time as minister of the Nation of Islam’s Temple No. 1 in Detroit, and delivered some of his most famous speeches here, including his 1963 “Message to the Grassroots.”
6. Detroit: I Do Mind Dying by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin
The rise of black power in 1960s Detroit was felt not just in the streets but also in the factories, as black autoworkers organized a revolutionary union movement that took on both the managers and the white union leadership. This convergence of labor emancipation and black liberation seems especially important today.
7. Faith in the City: Preaching Radical Social Change in Detroit by Angela Dillard
Any account of protest and politics in Detroit would be incomplete without accounting for the role of the African American church, from labor-oriented ministers like Rev. Charles Hill to nationalists like Rev. Albert Cleage (later Jaramogi Agyeman).
8. Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor and Race in a Modern American City by Heather Anne Thompson
A history of organizing on the factory floor and in the streets in the decade after 1967, including the fight against the Detroit Police Department’s paramilitary STRESS unit.
9. The Algiers Motel Incident by John Hersey
In the wake of the 1967 rebellion, the author of “Hiroshima” conducted a “personal investigation” into the police killings of four young black men at Detroit’s Algiers Motel. The basis for the 2017 film “Detroit.”
10. Redevelopment and Race: Planning a Finer City in Postwar Detroit by June Manning Thomas
An exploration of the history of “urban renewal” efforts in Detroit that is particularly worth reading in our current era of gentrification.
11. Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination by Herb Boyd
A sweeping history by a distinguished Detroit native.
12. The Dawn of Detroit by Tiya Miles
This list has focused on the 20th century (okay, it’s been exclusively 20th century!) but it’s worth remembering that the history of Detroit – and of racial oppression and resistance – goes back far beyond that, and includes the indigenous peoples who lived on “the strait” long before Cadillac showed up.
DETROIT – Left-wing frescoes notched another major win on Tuesday as voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb County overwhelmingly approved renewing a property tax for the Detroit Institute of Arts, including its famed Diego Rivera murals.
Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals (1932-33) depict the interior of the Ford River Rouge plant. They illustrate what Rivera perceived, from a Marxist perspective, as the promise and the peril of industrial civilization, including its dual capacity to alternately enrich or destroy human livelihoods.
“The glory of this night is not mine,” Rivera’s overall-wearing, two-dimensional form announced from the west wall of the mural court after the election was called Tuesday. “It belongs to the international working class,” he said, raising a hammer in solidarity with the global proletariat.
As of this writing, the doctors in the upper right panel of the mural’s north wall were assuring other characters in the mural that the COVID-19 virus posed a minimal risk to painted representations of human figures.
They pointed to the Latin phrase carved into the stone above the entrance to the Rivera Court: “Vita Brevis, Longa Ars,” or “life is short, art is long.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon, close to a hundred people
filled a union hall near a massive Chrysler plant just outside Detroit.
They were a mix of black and white and young and old, from Detroit and the surrounding Oakland and Macomb County suburbs. But they were united in their support for the Green New Deal, which they enthusiastically applauded.
Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, however, wasn’t having it.
Standing in front of the crowd, she read a list of
environmental protection funds she’d supported in her role on the House Appropriations
When asked whether she supported the Green New Deal, she
“I do support the concept
of it,” she said, “but it’s a theory, it’s a philosophy.”
She didn’t explain why that had stopped her from joining
dozens of her House colleagues who’ve signed on to sponsor the official Green
New Deal resolution.
A Deal That Delivers
In so many ways, the Green New Deal seems tailor-made for Michigan,
and especially Detroit, which makes up a large part of Lawrence’s district.
The call for a national public-sector mobilization against
climate change, creating millions of good-paying union jobs, resonates with
Detroit’s role as the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War Two, when federal
dollars helped redirect the Motor City’s industrial might towards defeating
fascist Germany and Japan.
Today, Detroit suffers endemic unemployment, and many
neighborhoods are burdened with fossil fuel pollution, making the promise of
job-creating investments in clean energy technology more important than ever.
So it’s not surprising that two metro Detroit members of
Congress, Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) and Andy Levin (D-Royal Oak), signed on to
the resolution for a Green New Deal as original co-sponsors.
But why hasn’t Lawrence joined them?
Other Congressional Excuses
Lawrence’s district, after all, is a “safe” Democratic
district, drawn by Republican gerrymandering experts to cram in as many Democratic
voters as possible. 79% of 14th District voters chose Clinton over
Trump in 2016.
The district also encompasses many of the most distressed
areas of Detroit, including much of the city’s East Side. In addition to some
wealthier enclaves, like the Grosse Pointes and West Bloomfield, it includes
the city of Hamtramck, where General Motors recently announced it would be
shutting down its Chevy Volt plant on the Detroit-Hamtramck border, and the industrial
satellite of Pontiac, already devastated by decades of previous GM plant
It’s easier to see why some of Lawrence’s colleagues, like
Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) and Hayley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) haven’t backed
the Green New Deal. Both represent outer suburban districts previously
represented by Republican incumbents, and are hesitant to stake out bold progressive
policy positions in their conservative districts.
Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, like Lawrence, represents a
safe Democratic district, but after all, she is a former lobbyist for General
Motors. Her late husband was a vociferous opponent of new fuel economy
regulations and anything else that scared the Big Three.
So what gives for Lawrence?
I managed to catch the Congresswoman as she exited the union hall, and asked why she hadn’t signed on to the Green New Deal resolution.
The resolution, she said, which calls for shifting to 100%
renewable energy over 10 years, was simply “so vague.”
“It opens a Pandora’s Box,” she said, citing the enormity of
the task of eliminating vehicle pollution. What if the Big Three couldn’t
manage to do it, she asked.
A Clear Moral
The Congresswoman is correct that the Green New Deal
resolution, as written, doesn’t set out specific strategies for getting to a
zero-emission transportation system, other than “zero-emission vehicle
infrastructure and manufacturing,” “clean, affordable and accessible public
transit,” and “high-speed rail.”
What it does do is set out a clear goal: eliminating carbon pollution in order to save the planet, in a way that also puts Detroit back to work and stops poisoning the most vulnerable.
A historical precedent is instructive.
When Congress voted to enter World War Two, U.S.
representatives did not try to be generals. Indeed, seeing as Japanese aircraft
had just destroyed much of the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and Nazi
armies stood within 15 miles of Moscow, there was no assurance that the war
could be won within five years, or even won at all.
The path to victory was not defined. But what Congress and
President Roosevelt did know was that entering the war against fascism was in
the self-interest of the United States and a moral imperative for humanity.
Today’s danger is different. But the logic is not.
Congresswoman Lawrence needs to understand that, and take a
stand for the Green New Deal.
A common refrain in the Democratic Party establishment is
that a socialist like Bernie Sanders wouldn’t stand a chance against Donald
Trump in the general election, especially in supposedly less progressive states
like those of the industrial Midwest.
The reality is exactly the opposite, as a new poll of Michigan voters indicates.
The survey of 600 likely voters showed that if the 2020
presidential election was held today, most Democratic candidates would have an
edge over Trump. But two stood out from the rest: Joe Biden, and Bernie
Sanders. Both had a 12-point margin of victory over Trump in the poll.
Sanders did especially well among male voters without a
college degree, a demographic that went for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“Sanders,” pollster Richard Czuba told the Detroit News, “kind of disrupts the Trump pattern of less educated male voters [voting for Trump],” whereas “Biden exacerbates it.”
Class Matters in
Bernie’s strong showing shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone
who understands Michigan and its people, and particularly the tradition of class-based
organizing in the state, which goes back to the 1930s labor struggles in the
factories of Detroit and Flint.
Far from being repelled by Bernie’s broken-record message
against the “billionaire class,” many Michigan voters embrace it.
They know that Michigan workers got a bad deal with trade
deals like NAFTA, shepherded by Republicans and corporate-friendly “New
Democrats” like Bill Clinton. (Unlike Bernie, Biden voted for NAFTA and
supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, although it’s likely that most
Michigan voters don’t know that.)
Indeed, this is a big part of the reason why Bernie upset
Hillary Clinton to win Michigan’s 2016 Democratic primary.
Sanders had spent hardly any time campaigning in the state, aside from brief stops in Ypsilanti and United Auto Workers Local 600 in Dearborn, a longtime home of the labor movement’s left wing. His victory shocked pundits who’d expected an easy Clinton victory.
Economic Justice Wins
For Beltway pundits, who like to caricature Midwestern
voters as middle-of-the-road folks who would never embrace a bold progressive
agenda like the Green New Deal, this poll should be a stern rebuke.
Michigan voters know what Bernie stands for. And most of
them like it.
What doesn’t work in Michigan is telling voters they should support you just because you’re a Democrat, when you don’t have a strong agenda for economic justice, in the spirit of the New Deal tradition.
That’s why Clinton narrowly lost Michigan to Trump in 2016:
not so much because of a Trump surge, as pollster Czuba notes, but because so
many traditional Democratic voters stayed home, both in majority-white suburbs
and majority-black cities like Detroit.
Michigan Republicans, dutifully following instructions from party commissars, have been invoking the specter of “socialism” at every opportunity, as they did with a recent Oakland County proposal to increase wages for County employees.
That may play well with the Bloomfield Hills set, but not
the great majority of Michiganders.
Democrats face their own choice: will they nominate an
outspoken advocate for economic justice, or repeat the 2016 debacle?
Biden may call himself “middle-class Joe,” and make much of his Scranton birthplace. (In fact, while unemployment in Scranton did cause some hardship for the Bidens while Joe was a child, his father ultimately became a successful used-car salesman after the family moved to Delaware.)
But there’s little doubt that if he wins the Democratic nomination, the Trump campaign will gleefully spotlight the fact that in his decades in Congress, Biden has reliably sided with corporations and credit-card companies over workers.
As the new poll suggests, Michigan voters embrace candidates who promise economic justice. Democrats would do best to give them the real deal.
After decades of debate over car insurance in Michigan, that’s
how long it took for one very wealthy man to seal the fate of Michigan’s
no-fault insurance policy, which granted unlimited insurance coverage to the
victims of car crashes, regardless of whether they were responsible for the
After Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert’s announcement that he
was fronting the money for a petition drive to change the law, Democratic
Governor Gretchen Whitmer fell in line and supported the Republican Legislature’s
bills to kill Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance law, passed in 1973.
In the Detroit News of
Sunday, May 19, columnist Nolan Finley announced that a “source close to the
situation” had told him Gilbert had hired National Petition Management, “the nation’s
leading signature gathering outfit,” and was preparing to front the millions of
dollars necessary to get a proposal on the ballot to kill no-fault.
The disclosure was an obvious power play on the Governor,
who’d threatened to veto the Republican insurance proposal, citing its inadequate
protections for consumers.
“I’m not going to be bullied into doing something,” Whitmer
told media after Gilbert issued his petition threat.
But by Friday, she’d agreed to sign the bill.
What do concessions
mean? Not much
The Governor did appear to extract some concessions,
including bans on rate discrimination by gender and ZIP code. But those concessions
may not count for much.
Although the law bans insurers from setting rates by ZIP
code, for example, it allows them to be set by “territory,” a word which apparently
means any other geographic area.
It’s simply incorrect, then, to assert, as did Democratic
State Senator Adam Hollier, that the bill will end the practice of insurance “redlining.”
Hollier suggested to a reporter that the proposals would reduce
the $3000 disparity between the auto insurance he pays in Detroit and what a
friend of his pays across the city limit in Redford.
Hollier was elected last year with support from the “dark
money” group Detroiters for Change, a which endorsed candidates who sided with
Mayor Duggan’s bid to eliminate no-fault insurance.
In a creative interpretation of Michigan campaign finance
law, the state determined that Detroiters for Change’s campaign ads were legal because
they did not expressly call for the election of Hollier and other candidates.
Instead, they made subtle statements like “We Need Adam
Hollier in Lansing.”
The bill’s impact
Given the unanimous Republican support for the bill, and the
Republican support for the bill in the heavily gerrymandered Legislature, its
passage was assured once the Governor announced her support.
Some Democrats who had raised concerns about the proposal
cited Gilbert’s referendum threat in deciding to vote for the proposal. “If we
didn’t move ahead with this bill,” State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) wrote
in a Facebook post, “the other option would be the Gilbert-backed auto
insurance citizen initiative,” which she called “not an acceptable option.”
Other Democrats still voted against the proposal on
State Representative Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit) cited
the failure to ban redlining in opposing the bill, which she said “stinks as
bad as the manure that is lining the streets of Mackinac [Island],” where
today, Whitmer signed the bill into law.
It was an incongruous setting, since the island is one of
the few places in Michigan that doesn’t have any cars.
Other Democrats in the legislature also argued that creating
a tiered system of insurance “choices” for drivers, the lowest of which
provides only $50,000 in coverage, was inherently unfair in itself, since it
would institutionalize a system of unequal coverage.
House Democratic Floor Leader Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor),
who has been the Legislature’s most outspoken advocate of a Medicare for All
universal healthcare proposal, posted on Facebook that the announcement of the
deal marked “a shameful day in Michigan.”
“Rates will not go down,” he posted today, after the
Governor signed the bill. “Redlining will continue. Accident victims will have
crippling out of pocket costs and some will likely die due to lack of coverage.”
The non-partisan Senate Fiscal Agency had estimated that the
proposal will ultimately cost Michigan taxpayers at least $70 million in additional
Medicaid costs. The human costs will only become clear with time.
work when billionaires are involved
The man whose money had ensured the death of no-fault wasn’t
on Mackinac to witness the signing.
Dan Gilbert was driven to the hospital last Sunday, where he
suffered a stroke. He is now said to be recovering.
With a net worth of $7.3 billion, Gilbert doesn’t need to
worry much about being able to buy insurance coverage.
As the previous week’s events showed, his fortune also
enables him to buy political action, regardless of the costs for ordinary
If the tortuous story of the end of auto no-fault shows
anything, it’s that Michigan’s political system remains profoundly compromised
by the dominance of a wealthy few, even after Democrats took back the governorship
and other statewide posts in last year’s elections.
Many commentators, on both sides of the aisle, would prefer
that we overlook that reality, or simply accept it.
The Detroit Free Press
editorial page, for example, has so far been silent on the insurance deal,
although Free Press columnist Nancy
Kaffer previously described the GOP bills as “lip service that doesn’t even try
to fix the problem.”
In a column for Michigan
Advance, which claims to offer “top-notch progressive commentary,”
publicist Susan Demas heralded the no-fault deal, passed at the political
equivalent of gunpoint, as a “bipartisan plan. She lauded the Governor for going
along with the “opaque process,” since
“those of us who have been around
for more than a minute know that this is, of course, how big deals are always
There’s a kernel of truth there: this is how deals get made when money rules politics. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
There are plenty of blogs and various news
sources out there. But we need more that refuse to acknowledge the
inevitability of oligarchy.
In future articles, Michigan Left will do its best to keep that up. We’ll say it here:
Billionaires are incompatible with real freedom. Government of the people, by
the people, for the people, is the only legitimate kind. And while our state is
still on a crash course with corporate rule, it’s worth fighting to turn us
towards political and economic democracy.
Want to call the Governor to express your disappointment? You can reach her office at 517-335-7858.