Lessons from the Detroit July 1967 Rebellion and Prospects for Social Transformation –Part III & IV

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Abayomi Azikiwe | Sunday, July 30, 2017, 12:07 Beijing

Part III

Coalition building and the need for a united front against national oppression and class exploitation

Note: This third section of the report examines the days, weeks and months following the Detroit Rebellion of July 23-27, 1967 where working and middle class people in the city took different approaches on how to proceed. The report reviews the formation of broad-based coalitions and the approach of the ruling class towards various interests within the African American community from the proletarian radicals and revolutionaries to the more mainstream Civil Rights organizations and small business interests seeking to establish a stronger economic base. From the neighborhoods, schools and workplaces there was the desire to move quickly in order to ensure a qualitative advancement in the struggle for African American liberation.

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One of the long-held myths about the social impact of the Detroit Rebellion was that nothing tangible or positive came out of the week of unrest. This is not only a subjective distortion it also contains within it the notion that the popular struggles of the working and oppressed peoples in the U.S. and possibly even throughout the world, is futile. Of course the ruling class interests which continue to dominate Detroit five decades later have their own views on the rebellion.

By repeatedly referring to the rebellion as a “riot” not only criminalizes the mass sentiments of the people, such a connotation attempts to divorce the events in Detroit from the overall political atmosphere prevailing among African Americans in the late 1960s. The aftermath of the rebellion in Detroit was marked by enormous efforts to channel the militancy of the period into an organizational framework.

Mass interests in various forms of organizations flourished during and after the summer of 1967. Already in Detroit there were militant groups which evolved from the earlier years in the decade.

After the smoke cleared and the army personnel and National Guard troops began to be withdrawn, the corporate community led by Ford Motor Co., J.L. Hudson, Jr., Max Fisher, Chrysler Motors, General Motors, Walter Reuther, president of the UAW and several others along with Mayor Cavanaugh, announced the formation of the New Detroit Committee (NDC) on August 1. The committee included the industrial and retail magnates, religious figures, community and Civil Rights leaders in the city some of whom like the automotive barons had recognition beyond Detroit. Of the thirty-nine members of the leadership committee of NDC, 10 were African American. The organization began with 100 staff members 15 of whom were Black.

Hudson who owned the-then premiere retail firm in the metropolitan area, Hudson’s Department Store, indicated that NDC wanted to win the involvement of those considered more militant within the African American community. Despite the proclamations by Cleage and other leading Nationalists in Detroit, the corporate interests continued to pursue their participation in these efforts purportedly designed to ease racial tensions and reconstruct Detroit based on a model which would be satisfactory to both the white and African American communities.

The vision of the NDC coincided with the setting up of hiring centers by automotive companies to provide immediate jobs to African Americans in the inner-city areas of Detroit along 12th street and its environs. As the weeks went by plans to pass a Fair Housing Ordinance for the City of Detroit proceeded with utmost speed.

During the period prior to July 1967 housing discrimination was rampant in the city. African Americans remained largely confined to neighborhoods in the more southern sections of the eastside, the near west side and in the southwest. Although African Americans had in large numbers succeeded in purchasing their own homes, many people still were unable to acquire the necessary credit ratings to qualify for conventional mortgages.

Hundreds of thousands of people were trapped in rental properties which in most cases were owned by whites not living in the same communities. A significant portion of the housing stock around the 12th street neighborhood, further south and west, were in a state of decline prior to July 1967. This holds true as well for the commercial districts along 12th, 14th, Linwood, Dexter and the southern areas of Grand River.

An article published in the Detroit News on February 26, 1967 presented a perspective on the deteriorating conditions on 12th Street. The report discusses the worsening state of housing which was available to a sizable number of working class and poor people, the increase in criminal activity including the commercial sex trade and the apparent indifference of the Cavanaugh administration to remedy the situation.

Clyde Cleveland, who several years later won election to the City Council, at the time of the publishing of the Detroit News article, was Chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Detroit. He was employed in the Total Action Against Poverty Center located on 14th and Clairmount, just one block west of where the rebellion would begin five months later.

Cleveland emphasized the overcrowding in the Virginia Park community saying that apartment buildings at one time were investment properties. He said that was no longer the situation since no reinvestment in the maintenance was being done by the owners.

Robert L. Potts was rector at the Grace Episcopal Church located on 12th and Virginia Park. Potts was quoted in this same Detroit News article conveying that there were many people in the district seeking the refurbishment and reconstruction of the neighborhood. The Virginia Park Rehabilitation Project had been awarded a $525,000 grant from the federal government and the City of Detroit for the purpose of conducting a survey on the desirability of improving the community.

Potts said the Virginia Park Rehabilitation Citizen’s Committee, of which he was Chairman, wanted strict monitoring of code violations for rental properties, refurbishment of the housing stock, regular garbage collection, the construction of a recreation center which was non-existent outside area schools and churches lacking adequate space and personnel to accommodate the burgeoning needs of the neighborhood. The Citizen’s Committee was attempting to build a working alliance among the various groups within the Virginia Park community.

Although the Virginia Park Rehabilitation Citizen’s Committee largely represented African American homeowners in the neighborhood, CORE was organizing tenant councils to hold landlords and city housing inspectors accountable to the residents. Potts told the newspaper that: “We want to build an attitude, a kind of approach to neighborhood living and a strong contact with city government.”

Self Determination and the Transferal of Power

In a somewhat contrasting vein after the conclusion of the rebellion, the Black Nationalists and Left Radical forces in the African American community met at the City County Building Auditorium on Woodward Avenue downtown on August 9 to repudiate the formation of the NDC and its racial composition. At this meeting, Rev. Albert Cleage, Pastor of the Central United Church of Christ located on Linwood and Hogarth in the center of the rebellion area, along with Attorney Milton Henry, a leader in the Group on Advanced Leadership (GOAL), the Afro-American Broadcasting Corporation and the Malcolm X Society, articulated a vision aimed at self-determination. Henry, Cleage and others had brought Malcolm X to Detroit on three different occasions during the period of late November 1963 and early 1965, just prior to his assassination. These African American Nationalists sought to create a viable coalition outside the domination of the moderate Civil Rights leadership and the Cavanaugh administration.

Henry and Cleage rejected a proposal to demand of the NDC that its membership be 50 percent African American. Instead those convened at the City County Building formed another all-African American alliance called the City-wide Citizen’s Action Committee (CCAC). Cleage called for a transferal of power from the Cavanaugh administration and the business interests to African Americans.

Later both the Federation for Self-Determination (FSD) chaired by Cleage and the Malcolm X Society led by the Milton and Richard Henry put forward their own proposals for the reconstruction of the African American community of Detroit. The plans sought greater autonomy outside the control of the city administration although they differed on the degree of support from the federal government.

The Black Nationalists of the Malcolm X Society demanded 12,000 new housing units, the founding of a school, civic center, cultural arts center, a commercial plaza, an industrial park, etc. These institutions would be owned and administered based on a cooperative model. This project would be funded by residents purchasing shares valued at $2 each with secondary investments coming from the federal government.

Cleage’s plan through the FSD was also cooperative in its approach to ownership and administration. In an article published by him in the August 26, 1967 issue of the Michigan Chronicle emphasized the “development of co-op retail stores, co-op buying clubs, co-op light manufacturing, co-op education.” The funding for this project would be provided by governmental and corporate interests ceding control over resources coming into the city.

NDC apparently rejected the transfer of power demand by the FSD. Nonetheless, NDC offered a $100,000 grant to FSD with certain stipulations for usage of the funds. There were prohibitions on the utilization of the money for explicitly political purposes. Consequently, the grant was designed to stifle any genuine efforts aimed at the political empowerment of African Americans independent of the influence of the corporate-dominated NDC.

After discussions internally, the FSD sent a telegram to Joseph L. Hudson, Jr. on January 5, 1968 saying: “The Federation for Self Determination has voted to withdraw its proposal from the New Detroit Committee. It is severing all relations with the New Detroit Committee as of this date. As stated in the New Detroit Committee meeting January 4, 1968 The Federation refuses to accept money with strings attached.” This cable was signed by Rev. Albert B. Cleage of the FSD. (Found in the J.L. Hudson Papers at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.)

In its desperate attempt to win over the Detroit Black Nationalists, Henry Ford II, the heir to the family automotive empire, visited the Central United Church of Christ pastored by Cleage in December 1967 for talks with FSD leaders. Ford viewed the pacification of the African American community as a precursor to the short-term profitability of the automotive industry.

Although the FSD turned down funding from NDC in the months following the July 1967 rebellion, it was not enough to keep the organization from dissolving during the following months in 1968. Disagreements over the role of Cleage and others created tensions beyond the coalition’s capacity to maintain its existence.

The Detroit People’s Tribunal

There was of course the desire to seek justice for the many civilians killed in the rebellion by the police and National Guard. The massacre at the Algiers Motel on July 26 had been a major issue still lingering beyond the property destruction, arson and sniping.

The survivors of the deadly police and National Guard raid wanted to tell their stories about the actual events which transpired. Consequently, the parents of Carl Cooper and Aubrey Pollard contacted longtime Civil Rights activist and SNCC member Dorothy Dewberry to develop a strategy to expose the truth and to seek justice within the criminal justice system. Dewberry’s family had known the mother of Cooper and therefore had the capacity to secure the cooperation of the survivors.

These eyewitnesses including Lee Forsythe, James Sorter, Roderick Davis, Cleveland Larry Reid and Michael Clark were justifiably concerned about possible retaliation by the police. Detroit activist Dan Aldridge of SNCC counselled the youth and their families during a period when they were being constantly harassed by law-enforcement.

On August 30, just one month after the conclusion of the rebellion, a People’s Tribunal was convened to hold a mock murder trial of the three white Detroit police officers Robert Paille, David Senak and Ronald August and the African American security guard, Melvin Dismuke, charged with assault. The Tribunal took place at the Central United Church of Christ on Linwood and Hogarth, in the heart of the rebellion area. This event was attended by thousands of people who could not all fit into the spacious church and therefore stood outside on the streets showing their support to the families of Cooper, Pollard and Temple along with those youth who survived the raid.

A description of the event noted that: “Originally scheduled to be held at Dexter Theater, the theater backed out. Cleage later claimed that it was held in his church because there were fears that the police would attack any other place. The Church’s executive board made a public statement attesting to their reasons for holding it there: ‘we love our church and the building in which we worship. But even if granting permission for the People’s Tribunal to be held here means the destruction of the building, as churches have been destroyed in Birmingham and all over the South, we still have no choice.’” (https://rosaparksbiography.org/bio/the-peoples-tribunal-on-the-algiers-motel-killings/)

This same account of the Tribunal says: “The church was packed to the rafters with over 2000 people, with others trying to get in. Journalists from France and Sweden covered the event. Attorney Milton R. Henry served as one of the two prosecutors; Solomon A. Plapkin, a white attorney, and Central Church member Russell L. Brown, Jr., acted as defense counsel. Kenneth V. Cockrel, Sr., a recent Wayne State University law school graduate and future co-founder of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW), was the judge and moderator. The stenographer was Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, who would later serve as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). They called witnesses. Because the police sought to intimidate the witnesses, organizers tried to keep them hidden until they testified.
Among the people selected to be jurors were African American novelist John O. Killens, bookstore owner Edward Vaughn and Rosa Parks. Dan Aldridge had asked Parks to serve as juror because of her reputation in the community as a person of integrity, and she had agreed, saying that if she could be helpful she would come. Mrs. Parks’ willingness to take part in the Tribunal took great fortitude since she knew the family of Carl Cooper. The jury found the officers guilty of murder. The Detroit Bar Association considered disbarring the lawyers who participated in the trial. Cleage would write in the Michigan Chronicle: ‘It is hard to believe …that a group of ordinary white men could so hate ordinary Black men.’ In 1970, three officers and a guard faced federal civil rights charges but all were acquitted.”

After publicity was generated about the obvious murderous spree that occurred in those early morning hours of July 26, three white police officers were suspended by the city and the Wayne County Prosecutor filed charges against them and Dismuke. Claiming that it was impossible to win a fair trial in Detroit due to what their defense lawyer said was adverse publicity, the trial was held outside the city in Mason, Michigan and other areas. None of those charged in the deaths and beatings of Cooper, Pollard and Temple as well as the others who were in the annex of the motel, were ever convicted in a court of law.

Housing Reforms and the Imperatives of Community Empowerment

One legislative measure which came out of the rebellion was the passage of a City of Detroit Fair Housing ordinance in late 1967. NDC supported the passage of the law which predated the more comprehensive and dubious federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 which was passed by the U.S. Congress in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A telegram dated November 20, 1967 sent to Common Council member Mel Ravitz said: “We the undersigned unanimously support the enactment of a City of Detroit Fair Housing Ordinance.” The cable listed the following members of NDC: “John W. Armstrong, President Darin and Armstrong, Inc.; Mrs. Lena Bivens, Archdiocesan Opportunity Program; Paul Borman, President Borman Food Stores, Inc.; Mrs. Gerald Bright, Administrative Vice President League of Women Voters of Detroit; The Hon. Ed Carey, President Detroit Common Council; The Very Rev. Malcolm Carron, S.J., President University of Detroit; Walker L. Cisler, Chairman The Detroit Edison Company; William M. Day, President Michigan Bell Telephone Co.; Dr. Norman Drachler, Superintendent Detroit Public Schools; Max M. Fisher, Chairman United Foundation; Henry Ford II, Chairman Ford Motor.”

Nonetheless, the endorsement of this measure by the NDC did not necessarily pave the way for a rapid resolution of the housing crisis. African Americans began to expand into previously all-white neighborhoods in greater numbers and were frequently met with violent resistance from European American homeowners.

Many did not want to necessarily move into communities further north on both the west and eastside of Detroit. African Americans lived in some selected suburban cities such as Inkster, which was another engineered municipality reinforcing segregation from neighboring Dearborn, where Mayor Orville Hubbard ran his campaigns as many Detroit administrations had before, to keep African Americans out.

African Americans from various political inclinations from moderate to radical wanted to remain in Detroit and therefore sought its reconstruction based upon the interests of the people who lived there. This was also the outlook of the residents of Virginia Park where the rebellion began.

A postal worker, insurance agent and community activist, Herschel Richey, wrote in his book entitled “Miracle on Twelfth Street (Rosa Parks Boulevard)” about the decades-long efforts to bring investments into Virginia. Richey reviews in the first chapter the formation of the Virginia Park Rehabilitation Citizen’s Committee (VPRCC) which was mentioned in the events chronicled above leading up to the rebellion. This organization was mentioned in the Detroit News article from February 26, 1967 providing a voice from the community related to the worsening situation in the 12th Street area.

Richey recounts this period from his own perspective as a homeowner saying that 12th Street: “In the fifties and early sixties had become a mecca of commercial activity catering to a progressively growing African American population. However, perceptibly, it was rapidly changing into the street that became the focal point from which the community was fast deriving its image…. An area that was cluttered with more than a hundred overcrowded apartment buildings that had possibly tripled their inhabitant population by transforming potential twenty unit buildings into possibly fifty or sixty unit habitations. During the evening and night hours, the street seemed to be transformed into a river of transgression which was proliferated by over twenty-five bars or night clubs and liquor stores in an area of twelve or fourteen blocks extending from West Grand Boulevard to Clairmount Street.” (pp. 13-14)

This same author continued emphasizing: “As a result of the overcrowding and the increased crime beginning to pervade the adjacent residential areas, block clubs and civic organizations in the area began to protest to the city fathers asking for some kind of relief from the apparently troubling, disturbing and growing problems. The City of Detroit, ultimately, decided to implement physical improvements in the area. Being made aware of this effort on the part of the city, several local groups initiated a meeting in 1966 to discuss the proposed plans. Prominent among these groups were the West Grand Boulevard-Clairmount Improvement Association, the Twelfth Street Civic League and others which formed a coordinating committee that became a nucleus for the development of a plan of action to progressively rehabilitate the physical aspects of the area.”

These efforts would indeed take many long years to reach fruition. After going through a host of “developers”, it would take another decade-and-a-half to open a mini-mall and construct new housing on 12th street under a formula where the Virginia Park Community organization would have ownership. In the immediate aftermath of the rebellion, the Cavanaugh administration, Governor Romney and the Johnson administration implemented no effective plan for revitalization.

African American Small Business People Intervene

Another organization which surfaced during the weeks and months after the rebellion was the Inner City Business Improvement Forum (ICBIF) consisting of African American entrepreneurs and professionals. The objective of the group was to seek opportunities for the creation and expansion of existing businesses owned by African Americans.

Dr. Karl Gregory, an economics professor at Wayne State University in Detroit at the time of the rebellion and later at Oakland University outside the city, recounted his role in the CCAC, FSD and the ICBIF in an interview with the Detroit Historical Society nearly five decades later. Gregory was the son of a small business owner who operated a dry cleaners and tailor shop on 12th Street. His father’s establishment had been broken into and looted during the rebellion and later damaged by one of the dozens of arson attacks which began during the first day of the unrest on July 23.

Gregory says that the ICBIF grew out of a group brought together by the-then U.S. Congressman Charles Diggs, Jr. in response to the rebellion: “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; (as) African Americans, both were talented administrators and became very active in ICBIF and lent professional management.”

Detroit Erupts Again in the Aftermath of the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Just eight months after the July 1967 rebellion, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the President of the SCLC, visited the Detroit area to build support for his upcoming Poor People’s Campaign aimed at mobilizing marginalized people from the nationally oppressed groups and whites suffering from joblessness and near starvation. King would speak at the Grosse Pointe High School on March 14 to over two thousand people on the topic of the “Other America.”

The right-wing neo-Nazi group known as Breakthrough, set up a picket line surrounding the school. They attempted to discourage people from attending the lecture sponsored by the wealthy suburb’s Human Relations Council. The Grosse Pointes were a de facto segregated series of suburbs which vigorously kept African Americans from crossing over a nearby borderline with the eastside of Detroit.

After the program began, Breakthrough members on several occasions disrupted King’s address calling him a communist and a traitor to the U.S. King finished his address and was not harmed during the event.

The following day King would deliver his last Lent sermon at Central United Methodist Church located on Woodward Avenue and East Adams in downtown Detroit. The SCLC leader had been an annual guest speaker at the church during Lent season since the 1950s.

Three weeks later King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee while lending support to an African American sanitation workers strike aimed at winning recognition as a bargaining unit represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). After King was shot and later died in a Memphis hospital, mass demonstrations and rebellions would erupt throughout the U.S. Violent unrest spread to approximately 125 cities with Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Maryland and Chicago, Illinois being the most destructive.

Detroit, having been the location of the largest urban rebellion in U.S. history in July 1967, was also the scene of unrest on April 5, 1968. Thousands gathered along 12th after 1:00pm and began to damage property and set fires. The city administration and government in Lansing called in thousands of state police and National Guardmen. A curfew was imposed for the second time in eight months. At least two police officers were wounded when African American youth opened fire on them one mile from the 12th Street area. There were 38 arson attacks in the city in response to the assassination.

On that same day, thousands of African American high school students walked out and demonstrated in the streets. Clashes broke out between African American and white students at Cooley High School on the northwest side. The Black students converged later that afternoon at Wayne State University just one block west of Woodward Avenue.

At Southwestern High School and Hunter Junior High, classes were dismissed due to student unrest. Police cars and busses were stoned in the area around Southwestern. In addition, windows were smashed along Fort Street by angry youth.

The Republic of New Afrika Demands an Independent State

The Malcolm X Society led by Richard and Milton Henry saw the necessity of organizing a national organization to address the new situation stemming from the rebellions across the U.S. during 1967 which had shaken the foundations of the white-dominated ruling class. By early 1968, plans were underway to form a Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika with the objective of establishing an independent Black nation in five southern states: Louisiana, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Those interested in the formation of this interim body met in Detroit at the 20 Grand located on Warren and 14th Street in the final days of March 1968. Reports indicate that some 500 people were in attendance at the founding of the RNA.

A Declaration of Independence was signed by 100 of the delegates and a cabinet of ministers selected. Robert F. Williams, a fugitive from the U.S., who had been driven out of the country in 1961 after waging a years-long battle with white racist police and vigilantes in Monroe, North Carolina, was appointed as president in-exile. Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X was selected as second vice-president. Milton Henry, (then known as Gaidi Obadele), was named as first vice-president. Williams, who had fled the U.S. in 1961 to take refuge in Cuba and later the People’s Republic of China, returned to the U.S. in late 1969 and resigned from the RNA over philosophical differences with its mission.

A year later on March 29, 1969, the RNA held its first anniversary conference at the New Bethel Baptist Church located on Linwood at Philadelphia, also at the center of the rebellion which had erupted in July 1967. Nearly six years before in the weeks following the June 1963 Walk to Freedom, an ideological and political struggle erupted within the Detroit Council for Human Rights (DCHR) which organized the massive Civil Rights demonstration. The intense disagreements pitted Franklin against the Henry brothers and Cleage. These differences surfaced after a march on the Detroit police headquarters at 1300 Beaubien downtown in July 1963. This demonstration was in response to the police killing of Cynthia Scott which went unpunished by the authorities. However, by 1969 these divisions had been healed and Franklin would allow the RNA, headed in part by the Henry brothers, Gaidi and Imari Obadele, to utilize the church for their gathering.

Outside New Bethel Church as the meeting was concluding after 11:00pm, two white police officers were shot, one fatally. The officers were fired on after they sought to approach several armed guards performing a security detail for the leadership of the RNA.

Within a matter of minutes, dozens of police officers from the 10th precinct descended on the church shooting out windows, riddling the pews with bullets, dragging out and arresting the remaining 142 people still inside the building. Some of the participants in the RNA event were shot by police bullets while others were severely beaten.

Franklin, along with Recorder’s Court Judge George Crockett, Jr. and State Representative James Del Rio, went to the police lockups where the detainees were held. Crockett set up court in the police station demanding that the law-enforcement agents present evidence against the 142 people being held. The judge soon released almost all of the prisoners saying their Forth Amendment rights of protection against illegal search and seizure had been violated.

Crockett would come under fire by the Detroit News, local television and radio stations for his role in the release of the people in attendance at the RNA meeting. The Detroit Police Officer’s Association (DPOA) launched an unsuccessful campaign to recall Crockett.

The African American community in Detroit rallied to the defense of Crockett and the RNA defendants. Dan Aldridge, who had played a critical role in exposing the atrocities committed at the Algiers Motel in July 1967, led a Black United Front (BUF) which brought together a broad spectrum of organizations. After three attempts to prosecute individual participants in the shootings of the police officers, no one was ever convicted.

The Inner City Voice, DRUM and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers

Another left-wing revolutionary oriented organizational development in the wake of the rebellion was the founding of the Inner City Voice (ICV) newspaper. Its editor, John Watson, although in his early 20s, had years of political experience as a Civil Rights activists and student of Marxist-Leninist theory. Other activists associated with the newspaper included Cassandra Smith, General Baker, Luke Tripp and Mike Hamlin.

An editorial in the first edition of the paper published in September 1967 stated the following: “In the July Rebellion we administered a beating to the behind of the white power structure, but apparently our message didn’t get over … We are still working too hard, getting paid too little, living in bad housing, sending our kids to substandard schools, paying too much for groceries, and treated like dogs by the police. We still don’t own anything and don’t control anything … In other words, we are still being systematically exploited by the system and still have the responsibility to break the back of that system. Only a people who are strong, unified, armed, and know the enemy can carry on the struggles which lay ahead of us. Think about it brother, things ain’t hardly getting better. The Revolution must continue.”

Articles in this issue dealt with the conditions at Detroit Receiving Hospital; the plight of migrant African American workers in Berrien County, Michigan located in the southwest region of the state; a detailed report from the Black Congress associated with the National Conference for a New Politics held in Chicago over the Labor Day weekend in 1967; the visit of SNCC Chairman H. Rap Brown to Detroit in late August when he spoke from atop the Dexter Theater, among other topics.

Leading activists associated with the ICV would later be instrumental in the formation of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) which took responsibility for the wildcat strike that hit this Chrysler production facility located in Hamtramack, a municipal enclave surrounded by the city of Detroit. DRUM prompted the formation of other revolutionary union movements at the Eldon Avenue plant, Ford Motor Company facilities and at Detroit Receiving.

DRUM leader Mike Hamlin served as an adviser to the Black Student Voice (BSV), a newsletter which circulated in several high schools and junior high schools designed to mobilize African American students against institutional racism and repressive policies enacted by Detroit Public Schools administrators, the School Board and law-enforcement personnel deployed to prevent youth from organizing. Later the BSV was able to bring together a number of activists from various schools to form the Black Student United Front (BSUF).

By the summer of 1968 at Wayne State University, John Watson, a leader in the Revolutionary Union Movement, was appointed as editor of the campus newspaper the South End. The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) had led a wildcat strike in May 1968 at this important Chrysler plant.

The name of the WSU campus publication had been changed from the Daily Collegiate to the South End at the beginning of the 1967-68 school year under the editorship of Art Johnson, who turned the paper into a communications outlet for the Left forces throughout the city in the aftermath of the rebellion.

Many of the groupings working under the rubric of the Revolutionary Union Movements, the ICV, the South End and the BSUF consolidated in April 1969 to form the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW). The League, as it was popularly known, brought former SNCC Executive Secretary and International Affairs Director James Forman to Detroit to join the organization in the midst of the convening of the National Black Economic Development Conference (NBEDC) which took place at WSU during April 26-29, 1969.

It was at the NBEDC in Detroit that Forman would initially read the Black Manifesto, the first modern document linking the demand for reparations from the white-dominated Christian and Jewish religious institutions to the struggle for African American self-determination, national liberation and socialism. The Manifesto demanded an initial payment of $500 million from the churches and synagogues in order to fund an African American university, skills bank, a communications network and a publishing house.

Although only a small fraction of the funds were ever turned over to Forman and the League, the resources contributed to the purchasing of printing equipment utilized to publish a book in 1970 entitled “The Political Thought of James Forman.” Hamlin would write the introduction to the book which was a collection of lectures and essays by Forman, a major theoretician of the African American liberation movement of the period.

The League would undergo two major splits in the first half of 1971 signaling its demise. The Black Workers Congress (BWC), formed months prior to the surfacing of the internal problems within the LRBW, went on to hold conferences, issue publications and participate in a mass struggle to abolish the Detroit police decoy unit STRESS (Stop the Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets) between 1971-73, during a time where approximately 30 people were gunned down by this special operations law-enforcement unit established under the administration of Mayor Roman Gribbs and police chief John Nichols. The BWC eventually dissolved in 1974 amid internal problems.

State Senator Coleman A. Young in the runoff elections against Nichols in the fall of 1973, defeated the police chief to become the first African American mayor of the city which still had at the time well over one million residents. Young’s initial executive order was the abolition of STRESS. He would enact a sweeping affirmative action program to bring African Americans and women in great numbers into the civil service and the police.

However, at the time of the election of Young, huge problems came to the fore within the U.S. and international economies. By 1975, a major restructuring of the world capitalist system led to an even more severe decline in industrial jobs in the Detroit area. In 1976, Young laid off nearly a thousand city police officers in order to maintain other municipal services. A corporate-media campaign of hysteria surrounding a spike in criminal activity compelled Young to rehire police and civil servants.

Part IV

Conclusion

Five Decades of Economic Challenges and the Need for Socialist Construction

Note: This is the fourth installment in the series which draws links between the crisis in race relations and the super-exploitation of African American labor during the 1960s with the impact of the restructured world economic system on the city of Detroit. Decades of plant closings, the erosion of educational and municipal services, the imposition of emergency management and bankruptcy further illustrates the desire by the ruling class to maintain the status-quo. Socialism is the only viable solution to the crisis of United States political economy and the need to liberate the oppressed nations and the working class.
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Developments in the city of Detroit since 1975 have been represented by continuous assaults on the status and well-being of the African American community and working people as a whole. Successive waves of economic crises spawning job losses, the lowering of real wages and the abolition of hundreds of thousands of industrial, service and public sector jobs have left the city with deep scares.

During the summer of 1975 another mini-rebellion erupted along Livernois Avenue on the near northwest side. However, with the intervention of the administration of Young, the unrest was quelled through the indictment of a white bar owner who had shot to death an African American youth accused of burglarizing his vehicle parked outside on the commercial strip.

Renewed rounds of plant closings between the late 1980s and 2009, the continuing white flight to the suburbs, the targeting of homeowners with predatory loan schemes which defrauded people out of their property, would create the conditions for a rapidly declining social situation in Detroit. The Great Recession beginning in 2007-2008 devastated the city’s housing stock turning Detroit from being a majority home owning municipality for African Americans and working class people, to one of majority renters. Tens of thousands of homes were lost through mortgage foreclosures while the city, state and federal governments refused to enact policy measures by the declaration of a state of emergency and the imposition of a moratorium on job losses and home seizures by the banks.

The Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shut-offs was formed in the spring of 2008. This organization waged public campaigns, demonstrated against the leading financial interests such as the Bank of America, Chase, Bank of New York Mellon, etc., calling for the bailing out of the people and not the banks.

The following year in 2009, drastic cuts in public transportation, educational and municipal services were initiated in Detroit. A People’s Summit and Tent City was erected in Grand Circus Park downtown during June 2009 as a protest action against the ruling class National Summit held at the Renaissance Center, the headquarters General Motors. Moratorium NOW! Coalition brought people in from across the country and staged daily rallies in the park along with two significant demonstrations at GM World Headquarters against plant closings and lay-offs.

This was the period of restructuring and bankruptcy for the automotive industrial giants of Chrysler and GM. The process served as a template for the forced bankruptcy of the City of Detroit some four years later.

In 2012, the State of Michigan under Governor Rick Snyder would convince a five out of nine majority within the Detroit City Council to vote in favor of a Financial Stability Agreement (FSA) under the guise that this would prevent the appointment of an emergency manager. The FSA would escalate a program of austerity eroding further the authority of the legislative municipal body in subservience to the right-wing pro-corporate regime in Lansing.

Nonetheless, by early 2013, an emergency manager was appointed by Snyder. Several months later the EM would file for bankruptcy in federal court in downtown Detroit. The Moratorium NOW! Coalition would intervene in the EM process and bankruptcy proceedings both within the federal court as well as outside in the streets. The organization filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to acquire thousands of files documenting the disastrous impact of the predatory municipal loans and interest rate swaps which ensnarled the city in an unsustainable economic quagmire. These documents were scanned into digitized formats in early 2013 and posted on the organization’s website as a special entry. (See www.Detroitdebtmoratorium.org)

This is first time in U.S. history that a community-based organization mounted a protracted struggle not only against the activities of the banks in the area of mortgage foreclosures, it extended this effort to expose the role of predatory municipal financing by the multi-national lending institutions impacting the City of Detroit which precipitated the economic crisis. These actions by Moratorium NOW! Coalition and its allies drove down by $200million a scheme engineered by Barclays Bank to turn over yet another $285million to a host of financial institutions in order to terminate an interest rate swap deal that was purely a gift to the same financial institutions responsible for driving the municipality into economic ruin.

As a negotiating tactic, the EM Kevyn Orr, appointed by Governor Snyder, recommended an 86 percent cut to retirees monthly pension payments. Progressive layers of the municipal employees mobilized under the Stop the Theft of Our Pensions Committee (STOPC). Although a largely rigged process of economic coercion and manipulation resulted in the passage of a so-called “Plan of Adjustment” by a majority of retirees, the actual reductions in pensions were far less severe as desired by the ruling class.

At the height of the struggle against the bankruptcy, the EM ordered the termination of water services for thousands of Detroit households in 2014. Moratorium NOW! Coalition organized weekly demonstrations called “Freedom Fridays” outside the offices of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) during May, June and July of the same year. The largest demonstration against water shut-offs and the bankruptcy was held on July 18.

The annual Net Roots Conference took place in Detroit during this period at Cobo Center downtown attracting thousands to the city. Representatives of National Nurses United (NNU), the largest healthcare labor union in the U.S. encompassing 180,000 members, contacted Moratorium NOW! Coalition to see how their union could assist with the efforts in opposition to the bankruptcy and the massive termination of water services. NNU was scheduled to send in leading officials to the Net Roots Conference and were open to collaboration with local activists.

Moratorium NOW! Coalition proposed that the delegates to Net Roots be lobbied to shut down the conference on Friday July 18 and come out into the streets downtown and join the weekly demonstration. Through a process of consultation, the Moratorium NOW! Coalition proposal was accepted by the conveners of the event. Altogether some 5,000 people, both local activists and conference delegates, marched through downtown prompting the DWSD at the urging of federal bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to impose a temporary halt to the terminations of water services. This provided the opportunity for thousands of households to make arrangements to pay their overinflated arrears in water bills.

Nonetheless, the water shut-offs continued afterwards due to the fact that the payment plans were unsustainable. Detroit is still the most impoverished major municipality in the U.S.

With specific reference to the foreclosure crisis, the bank-imposed housing crisis drove down actual property values throughout Detroit. Over assessed property taxes led to another monumental crisis in 2015. Tens of thousands of homes were slated for seizure by the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office and the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DBLA).

Moratorium NOW! Coalition waged a citywide campaign to demand the halt to these unjust foreclosures. A host of community organizations met with the-then interim Wayne Country Treasurer Eric Sabree who rejected the concept of a moratorium on tax foreclosures citing the possible inability to sell bonds to investors.

However, the deadlines for foreclosures were extended and payment plans were structured in a way to mitigate the crisis. However, such measures only forestall home losses. Again the question of poverty stemming from the decades-long economic decline in Detroit and Wayne County was at the source of the problem.

By documenting the role of the banks in the Detroit crisis, Moratorium NOW! Coalition asserted the need for socialist reconstruction in order to rebuild the city as well as other municipalities across the U.S. The nationally oppressed and the working class must unite with other potential allies to overturn the capitalist system of production and social relations.

African Americans still constitute an overwhelming majority in the city even though a white suburbanite mayor was installed in 2013, the first in 40 years. Mike Duggan’s role is to facilitate the removal of more African Americans, Latinos and working poor households from Detroit utilizing the same rationale of blight removal to create the appearance of a white-dominated city.

The only real solution to the crisis of the cities lies in the unity of the nationally oppressed and working class in an effort to shut down the most egregious forms of repression and exploitation. A broad-based socialist movement imbued with justice and strong organizational leadership can cripple finance capital’s domination of a city by the formation of a revolutionary alliance aimed at reversing the economic decline.

 

By Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor, Pan-African News Wire

 

The 4th Media

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