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Michigan, then and now

Jack Lessenberry

I am, perhaps unfortunately, old enough to remember life in Michigan half a century ago. The Detroit Tigers were a much more exciting team than the current lot, on their way up instead of down, a team whose members actually functioned and played as a team.

Their entire payroll, I believe, was about two percent of what it is today. There was also a statewide spirit of optimism and belief in a better future that is lacking today. Oh, in many ways life was worse then. Twice as many people smoked, and poisonous clouds of tobacco smoke were everywhere, from restaurants to airliners.

The Detroit Three were still the Big Three, though cars were much more unsafe and unreliable. Japanese cars were unknown in this country, and foreign cars mainly meant toys for the rich and cheap VW beetles for college students.

Despite passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act the year before, African-Americans in America were doomed in many ways to lives that were second-class, at best. In 1965, many, perhaps most Americans, believed that by now we would have colonies on the moon, maybe even Mars. Nobody thought we would make a few trips and then abandon the idea of space exploration.

Most people still worried about Moscow and the spread of Communism half a century ago. No one foresaw the Soviet Union peacefully dissolving as if it were a bankrupt Kalkaska hardware store, though that’s exactly what happened.

For the most part, few could have believed that by this time, Americans would have twice elected an African-American president. After all, a Detroit housewife named Viola Liuzzo had just been murdered in Alabama for the “crime” of trying to help black folks, who were then called Negroes, register to vote.

But few white people thought much about black problems then. They didn’t like seeing dogs and fire hoses attack blacks in the south, but assumed everything was fine here, an assumption that would die with Detroit’s massive riot two summers later.

And if many Michiganders in 1965 expected people to be living on the moon half a century in the future, I would bet that absolutely no one imagined it would be legal for a man to marry a man.

That wasn’t even a dream. But there’s something else I don’t think anyone imagined back then: A Michigan that had perhaps the worst roads in the nation. And a legislature which, despite pleas from the public, flatly refused to take the necessary steps to fix them.

The year before that, an eighth-grade social studies teacher had taken us to Lansing to see the Capitol. He told us proudly that Michigan had a new constitution that was helping streamline and modernize government, and made it work more efficiently and better.

Well, it doesn’t work so well anymore. We’ve had this constitution about as long now as we had the obsolete document before that. As the roads, term limits and gerrymandering have all shown, our current constitution is much in need of an overhaul.

What I worry about, however, is that we have lost the will to fix it, and lost the belief that we can make things better. And my hope is that once again, the future will prove that wrong.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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