From 1963 to 2021, Detroit’s struggle for civil rights spans decades and generations
This time last year, the world as we knew it looked quite different than it does today. And although issues like police violence against people of color aren’t new, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many other Black Americans jolted our country in new ways last summer.
Stateside wanted to spend some time thinking about the activism that has shaped the past few decades, and the many parallels and differences between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and today’s movement for Black lives.
Melba Boyd is a lifelong Detroit resident and distinguished professor of African American Studies at Wayne State University. Boyd has seen Detroit through its many forms and leadership. She had just graduated high school and was preparing to go to school at Western Michigan University when the Detroit 1967 Rebellion broke out.
“The ‘67 rebellion was a critical moment in Detroit history and certainly in my own memory as a Detroiter. The incident was sparked as a consequence of an encounter with the police and these encounters were very frequent, unfortunately, and were almost always directed at people of color,” Boyd said.
Almost a year after the ‘67 Rebellion, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. As a young academic, this event directed her course of study and her interest in activism.
“I’ll always remember that, because two days before [King] was killed, I turned 18, and in terms of my adult life, it really set forth you know what I was going to be about and eventually activism and academia have been my purpose,” Boyd said.
Activists in Detroit were on the streets this summer, raising their voices for the same issue that sparked the ‘67 Rebellion — police brutality. Tristan Taylor is an organizer and co-founder of Detroit Will Breathe. He said his group draws on tools King used to organize large-scale change.
Taylor quoted King's book, Strive Towards Freedom, as an inspiration for the tradition of mass meetings and, “having the people who are participating in actions be in constant communication with each other and the leadership over how the actions were going and in what direction the movement was going as well,” Taylor said.
Militant versus pacivist methods of change
Many activists debate the effectiveness of the militant and pacifist methods of protest. Taylor explained that the word militant has multiple meaning, and while he has great admiration for Malcolm X, even King described himself to be a nonviolent militant.
“King even talked about the marvelously new militancy that was sweeping the Negro youth in his I Have a Dream Speech in 1963 because he recognized — he even at some times he called himself a nonviolent militant, right — that direct action that confrontation was absolutely necessary for progress to happen. Because it was the only way to, not only get at the truth, but also to resist, actively, the ugly nature of racism and inequality when it expresses itself,” Taylor said.
“There is nothing more militant than a bunch of Black people sitting down at a lunch counter in Jim Crow South. In a lot of ways, that took more courage than half of the things we even dream about having to do today. Too often we hollow the sacrifice and courage that it took for people to struggle in the Civil Rights Movement. And we do a great disservice to what it is that fight actually was about."
The economic downturn in Detroit and its impact on activism
Boyd emphasized that there are very large differences between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the 21st century activism because of the economic downturn within the city of Detroit. As businesses and people left the city, the money followed.
“As we move further into the century, we began to look at the end of the industrial revolution, and this nation not in any way prepared the population for that shift. It did not address those needs in terms of educational preparation for example. And so we began to see a city that had a very impressive middle class, working-class middle-class people that began to fade and people began to leave the city. And so a lot of the people who were still here were struggling,” Boyd said.
“And so that shift also, when you’re more economically secure, you’re actually better able to deal with struggle in a lot of ways. But when you’ve got to be worried about how you’re going to feed your family and how you’re going to meet your rent payment, there’s not a lot of shall we say, extra time in order to talk about political struggle, political organizing, things change fundamentally as you begin to see the economic decline of a population."
Taylor echoed Boyd’s point, and added that he experienced this economic inequity as a student in Detroit’s public schools.
“The fact that every Detroit public school that I went to is shut down, is a testament to how we are a community that has been assaulted and how our communal institutions have been taken away from us by force,” Taylor said. “It’s a combination of things. While we have people in office, we also have a section of those people disconnected from the interest of the majority of the residents who have been distracted in dealing with the plight of the whole, of dealing with all the issues of social inequality.”
Still fighting the same fight
With the recent elections in Georgia of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, America is still making history. Warnock is the first Black senator from the state, one of two Black senators currently serving, and the 11th African American to serve as senator. Jon Ossoff is the first Jewish senator from Georgia. Boyd points out that over 60 years later, we’re still dealing with the same groups and racism that King and others in the civil rights movement fought against.
“Those hostile, xenophobic kinds of organizations, they didn’t disappear. And the problem, from my perspective, is that they knew that those organizations still existed, whether it was the Klan, they got their new clubs, and the neo-Nazi movement, they were there. And they were peaking their heads up and they were as significant, if not more significant domestic terrorist threat in the United States than the whole focus on the struggle in the Middle East and after 9/11," she said.
"And so, we’ve never really fully addressed that racism is still alive in this country. This country has never taken responsibility for the consequences of slavery, which is what we’re looking at now, the ongoing racism, it’s never taken responsibility for the genocide of Native Americans. It’s never taken responsibility even to the point at which when they had those children in cages in Texas which brought tears to my eyes."
Similarly, Taylor brings up the fact that conversations like abolishing the police never go anywhere because they exist within a structure that refuses to listen to and acknowledge the needs of Black people. He links this to a Democratic party with leaders like President-elect Joe Biden, who do not “acknowledge the righteous anger” of protestors and instead condemn the rioting from this past summer alongside the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6.
“If we are to tell the truth about how we got here in this situation where we see these right-wing extremist organizations, we have to say, that it’s in part the failure of the Democratic party, in particular, of the Obama administration to be able to actual deliver a more just and equal society to people that allowed for these reactionaries to take root and to put forth a completely cynical populist message," Taylor said.
"Because the moment a Black man was elected president of the United States, that meant that the people who voted for him were looking for radical change, and radical change he did not provide. Instead of making the banks pay, instead of making sure that people who had lost their whole lives work in home values and home ownership, were made whole, he made sure that the banks could indeed recover. And not a single person went to jail as a response to them taking the irresponsible gamble that they took with people’s lives and with the economy. And I think that if we’re going to have a serious discussion about how we come up with these issues, how we really deal with the divisions that exist or rather the differences of opinions that exist, between and amongst the Black community, we have to be clear about those discussions have to, in fact, take place outside of the Democratic party."
Activism and the political space
Taylor also spoke about the failure of institutions to represent the voices of those they serve. He pointed out the failure of politics to represent the needs of the people and that King was not a politician himself.
“Martin Luther King Day ought to be the day where we recognize that, in fact, progress happens when there is a mass collective that’s demanding for that progress to happen, and forcing those institutions. King defined power as making someone say yes, even when they wanted to say no,” Taylor said.
Boyd agreed that it’s clear that there’s a need for “growth and change” within our institutions and that bettering the situation for one oppressed group will better the future for all.
“I just feel that, clearly, if the people are not holding politicians accountable, they are easily swayed, distracted, corrupted, whatever by powerful and wealthy entities, that unchecked capitalism is a dangerous situation. When we had a strong labor movement, it was better for everyone. Even Henry Ford said he wanted to make a product that his workers could buy. There’s no set of understanding that we all do better when we’re all do better,” Boyd said.
“Political office is important because you need to have voice and presence there, but if the community is not putting pressure in any number of ways, whether that is demonstrating, whether that’s writing, whether that’s speaking on the radio or in any format that you can find to address these kinds of issues, then things fall out of balance.”
This post was written by Stateside production assistants Catherine Nouhan and Olive Scott