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Coalition focuses on unity against racism

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — The crowd at Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on Tuesday was diverse: young, middle-aged, activists, clergy.

More than 150 people gathered at the inaugural Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, a new partnership working to promote solidarity among Metro Detroit Jews and African-Americans while tackling issues affecting both groups.

As reports of hate crimes and allegations of discrimination rise across the country, some see its formation as a force for change.

“There is so much going on in this country — so many inequities,” said G. Ponsella Hardaway, a Detroiter who leads a faith-based group. “We have to look at fighting again.”

Inspired by the African proverb “If you want to go far, go together,” coalition members expect to speak out against issues such as racism and anti-Semitism while educating the public and pushing for inclusive policies.

The organization emerged in the last year through the longstanding relationship between Metro Detroit’s Christians and Jews. Increasing divisions and clashes nationwide, including a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August that left one woman dead, spurred the birth of the coalition, members said.

The Anti-Defamation League said anti-Semitic incidents across the United States, including assaults, vandalism and attacks on Jewish institutions, climbed some 67 percent between January and September 2017, compared to the same period a year earlier, according to its analysis of police reports and other reporting.

“We know there has been a documented uptick in hatred and hate motivated acts,” said David Kurzmann, Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC’s executive director who helps lead the coalition. “It’s motivated many of us to say: ‘You can’t just sit back and expect society to take on the shape of your values. You have to be intentional.’ ”

Coalition leaders seek to “have one voice on issues that affect our communities,” said co-chair the Rev. DeeDee Coleman, Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity’s president who leads Russell Street Missionary Baptist Church. “With one voice we have more strength to deal with issues at hand. … It’s a coalition that will deal with facts, no matter how painful the facts may be. We plan to look at how laws can be changed. We can’t lobby but we surely can provide our support where it needs to be.”

Corralling support can help spur reforms in areas such as gun control, said the Rev. Kenneth J. Flowers, pastor of Detroit’s Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church and a coalition executive committee member. “Now is the time for us to pool our resources together, politically, economically and socially.”

The kickoff Tuesday included an excerpt from an upcoming documentary exploring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s relationship with the Jewish community and alliances formed during the civil rights movement. The piece included interviews with Metro Detroit officials.

Members talked about plans for future initiatives, including efforts to develop students for leadership roles.

“This is our opportunity to do something … that will change history,” said Rabbi Marla Hornsten of Temple Israel and Michigan Board of Rabbis president in West Bloomfield Township.

The coalition’s creation encouraged Jacob Smith, a 29-year-old Detroiter active with regional Jewish groups.

“Now is the time to be fighting,” he said during the dinner. “I’m really excited to see the action and a group of like-minded people who can be allies in this effort.”