Detroit activist, 98, was ‘go-to person’ for many

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

From humble beginnings in the South to hobnobbing with some of the nation’s most important figures when they visited Detroit, Pearl Reynolds led a long, vigorous life.

“She was an iconic figure,” said Sheila Cockrel, a longtime associate and former Detroit City Council member. “She was one of the folks who really had a long history in the city and was very much a part of the long tradition of activism.”

Mrs. Reynolds died Nov. 16, 2015 — 10 days shy of her 99th birthday.

Over the years she was a fixture in her adopted city’s political circuit, working in offices and on campaigns for several leaders — including former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard and Gil Hill, a Detroit City Council president — as well as becoming a precinct delegate, relatives said.

To help at the polls, connect with other residents and handle other duties, “she would work tirelessly — all day, all night,” said her grandson Chuck Bennett, a freelance writer and society columnist for The Detroit News.

She also was included in the fourth edition of “Who’s Who in Black Detroit” released in 2010. At the time, associate publisher and photographer Monica Morgan described her as “one of the most influential political activists around” and “the voice of seniors throughout Metro Detroit.”

Mrs. Reynolds’ extensive ties, commitment and approach made her an invaluable resource for candidates and elected officials.

“She was someone who really had her finger on the pulse of ordinary Detroiters,” Cockrel said. “She ... would listen to your questions and point of view and she would be candid and straight with you and would be able to advise you as to the history of that issue — why other voters and residents would react one way or another. She really was a person who I would say, for me, was one of the folks who was in my ‘kitchen cabinet.’ She was a go-person to sort of test out my thinking on an issue or direction. And I listened very carefully to what she had to say.”

Her many honors include an NAACP lifetime membership plaqueand a photo signed by former President Bill Clinton after she drove a van in his motorcade during a Detroit visit, relatives said.

Another highlight was attending the historic 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama, for which the New York Times interviewed her, Bennett said.

Decades earlier, the longtime Baptist befriended civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., with whom she marched in Washington, D.C., and called “M.L.,” said her daughter, Ruth Bennett. “When he was in town and needed a place to go just to eat and unwind, she would make dinner.”

In an interview posted on YouTube, Mrs. Reynolds said King visited her home “where he could just relax, lay on the couch. He couldn’t do that everywhere he went because when he got through speaking, the people just mobbed him ...”

Born in Louisiana, Mrs. Reynolds picked cotton before relocating to Detroit. She attended school while working full time — first with a cleaning firm, then at Michigan Bell, relatives said.

A founding member of Greater Christ Baptist Church in Detroit, she served on many boards, committees and auxiliaries there. She also stayed busy with her many efforts across the city, her daughter said. “She was always criticizing people who don’t get involved. In her eyes, it was very important that you keep up and you do things.”

Elsewhere, the matriarch — who even non-relatives called “Mother” — was a gifted cook known for her homemade rolls and other dishes, her grandson said.

Mrs. Reynolds also relished remaining independent and active as long as possible. At one of her recent birthday celebrations, “she was dressed to the nines and she was out on that dance floor,” Cockrel said. “She was just really the bright light, the presence in the room, and people got from her that sense of a fulfilled life.”

Besides her daughter and grandson, survivors include grandchildren Roberta Walls, Michael Bennett and Paul Bennett; six great-grandchildren; 14 great-great grandchildren; and a nephew, James Morrison. She was predeceased by a grandson, Oliver Bennett.

Services were Monday. Interment was at Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery at Clinton Township.

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