Detroit activist was "one of America’s unsung heroes"

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
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Annette Rainwater was active in Detroit politics for decades.

Annette Rainwater, Detroit

For decades, Annette Rainwater was a resolute force in Detroit politics and grassroots causes. And though preferring to stay behind the scenes, the city resident’s spirit left a mark on the countless acolytes she guided into leadership roles.

“She really made me understand that no one was going to sit around and wait for you to gather your courage to do the work that had to be done,” said Kim Trent, a longtime friend who sits on the Wayne State University Board of Governors. “She was a very bold person.”

Mrs. Rainwater died Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018, in Detroit. She was 85. 

Over the years, the prominent activist was at the forefront of social change.

She traveled the South with the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, was a passenger on the historic Freedom Rides protesting segregation and organized youth for Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 civil rights march in Detroit, associates said.

Her list of other affiliations is long: working with the UAW’s political action committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; helping investigate cases of racial discrimination through the Detroit Branch NAACP; volunteering for the Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns; attending the 1992 Democratic National Convention as a Bill Clinton delegate.

Mrs. Rainwater also was a founding member and past president at the National Political Congress of Black Women and executive director for the Detroit chapter of Operation PUSH, a group Jesse Jackson founded.

"I loved Annette Rainwater as a sister, friend and fellow freedom fighter,” Jackson said in a statement. “Her name embodies her spirit as she watered each of her mentees, including me, with the rain of faith, hope and love. She never stopped teaching, she never stopped giving. I miss her so much.”

Mrs. Rainwater’s legacy extended to the local halls of power.

For more than two decades she was the late Detroit City Councilman Clyde Cleveland’s chief of staff.

Her efforts led to interactions with luminaries such as Rosa Parks and Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, said her son, Julian Rainwater. “She knew all kinds of people.”

Throughout her many roles, Mrs. Rainwater earned a reputation for displaying a toughness, which led some proteges to dub the political operative “The General.”

“She was a tough lady, but she was loyal,” Trent said. “When she believed in you, she made you believe in yourself.”

Her approach shaped many future leaders who credit Mrs. Rainwater with their success.

“General Annette Rainwater epitomized the essence, courage and tenacity of our great matriarchs, organizing campaigns and movements for civil rights,” said state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a goddaughter. “She has left her mark on the world, leaving a legacy of leaders for whom she has provided a blueprint and pathway to follow. We forever honor her by extending her grassroots mentoring to others.”

One of her associates was TV star Judge Greg Mathis, whom she called a godson.

“We have lost one of America’s unsung heroes,” Mathis said in a statement. “She was a mentor who trained and advised me and many others who serve as leaders in Michigan and beyond. Her courage to organize and mobilize grassroots activists is legendary. Detroit has a bright future in part due to her work in the past.”

Born June 14, 1933, in Wadley, Georgia, Mrs. Rainwater moved to Michigan as a teenager with her family. 

After graduating from Northeastern High School, she attended Wayne State University.  

Influenced by leaders such as Daisy Elliott, an African-American civil rights advocate and former Michigan representative, she chaired the National Council of Negro Women’s young adult division, relatives and friends said.

Over the years, Mrs. Rainwater also was active with the Trade Union Leadership Council, Detroit Urban League, Gamma Phi Delta Sorority,  a congressional Democratic group and the local YWCA.

In many dealings, Mrs. Rainwater was keen on handing the mantel to newcomers, her son said. “She invested in people. She loved to put young people directly into the mix.”

Trent recalls how when some associates met her, “she would say: ‘I’ve got a mailing for you to do’ or something else. She was pretty much known for putting people to work.”

Beyond activism, Mrs. Rainwater was renowned for her generosity.

“She didn’t have a whole lot of money, but she was able to take what she had and stretch it to help people,” her son said. “She really cared.”

Besides her son and godchildren, other survivors include a daughter-in-law, Debra; goddaughters Ottumn Pompey and Jean Dixon; cousins Lula Wesley, Marjorie Henry and Anthony Beasley; and many nieces and nephews. She was predeceased by husband Andrew Miller and two siblings, Sinnie and Claudia.

A viewing is scheduled for noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Swanson Funeral Home, 806 E. Grand Blvd, Detroit.

Services are 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. John’s Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, 8715 Woodward, Detroit.   

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