Former Detroit City Council member Kwame Kenyatta dies

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Detroit City Council member Kwame Kenyatta discusses council rules and procedures for hearings on forfeiture proceedings of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on June 16, 2008. (Images by Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Kwame Kenyatta, a former Detroit City Council member who was known for his longtime community activism, has died, son C. Kofi Kenyatta said Wednesday.

He was 63. 

Kenyatta was a longtime public servant in Detroit, serving for more than 15 years in three different elected offices. He served on council for nearly eight years, represented a portion of the city on the Wayne County Commission and got elected to the Detroit school board.

He co-founded Operation Get Down, a nonprofit that still provides services and treatment programs on the city's east side.

When initially campaigning for council, Kenyatta said he was running to put power back in the hands of the people in reaction to Mayor Dennis Archer's administration. 

“From his time as a Wayne County commissioner to his service as a member of Detroit City Council, Kwame Kenyatta was a fine public servant who fought hard for what he believed in and made our city a better place," Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in a statement.

The family plans to hold a private family service held in Alabama, in accordance with Kenyatta's wishes, and a public memorial will be held in Detroit at a future date, Kofi Kenyatta said.

"Our family is grateful for the outpouring of love and support being showered upon us," he said. "We thank you for joining us in celebrating his life and legacy of service." 

On the school board, Kenyatta advocated for Afrocentric education and become the board's vice president. He quit the board over the ouster of Supt. David Snead in November 1997.

"He leaves a tremendous legacy in the city," said LaMar Lemmons, a former Detroit school board member who knew him for more than 40 years.

On Detroit's council, Kenyatta frequently formed a voting bloc with council members JoAnn Watson and Brenda Jones. They opposed moves such as selling the Rackham Golf Course in Huntington Woods to developers and leasing Belle Isle to the state government.

"He was steadfast in the struggle for justice and equality and never veered from that path," Watson said. "He will be greatly remembered by Detroit."

Former Detroit City Council member Saunteel Jenkins served four years with Kenyatta before he stepped down and says he leaves behind a legacy of inclusion.

“He fought not only for the underdog but he fought to make sure that Detroiters who’ve been here for years and stuck it out were included in the growth of Detroit,” Jenkins said. “He fought hard to make sure that anything happening here was a reflection of what Detroit actually looks like. That it reflected the diversity that is Detroit.”

Kenyatta, she added, was always prepared at the council table and understood the issues.

“He was a formidable opponent at the table when you were on opposite sides of the issue,” said Jenkins, who is now CEO of the Heat and Warmth Fund, a Detroit-based nonprofit. “But what I always appreciated was after the debate was over at the table, then we could have a conversation as just two human beings who just loved and believed in the city of Detroit.”

Jenkins said Kenyatta also schooled others on history and culture, she said.

“He could give you a history lesson on any given day about Africa and the African-American culture,” Jenkins said. “He believed people should know and understand their history.”

Kenyatta resigned from council in June 2013 because of an unspecified health issue. He had complained that council was powerless under Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who took over running the city after then-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared that Detroit was in financial distress. 

Kenyatta opposed the state's takeover.

"May God bless the people of the City of Detroit and return freedom and justice to them," he wrote in his resignation letter.

Kenyatta made headlines in 2008 when he gave up his foreclosed home, one of a handful of council members who had financial problems. 

On council, he wrote a book titled “For My People.” 

For years, he was active with groups and movements centered on bringing an African-centered perspective to schools, said longtime Detroit activist Helen Moore. "He was truly supportive of our history and he wanted the children to know their culture and who they were," she said. 

Kenyatta also was known for speaking out, she recalled. 

"He stood up for everything that had to do with discrimination against black people," Moore said. "That was the main thing that bothered him that we weren't treated equal and were always fighting for our rights. That was always on his mind. You couldn’t take him away from that."

While attending public school in the 1970s, Kenyatta formed the Detroit Black Student Association. He was expelled from Cooley High School after leading a student takeover of the principal's office.

Kenyatta later joined "a myriad of community groups," Lemmons said.

He also participated in Kwanzaa ceremonies and in recent years relocated to the South, Watson said. At one point, he worked with Jackson, Mississippi, Mayor Chokwe Lumumba.

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