Detroit’s best and worst of times

Ken Coleman

Mayor Jerome Cavanagh said all the right things. The city had a growing black middle class. The 1960s’ Detroit leader had secured large sums of federal funds for poverty programs. Promising urban renewal projects were replacing decrepit infrastructure.

Yet only 4 percent of the city’s 4,300-member police department was black, and Detroit was 40 percent African-American. Projects in Black Bottom and along the Brush, John R and St. Antoine corridors were displacing blacks with shiny aluminum and ceiling-to-floor sheets of glass townhouses, high-rise luxury apartments and spacious hospitals and lecture halls. The popular phrase at the time was “urban renewal means Negro removal.” In fact, 52-year-old Willie Mae Chaney, a black woman, was forced to move three times — 1959, 1961 and 1966 — because of city development projects erected on the lower east side.

Moreover, the Cavanagh administration fought instituting a civilian police board to oversee the often-time rogue police department. The liberal mayor added fuel to the fire by asking Common Council to support a controversial stop-and-frisk policy. In 1964, Elvin Davenport, the silver-haired, African-American executive judge of Detroit Recorder’s Court, was harassed by a white police officer and made to report to police headquarters. No violation committed.

All this while hostile white neighborhood associations throughout the city fought against the idea of having black neighbors. The leader of the movement, Thomas Poindexter, was rewarded in 1964 by being elected to Common Council. A year earlier, he had co-led an effort to block the city’s legislative body from implementing an open occupancy ordinance designed to ban racial discrimination. In 1965, the west side home of Nelson Jack Edwards, the UAW’s first black vice president and member of the city’s Commission on Community Relations, was vandalized. Someone left a note between his storm door and front door that read: “(racial slur) get out or we’ll burn you out.” Someone later slashed the tires on his car. After that, someone slashed the tires on his wife’s car.

Detroit today has some of the same problems. It’s a tale of two cities, the poor and the middle class. More than 30 percent of city residents live at or below the federal poverty line, twice as many Detroit as in 1967.

We have police, many of whom don’t live in the communities that they serve. About 75 percent of Detroit’s officers, sergeants, lieutenants, detectives and top brass don’t live here, wrote independent journalist Steve Neavling in January. Last month, Bishop Edgar Vann, a member of the Board of Police Commissioners, charged a city police officer during a traffic stop pulled out his gun and “brandished it on his chest with his finger in the trigger.” It must be noted that the race of the officer has not been revealed.

It is my hope that the Duggan administration moves faster than the Cavanagh administration did and live up to its slogan that “every neighborhood has a future.” Like 1967, Detroit is at a crossroads. We are experiencing the best of times — and the worst of times.

Don’t believe me?

Cruise along far too many streets on the northwest side less than a mile away from resurging University Detroit where Cavanagh once lived and you will find despair, destitution and distrust. Walk along Lafayette Park whose homes now routinely sale in the $200,000 range and then through the Martin Luther King Homes just a stone’s throw east, a community sometimes referred to as “Little Vietnam.” The differences are stark.

On July 20, 1967, Jerome Cavanagh through his Summer Taskforce, led by Conrad Mallet Sr., the administration’s highest ranking black official, staged a mock riot near 12th Street and Clairmount where the uprising began three days later. The preparation was too late. The once popular 1960s mayor couldn’t prevent the city from burning.

If we aren’t careful, Detroit could experience a 1967-like rebellion again.

Ken Coleman is an author and historian who writes frequently about black life in Detroit.