Bankole: Models of black excellence in Detroit

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

To understand the severity of the problem of a missing “Talented Tenth” in Detroit, a concept espoused by W.E.B. DuBois more than a century ago, is to appreciate the work of those black elites from the recent past, who refused to serve as spectators to the challenges of the city.

To capture the significance of why too many voices from the ranks of Detroit’s current black elites are silent about the hardships and extreme poverty facing many in the comeback, take a brief historical excursion to discover why the past should be an instructive lesson for the present and the future.

Detroit has never been bereft of models of black excellence — individuals from the upper social mobility — who used their positions of influence and power for the public good. Whether they were openly challenging the hypocrisy of double-talking elected officials, negotiating with corporate leaders the terms of an inclusive and diverse workforce or rallying the community around important issues, they were committed and unrelenting.

These were men and women of mark. They represented in every sense of the word what it means to be an ambassador for the community. They viewed their personal successes in life as directly linked to the success of the wider community. More importantly, they saw themselves as the products of a long-running black experience. As a result, they were duty-bound to do something about the conditions of the community that produced them.

Take, for example, federal Judge Damon Keith, whose landmark decisions show the best of American jurisprudence. But Keith went beyond the courtroom to impact his community.

For me, one of the high points of his distinguished career came in 2004, when the Charles Wright Museum of African American History announced it was shutting down due to financial difficulties.

Keith immediately summoned black business and civic leaders to his chambers and challenged them to step up. Understanding the importance of preserving black institutions, Keith questioned the wisdom of sitting by and letting the museum go down the drain. His bold intervention would lead to multiple streams of support that help keep the museum’s doors open.

The late Joseph Jordan, who served as pastor of Corinthian Baptist Church, was another example of a man who demonstrated how the city’s ministers should be trusted and courageous voices and not submit to the trappings of political power. He fought for health care equity and stood up to powerful politicians.

I recall when he publicly rebuked former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick at a meeting of the Detroit Council of Baptist Pastors, attended by the media and Kilpatrick himself, regarding the Detroit Public Schools. Jordan, who was head of the pastor’s group, refused to support Proposal E, a ballot initiative that would have allowed Kilpatrick to choose the head of the school district. During the meeting Jordan lectured Kilpatrick like an elder, and then questioned whether he was only showing up because he was in trouble. After the scolding, Kilpatrick and his entourage left immediately.

Erma Henderson, who was the first African-American woman elected to the Detroit City Council and later became president, was also a crusader against insurance redlining in the 1970s, long before the battles that are now taking place in Lansing over the issue. She was an advocate for the homeless including those on the margins of society. Before her death in 2009 at age 92, I remember attending a tribute for her at the Detroit Public Library, where she urged elected officials to serve the public good, not themselves.

“The black elites of the past had a dual role of holding elected leadership accountable and serving the community. Today, we have a public service class that benefits off the challenges facing poor African-Americans,” says Chris White, a Detroit advocate. “There’s no excuse. We have a foundation to build on and we have to step up and reclaim our legacy.”

Keith, Jordan and Henderson, all highly educated, sat at the apex of black life, yet they used their positions to fight for Detroit’s majority who are struggling in this recovery.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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