Bankole: Detroit’s recovery needs non-conformist leadership

Bankole Thompson
Bankole writes: "Detroit’s comeback is going to need some non-conformist leaders in the civic community to step up and ask some serious questions. "

The Ralph C. Wilson Foundation announced last week that it is contributing $100 million to develop the Detroit Riverfront park and connect it to the Ambassador Bridge and Belle Isle.  

But frustrated with the slow pace of Detroit’s recovery and the state of many depressed neighborhoods still waiting for intervention, one particular caller on my 910AM radio show last week asked: Where is the $100 million for a Detroit neighborhood?

The caller had a point, and he’s not alone. If a foundation can roll out that kind of massive financial commitment to build a park, why can’t the same be done for a distressed neighborhood? Imagine how $100 million could radically transform a struggling neighborhood. It would be a direct investment in human lives, including saving little poor children in this city whose future is limited because of their environment.

But the conversation over the airwaves quickly turned into a call for accountability, as several callers started saying it’s time to turn up the heat on Detroit’s black civic leadership. They said it’s easy to blame some white leaders in the foundation and corporate community in this town for everything that goes wrong with the revitalization of the city.

I agree.

At some point, Detroit’s comeback is going to need some non-conformist leaders in the civic community willing to step up and ask some serious but basic questions about the recovery. The task should not be left to everyday Detroiters to register legitimate discontent. The desire to be associated with the corridors of power, should not silence the need to speak out when it is necessary, especially over issues that are too glaring to ignore. The need to be reckoned with the power structure, and be viewed as insiders instead of agitators, doesn’t mean one shouldn’t have a voice to make conscientious demands.  

The call to action reminded me of a pointed exchange between the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Whitney Young, the former leader of the National Urban League, almost half a century ago.

“Whitney, what you’re saying may get you a foundation grant, but it won’t get you into the kingdom of truth,” King shot back at Young, according to the great theologian and author James Cone in his book, “Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare.”

Young was being used by the administration of former President Lyndon Johnson to counter King’s critique of the war in Vietnam. Johnson sent Young to Vietnam, and he returned with a rosy picture of the war as opposed to the one King laid out in his speech “Beyond Vietnam” at Riverside church in New York.

Young was also a darling of the foundation community in New York, especially the Rockefeller Foundation, which was a major donor to the National Urban League at the time. The foundation sent him to Harvard University on a fellowship and later handpicked him in 1961 to lead the group during the critical years of the civil rights movement.

While King was making both a moral and political case that children in America are no different than those in Vietnam, and that they are all God’s children who should not be sacrificed on the altar of an ill-conceived foreign policy, Young was urging him to stay out of the debate.

But it was only after Johnson left office in 1969 that Young started to publicly call for a withdrawal from Vietnam.

For Detroit’s civic leaders, they have a choice in this economic recovery: provide a Kingian type of bold leadership, or a Young model of passive engagement.

Fear of losing a foundation grant or sponsorship for an anniversary gala shouldn’t dictate one’s conscience about speaking out regarding the missing links of the revitalization efforts.

Yes, we have to acknowledge the efforts being made to bring the city back. But it is difficult for the many who are living in the shadows to do so when all they read about is the millions of dollars that are being set aside for major investments outside of their communities. It is even more troubling when the leaders they expect to make the case for them are noticeably silent as long as their pet and personal projects are being funded.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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