Bankole: Kwame Kenyatta made his mark on Detroit

Bankole Thompson

Six years ago, at a national leadership breakfast at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., to mark the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Justice,” the audience was treated to a moving conversation led by civil rights hero C.T. Vivian, who recounted his story of growing up in a nation that once looked down on him.

What struck me the most as I listened to Vivian open up about his remarkable barrier-breaking life to a room full of dignitaries was the influence his grandmother, Annie Woods, Tindell had on him. She gave him a book, “The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius and His Achievements,” written by William Wells Brown and published in 1863, two years before the abolition of slavery.  

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)

Vivian in his sagely voice eloquently explained that the book examined the lives of a select group of men, who rose to prominence and positively influenced their communities despite the challenges of discrimination. His grandmother called them “race men, men of mark” who personified the best of the black experience.

In Detroit, one of those men today would be Kwame Kenyatta, the former Detroit City Councilman who died last week. Kenyatta may not have shared the same background as Vivian or the men who were profiled in the book his grandmother gifted him, but he too represented honor and dignity. Like the men of old, Kenyatta made an indelible mark on his community and never wavered in defending the good and calling out what was reprehensible.

He was a principled public official, which is a rare commodity these days. When he served on the City Council from 2006-13, you could count on him to read the fine print of every document and ask thorough and exhaustive questions about every deal or proposal that came before the legislative body. And like a surgeon, he had a way of cutting a particular deal into pieces with compelling and logical arguments if taxpayers were going to be on the hook for it.

Kenyatta was a reliable defender of Detroiters without a voice and the ones who are often treated as expendable by other elected officials. He understood then that poverty was the most challenging issue facing Detroit long before the current revitalization of the city, and pushed to make it a central issue in the affairs of the municipal government.

During his tenure on council, he and his colleagues fought some very interesting political battles regarding tax breaks for corporations. He always came to the table armed with facts and demanding an answer to how business investments can directly help Detroiters who are living on the margins in neighborhoods struggling to be stable.

And after lengthy council sessions, where some members almost exchanged blows, Kenyatta always walked out with a smile, not an angry face. No matter the heated exchanges on the council, he was calm and collected and without hesitation stated his principled reasons for voting a certain way.

But Kenyatta, 63, was a man ahead of his time. He placed principle above political expediency. He chose courage over cowardice. He didn’t use public office to exploit voters for personal gain. Even as greed became a staple of our democratic system of governance, Kenyatta refused to be corrupted as an elected official. His constituency trusted him because they knew he wouldn’t engage in doublespeak.

Understanding that we are all products of a certain class, experience and heritage, Kenyatta used his to champion educational reform that included leveling the playing field for children of Detroit by being one of the pioneers of African-centered education. He saw education as the best tool any community can bequeath on its members, and saw it necessary for children to have a well-rounded educational experience.

That perhaps is one of his most lasting legacies.

“I think it is important to say that Afrocentricity is in opposition to the imposition of particularisms as if they are universal. There has to be cultural and intellectual opportunity in the curriculum for cultures and people other than European,” Molefi Asante, one of the nation’s leading scholars on African and African American studies, told the New York Times in 2015. “Intellectual space must be shared because all humans have contributed to human civilization.”

Kwame Kenyatta did just that both in education and in elected office.