Bankole: We all should live by Benny Napoleon's commitment to 'speak truth to power'

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Benny Napoleon wanted to be mayor. That would have marked a crown jewel in his long and distinguished career. 

But the Wayne County sheriff and former Detroit police chief, who at age 65 died Thursday weeks after going on a ventilator with COVID-19, was up against a well-funded opponent: Mike Duggan. I vividly remember 2013, when Napoleon walked into the Southfield studios of CBS for his first televised encounter with Duggan. I was a panelist during the debate alongside my late friend and veteran journalist Cliff Russell. 

More:Wayne Co. Sheriff Napoleon dies after contracting COVID-19

Russell and I looked at each other and smiled when Napoleon walked in. He greeted us and we talked briefly about whether he was ready for the showdown; in typical Napoleon fashion he laughed. "Of course," he said.

During the final mayoral debate hosted by WXYZ and moderated by Chuck Stokes, the network’s director of editorial and public affairs, I served again as a panelist. Napoleon saw that final televised engagement with Duggan as a last chance to show a striking contrast between the two. He came with a stinging slogan, “Mike ain’t right,” in a direct attempt to cast Duggan as a man whose political baggage made him the wrong choice for Detroit.

Mayoral candidate Benny Napoleon speaks during a Detroit district two candidate forum Thursday October 24, 2013 at Liberty Temple Baptist Church in Detroit.

Though he didn’t win that race, Napoleon took it in stride because he was a man who hardly displayed anger publicly. That’s why he was affable and accessible and wasn’t the type who saw public office as a vehicle to distance himself from the ordinary people he served.

Bishop P.A. Brooks, the dean of Detroit’s faith community who passed away earlier this year, admired Napoleon. He was one of few public officials Brooks held in high regard in this town. His name would come up when we would meet, especially this time of year, to discuss the latest happenings in the city. Perhaps that was partly because Napoleon was the son of a preacher. Beyond that, Napoleon understood and showed deference to the city's elder statesmen such as Brooks, the late federal judge Damon Keith and others. 

In the past three years, I introduced Napoleon at two key elaborate functions. The first was at the Arab American Civil Rights League annual dinner in 2017. Nabih Ayad, a civil rights lawyer who founded ACRL, invited me to emcee the dinner, where Napoleon was given a deserved award for standing with that community. 

Then-gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer enthusiastically attended and spoke glowingly of Napoleon, who was one of the earliest backers of her fledgling campaign. There was talk at the time about Napoleon serving as Whitmer’s lieutenant governor. 

I was skeptical about Napoleon being on Whitmer’s ticket. I didn’t see the fit. Though it would have been appropriate for Napoleon to be Michigan's first Black lieutenant governor, he wasn’t a “yes man.” He also had a much bigger and more respected public profile and deeper experience in government than Whitmer herself. His Black law enforcement background and public service credentials would have been more helpful in Lansing in the past two years.  

Though some of Napoleon’s supporters later shared with me that they felt betrayed by Whitmer’s decision not to select the Wayne County sheriff, he never expressed rancor about it. That was classic Napoleon. He took the high plains of dignity. 

When we shared the stage in 2019 at the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries' annual graduation ceremony, I didn’t know it would be our last time. Napoleon was a big supporter of DRMM’s efforts in combating homelessness, giving hope to unemployed veterans and returning citizens.  

News of his death shook Chad Audi, president and CEO of DRMM, who during last October’s ceremony presented Napoleon with the Pillar of Justice award after I introduced him to the graduates. His opening words from the podium was about the essence of a vibrant press he felt was needed to keep the recovery of Detroit honest and our democracy alive. 

Speaking directly to me, he said my courage was needed in “these strange times” to, as we say in the Black vernacular, “speak truth to power.” 

I will never forget that. In his honor, let’s continue to shine light where the darkness of neglect and economic subjugation exists.