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The Detroit International Riverfront and skyline — Detroit, Michigan. From across the Detroit River in Windsor, Canada
As I prepare to leave Detroit, Michigan, today and head back to New York after attending the Netroots Nation 2014 gathering of bloggers, I'm thinking about the multi-faceted meanings Detroit has for me, not as simply a visitor, but as a political activist, ethno-historian and a person raised in black American culture.

I'm left with a montage of images, some current—dealing with protests against Detroit's water shut-off, which the United Nations has stated is a violation of human rights—and other images that emerge as flashbacks from different moments in time in my past.  

Many U.S. cities have nicknames—New York City is "the Big Apple," Chicago is "the Windy City," New Orleans is "the Big Easy." Detroit will forever be known as "the Motor City" and "Motown," the former for it being the birthplace and home of the U.S. auto industry and the latter related to it having been the home of Motown Records, known for "The Motown Sound."

Follow me below the fold for some history and music.

My earliest memories of cars and car talk were from my grandfather, who was a chauffeur and auto mechanic, and later drove trucks for the post office. He swore by American working men's autos—"made in Dee-troit," he'd say, though he drove fancier cars for the rich white folks he worked for. To be honest, as a little kid I wasn't interested in cars and paid more attention to conversations in the house about music, race and politics.  

Growing up in the '50s in a jazz-oriented household, where everyone except me played an instrument, exposed me early to the hard bop era—and a significant number of musicians my granddad and dad played regularly on big LP's were from Detroit.

Through the 1950s, Detroit was one of America's most important jazz centers. Musicians from Detroit who achieved international recognition include Elvin Jones, Hank Jones, Thad Jones, Howard McGhee, Tommy Flanagan, Lucky Thompson, Louis Hayes, Barry Harris, Paul Chambers, Yusef Lateef, Marcus Belgrave, Milt Jackson, Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Curtis Fuller...(and more)

Other significant players who spent part of their career in Detroit include Benny Carter, Joe Henderson, Wardell Gray, Grant Green and Don Moye. As this list reflects, Detroit musicians were major contributors to the Hard-bop and post-bop styles, especially in the rhythm sections that drove the classic groups of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and contributions to the bands of Charles Mingus, Horace Silver and The Jazz Messengers.

That music history is documented in Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-60 by Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert.
When most people think of Detroit and music, they think of the Motown sound. But what many people forget is that Detroit has a remarkable jazz history, which became a major influence in what came to be known as the Motown sound.

Before Motown is the first book about the history of jazz in Detroit. It shows the significant impact Detroit has had on the development of jazz in America, with its own sound, distinct from that of the other jazz centers of Chicago, New Orleans, St. Louis, or Kansas City. Starting with the big bands in the 1920s,with groups like the McKinney's Cotton Pickers and Jean Goldkette's Orchestra, and continuing into the 1950s, Detroit experienced a golden age of modern jazz centered around clubs like the Blue Bird Inn. That jazz scene comes alive in interviews with musicians and club owners, combined with unique period photographs and advertisements. In addition, Detroit's vital jazz scene is placed in its social context, particularly within the changing relations between blacks and whites at the time.


Sample of the Motown phonorecord label
As a pre-teen and teenager, "Detroit" for me was simply Motown. There were, of course, other cities on my do-wop, R&B musical map—like Philly and my own New York, but Motown ruled supreme.

In today's age of digitized mp3's and iPods, young folks will never know the thrill of saving up allowance to head off to the music store to buy 45 rpm singles that we used to carry to parties in a case resembling a square lunch box. That trend later shifted to purchasing vinyl "albums."

The first Motown/Tamla 45 I bought that topped the billboard charts was Please Mr. Postman by the Marvelettes.

They were not my favorite girl group, however. I was a big fan of Motown's Martha and the Vandellas and my homegirls from New York, the Chantels.

I will never forget slow dancing in blue-light basement parties to the sound of Smokey Robinson, who sang lead vocals for The Miracles. The Miracles tunes have been covered by an amazing list of artists. Though later Motown offerings, from artists like Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, and Gladys Knight & the Pips would become favorites, I save a soft spot in my soul for Smokey.

Visitors to Detroit from around the world flock to the Motown Museum:

Despite the passage of time since Motown Records’ establishment in 1959 by Berry Gordy, tens of thousands of visitors pass through Hitsville U.S.A., home to the Motown Museum, each year. Their presence is a testimony to Motown’s legacy and to the charisma, talent and staying power of the music and those who made it.

The Motown Museum, which was founded by Esther Gordy Edwards in 1985, is one of Southeast Michigan’s most popular tourist destinations. Visitors come from across America and throughout the world to stand in Studio A, where their favorite artists and groups recorded much-loved music, and to view the restored upper flat where Berry Gordy lived with his young family during the company’s earliest days.

It wasn't until I was an art major in high school that Detroit took on a different meaning. While it still held my social dancing attention, my politics and art history classes inspired me to explore Diego Rivera and other artists in the school of social realism, attached to a deeper study of workers, the labor movement and very leftist ideologies.
Detroit Industry, South Wall, 1932-33. Detroit Institute of Arts. Murals by Diego Rivera in the Rivera Court of the Detroit Institute of Arts
Detroit Industry, South Wall, Diego Rivera

My political activism led me in the '60s to coalitions with a variety of "unity movements" like the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement (HRUM) in New York. Working with unions—and the internal organizing of black and Latino workers against levels of racism within white working class-dominated unions—introduced me to the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM):

The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) was an organization of African-American workers formed in May 1968 in the Chrysler Corporation's Hamtramck Assembly plant, formerly Dodge Main, Detroit, Michigan.

Detroit labor activist Martin Glaberman estimated at the time that the Hamtramck plant was 70 per cent black while the union local (UAW Local 3), the plant management and lower supervision, and the Hamtramck city administration was dominated by older Polish-American workers.

DRUM sought to organize black workers to obtain concessions not only from the Chrysler management, but also from the United Auto Workers. Walter Reuther and the senior leadership had been early supporters of the American Civil Rights Movement; yet in spite of their growing presence in the auto-industry African-Americans rarely rose to positions of leadership within the union. On July 8, 1968 DRUM led a wildcat strike against conditions in the Hamtramck plant. The strike was observed by some 4,000 workers, lasted 2.5 days and prevented the production of 3,000 cars. In the subsequent Local 3 election, DRUM ran as an alternative slate. Although it did not win, the new organization drew notice for its militancy and willingness to challenge the UAW hierarchy

The "Revolutionary Union Movement" form of organization spread to other Detroit plants: including FRUM (Ford Revolutionary Union Movement) at the Ford River Rouge Plant, and ELRUM (Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement) at the Chrysler Eldon Avenue plant. These organizations were brought together in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers which formed in June 1969.

book cover Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution, Dan Georgakas (Author), Marvin Surkin (Author), Manning Marable (Foreword)
I rarely see these black branches on the left-political spectrum discussed when exploring labor history. That period of history is well-documented in Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, with a foreword by Manning Marable,

The book has recently been updated and re-issued by South End Press.

Since its publication in 1975, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying has been widely recognized as one of the most important books on the black liberation movement and labor struggles in the United States.

Detroit: I Do Mind Dying tells the remarkable story of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, based in Detroit, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, two of the most important political organizations of the 1960s and 1970s.

Few books have done as much to shape the consciousness of a generation of activists. The new South End Press edition makes available the full text of this out-of-print classic—along with a new foreword by Manning Marable, interviews with participants in DRUM, and reflections on the political developments over the past three decades by Georgakas and Surkin.

The new edition includes commentary by Detroit activists Sheila Murphy Cockrel, Edna Ewell Watson, Michael Hamlin, and Herb Boyd. All of them reflect not only on the tremendous achievements of DRUM and the League, but on their political legacy—for Detroit, for US politics, and for them personally.

This movement is also documented in the film, Finally Got the News (warning: strong language).


Documentary about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a radical black workers' group based in the car factories of Detroit. Through interviews with members, supporters and opponents as well as footage of leafleting and picket lines, the film documents their attempts to build a radical black workers' organization to take on both management and the union and fight to improve conditions for all workers, black and white.
The only Hollywood media nod to black auto workers I can remember was Blue Collar, starring Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel—a flawed but powerful film made in 1978 with brilliant performances by the three actors.  
Detroit. Dawn. The next shift arrives for work. On the sound track, music of pounding urgency, suggesting the power of the machines that stamp out car doors from sheets of sheel. The camera takes us into the insides of an automobile factory, takes us close enough to almost smell the sweat and shield our eyes against the sparks thrown off by welding torches.

“Blue Collar” is about life on the Detroit assembly lines, and about how it wears men down and chains them to a lifetime installment plan. It is an angry, radical movie about the vise that traps workers between big industry and big labor. It's also an enormously entertaining movie; it earns its comparison with “On the Waterfront.” And it's an extraordinary directing debut for Paul Schrader, whose credits include “Taxi Driver” and “Rolling Thunder.”

Also seared into my memory was a time when flames erupted across the U.S.—and they were not forest fires. By the end of the '60s, Detroit had gone up in smoke. Like many urban areas that saw white flight to the suburbs, with high unemployment and de facto segregation, it was a powder keg just waiting for a spark:

The 1967 Detroit riot, also known as the 12th Street riot, was a violent public disorder that turned into a civil disturbance in Detroit, Michigan. It began on a Saturday night in the early morning hours of July 23, 1967. The precipitating event was a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar then known as a blind pig, on the corner of 12th (today Rosa Parks Boulevard) and Clairmount streets on the city's Near West Side. Police confrontations with patrons and observers on the street evolved into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in United States history, lasting five days and surpassing the violence and property destruction of Detroit's 1943 race riot.

To help end the disturbance, Governor George W. Romney ordered the Michigan National Guard into Detroit, and President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in Army troops. The result was 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. The scale of the riot was surpassed only by the New York City draft riots, during the U.S. Civil War, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The riot was prominently featured in the news media, with live television coverage, extensive newspaper reporting, and extensive stories in Time and Life magazines. The Detroit Free Press won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage.

The Detroit riot was a catalyst to violence elsewhere. The state deployed National Guardsmen or state police in five other cities: Pontiac, Flint, Saginaw, Grand Rapids, and Toledo, Ohio. Disturbances were reported in more than two dozen cities. In Detroit, an estimated 10,000 people participated in the riots, with an estimated 100,000 gathering to watch. Thirty-six hours later, 43 were dead, 33 of whom were black and 10 white. More than 7,200 people were arrested, most of them black.


Detroit has struggled for decades to rise from the ashes of those burning times.  

Probably one of the most visible recent attempts to revive Detroit's image was Eminem's Chrysler Super Bowl commercial,  "Imported From Detroit":

President Obama became part of the Detroit story with the auto industry bailout, which Republicans are still trying to paint as a failure. Tell that to folks who have jobs.

But the bailout of the industry didn't save Detroit, and in 2013 it was declared bankrupt. I've been trying to follow Detroit's bankruptcy and now have another image of Detroit in my mind:

The Monument to Joe Louis, known also as

The Monument to Joe Louis, known also as "The Fist", is a memorial to the boxer at Detroit's Hart Plaza. Dedicated on October 16, 1986, the sculpture, commissioned by Sports Illustrated magazine from the Mexican-American sculptor Robert Graham, is a 24-foot-long (7.3 m) arm with a fisted hand suspended by a 24-foot-high (7.3 m) pyramidal framework.
Though the Detroit fist sculpture may be considered controversial by some viewers, to me it represents the power and the strength of the people of Detroit, who no matter how many punches they take, will keep fighting back.

Thank you Detroit for having stolen a piece of my soul. I feel like your fight is mine, and belongs to all of us who you have inspired over the years.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Black Kos community, Barriers and Bridges, Protest Music, and Support the Dream Defenders.

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