‘MOTOWN’ THEN and NOW, clockwise from top left: John F. Kennedy, Democratic Party candidate for president, campaigns in Detroit on Labor Day 1960; Diana Ross (center) and The Supremes—Detroit girls who sang “Motown” to the world; Martin Luther King, Jr. (left) and labor leader Walter Reuther; a burned out house on Detroit’s west side; a neighborhood ablaze during the “race riot” of July 1967; Governor Rick Snyder, the venture capitalist who abolished democracy in all five of Michigan’s majority African American cities; an abandoned factory, somewhere in a thrown-away quarter of Detroit.
Detroit & Death of Democracy
By Thomas Adcock
Copyright © 2013 – Thomas Adcock
NEW YORK, near America
The first home I remember was a brick bungalow on a treeless street in Detroit, where I was born. It was among thousands of frills-free, look-alike houses built on the city’s working-class west side in the postwar years of the late 1940s. That modest house, and all the others, were opportunities rightly extended to returning veterans—men like my father, who wasted no time in grabbing a good deal extended by the United States government: a home mortgage loan for no money down, with a monthly note on a place of his own for less than paying rent.
As a toddler, I watched my father and his fellow veterans construct a neighborhood. Weekend after summer weekend, they labored, together and individually—planting elm trees and strips of grass in front of each house; pouring concrete driveways; erecting fences along the alleys, and one-car garages with basketball hoops over the bays. In remembrance of things past, I see and hear these men in their dungarees and twill caps, happily sweating from early morning through long afternoons, with a noon break for sandwiches and lemonade.
Come twilight, they gathered in the street and gossiped like ladies under hair dryers up at the corner beauty parlor. They took turns providing Stroh’s beer in coolers packed with ice. They loved each other, these common men, and loved their communal accomplishment: a trusting investment in the city that made them each as worthy as the highborn.
My street bloomed with pride and purpose.
In the 1950s, Americans boasted that Detroit—not Moscow or Stalingrad or Vladivostok—was the vaunted Workers’ Paradise. Half the city’s population of two million marched down Woodward Avenue in Labor Day parades of the late ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s—almost clear through the ‘70s. Workmen’s caps and jackets were pinned full of union buttons. There were marching bands, and flags, and pretty girls twirling batons, and the quadrennial hoopla of speeches from Democratic candidates for the presidency—Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter.
Labor Day of my youth was a razzamatazz celebration of the meaning of Detroit: a place where a man short on education could walk into a factory and sign up for a good-paying job that started right away—a job that bought him a car, supported his family, rented a lakeside cottage for a two-week paid vacation, and sent his children to a state college.
But paradise, as the history of irony reminds us, is also where imperfection finds sanctuary. Accordingly, the spirit and promise of Detroit’s greatest era was gradually squandered. The story of my hometown is much the same in every other tired-out city of what has come to be known as the Rust Belt of America. Too many of us ordinary people failed to share amongst ourselves. Too many of us failed to confront and defy the malefactors of great wealth and power, and their relentless efforts to diminish us by social division—and along the artificial lines of race.
In the 1960s, newspapers chronicled what they called “race riots” in Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Rochester, Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, Camden, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Louisville, Birmingham, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.
‘Those People’ and their place
On the first day of Detroit’s rebellion in July 1967—I was living on my own then—a convoy of gun-mounted army tanks clanked through my heavily African American neighborhood. Piloting the monsters were Michigan farm boys: young, all of them white, with close-cropped haircuts and the olive drab of National Guard uniforms. The out-of-towners painted what they no doubt considered an amusing slogan on the front of each fierce-looking vehicle that invaded my street: DETROIT WELCOME WAGON.
On the fourth and last day of the rebellion, the police and fire departments catalogued forty-three dead, some two thousand hospitalized, more than seven thousand jailed, and at least two thousand buildings burnt to the ground. Thus began the demise of a riverfront city with the lovely old bones of colonial heritage, should one care to look past the contemporary ash heaps: commercial buildings of terra cotta and iron lace, the grand plazas and verdant parks and boulevards, à la française.
As profiteers of racial partition, realtors induced white Detroiters to build new ghettos of their dreams in suburbia. White flight produced a manner of residential renaissance during the 1970s, whereby blacks could safely purchase deserters’ homes. Once again, working-class streets bloomed. But pride was short-lived.
The decade of the ‘70s also marked the nadir of Detroit’s auto industry, upon which everyone depended, even indirectly. The strategy of “planned obsolescence” was a shortsighted conspiracy of corporate executives, resulting in generation of American-made cars that were shoddy, ugly, and deservedly unwanted. German and Japanese manufacturers of sleek, fuel-efficient cars made striking inroads into the U.S. market. (Last year, according to an industry analysis by Edmunds.com, six of the top-selling sedans in the U.S. were Japanese models.)
Today, there is only one automobile factory in the Motor City, a once accurate moniker. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, more than a dozen enormous assembly plants operated twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. In the ‘70s, company bosses in Detroit began the wholesale relocation of auto plants to low-wage, non-union states in the South—or across the border to Mexico. Today, Detroit’s cocaine and heroin trade is bigger, financially, than car production, according to “The Underground Empire: Where Crimes and Governments Embrace” by author James Mills.
Once viable neighborhoods are full of charred, boarded up, abandoned houses and shops. Having inspired an exodus of middle-class whites, realtors turned their sights on middle-class blacks. Black flight joined white flight, and the city population shrank to less than 700,000—by comparison, from the size of Hamburg down to that of Frankfurt.
African Americans make up almost ninety percent of those left in Detroit, with a staggering forty percent of them living in abject poverty—a condition guaranteeing that Those People are kept in place. The “official” unemployment rate of 17.5 percent is nearly triple the “official” figure nationally, both these numbers having less to do with objective mathematics than political farce.
Union membership, in a city where better than half its workers once knew the benefits of collective bargaining, now registers in single digits. Some years ago, Detroit canceled its Labor Day parade.
The dearth of jobs has translated to receding tax revenues, and the despairing reality of permanent economic injury. Now that white racists may not freely say “nigger,” old-timey attitudes find subtler expression. For example: Detroit’s noose of white suburbs, among the nation’s swankiest, have resisted all entreaties to pool a fraction of local tax income to rejuvenate a black city down on its luck, a city that was the wellspring of their own prosperity. Why share the wealth?
In Detroit and elsewhere, corporations and their jointly owned political subsidiary, the Republican Party, have crippled the union movement. Never mind that it brought about a three-decade marvel of socio-economic advancement and a stable middle class, these being the bulwarks of American democracy at its strongest. The capstone of destruction came three years ago with the disastrous Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which redounded to ever more muscular corporatism by allowing unlimited, anonymous “donations” to public office seekers from the hush-hush counting houses of organized greed.
Corporate gratuities for services rendered are now vastly more important to the political caste than we mere voters.
On the morning of Thursday, July 18, the fiscally desperate city of Detroit petitioned for bankruptcy protection in federal court.
The mayor did not file the legal papers, nor did the elected members of the city council have any say in the matter. Instead, the petition was the singular act of a corporate bankruptcy lawyer from Washington, appointed by the white governor of Michigan—a Republican Party stalwart who has eagerly utilized the “Emergency Management Law” of 1992, by which the state may take over public agencies in economic distress. Rick Snyder, the venture capitalist and corporate executive turned governor, has now imposed authoritarian governance in all five majority black cities of Michigan: besides Detroit, they are Pontiac, Flint, Ecorse, and Benton Harbor.
In Benton Harbor, the governor’s investor friends quickly replaced an enormous tract of lakefront land, once chock-a-block in working-class residential districts and nearby factories where black folks drew good paychecks, with a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, hero of the links in the 1980s and ‘90s. Among an impressive number of offensive notions articulated by the Nordic champion of yesteryear, Mr. Nicklaus explained the paucity of African Americans on the professional golf circuit: “Blacks,” he told a Florida newspaper reporter, “have different muscles that react in different ways.” Tiger Woods has yet to tee up at Mr. Nicklaus’ Harbor Shores golf resort.
The day after the bankruptcy filing, Governor Snyder announced his intention to seek $200 million in federal urban renewal funds with which to bankroll his real estate developer friends, whom he urges to level the city; an armada of bulldozers, he actually said, was appropriate for the cause—a fresh start for Detroit, perhaps as white as snow. Mr. Snyder did not mention persons to be displaced by so-to-speak urban renewal: you know, Those People.
Many other lovely old bones may soon be on the market. Among these—master works of Picasso, Matisse, and Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts; inhabitants of the Detroit Zoo, where giraffes are appraised at $80,000 apiece (€60,177); and Belle Isle, the Paris-like island retreat in the Detroit River.
The rest of the city may be thrown away.
On the very morning that Detroit’s bankruptcy petition was filed by fiat, Jimmy Carter delivered a somber speech in Atlanta, Georgia. His audience was an international gathering of students, journalists, diplomats, political and business leaders sponsored by the Berlin nonprofit organization Atlantik-Brücke (Atlantic Bridge). Mr. Carter, president of the United States from 1977 to 1981, lamented a great nation as adrift as one of its principal cities.
Against the backdrop of a beggar’s petition in Detroit—and domestic spying by the National Security Agency, and the iniquitous U.S. Supreme Court ruling in late June in the matter Shelby v. Holder, whereby a Republican majority on the bench eviscerated the hard-won voting rights of blacks—Mr. Carter declared, “America has no functioning democracy at this point in time.”
Mr. Carter’s remarks made headlines in major European newspapers—and notably in Der Spiegel magazine, though not in its popular online English edition. Reporters and editors of mainstream U.S. media, however, ignored what a much-respected former president had to say.
No conspiracy is necessary: in America, news corporations have grown skilled at hiring journalists of obedient worldview.
A ‘dangerous’ man, and songs of joy
Franklin D. Roosevelt tagged Detroit “the great arsenal of democracy” during the years of World War II—presidential kudos to a home front war effort such as the world had never seen. For the duration, Detroit’s automobile industry halted civilian production of cars. Factories were retooled to turn out Jeeps, M-5 tanks, and B-24 bombers; in the summer of 1944, the Ford Motor Company’s plant at Willow Run cranked out bomber planes at the rate of one every hour.
Hundreds of thousands of dirt poor farm hands migrated from the South, attracted to the bounty of war plant jobs in Detroit—jobs with union wages. Women worked side-by-side with men on the assembly lines. The city’s premiere radio station, WXYZ, soothed the nerves of a worried nation with continent-wide broadcasts of “The Lone Ranger,” “The Green Hornet,” “Mr. Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons,” “Gangbusters,” and “Mr. District Attorney.”
But as always, peccancy prospered in paradise.
In June of 1943, a three-day “race riot” alarmed a city of apartheid. It erupted from a stupid Saturday night sailors’ brawl on Belle Isle, a normally tranquil place of promenades and nature trails, a world-class conservatory designed by Alfred Kahn, and a magnificent marble fountain designed by Cass Gilbert. False rumors and true grievances cost thirty-four lives and roughly $2 million—which today means $27 million (€20 million).
Among the Detroiters whose hearts were broken by the carnage of 1943 was the son of an immigrant brewery worker from Germany—Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers. Following the war, he merged the growing might of his U.A.W. with the leadership of a nascent civil rights movement, as a counterforce to the perpetrators of economic and racial injustice. Mr. Reuther and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. linked arms on the front lines of perilous anti-apartheid marches throughout the country. Both men encouraged unions to replicate labor contracts won by the U.A.W.; thus were generations of Americans lifted from poverty and workplace servitude.
For his troubles, the visionary Walter Reuther was beaten by company goons during the organizing days of the late 1930s and wounded by a shotgun blast through the kitchen window of his house in 1948, the same year that masked gunmen attempted to kidnap him. He died in the crash of a private airplane in 1970, at age 62, under circumstances that remain suspicious. A white racist sniper killed Reverend King in April of 1968.
In 1964, Michigan’s then Governor George W. Romney—a Republican and former auto company president who spawned Mitt—branded Walter Reuther “the most dangerous man in Detroit.” That he was.
Another Detroiter of vision—whether by intent or accident, it hardly matters to the culture he vastly improved—is a one-time professional boxer, high school dropout, pop music lyricist and impresario. He was born in Detroit in 1929, and is still very much among us. In fact, he is the producer of a hit Broadway musical now on stage in New York—a paean to the “Motown Sound” he invented. His name: Berry Gordy Jr., grandson of an African slave girl and a white plantation owner in Georgia, pre-Civil War, making him Jimmy Carter’s distant cousin.
It was the autumn of 1958 when first I heard that sound—in the form of “Lonely Teardrops,” written by Mr. Gordy and sung by his friend, the Detroit-born fellow boxer and high school dropout Jackie Wilson (1934-1984). I heard it played over a transistor radio, the prized possession of Ricky Smith next door. The effect of that song on me—and four or five of my pubescent pals, all of us huddled around Ricky’s radio—was electric: here was the sound of young love, young hope, unashamed longing, kindness, respect, and blind dumb romance. And—you could dance to it!
So many, many Motown artists have filled my heart—Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations; and most of all, Diana Ross and the Supremes. Their songs bound us together back in the day, black and white, young and old; it still does. It is a wonderful thing to discover the rhythms of Detroit all over the world. Wherever I have traveled, there is the Motown Sound—for instance, ten years ago in Argentina. My dear Bonner friend Gisbert Haefs—der Barde von Bad Godesberg und Linguist extraordinaire—will confirm the evening we travelers found ourselves in Río Gallegos, southernmost city of the Western Hemisphere, where the linguae francae are Spanish, Guaraní, Italian, and German.
Having traversed the arid moonscape of Patagonia, Gisbert and I were thirsty for entertainment, which we imagined lay beneath the canvas bigtop of a scruffy little circus we happened upon. Sure enough, an oasis: the music I first heard over Ricky Smith’s transistor radio, performed now in remotest Argentina—in English. The locals understood each and every lyric, and joined in singing the democratic joy that is the Motown Sound.
The sun shines, the city swings
That sound, former Detroit newspaperman Peter Benjaminson told me in an interview, is “like the sun, it’s just there. You don’t think about it every day; you don’t think, ‘The sun’s still shining, the sun’s still shining.’ You forget about it. But it’s there.”
Author of two recent books about a hometown industry birthed by Berry Gordy—“Mary Wells: the Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar” and “The Lost Supreme: the Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard”—Mr. Benjaminson worries that the message of Motown is ignored at this dark time. He suggests letting the sun shine in—again.
Berry Gordy, said Mr. Benjaminson, created “the ultimate crossover company” in order to “sell records to largest possible audience. Not black music just to blacks, but music that was modified, minimally, to sell to both blacks and whites. The whole idea was inclusive, not exclusive.”
He added, “And not just to a commercial market, but to a sort of spiritual and political audience. That spirit is not prevalent now, certainly not with Republicans. Their idea is not to bring people together, but to divide and isolate. To isolate certain people from the democratic system.” (Guess who.)
Social division created by one of America’s two mainstream political institutions, said Mr. Benjaminson, reflects an “incredible racist hangover” from the days of slavery, when whites feared a vengeful slave uprising. Racism, he maintains, runs ironically counterintuitive to the industrial and musical achievements of Detroit—and the spirit underlying both.
“Motown was very much a [black-owned] profit-making enterprise,” he said. “It wasn’t subversive, it was pro-democracy. It brought together two great strains of American music, black and white, and proved that people are much better [when] working together.”
Berry Gordy’s vision “changed the whole landscape,” said Mr. Benjaminson, who taught journalism at New York University and Columbia University, and was public information officer for New York City’s Department of Investigations. “Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet in politics.”
But it should. Republicans who actually believe in entrepreneurship and optimism—and in people who “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” as they so often say—would do well to visit Detroit, as Mr. Benjaminson did last January.
“In a way, the city is really swinging,” he said. “There are art galleries downtown where some of the big stores used to be, there’s an art school, and the Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art [established in 2006]. People are making art in vacant lots all over the place. Maybe that’s Detroit’s next incarnation—an arts center.”
Art is for the ages. So, too, is the universal joy of the Motown Sound, which I strongly recommend as a balm to soothe the savage breasts of those invested in fear and division at the expense of Detroit, the great arsenal of democracy.
Thomas Adcock is American correspondent for CulturMag.