The roots and responsibilities of Black Power
Local historian warns Detroit City Council of danger of disunity
By Paul Lee
Special to the Michigan Citizen
Following is a statement by Highland Park scholar and Michigan Citizen historical features writer Paul Lee, which was prepared for delivery at the Detroit City Council meeting on Tuesday, April 3.
The meeting addressed the threatened takeover of the government of the majority-Black city of Detroit by Michigan’s right-wing Republican governor.
The council president allowed most of the speakers who preceded and followed Mr. Lee to talk for four or more minutes, but held Mr. Lee to the two-minute limit and threatened to have him removed from the council chamber when he tried to complete it.
Therefore, we are presenting Mr. Lee’s remarks in full. His presentation was built around two rare historical photos, but he has added a third here to further illustrate his point. — Ed.
Like many Detroiters, I’m deeply concerned about the situation that is facing our beloved city and I wondered if I, as a historian, might be able to offer something that would be helpful.
Perhaps it was a coincidence or God (I’d like to believe it was the latter), but two photographs that I purchased from eBay.com just arrived, and I’d like to briefly tell you the story about them because they’re relevant to the challenge faced by this august body, the city of Detroit and its majority Black population.
Black Panther speaks
The first photo was shot on July 30, 1966, at a campaign rally at the old Jeffries Projects off the John C. Lodge Freeway. The rally was addressed by Kwame Ture, then known as Stokely Carmichael, the new chairman of the militant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which helped batter down the walls of legal segregation and overt racial discrimination during the first half of that decade.
Two weeks earlier, Ture had issued the call for Black Power that changed the course of the modern civil rights movement from one that sought racial integration to one for Black Power, or self-determination.
At the time, Ture was working to bring about Black Power in central Alabama, where he and other SNCC members helped local Black residents form the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which was better known as the first Black Panther party, named after its dramatic symbol of a large, lunging black cat.
There and throughout most of the former Slave South, Black people had long been denied the right to vote, or even to register to vote, and the Black Panther party helped change that.
However, Ture recognized there was also a need for Black Power in such Northern urban centers as Detroit. In 1966, despite the fact that Black people were nearly half of the population of the city, there were only two members of what was then called the Detroit Common Council to represent them: Bill Patrick and my old pastor, the Rev. Nicholas Hood, II, now pastor emeritus of Plymouth United Church of Christ.
Black Power pioneers
Ture spoke in support of the Black Power candidacies of two Black Detroiters: Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, then known as the Rev. Albert B. Cleage, Jr., the founder of Central United Church of Christ, which became the Shrine of the Black Madonna a year and a half later, and a brilliant, handsome, fast-talking Wayne State law school student, whose name was Kenneth V. Cockrel, Sr., the father of my old friend Kenny Cockrel, Jr., who is a member of this council.
Jaramogi Agyeman was running against Charles C. Diggs, Jr., to represent the 13th Congressional District in the U. S. House of Representatives and Cockrel was running for a seat in the State House.
Both men would lose their bids in the August primary election, but their effort, building upon the previous efforts of the nearly all-Black Michigan Freedom Now party, organized by Jaramogi Agyeman, Milton and Richard Henry, James and Grace Lee Boggs and others in 1964, and supplemented by the constructive energies unleashed by the Detroit Rebellion in July 1967, helped lay the groundwork for you all to have the positions you occupy today, which is equally true for the office held by Mayor Dave Bing.
For my people
It is important to note that Ken Cockrel, Sr., had everything it took to write his own ticket with a prestigious law firm, here or elsewhere. Instead, after receiving his law degree the following year, he became the lawyer for the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a radical Black union movement.
He had zero interest in being popular, and proved it by openly declaring his Marxist-Leninist beliefs. His heart was with his people. As you know, he later served as a distinguished member of this council [1978-81].
Similarly, Jaramogi Agyeman forsook the comforts traditionally offered to Black ministers and pledged himself, body and soul, to the achievement of what he called the “transfer of power” in Detroit from the White Power structure to the city’s near-majority Black population.
However, his call would not fall on fertile ground until the 1967 Detroit Rebellion revealed the depth of Black frustration and anger at the super-exploitation suffered by Black Detroiters in the enclaves carved out for them by the White Power structure and enforced by red-lining, the police and, if these failed, white vigilantes, who made sure that Black people stayed within “their” districts.
On Aug. 9, 1967, two weeks after the five-day uprising, a historic community meeting was called in the auditorium on the other end of this [13th] floor. A broad range of local activists, old and new, formed the Citywide Citizens Action Committee, or CCAC, and elected Jaramogi Agyeman as the group’s chairman.
There, he was joined in his call for a “transfer of power” to rebuild the city with Black hands by the young chairman of the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, whose name was Clyde J. Cleveland. He, too, would later serve on this council [1974-2001].
Like SNCC, CORE had evolved from an interracial, nonviolent group to an all-Black, self-determinationist group, which both advocated and practiced self-defense — armed, if necessary.
A few weeks later, another organization was formed, the Federation for Self-Determination, designed to serve as a coalition of Detroit’s Black organizations. In fact, it was probably the most broadly representative coalition of Black groups in the city’s history, encompassing on one end Black nationalists and on the other end Black moderates, who were often called Uncle Toms because of their history of serving the interests of the common oppressor rather than those of their own people.
This group also chose the articulate Jaramogi Agyeman as its chairman. Our friend Dr. Karl D. Gregory, then a Wayne State assistant professor of economics, was chosen as executive director. Another officer was Ken Cockrel.
The White Power structure had learned from the Rebellion that the leaders that it had traditionally relied upon did not, in fact, represent, speak for or influence the masses of Black Detroiters.
Therefore, when this power structure formed the New Detroit Committee, later simply New Detroit, in an effort to prevent another uprising, including another costly work stoppage — the Rebellion shut down what were then the Big Four auto companies for five days — it turned to the “black militants,” who headed the CCAC and the Federation for Self-Determination.
Then Joe Hudson, Jr., the young department store magnate, who headed New Detroit, obtained a $100,000 Ford Foundation grant for the federation to pursue several promising Black self-determination projects — unfettered — which was certainly another first in the city’s interracial relations.
From unity to division
However, some of the more reactionary Black ministers were resentful of the respect accorded the “militants” and either did not join or resigned from the federation to form the Detroit Council of Organizations, or DCO.
Faced with this division in the Black community, young Joe Hudson decided to give $100,000 to both groups, but now imposed what the latter believed to be conditions, or strings. After an orderly meeting at the Fisher YMCA on West Grand Boulevard at Dexter, the federation, including Jaramogi Ageyman, Dr. Gregory and Ken Cockrel agreed to reject the funds and dissolve the organization.
Which is where the second photo comes it. Shot on Jan. 9, 1968, it shows a news conference that was addressed by Jaramogi Agyeman and Floyd B. McKissick, Jr., the national director of CORE, where the announcement to reject the Ford Foundation grant was made.
To me, these two photos define the dilemma that all of us, and particularly this body, faces. This history shows that our community was strong when it remained united. Once division was allowed to creep it, outsiders were able to exploit this to their advantage and our community’s disadvantage.
Think of them
So I ask you — no, I beg you — to learn from this history. If you’re struggling with which way you should vote on this most important of questions, think of Ken Cockrel, Sr. Think of Clyde Cleveland. Or think of Maryann Mahaffey [council member, 1974-2005; president, 1990-98, 2002-05], who earned the confidence of the majority Black population of this city.
But think, most of all, of Mother Erma L. Henderson [member, 1972-89; president, 1977-90], whose portrait hangs to the right of me. Do the right thing — do what they would do. Thank you for this opportunity to address you.
A video of one of Mother Erma Henderson’s final speeches could be seen on my YouTube.com channel here.
Copyright © 2012 Paul Lee