Thinking for Ourselves
By Shea Howell
March 8, 2015
This week, many Detroiters travelled south to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the bloody march from Selma to Montgomery. Others gathered to share memories of those who risked their lives to claim full rights of citizenship for African Americans.
Veteran civil rights advocate, Ruby Sales, who marched 50 years ago reflected:
“Right behind the Pettus Bridge lives a majority Black community in Dallas County. It is a Black Belt county and remains one of the most economically disenfranchised counties in the United States This population of ordinary Black people paid the price and shed their blood for a new day for themselves and their children. Yet they are poorer today than in the 60’s. And after the crowd leaves, nothing will have changed for Black people there. All of the names of ordinary people whose participation in the movement not just on the bridge but on the frontlines everyday will once again be invisible in a narrative that focuses on big names and self aggrandizing bridge crossers who came for bloody Sunday and left.”
Sales concludes saying “I cannot let the day pass without calling the names of Bob Mants. Colia Clark, Bernard Lafayette, Annie Pearl Avery, Gloria House, Dianne Nash, the West family and Silas Jr. Norman.” She concludes, “ They stayed the course,” and invites us to “add other names to this list.”
Sales is making a deeper challenge. She is asking us to think about whose lives matter as we judge the progress we are making. How do we honestly look at the implications and effects of the choices we make?
Sales thinking is especially helpful in looking at the latest column by Daniel Howes of the Detroit News. Entitled “Detroit Narrative turns on redemption, change.” He explains, “A new Detroit narrative is emerging. The reckoning that weighed heavily on a generation and pushed this town’s cornerstone institutions to the brink of collapse, particularly in the aftermath of the Great Recession, is giving way to a new tune: With apologies to Aretha Franklin, it’s called R-E-D-E-M-P-T-I-O-N.
This redemption is “buttressed by facts.”
The facts are predictable. They begin with Dan Gilbert developing the historic Hudson’s site and drift quickly to the Ilitich village plan for a new stadium and retail center. Then they celebrate the conclusion of the bankruptcy and the saving of the DIA.
Howes asks, “If Gilbert, and Chapter 9, and $2 billion in downtown investment, and the “grand bargain,” and retooled auto industry, and effective regional cooperation, and the lowest state unemployment rate since 2002 aren’t endeavoring to make “something better or more acceptable,” what are they?”
Howes does not ask this as serious question. And that is his problem. These “facts” are only a part of the story. They are the “facts” of an incomplete narrative that rests on making invisible the lives and conditions of those who are paying the price for this development.
What of those people forcefully evicted to make way for these new developments? More than 200 mostly elderly African Americans who created community and care to support one another on Henry Street, for example, have been pushed out to make way for “development.” Their protests were clear, as was the outrage of the larger community.
Yes, we have a retooled auto industry, but this has not meant better wages for people as the income inequality gap widens in Detroit and around the nation. And the cost of the bankruptcy to city employees and pensioners is felt every day as paychecks are cut or disappear and pensions shrink.
The question is not are “things better,” but for whom? At whose expense? Can’t we find ways to develop our city with principles rooted in justice? Until we face these questions, renewal will remain an illusion.