The Fight for Black Civil Rights and Equality Today

"t was a nightmare in the daytime," remembers Martha Reeves of the Motown group Martha and the Vandellas. She was playing a show at the Fox Theatre when the riots broke out. "Everybody was fighting. Everybody was hurting one another. You can hear explosions going off and you don't know why. … I wind up leaving on an airplane the next day and watching Detroit burn."

Across town, from the old Tiger Stadium at Trumbull and Michigan avenues, Detroit Tiger Willie Horton sped to the riot scene in his jersey. Standing on his car, he pleaded for the rioting to stop.

"It was just crazy, but that was the beginning."

The 12th Street riots bled black smoke into the sky that lingered over the city like a sinister cloud. The riots were a breaking point, resulting from the racial tension that stifled the air worse than the thickest of smoke.

Walter Douglas had barely missed the chaos.


He had packed his family up in his new 1967 Mercury Park Lane the Thursday before for a business trip to Washington, D.C., and he was driving just outside of Pittsburgh on Saturday morning when he first heard the reports.

"Ernie Harwell made an announcement on WJR, and he made a comment about there being smoke in the distance," remembers Douglas, 81. Although he was not present for the riots, it was the resulting "mayhem" that moved him to get involved in his community.

"It was just really devastating," says Douglas.

He moved to Detroit only a year before to become the assistant director of the IRS Data Center. "I was probably one of the highest paid African-Americans in the city, other than doctors and lawyers," says Douglas. But, he explains, the money didn't matter. Blacks held no important roles in the community or in business.

"No Blacks could ever penetrate the glass ceiling. And the glass ceiling was very, very low at that time," explains Douglas. The riots brought new dialogue in communities.

"We had joined Central (United) Methodist Church downtown, which is an activist church," says Douglas. "Dialogue began to take place. Serious dialogue. Because most liberals at the time thought that we were happy."

Douglas was invited out to several White family homes as a representative and peacekeeper. "The perception is that they all knew how Blacks were treated. That notwithstanding, the dialogue did begin to occur in that church and in the community throughout."

In direct response to the riots, the organization New Detroit was formed to help combat racial tension in the community. After increasing community involvement, Douglas quit his job to become vice president of the organization, becoming president in 1977.

Born in North Carolina, Douglas received his bachelor's degree in accounting in 1954 from the historically Black college North Carolina Central University. His class was the first to do so, as the degree was not offered before. After getting his master's in business administration in 1955, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in August 1956.

"When I finished basic training, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was just taking off with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. Their names were the first on the scene," recalls Douglas. He remembers the protests and the boycotts of the time, but the riots at his doorstep moved him to help his community.

"I just developed a strong interest in community development and business development as it affected opportunities for Blacks. In the late '60s and early '70s, I was a real advocate in that regard," says Douglas, explaining that the civil rights movement lit the fire for change. But, he says, it was up to Black people to keep it burning.

"You have to fight to be on the survival side of the equation," says Douglas. "Nobody is going to hand you anything.

"When you talk about Ferguson and certain situations in New York … it fired up a lot of people, because all of these people, including LeBron James and other celebrities, have felt at some time in their lives something that reminded them that they are Black."

And it's this reminder that local activist and native Detroiter Lauren Hood believes will help fuel the next movement.

"The conditions are ripe for an uprising," she says. "I think we are being drifted back towards togetherness by the current situation, because even Black people who have money and status aren't at the decision-making table of what direction Detroit is going in. We still don't have as much say in the matter as the White kids from somewhere else. That's making us feel disempowered and reminds us, 'Oh, you still Black.'"

Fueling the fire of a new civil rights movement

The biggest question of the movement today is: Who is the leader? Hood believes finding a leader begins by knowing what part you can play to make change.

"We are all perfectly positioned to do some part of the movement. I am not a person meant to lead a march, but what I can do is bridge the gap," says Hood, 42, community engagement manager at the Loveland Technologies property information service.

As the first civil rights movement broke the physical boundaries between races, Hood says the next movement will break the internal boundaries.

"Getting people to transform themselves, so they can transform the world throughout," says Hood. "That is my small little part in the movement. There are other roles other people play depending on their backgrounds and experiences."

For local attorney Alice Jennings, her role in the civil rights movement began when Martin Luther King Jr. came to Detroit in 1963 to deliver his I Have A Dream speech at Cobo Hall during the Great March on Detroit. She marched with her father, a local teamster at the time, from their home on the east side of Detroit.

"I was old enough to understand," says Jennings, 63, of the defining moment. It made her an activist. "Race at that point became very important in my life, because the issue of (12th Street) was very closely tied to the spark around the country."

Jennings attended Wayne State University Law School in 1975, after working as a social worker in Detroit and Detroit Public Schools. She became a lawyer to help change the socioeconomic inequalities she saw affecting Black people in Detroit.

"I have been suing corporate Detroit and Michigan for a good 25 years," says Jennings. "What's happened is a huge retrograde in the civil rights movement. We are going backwards. And you see that with young Blacks graduating from college with master's degrees and they can't find a job."

Why has it gone unnoticed? Jennings says it is because enough Black people made it through.

"I think psychologically, there has been a buy-in to the fact that we are now post-racial. When it couldn't be further from the truth. I think there is that whole layer of African-Americans who made it. You know? I made it. I made it through," explains Jennings. "And unfortunately, because there is a layer that is losing what they have and not being able to survive, many of my people in my generation who made it are no longer together with each other to help. Back then we were all in one area, like Detroit." 

Before we can unify people into a movement, says former Black Panther Ron Scott, we should remember that the movement was not as unified as it seemed.

"Unity came about, but it wasn't like everyone was agreeing," says Scott, 67.

One reason, he explains, for founding the Detroit chapter of the Black Panthers was because of the different definitions of oppression.

"The young people at the time had disagreements with the other folks because we as young people had a different perspective on 'urban' as opposed to Southern and rural oppression. In that context, while we were connected, I don't know if the term 'unified' relates to it-because we had major, major arguments and differences amongst groups."

Scott now uses his historical knowledge of activism to run the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, an organization he founded in 1996 with other concerned community leaders. He explains the organization has been working towards a movement bigger than civil rights.

"I would call it a human transformation movement or a human rights movement," says Scott. "More than just race. We are also dealing with gender, economics-and so, yes, we are on the verge of a larger movement. … A friend of mind came up with the title. He called it the 'American Spring,' comparable to the Arab Spring. Where you are having all these different issues in America that are now being challenged."

He adds, "And now I think because of the communication industry and the various platforms that exist, people are able much more quickly to challenge for change. I think the only challenge right now is that people are not as aware of American history as they could be in dealing with change."

Lessons from the civil rights movement

Baseball player Willie Horton was one of the most respected African-American baseball players of his time when he signed with the Tigers in 1961. But that respect stopped outside of Detroit. As he explains, the team was denied hotels and other services while traveling because of its Black players.

One time they drove from Lakeland, Florida to Duluth, Minnesota, but they couldn't stop since no hotel would accommodate them. "The other players who had licenses felt bad for the bus drivers," so they took turns driving, he remembers.

"But those bumps in the road I think made me a better person. Made me a giving type of person," explains Horton. When he came to the scene of the riots, he didn't know what he intended to do. He just knew he had to be there.

"Being in them spots at them moments, I know that's why God put me here," says Horton, 72. "A lot of these people knew who I was before I even started with the Tigers. (During the riots) they were more afraid I was going to get hurt.

"I think there is success that came from all of these hardships," he adds. "Don't forget Dr. King. He sacrificed his life for opportunity. Every time something happens, they have a riot, looting. You can have a riot without looting. Looting melts down your meaning. That's what I was trying to tell the people on 12th Street."

Motown singer Martha Reeves, 73, shared similar circumstances as Horton. On stage she was royalty, but offstage, she still experienced blatant racism.

"That was the meanest thing about traveling. On sight, you were disliked because of your of color," says Reeves, remembering one incident that left her staring down a double-barreled shotgun.

"But once you got to the gigs, they were ready for us," says Reeves, who learned not to categorize people. "That's one of the things MLK said-judge us by our character and not by our color. … This is an attitude that needs to apply to our views of people and the police."

"The sniping of the policeman is an unfair situation," Reeves adds. "They are categorizing and they have to remember the policemen are people, too. They are somebody's children. They are not Martians."

Reeves explains that MLK's movement was done through peaceful confrontation, not violence.

"I've seen people get arrested, but they wanted to fight the police. Won't that get you hurt when they have a gun and a license to kill? You can't be mad because somebody else is mad," Reeves says. "A soft answer sometimes avoids any kind of contempt."

And it is this same soft answer that will move our country again.

"MLK was a preacher, and he used his post with God to say there is peace," says Reeves. "I am not talking about in the valley. I'm talking about right here on Earth." 

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