Monday, September 10, 2007

Black Political Power in Detroit: A Myth or a Reality?

Black Political Power in Detroit: A Myth or a Reality?

By Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor
Pan-African News Wire

The slogan "Black Power", which grew out of the mass struggles of African-Americans during the height of the civil rights movement in 1966, was a slogan that was interpreted in different ways by many different people. Stokley Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) and Willie Ricks (later known as Mukassa Dada) of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) popularized the slogan "Black Power" during the "March Against Fear" from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi, in June of 1966.

After the initiation of the march, James Meredith was shot by a white terrorist on the Highway in Mississippi. The march gained the support of many of the major civil rights organizations of the period, such as the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and SNCC. This demonstration was significant because it changed the course of the African-American struggle of the 1960s from civil rights to the quest for political power.

During the middle 1960s urban rebellions became the most militant expression of discontent and protest against the American system led by African-Americans. Rebellions had taken place before this time period (1966) in Birmingham in 1963, New York in 1964 and the most widespread revolt before 1966 took place in the Watts section of Los Angeles in August of 1965. However, after the Black Power march through Mississippi in June of 1966 it became quite clear that the civil rights movement's leadership could not ignore the growing frustration among the African-American masses.

The concept of "Black Power" became the rallying cry for a generation of youth who had watched the vicious repression carried out against non-violent protestors who opposed segregation in the South. Taking inspiration from the national liberation struggles in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the militant youth of the late 1960s understood that it was possible to wage successful armed struggles against the western capitalist countries.

The Need for a Revolutionary Political Direction

However, the concept of "Black Power" was not clearly defined by the movement at the time that it was thrust into the public arena. Some people claimed that Black Power meant more black businesses to replace the white merchants who were being burnt out by the rebellious youth in the northern ghettos.

Others believed that power could be won by African-Americans through electoral politics. This lack of a clear-cut definition of what the concept of "Black Power" really meant to the African-American community led to many people within the movement being bought off with corporate jobs, government grants and dead-end political careers as public officials in the city, state and national governmental systems.

The most serious and dedicated elements within the African-American struggle of the late 1960s could not be bought off or fooled by the government and corporate campaigns to co-opt the militant thrust of the movement into liberal reformism.

These people were then subjected to the most vicious repressive campaign that was ever launched by the local police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and even the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The most militant organizations such as the Black Panther Party and SNCC suffered from police and FBI frame-ups, infiltration and the murder of its most articulate spokespersons and the forced exile of many people within its leadership.

Therefore, the American system's ability to curtail militant action and incorporate a superficial version of the "Black Power" concept into its political structure, temporarily slowed down a potential national crisis which could have posed serious difficulties for the existence of the American system itself. The city of Detroit, Michigan gives us a concrete example of how the concept of "Black Power" was distorted and the struggle of the people set back as a result of the narrow limits which many people viewed the concept of political power.

The Detroit Rebellion of July 1967 was the most extensive outbreak of racial violence in an American city that was initiated and led by African-Americans. Forty-three people were killed in the week of looting, burning of businesses and sniping against the police and National Guard. Over $100 million in property damage was done and the then President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered Federal Troops into the city in order to monitor the rebellion in case it extended into more serious forms of violence against property.

After the rebellion the large corporations such as Ford, General Motors and Chrysler began to call meetings with community leaders (including community activists, church groups and block clubs) in order to develop a plan for the "revitalization" of the city.

Detroit had been considered a model city for race relations because of the large numbers of African-Americans in the middle-classs and also the large membership of African-Americans in the labor unions such as the United Auto Workers (UAW). The rebellions of July 1967 took the corporate leadership by suprise because they felt that the African-Americans were satisfied with the conditions they lived under during the 1960s.

This series of meetings called by the corporate sector in 1967 led to the formation of New Detroit, Inc. which was an organization that attempted buy off the most effective community activists through middle-class jobs, grants and model city projects. All types of community projects were set up which attempted to calm down the discontent among the city's youth. Foundation grants from Ford and Rockefeller were given to almost everyone who had a community organization aimed at helping ghetto youth cope with the "urban crisis."

The Role of Black Workers at the Point of Production

Many other people in the Detroit area were not fooled by the tactics used by the coporate giants like Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. They began to form organizations which would attempt to make a more in-depth analysis of the social situation of African-Americans and the white power structure.

A series of wildcat strikes took place in late 1967 and early 1968 against the Chrysler Corporation. These confrontations led to the formation of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) in early 1968.

The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) arose out of the lack of representation for African-American workers within the United Auto Workers (UAW). DRUM had to fight against the racist corporate strucutre and also the racist capitulationist union bureaucracy which was white-dominated and controlled. The actions of DRUM, which was based at the Dodge auto plant in Hamtramack, sparked wildcat strikes at other auto plants throughout the Detroit area.

This series of events resulted in the formation of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) in 1969. The League consisted of African-American workers from many different auto plants throughout the metropolitan area. In addition, to the revolutionary union movements was a youth wing called the Black Student United Front (BSUF), which consisted of militant high school and junion high school student activists.

Other African-American organizations arose during this period in Detroit, such as the Black Christian Nationalists (BCN), The All-African People's Union (AAPU), the Republic of New Africa (RNA), the Pan-African Congress (PAC) and the Detroit Black United Front (BUF). Detroit became the city of mass political action during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

With the continuing decline in the living conditions of African-Americans, the white middle-class and working-class began to flee the city in massive numbers. This brought about the erosion of the city's tax-base and consequently led to the worsening of the level of city services. Also, in the late 1960s, a massive influx of narcotics came into the city, which was aimed at "cooling out" the discontent among the city's youth.

These conditions heightened racial tensions in all aspects of the city's life. The relationship between the city's police force, and the African-American community (which had been the spark that ignited rebellion in 1967) became even worse during the early 1970s.

The development of a plain clothes decoy police unit called STRESS (for Stop the Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets), led to the murder of over thrirty African-Americans in a two year period by local law-enforcement. The police chief John Nichols became a symbol of white racism and black powerlessness during the period between 1970-1973.

A small group of African-American youth took it upon themselves to wipe out the massive trafficking in heroin and the high level of police repression by initiating armed attacks on the police, which lead to the wounding and killing of several white police officers during 1972 and 1973. This brought about a massive police manhunt for three youths who were accused in the police shootings. This police manhunt created a police-state in Detroit during 1972 and early 1973. Hundreds of people had their doors kicked in by police and their houses searched and ransacked without even a police search warrant.

These events in 1973 led to a serious racial situation in Detroit. This was the year of the mayoral elections for the city. The major candidates in the race was the racist police chief John (Blackjack) Nichols against a veteran political activist and then State Senator for the east side of Detroit, Coleman A. Young. The elections were clearly a battle of the races for political control of the city.

By 1973 Detroit's population was fast becoming predominantly black as a result of the massive exodus by the white population to the suburbs surrounding Detroit. Much of the political debate during the 1973 campaign was centered around the repressive white dominated police force. The African-American community came out solidly behind Coleman Young in 1973. In addition, ten percent of the white population voted for Young. The corporate power structure also came out solidly behind Coleman Young because they realized that if John Nichols had been elected in 1973 the city would have experienced a racial blood bath, which would have experienced a racial blood bath, which would have been bad for the ever worsening image of Detroit as the "murder capital of the world."

Transforming Racial Capitalism

The election of Coleman Young to the office of mayor in Detroit served as a mechanism for defusing the racial powder keg that existed in Detroit. Coleman Young instituted a massive affirmative action program for the city's predominantly white police force. Police brutality declined significantly during later years in the 1970s and many people who were victimized by police violence prior to 1973 were compensated financially by the city government.

However, the late 1970s brought additional problems for the city of Detroit. The shrinking tax-base led to the continuing decline in the social conditions of the city's poor and working class community. By 1975 the problem of strucutural unemployment among African-American youth became obvious.

The auto plants, which had been the source of hope for the African-American working class youth for employment, was laying off thousands of workers, eliminating thousands of jobs permanently and closing plants. The frustrations of the youth during the summer of 1975 led to a violent outbreak in one of the city's African-American neighborhoods in northwest Detroit.

This incident was sparked by the killing of a Detroit African-American youth by a white bar owner. However, this outbreak was contained by the tactics used by the Mayor Coleman Young, who pulled all the white police out of the rebellion area and then sent church leaders and city government employees to calm down the enraged people in the community.

In 1976 the city began to experience a wide proliferation of gang violence which led to another mini-rebellion in the summer of that year in downtown Detroit. Detroit received a tremendous amount of negative press coverage during this period by the national media. The unemployment problems continued to increase and the white flight to the suburbs continued.

In 1977 the Renaissance Center complex opened up in downtown Detroit in the riverfront area. The ostensible purpose of this complex was to provide jobs for the city's unemployed and to bring the white middle-class back to the city to shop and frequent the restaurants and enertainment centers.

The negative image acquired during the 1967-1976 period was played down and the city began to call itself "Renaissance City." This was strictly a public relations campaign on the part of the mayor backed-up by the corporate structure to change the image of the city as the black-dominated murder capital of the world.

General Motors Corporation relocated thousands of African-Americans and poor white residents from an inner-city neighborhood located near the old General Motors World Headquarters which was then on West Grand Blvd. The corporation then began to refurbish the old housing in the area.

This program was endorsed by the mayor and the majority African-American city council. Later in 1981, an area known as "Poletown" (because of its predominantly Polish-American residents) was gutted in order to build a General Motors plant which the city granted an enormous tax break to General Motors for its construction.


It is obvious that the concept of Black political power must take on a much broader dimension in order to deal with the question of national oppression of African people in America. First of all any genuine analyses of the conditions in Detroit and other urban areas around the country must begin with a critque of the inherent explotative nature of American capitalism.

The concept of political power cannot deny the necessity for the African-American struggle to be uncompromisingly anti-capitalist. In addiiton, the scope of the problem must be attacked not just on a local level but on a national and international level.

The phenomena of neo-colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean provides an analogy for the current conditions of African-Americans. Despite the fact that Africans can gain control of political institutions, if this control is not linked to the conrol of economic institutions there can be no progress for the working class and poor. Therefore, the current struggle must be anti-capitalist and for the control of political and economic structures.
Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire.

1 comment:

zawadaa said...

Thank you for your article. I am a 70's child from have given a lot of history...that I had no knowledge of. I understood S.T.R.E.S.S. I just did not know about riots after 1967.