Last week, my wife, Peggy, and I attended a Diana Ross concert at the Interlochen Music Camp here in Michigan, where we’re spending our summer. The sold-out performance was spectacular as the 73 year-old Ms. Ross reprised hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Baby Love,” and “Stop, in the Name of Love.”
The nearly all-white crowd of Baby Boomers spent most of the 90-minute show on its feet applauding, dancing and singing along with the still-beautiful diva who was supported by a remarkable band and a quartet of dynamic back-up singers.
It all took us back to the ‘60s and ‘70s before our hair turned white.
It also made some of us recall an era before Ms. Ross’ hometown, Detroit, became a byword for urban decay reminiscent of the Third World. Back then, it was a vital industrial and cultural center, the birthplace not only of The Supremes’ Motown Sound, but of the Black Panthers, and the focus of the northern phase of the Civil Rights Movement that changed our nation forever.
That phase had protestors responding to poverty and police brutality more violently than our domesticated history would have us recall. Exactly 50 years ago in 1967, it turned Detroit into a flashpoint of the Great Uprising of the African American working class, whose effects are still being felt today.
The rebellion (portrayed in the mainstream press as “riots”) began in Newark, but quickly spread to the Motor City and almost 400 U.S. urban centers. In fact, between 1960 and 1971 there were nearly 1000 such uprisings across the country.
In response the government called out the National Guard. While cities burned, troops with bayonets fixed marched on protestors; tanks rumbled down ghetto streets.
That sort of response to such widespread unrest indicates a nascent civil rights revolution, not mere riots.
The bi-partisan Kerner Commission underscored that point, when it examined the rebellion’s causes. Its Report blamed the uprisings not on the protestors, but on white racism. It called for the equivalent of a huge Marshall Plan to counter the effects of the police brutality and deep poverty that, it said, had sparked the violence.
However, instead of massive investment in public schools, housing, and social programs, the “riots” in Detroit and elsewhere evoked a counter-revolution that we experience still today.
The reaction began with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. His Southern Strategy took advantage of the very racism denounced by the Kerner Report. Ironically, Nixon’s approach used religion to appeal to the anti-black sentiments of white Christian Evangelicals especially in the nation’s South. It transformed the Republican Party into the out-of-control reactionary force it now represents under Donald Trump. It eventually gave rise to stop-and-frisk policing, to the massive incarceration of blacks and Latinos, and to the widespread execution of unarmed black men and women at the hands of increasingly militarized urban police forces.
Additionally, the counter revolution saw defunding of public schools, public housing, and social programs. It witnessed the transformation of the War on Poverty into the War on Crime. It entailed capitalism’s abandonment of the working class, as it off-shored jobs vital to the economies of cities like Detroit, Newark, and Camden.
Finally, the right wing reaction to black rebellion suspended democracy itself in Detroit, as an unelected Emergency Manager overrode community welfare in favor of austerity measures that further penalized the poor. And as economist, Richard Wolff has indicated, the resultant and much ballyhooed “Detroit Renaissance” amounted to nothing more than gentrification on steroids, where billionaires are subsidized to build glitzy high-rises and restaurants. Meanwhile on the periphery of apparent renewal, 40% of the population remains mired in poverty in a state where 48% of African-American children are poor.
What a contrast: the splendor and betrayed promise of Miss Ross and the Civil Rights Movement, on the one hand, and the disintegration of the counter-revolutionary Detroit (and America) on the other!
It’s time to reject the latter in all its brutality and to re-embrace the former with all the enthusiasm of those Boomers at Interlochen last week.
Without uttering a word about politics, Ms. Ross reminds us that we can do better. The Kerner Report tells us how.