Fifty Years Since We Marched, Has There Been Progress?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday August 23, 2013 - 11:43:00 AM

On Saturday a march commemorating the 50th anniversary of the fabled March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom will take place in that city. Many of those who were there the first time will be going, along with younger people who missed the march but heard the stories. In a world where every day brings more bad news from around the world, this is an opportunity to reflect on the good news about what has changed in these 50 years.

Yes, yes, I know that the journey’s been long and it’s far from over. As Ben Jealous, current president of the NAACP, which will co-sponsor Saturday’s march, points out in this issue, there’s still a lot wrong with the way this country treats African-Americans. Just two high-profile recent examples: the many attempts to revive voter suppression in the South, and the continued stereotyping of young black men as potential criminals, a persistent misconception which resulted in the needless death of Trayvon Martin.

But for those of us who are old enough to remember all the way back to 1963, a lot of things look like they’ve gotten a lot better. 

We didn’t make the August 28, 1963, march in Washington. Schlepping a 10-month old baby would have been a challenge, and we couldn’t afford the fare from Ann Arbor anyhow. And besides, we’d already been there and done that. 

Two months earlier, in June 23, 1963, the Detroit March to Freedom took place. We marched down Detroit’s Woodward Avenue pushing baby in her stroller in a crowd 125,000 strong. The majority of marchers were black, but us white folks were there too in respectable numbers, many organized by the United Auto Workers. 

It was a precursor to the Washington March—some have called it a dress rehearsal. Reverend King was there, and he made a very fine speech which turned out to be remarkably similar to the one he would deliver a couple of months later in D.C. 

Many young people these days seem to think that the civil rights movement was something that took place only in the South, and that racial discrimination was largely invented by slaveholders and their descendants. But even in the 1960s there was plenty of prejudice north of the Mason-Dixon line. 

Until I was in high school, I lived in St. Louis, which seemed just about as segregated as any southern town: housing, movies, schools, churches were almost all single-race. My family moved to Pasadena in the late 50s just as integration was beginning to take hold there, and I somehow assumed that it was happening everywhere. But when my husband and I moved to Ann Arbor so that that he could go to graduate school, we were shocked to discover that racism was alive and well in that supposedly liberal northern university town. 

We found a little house near campus in the fall of 1961 and advertised for housemates to share the rent. The day the ad appeared, a young man rang the doorbell and asked if we would rent to Negroes. 

Of course, I said, why not? Well, he said, he was a freshman from Pontiac, near Detroit, and he’d been looking for a room to rent for two weeks with no luck. Landlords told him, with no attempt to dissemble, that he was just the wrong color, sorry—“we don’t want any trouble”. 

He lived with us for the next couple of years, giving us an early earful of the Motown sound which our less trendy friends didn’t hear about until much later. We decided that Something Needed to Be Done in Ann Arbor, and found the people who were already Doing Something. 

While more adventurous souls were down south pushing for voting rights, northerners were working on less glamorous but equally necessary causes like fair housing. In Ann Arbor, the NAACP had been leading the charge for a decade, and thanks to the groundswell of the civil rights movement nationwide things were finally starting to happen there. 

The public face of the Ann Arbor NAACP was a handsome and charming power couple, Dr. Albert Wheeler, who taught in the University of Michigan’s public health school, and his wife Emma, who was president and chief sparkplug of the pioneer civil rights organization. Not far behind was the local branch of the Congress of Racial Equality, a newer group which had a more progressive, less gradualist public profile. 

Days and dates are hazy in my mind after half a century, but my memory is that NAACP-led citizens picketed the Republican-dominated city council every Monday night for what now seems like years. I’m not sure how long the picketing went on, but I do remember at some point pushing two kids in strollers on those picket lines. Since baby number two arrived in 1964, it might have been as much as three years. 

After the big 1963 Detroit march, things heated up that summer in Ann Arbor. Taking cues from the excitement in the South, local fair housing activists staged a couple of sit-ins in the city council chambers. On September 16, 1963, an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in housing with five or more units was finally passed by a divided council, but it was derided by activists as too little too late, and 51 people who sat in to protest after the council meeting were arrested. 

Dr. Wheeler denounced the new law as “a contemptuous slap at Negroes”, and the demonstrations continued. Finally in 1965 a better fair housing law was enacted, and everyone calmed down for a while. In 1965, we elected Ann Arbor’s first African-American city council member since the post-Civil War reconstruction days. 

But of course the millennium which seemed around the corner was not yet at hand. In the long hot summer of 1967, violent riots erupted in Detroit. Ann Arborites, black and white, organized to take food and medical supplies to those in the big city who needed them. 

Despite the passage of the 1965 Fair Housing Ordinance, most people in Ann Arbor were still clustered in housing with those of their own race. We moved to a house which was just on the edge of the historically black part of town, across from the open expanse which was the Farmer’s Market in the summer. 

One hot July night, when things in Detroit were most feverish, we looked out the window to see forty or fifty young black males gathered in the market, waving banners and shouting slogans. It seemed likely that they were ready to follow the Detroit example and start smashing things in the neighborhood, when on the periphery appeared shadowy figures wielding brooms and mops who soon surrounded the crowd. It was the cooler heads among our neighbors of the older generation, who told the boys in no uncertain terms to get themselves home, and, sheepishly, they went. 

We moved to Berkeley in 1973, but as far as I can determine from the Web the civil rights situation in Ann Arbor continued to improve in the last quarter of the 20th century. Dr. Wheeler was even elected mayor in a cliff-hanger election, though he was subsequently deposed in another one. Al and Emma Wheeler’s daughter Alma Wheeler Smith served with distinction in both branches of the Michigan legislature for more than a decade, and their other daughter, Nancy Francis, became a judge. 

Has Nirvana descended on Michigan yet, fifty years after the Detroit and Washington marches? Well, no. Even though the worst excesses of racism have diminished, historic inequities from the racist past persist. Detroit, once a vibrant and prosperous city, has been hollowed out by the crashes first of the auto industry and then of the housing finance market, with its now predominantly African-American citizenry caught in the wreckage. 

African-Americans in the Detroit area (Ann Arbor is on the periphery) originally moved there from the South to take the good union jobs offered by automobile manufacturing, but as the industry went under the tax base and city government went with it. Recently Detroit has been put into receivership by a Republican governor and faces bankruptcy. Progressive economist Paul Krugman has called the city “just an innocent victim of market forces”, yet the state’s white Republican majority seems to be trying to wrest governance (and the city’s assets, including its art museum and parks) from Detroit’s black citizens. 

But “there s a dance in the old dame yet” as Mehitabel the Cat used to tell Archie the Cockroach. 

When I went to Washington in 2000 to join those protesting George W. Bush’s illicit inauguration, I fell in with some women who had come on a bus chartered by the Detroit NAACP, and they turned out to have been with me in the June 1963 Detroit March for Freedom. Now I read that the same NAACP chapter organized a 50 year anniversary march in Detroit last June, and that they’re once again taking busloads of Detroiters to D.C. for tomorrow’s march. 

CBS reports that some Detroit participants who’ll be on those buses plan to turn the event into a protest of the state’s takeover of Detroit’s city government, an action which many of them see as facilitated by racist assumptions. Protesters plan to march on the Maryland home of the administrator who is spearheading the bankruptcy push. 

And yes, the guy’s an African-American, of course, and a graduate of the University of Michigan and its law school in Ann Arbor to boot. That might be seen as a sign of progress, or it might not. Racial stereotypes have gotten a lot more complicated in the last 50 years, haven’t they? 

But all in all, despite many obvious inequities still observable in American life, I still think that on balance things are looking up. We’ll have to see how things turn out for Detroit.