Generational Shift of Black Leaders
Detroit's best days are still ahead, say city's young black activists
DETROIT — DETROIT has the largest proportion of African-Americans of any major city in the United States. Nearly 80 percent of its residents are black. The same black mayor, Coleman Young, has run the city for the past 20 years. His tenure has been a constant struggle to rescue Detroit from the economic decline caused by shrinkage in the US automobile industry.
Twenty-five years after riots scattered many white residents to the suburbs, the city is typically described as a shriveled core surrounded by relative prosperity. Crime in Detroit is endemic; gun-toting youngsters regularly kill each other.
According to some of its most prominent young leaders, however, Detroit is not inexorably collapsing in on itself. They have a determined optimism about the city that defies the statistics about population loss and unemployment, as well as the boarded-up store fronts, weed-filled lots, and other daily reminders of decay.
The Rev. Wendell Anthony, a United Church of Christ minister who was recently elected president of the Detroit branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), says "Detroit has not seen its best days." The "media image" of the city, Mr. Anthony says, does not account for the substantial talents and abilities of its citizens.
Anthony's point is bolstered by Melvin J. Hollowell Jr., a lawyer in his mid-30s who puts in 12 hours or more of pro bono (unpaid) work for the NAACP each week. Mr. Hollowell's firm - Lewis, White & Clay - is the largest black-owned law firm in the country, he says, with 35 lawyers at its Detroit headquarters and in Washington.
While his professional specialty is bond counseling for cities, Hollowell's passion is clearly civil rights. He is currently shepherding a discrimination lawsuit against the car-insurance industry through the state courts. "I believe people should be charged based on how they drive, not where they live," he says.
The case plunges into what Mr. Hollowell calls "the new civil rights arena." Such cases "will make us get into the guts of how things work," says the attorney. He sees banking practices, which put hurdles before black homeowners or businesspeople who want loans, as another part of this "arena."
Hollowell has an eye on the political arena, too. He is "in the hunt" to become US attorney in Detroit. Unlike many other young black professionals - "Buppies" - Hollowell and his wife live in the city, where he grew up. Their five-year-old son attends a private school in the city called Nataki Talibah. Like most of the Detroit public schools, it emphasizes African culture.
From the one-story, gold-buff rectangle of his Fellowship Chapel on McNichols Road, Anthony runs his own African-flavored youth programs - Isuthu and Intonjani, Xhosa (African) terms for coming into manhood and womanhood. The programs, which include some 275 youngsters aged 6 to 18, put a premium on helping the elderly and serving the community.
Despite the low incomes of most Detroit residents, the city's African-American community manages some impressive fund-raising. Each year the local NAACP - with 20,000 members, by far the largest branch in the US - holds a Freedom Fund dinner for some 10,000 guests. The event, which attracts wide corporate support, brings in more than $1 million for scholarships and other NAACP programs. But that should only be a start, says Anthony. "If we have a Freedom Fund dinner, we must have a grass-roots breakfast. "
He worries about a gap between prominent leaders in the community and the mass of people struggling to stay afloat in Detroit's economic turbulence. To solve the city's problems, Anthony says, "we must work in coalition with others" - businesspeople, government, people of all races. But the prerequisite for progress, he says, is a drawing together of the city's black population itself.
Institutions of government may have to change. Keith Butler, another prominent young black minister before he became the first Republican elected to Detroit's City Council in decades, says the city has to lighten its tax burden before it can hope to retain the businesses it has, much less attract new ones.
Also, the crime problem has to be attacked with a larger, revitalized police force, Mr. Butler says - something that could be possible, he adds, if inefficiency were rooted out of city government.
Butler hopes for a changing of the guard in City Hall this year. After 20 years, he says, the Young administration "has run out of steam."
Anthony defends the mayor, while noting that "within any group, you always have another generation coming up." "I don't like the old-guard, new-guard split," he says. "There's only one guard, guarding against racism and deprivation, regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity."