When emergency manager Kevyn Orr arrives in near-bankrupt Detroit, almost half of Michigan’s black population will live under the rule of state overseers with little say in the governments nearest them.
In cities run by governors’ appointees after decades of decline, Michiganders whose ancestors fled the segregated South for factory jobs and the right to vote weigh the abstract value of autonomy versus the palpable comfort of a stable community.
Joe Harris, 69, embodies the conflict. His family left Alabama in the 1930s after the Ku Klux Klan threatened an uncle for refusing to let a white man cut in a line. Eight decades later, the longtime government auditor unilaterally ran Benton Harbor, Michigan, where the state installed him after the majority-black city failed to free itself from fiscal distress.
“I understand their frustration with this concept of, ‘Well, you’re taking away our democratic rights,’” Harris said. “But what’s the alternative, especially in Detroit?”
Governor Rick Snyder, a white Republican, yesterday named Orr, an African-American bankruptcy lawyer from Washington, as Detroit’s emergency manager. The city is 82 percent black with a history of racial migration and strife.
The city was an industrial powerhouse with 1.8 million residents in the 1950s. It has withered to about 700,000 people in a sparsely populated 139 square miles (36,000 hectares) as the auto industry contracted and revenue plunged.
While a law taking effect March 28 allows for some input by local elected officials in cities the state has taken over, appointed managers have ultimate authority to operate and restructure them, selling assets and canceling union contracts. Some residents complain that leaves them with no vote in the government closest to them, the one that fills potholes, cleans streets and maintains parks -- or, in some cases, doesn’t.
While Snyder and supporters say fiscal struggles are the reason for Orr’s appointment to run the home of General Motors Co., some residents fear it is meant to strip the city of its assets and the people of their rights.
Orr will have wide authority, though he must seek alternative money-saving plans from the council and mayor before he sells assets or changes union contracts.
“To some folks in Detroit, it looks like white folks are trying to come in and steal back the city,” said state Representative Fred Durhal, 61, who’s running for mayor this year. “What I tell them is what’s going on has more to do with another color, and that’s green.”
The cities under emergency management, Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, Allen Park, Benton Harbor and Ecorse, account for 49.5 percent of the state’s black population, according to U.S. Census data. They contain only 2.1 percent of the white population.
About 6 million blacks moved from the South to Michigan and other northern states during the Great Migration, which began during World War I and ended in the 1970s, said Isabel Wilkerson, author of “The Warmth of Other Suns,” a book about the era. Detroit’s black population increased from 5,740 in 1910 to 120,000 by 1930, or about 9 percent of the population, and nearly 30 percent was black by the early 1960s, according to “The Detroit Almanac.”
They were fleeing a system known as Jim Crow, which controlled every aspect of black southerners’ lives, including matters as picayune as forbidding whites to play checkers with blacks in Birmingham, Alabama, Wilkerson said. Industries seeking cheap workers recruited the first migrants, and succeeding generations followed to work in the auto industry and other factories, she said.
“The parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of many African-Americans now in Detroit and the rest of the state left to find freedom to pursue their dreams,” Wilkerson said by e-mail from Atlanta. “It would not be surprising if the descendants of the Great Migration would be desirous of help but wary of and sensitive to efforts to control their destiny,” she said.
In Benton Harbor, home of Whirlpool Corp., factories sent buses south after World War II to bring workers, said Robert Myers, curator of the Berrien County Historical Association.
From 2010 until Tony Saunders II took over Feb. 1, Harris ran the city of 10,000 where almost 90 percent of the residents are black, according to U.S. Census data. The city lost almost half its population since 1960, 48 percent of the citizens live in poverty, and the median household income is $17,815 compared with $48,669 statewide.
After three years of emergency management, Benton Harbor’s debate about race and the law hasn’t been settled.
Marcus Muhammad, a city commissioner since 2010, said the law establishing emergency managers has been “a dismal failure.”
“The evidence is overwhelming that this is a racist law, and that it cannot escape the racial overtones that are leaking out of it like alcohol leaks out of pores,” said Muhammad, 38.
Wilce Cooke, Benton Harbor’s former mayor, said his mother came to the city from Arkansas to join relatives who moved for foundry jobs. He calls the emergency-manager law “subtle Jim Crow.”
James Hightower, who succeeded him in 2011, said elected officials failed to make decisions needed for fiscal stability.
“Poor management is not black, it’s not white, it’s not red or yellow,” Hightower said in an interview. “It’s just poor management.”
The emergency manager’s appointment is “non-political and purely financial,” Jeff Noel, a spokesman for Whirlpool, said in a statement. “The process is painful, and invites debate, but the process also creates positive change.”
Standing on her porch in Benton Harbor, Evelyn Wilburn, 41, said that while she doesn’t like losing voting power, she wants good services and doesn’t think city workers needed the mobile phones and gas cards they gave up.
“If it’s best for the city, that’s OK,” Wilburn said.
Michigan, like most states, has broad authority over local governments, even the power to abolish them, said John Mogk, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who specializes in urban policy.
While that basic organizational power is different from the intricate legal codes of segregation, the emergency-manager measure links blacks with failure, said David Pilgrim, founding curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia and a sociology professor at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan.
Ruled and Rulers
“If I’m a young, African-American person growing up in Detroit or Benton Harbor or one of these mostly black areas, what is the message that sends?” Pilgrim said. “It certainly looks like the message is that people that look like you can’t govern.”
In downtown Detroit on March 7, Charles Williams II, a reverend, and about 50 supporters protested the emergency-manager law. He used a bullhorn to promise a struggle in the spirit of civil-rights leaders such as Medgar Evers, assassinated in Mississippi in 1963.
“I don’t see how it couldn’t be racially motivated,” Williams, 30, said of the law. “We will stop this because of folks who stood before us, like Medgar Evers, who fought for voting rights.”