Cooperation And Conflict: Changing relationships between Detroit’s African American and Jewish communities
By Robin Schwartz | The Jewish News
Riots, looting and destruction in Detroit (in 1943 and 1967), jobs, housing and white flight, solidarity, the Civil Rights movement and the fight for equality are among the complex issues that have united and divided Detroit’s African American and Jewish communities over the last 50-plus years.
Strong friendships and bridges between the communities remain — but “getting people to walk across those bridges” is a matter that requires continued dialogue and deliberate action, according to Rev. Kenneth Flowers, senior pastor of Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, and others at the forefront of such efforts.
“The problem is, black folk in America have many other issues they’re dealing with,” Flowers says. The church leader is a longtime friend of Daniel Syme, rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township. “Getting a job, graduating from high school, making sure their kids eat, making sure we’re not racially profiled by police. It’s not that they don’t want to engage, but they’re so busy surviving being black in America, you don’t find too many who make black-Jewish relations a priority.”
Flowers points to the violence and heartbreak gripping the nation, including the recent shooting deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, black men killed by police officers. In the wake of those shootings, two ambush attacks on police in Baton Rouge and Dallas left eight officers dead and seven others wounded at the hands of black shooting suspects (both of whom were killed following standoffs with police).
Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) called upon Americans to “hold up a mirror and ask ourselves some very tough questions: about hatred, about racial tensions, about anger and violence” following the tragic events.
“When the shootings occurred with Philando and Alton, I’m not getting any phone calls from any of my Jewish friends,” Flowers says. “I did get one text message, but if the situation had been reversed, I would have personally made phone calls. It’s the little things like that people need to be aware of and understand. Volunteer, call and say, ‘What can we do to help?’”
“I Was A 6-Year-Old Looter”
Flowers’ connection to Detroit’s Jewish community dates back decades to the 1960s. Back then, all he knew about Jews was that his grandmother and great-aunt worked for them, cleaning their homes and serving them during the High Holidays Days. Flowers was a young child at the time of the Detroit riot in July 1967, but he has vivid memories.
“I was a 6-year-old looter, and I didn’t realize it,” he says. “I remember it well. I remember people going in and taking things out of a store, and I remember walking down the street with two six-packs of Coca-Cola, not knowing I was doing anything wrong.”
In college, Flowers met the late Coretta Scott King who, he says, always insisted there be Jewish representation at any program. She told him Jews “were a friend to the civil rights movement” and that always stuck with him.
“We have a history through the civil rights movement. The NAACP was founded by blacks and Jews together,” he says. “Jewish people have always been part of the freedom struggle in America.”
In the 1990s, Flowers met Syme, and the two religious leaders became fast friends. The rabbi’s late father, M. Robert Syme of Temple Israel of West Bloomfield, was a vocal civil rights activist who spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan and all haters. The family received death threats and police once had to guard their home, but Syme was not deterred.
In 1963, the elder Syme took part in the historic Walk to Freedom in Detroit, along with an estimated 125,000 people who heard Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech for the first time. Syme also accompanied a group of black clergy members to Washington, D.C., for the March on Washington, one of the largest political rallies for human rights in U.S. history.
“[My father] came back after that march in a state of spiritual transformation,” Syme recalls. “He told me, ‘I thought I was going to Washington to march for Negro rights, but I realize after being there that I was marching for you and for every person whose rights are in danger.”
Over the years, Flowers and Syme worked side-by-side to strengthen black-Jewish relationships. In 2000, the duo brought Coretta Scott King to Detroit; she visited the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and Temple Beth El. They also collaborated on joint programming and worship services including interfaith gospel seders and a 2013 Walk to Freedom commemorative event.
Detroit Jewish News publisher and executive editor Arthur Horwitz did some digging and discovered the Jewish News never covered the original walk five decades earlier.
“In preparation for a column I was writing about the 50th anniversary [of the march], I searched the Detroit Jewish News Foundation’s William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish History,” Horwitz explained. “I was surprised to find no mention of it at all. However, Dr. King’s Washington march made the front pages of the Jewish News just a few months later.
“Why the sudden change in coverage?” he continues. “In attempting to better understand this turnaround, I talked with a handful of Jewish community members who had participated in the Detroit march. Their answer? Even though individuals from the Jewish community participated, they were aligned with the American Civil Liberties Union, the United Auto Workers and other secular groups.
“They said the Jewish community — as a community — still hadn’t made civil rights a priority, and some of its leaders were still traumatized from the 1943 Belle Isle riot 20 years earlier.”
(The 1943 riot erupted on Sunday, June 20, on Belle Isle with fighting between African American and white Detroiters. The rioting spilled into the city, including Hastings Street in Paradise Valley where many Jewish-owned stores were destroyed and looted.)
“In the intervening three months since the 1963 Walk to Freedom,” Horwitz continues, “the Jewish Community Council stepped forward to endorse the Washington march and organized a group of Jewish community activists to attend. Bottom line: The coverage by the Jewish News of local involvement in the civil rights movement — up to the defining moment of the March on Washington — was reflective of the community’s belated interest in it.”
A Significant ‘Agenda Item’
Avern Cohn, now a senior judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, marched with the ACLU during the Detroit Walk to Freedom. He has an old black-and-white photograph in his office where he is seen walking with his late wife, Joyce, as the group carries a sign that reads, “ACLU supports equal rights and liberties for all.”
In 1967, he was a member of the Jewish Community Council, which considered black-Jewish relations a significant agenda item as did the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. Cohn recalls an eye-opening visit from the late Arthur Johnson, former head of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, who spoke to the council and gave members a wake-up call.
“He said there was a lot of trouble on the horizon because the closest relationship between blacks and the white community was the Jewish portion,” Cohn says.
“They claimed they were being discriminated against by Jewish business owners.
They weren’t being hired; they weren’t being promoted. I mean, Jews were discriminated against by the rest of the community. You’ve got to remember as the Jewish community moved from the lower east side, up Oakland and crossing Woodward and on into Linwood and Dexter, as they emptied out, the black community came in.”
Blacks, Jews And Housing
Other significant issues included employment, affirmative action, quotas, even a lack of black doctors on staff at Sinai Hospital, originally founded to serve Jewish patients. Housing was also a major concern.
“In 1967, prior to the riots, there were black-Jewish relationships organizationally, individually — and there were tensions,” Cohn recalls. “In 1967, you had housing tensions, the problem of blacks moving into a neighborhood and whites moving out.
“There was a rule of thumb, so to speak. If an apartment building exceeded 30 percent black, it would soon be 100 percent black — that was the tipping point. There were problems with race busting. In other words, real estate agents would try and stir up activity, particularly, as I recall, west of Livernois… less expensive housing. Blacks would move in and then they would try and panic whites to sell.”
The Jewish Community Council and others made desperate attempts to try to stop white flight. In her book Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race and Religion in Postwar Detroit, Temple University history professor Lila Corwin Berman recounts the council’s public campaign against panic selling.
“A flyer distributed door-to-door and reprinted in local newspapers, asked readers a series of aggressive questions, starting with the flyer’s title: ‘Neighbor, Where Are You Running To?’” she writes.
“The text continued, ‘Why not wait until you meet your neighbor before you judge him? … Are you being panicked by some unscrupulous real estate dealers? Are you going to sacrifice your life savings because of a lot of unfounded rumors by men who will profit by it?’”
The flyer, on file in the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University, closes with the bold and underlined statements: “So, don’t do anything foolish! The old neighborhood where you raised your children and made your friends is still the best located in our city. So why run, neighbor?”
Jewish Migration Continues
Published reports made it clear Jewish businesses were not specifically targeted during the 1967 Detroit riot, but, in the aftermath, the community’s migration north and west, first to Oak Park and Southfield, continued.
“City Restored to Sanity; Firm Action Ends Rioting; Community Aids Sufferers” was the headline emblazoned across the front page of the July 28, 1967, edition of the Detroit Jewish News. The cover story described the unrest this way:
“There is near-unanimous conclusion that the rioting that started on Sunday was not a race incident but the work of gangs of hoodlums who were bent on stealing, pillaging, looting business houses and resorting to arson … The looting and destruction of property were not aimed at Jewish businesses, it was agreed. But in the path of the fire and bombing, looters succeeded in wiping out many small firms their Jewish owners had spent years building up.”
In the 12th Street area alone, 79 Jewish businesses were reduced to 39 almost overnight. Martin Herman watched it all unfold but never left the city. He came to Detroit in 1962 to work at WSU as an assistant professor in Monteith College’s Division of Humanistic Studies. He has lived in the same house near Curtis and Warrington for 50 years.
“I understand why people left, and I don’t bear a grudge; I don’t have a chip on my shoulder,” says the longtime member of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue (IADS), the only free-standing synagogue remaining in Detroit. “They made their choice and I made my choice. I stayed partly because of principle, partly because it was convenient for me to get to work; I am very committed to the city.”
Karen “Chava” Knox is an African American/Jewish Detroiter and president of Eden Gardens Block Club, which created a thriving community garden in collaboration with IADS. She grew up in Detroit, moved out of state for several years, and returned home to the city’s eastside.
“We have open conversations about race and other issues in Detroit, but I think it has a long way to go,” Knox says. “A lot of blacks say the Jews left us. They feel like after the ’67 riot, Jews left Detroit and abandoned blacks, and I think that’s where a lot of the resentment comes from.”
Today, there is not much of a Jewish institutional presence remaining in the city. An Aug. 31, 1990, Jewish News article quotes community members expressing outrage over the decision to move the Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Council from 163 Madison in Detroit to Maple and Telegraph in Bloomfield Hills.
“From my point of view, it sends a bad message to the Detroit community, and it’s a bad move,” said Stanley Winkelman, the late owner of the former Winkelman’s clothing store chain. “It’s very important that the community takes extra efforts to strengthen black-Jewish relationships so that the physical move when it comes will be irrelevant.”
According to Horwitz, “The [Federation] move was largely the result of these agencies going where their donors and volunteers had moved 20 years earlier. Yet, the optics were of a community leaving Detroit in its rear-view mirror.
“Sinai Hospital remained the Jewish community’s most visible presence in Detroit, with the vast majority of its patient census comprising African Americans from the city’s Northwest quadrant,” Horwitz says. “However, Sinai endured significant financial problems and, by the mid-1990s, was sold to the Detroit Medical Center, which attached the Sinai brand to its Grace and Huron Valley hospitals and took the wrecking ball to the hospital facility.”
Repair The World
Ben Falik, co-founder of the nonprofit group Summer in the City who now serves as manager of Detroit service initiatives for the Jewish social action group Repair the World, is among those working hard to build new bridges. Since 2002, he has been bringing together diverse groups of young volunteers to perform community service projects in Detroit in a respectful and inclusive way.
“I think that at the community level the relationship between the Jewish and black communities is not robust,” Falik says. “There are some strong individual relationships and some projects that bring us together, but I don’t think we are at the place of engagement, solidarity and support that we want to be. I’m not entirely sure why.
“There is a lot of good energy and a lot of anecdotal work going on, but I think if 1967, as we understand it, tells us anything, it’s how little different groups of people understood each other’s experiences.”
He believes if we are going to grow together, we need to open up and try to understand each other’s experiences as ancestral Detroiters — a sentiment echoed by Flowers and others.
“There is a great racial divide in America,” Flowers says. “There is something called white privilege which is different than white racism. Our Jewish brothers and sisters are the recipients of white privilege without realizing it. They are able to move and gravitate and go far in society because of the color of their skin — they’ve been able to succeed in part because they’re white.”
“My message to our Jewish brothers and sisters is make your presence known in the inner city,” he continues. “Don’t just come for the symphony and leave. Get involved with education, creating jobs, economic development — take the time to hire some African American people. Don’t just talk about it from afar. Work in terms of hands-on experiences.”
Summer in the City provides the type of hands-on involvement Flowers describes. The program attracts approximately 200 volunteers per day over eight weeks, bringing together churches, schools, block clubs, city agencies and others to landscape, clean up city parks, create green spaces, construct murals and more.
“I’m optimistic,” Falik says. “I think what Repair the World does is a great point of entry to get people together. We really push for serving with others; doing with rather than doing for is a totally different and critical value proposition.
“Solidarity is not inherent to service. We have to go further than that and look critically at our own narratives and experiences and really try to chart a path forward. I would say we’ve got miles to go before we sleep.”