Visit Selma Goode in her one-story Redford home and it becomes clear quickly that at 96 years old, she is purpose-driven, patient and proud of Westside Mothers, the organization she founded in 1966.

Visit Selma Goode on the third floor of the Walter P. Reuther Library — in archives of onion skin, facsimile, carbon copies and meeting agendas annotated in cursive — and it becomes clear quickly that she is a powerhouse.

Of course, Detroit Jews For Justice is not honoring Selma Goode because she is diminutive and doting. They are bestowing the inaugural Myra Wolfgang Award on her because she is a world-class community organizer, an ally and advocate who harnessed the political power of a population at its most vulnerable, marginal and aspirational: poor moms.

Selma grew up in Richmond, Mich., a town of 1,400 people where her father retained his Orthodox observance, dealing scrap metal and making his own wine (“I thought it was good”) during Prohibition. He died before she graduated from high school, after which the family moved to Detroit.

Selma’s job as a mother of four overlapped with and informed her career as an activist. In person, she marks milestones based on the age of her youngest daughter, Julia. In archives, you date her efforts by the letterhead of those whose attention and respect she commanded — Gov. Jim Blanchard, gubernatorial candidate Sander Levin, City Council Presidents Maryann Mahaffey and Gil Hill, State Rep. Kwame M. Kilpatrick.

Courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

In 1963, the year before Julia was born, Selma and her husband, Bill, approached local Jewish institutions about welcoming Martin Luther King Jr. to Detroit. Bill worked for the Jewish Labor Committee and Selma was involved with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The Anti-Defamation League objected and ultimately refused for fear that the Walk to Freedom down Woodward Avenue would lead to rioting.

Undeterred, Selma and other CORE members worked with Rev. C.L. Franklin to dispel rumors that people were planning to bring guns to the March, which ultimately was both the picture of peaceful assembly and the first iteration of Dr. King’s I Have A Dream speech.

The civil rights movement motivated Selma, in her capacity as research director for CORE, to organize “ADC Moms,” mothers receiving Aid for Dependent Children. She made three critical mistakes whose lessons informed the next 50 years of her work.

1. Know your audience. Selma could not understand why the turnout was so low at the initial parlor meetings until someone explained to her that they were not comfortable in other people’s houses and, furthermore, wanted a space to meet outside the home.

Once the meetings moved, the CORE office attendance grew rapidly and led to the creation, constitution and membership structure of Westside Mothers, a welfare rights organization.

2. Get out of their way. At an early meeting, Selma presented a problem she was confident would gain consensus and momentum: the absence of a park for children in the area. The women in attendance acknowledged her politely before coalescing around a salient issue of their own.

Detroit Edison, Michigan Consolidated Gas Company (MichCon) and Michigan Bell were putting up structural barriers to families when they most needed reliable utilities. The hefty deposit for new customers, rigid billing practices and bureaucratic penalties — all by regulated utilities — put low-income families at undue risk of being cut off and left out in the cold.

3. Nothing about us without us. The University of Detroit law clinic agreed to represent Westside Moms in their action against the utilities. After U of D secured power of attorney and reached a serviceable settlement without consulting with their clients, Westside Moms fired them and rejected the settlement. Instead, they worked directly with the Public Service Commission for more favorable terms with Detroit Edison.

Westside Mothers went on to win one lawsuit after another, securing, among other things, an annual clothing allowance, standardized criteria for free school lunches and rules prohibiting schools from using “dry lunch” as a way to punish misbehaving students.
Selma never represented Westside Moms without at least one of them present and empowered to speak to her own experiences.

For all its judicial and regulatory success, Westside Moms was just as persistent in the court of public opinion. They picketed Michcon for weeks before securing a first-of-its-kind payment play for ADC families that guaranteed no shutoffs for participants.

In 1981 (“Julia was 17”), Westside Mothers marched 100 miles to Lansing to prevent welfare payments from being cut 5 percent. “Hello, Mrs. Goode,” Gov. Milliken’s plain-clothes bodyguards would say with grudging respect and peace of mind that her stated goal to “hound Milliken to death” was figurative.

To boot, Selma wrote the editors of the Detroit Free Press, “We do need ‘reform’ in the food stamp program. Get rid of the phonies, who exist more in President Ford’s imagination than in reality … but make food stamps available to those in need. That $50 a month bonus for a low-income family can be just enough to keep a family together.”

At its peak, Westside Mothers boasted 2,500 dues-paying members, whose advocacy has touched millions of lives. All the more remarkable to have captured such solidarity among the sick and tired — parents who just want their kids to have a chance at a better life. Parents who needed to hear the hook from Westside Mothers’ print materials and Selma’s stories so they could move from the singular to the plural:

“No problem is more important than yours …”

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