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Five times the NAACP made history in Detroit

Influential decisions on the local level that shaped public policy

With the national NAACP convention in Detroit this week, we figured we’d take a look back at some notable moments that the civil rights organization has had in the city. 

The NAACP was founded in 1909, and has had a presence in the city since 1912. In the century since, influential court decisions pushed by the NAACP at the local level have had impact on federal policy and how the country looks — whether that local decision was the first or the last of a string of events that brought the country to these moments.

Ossian Sweet House Detroit MI

1. The Dr. Ossian Sweet case

When Dr. Ossian Sweet and his family moved to a home on Garland Street on the east side in 1925, they were greeted with hostility from white residents. One night, a mob of white Detroiters gathered outside the Sweet home in an attempt to force them out. Dr. Sweet’s brother, Henry, fired shots from a bedroom window, killing one of the mob and injuring another. Ossian Sweet was put on trial that November, but had the support of the then-burgeoning NAACP, who commissioned attorney Clarence Darrow to represent the doctor. The first trial concluded with a hung jury; Sweet’s retrial, leading to his acquittal, would have ripple effects in Detroit and across the country. It boosted the profile of trial Judge Frank Murphy, who later became mayor of Detroit and governor of Michigan and would become the namesake of the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice; it added to the legacy of Darrow, who would reflect on the Sweet trial as one of his greatest career accomplishments; and it moved the needle, if slightly, for blacks in Detroit and other integrating cities who aspired to live in middle-class neighborhoods.

800px-Boblo Island Boat Dock Building Detroit (April 2018)

2. Integrating Boblo Island

Most Detroiters of a certain age remember Boblo Island as a joyful amusement park, but for many years, black Detroiters were not allowed on the island. In 1945, just two years out from the 1943 race riots, Sarah Elizabeth Ray, a black woman and newly minted secretary in the City of Detroit’s former ordinance department, boarded the S.S. Columbia en route to Boblo Island with a group of secretaries. Ray was booted off the boat despite protests from her shipmates. The incident was a precursor to a much larger fight for civil rights in the United States. Per (first paragraph) and BLAC Detroit Magazine (second):

Ray then contacted the NAACP in Detroit, which brought charges against the Bob-Lo Excursion Company for violating state Civil Rights laws. The case made it to the Supreme Court, with Thurgood Marshall serving as the chief legal counsel. He won the case, Bob-Lo Excursion Company v. Michigan, and five years later won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education that struck down the “separate but equal” ruling in regards to segregated education. After the race riots in Detroit in 1967, Ray and her husband purchased a building and converted it into a community center called Action House to “forge positive interracial relations.”

That was an impressive victory for a young woman from the hills of Tennessee. Legal scholars say that the decision in Bob-Lo Excursion Co. v. Michigan signaled the Supreme Court’s willingness to protect the civil rights of African-Americans, making the case a precursor to the landmark decision in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, banning “separate but equal” public schools.

3. “Burying the n-word”

OK, so, if you listen to any song on the radio, watch any pay-cable show with a mostly black cast or hell, just listen to a conversation on the street, the n-word is still here. Still, a much-covered event in 2007 here in Detroit was the “burial” of the n-word, enacted by the NAACP:

Thousands gathered in Detroit, Michigan to participate in the NAACP’s funeral and burial for the “N” word.  A horse drawn carriage carried a wooden coffin that adorned black roses and a ribbon with the word “nigga” displayed. NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, hip-hop legend Curtis Blow and R & B legend Eddie Levert led the procession today from COBO Hall to Hart (Freedom) Plaza. The burial was a part of the 9th Annual Convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Making sure that the crowd understood the significance of this event, Kilpatrick stated that we should take the word out of our spirit. “Good riddance. Die, N-word,” said Kilpatrick. We don’t want to see you around here no more.”


4. Detroit Public Schools busing case

With a nationwide conversation about busing and school desegregation, let’s remember that Detroit’s schools played a major role in how we talk about race in public education. Local leaders in Detroit wanted to bus white students into black schools in the city, and sought the NAACP’s counsel to fight state leaders who opposed busing. Local leaders argued that state and federal leaders — and the Detroit Public Schools board itself — were sabotaging the futures of Detroit children by crowding them into inner-city schools based on federal housing policy. Per the Michigan Bar Journal:

“Policies of the Federal Housing Administration, the Veteran’s Administration, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, and the practices of real estate associations, banks, and other lending institutions all combined together to create a racially segregated housing market in Detroit and in the suburbs,” said Joyce Baugh, a Central Michigan University political science professor and author of The Detroit School Busing Case: Milliken v Bradley and the Controversy over Desegregation. “Suburban schools didn’t have to write policies to keep black children out because housing policies already took care of that.” 

The NAACP argued that both the Detroit Board and state government actively increased school segregation by implementing an optional attendance zone policy, building new schools in white neighborhoods, and drawing boundaries that created the most racially segregated schools possible. Then they made a radical proposal: in order to actually integrate Detroit’s schools and not just escalate “white flight,” the plan would have to reach beyond the city’s limits to include white students in the suburbs in an inter-district busing desegregation plan.

The U.S. Court of Appeals found the Detroit school board and the state responsible for school segregation in the city, but state and suburban leaders appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed and remanded the decisions in the lower court. In short, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that school districts didn’t have to desegregate. As a result, white students in outlying districts were not bused into Detroit schools; instead, white students already in the Detroit district were redistributed evenly across the city. The Supreme Court decision, however, further accelerated white flight in Detroit and other cities as their school systems became increasingly populated with black students while suburban ones became predominantly white.

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5. Desegregating public housing and neighborhoods in Detroit

Adequate affordable housing for black Detroiters was a persistent issue in the city’s mid-century years, as tensions between poor whites and poor blacks flared when the former frequently attempted to keep the latter from taking space in new housing projects. Per the Detroit NAACP’s website: The Detroit Branch is also responsible for ending segregation in Detroit public housing in 1954 when Federal Judge Arthur Lederle issued a permanent injunction against the Detroit Housing Commission.

Another local victory was won years later: With its focus on housing, the Detroit Branch NAACP won a summary judgment against the City of Detroit’s “Homeowners” ordinance, which wanted allow a property owner “to enjoy his property according to his own dictates” and allowed a property seller to “reject any prospective buyer or renter” for his own reasons.” In 1966, the branch successfully argued that this ordinance would discriminate against Blacks. 

(Top photo via Reuther Library/Wayne State University)