Amidst the wars in the world and the divisiveness within our nation, I’m writing to share some good news this week about a city that has made significant progress in the last 15 years on a problem that plagued it for at least a century before. I’m interested to hear what you think about this reflection. Please just hit reply to share your thoughts. Mike

The Detroit Lions oh-so-close quest to reach the Super Bowl represents something even bigger than the possibility of winning a championship for the first time in seven decades. For a city long known as much for its racial divisiveness as its gritty work ethic, this team also reflects tangible progress over racial and cultural strife tearing Detroit apart in the past.

Detroit suffered one of the most violent racial conflicts in American history when 34 people were killed in the summer of 1943. Things got worse in 1967, when another race riot left 43 dead. According to a 1973 story in Time Magazine that dubbed Detroit “Murder City,” unregistered gun ownership surged as people sought to protect themselves in future race conflicts, leading to soaring gun violence.  It has taken decades to slow those trends and to shake that headline.

Eight Mile Road, popularized in the Eminem movie of the same name, has long signified the divide between majority black Detroit and its historically white suburbs. When we elected our first black mayor in 1973, he warned all criminals in his inaugural speech “to leave Detroit. Hit 8 Mile Road.” In a time before facts could be verified on YouTube, his message got misconstrued. White people thought he meant them, and they left at astonishing rates. Half of the city’s white population moved out in the 70s and half of those who remained moved out in the 80s. The Lions went with them, moving 14 miles north of Detroit in 1975 to play their home games in the Pontiac Silverdome. The Oakland County Commissioner just north of 8 Mile relished it, saying, ‘What we’re going to do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.” He was elected to six terms after making that statement and served until his death in office.

As a child in a white family that stayed, I found myself feeling the hatred that was expressed so freely back then—except that my hatred was directed towards the white people who had left. After being told by a girl I liked in high school that she wouldn’t date me because her dad would never let her go south of 8 Mile, I made a vow never to go north of it. I kept that vow for ten years, except in 1992 when I broke it to attend the Lions only playoff victory in my lifetime until this year’s run.  

Detroit’s low point came when our big three auto companies went to DC hat-in-hand at the height of the Great Recession of 2008. They didn’t receive the same respect as the leaders of the finance industry who showed up a few months earlier.  Instead, congressional leaders called out the CEOs of Chrysler, Ford and GM for flying in private jets and questioned whether they would agree to be paid one dollar in annual compensation in exchange for a bailout. For anyone in Michigan, it was painful to watch. As if that humiliation weren’t enough, the Detroit Lions lost every single game that season, an unprecedented event in NFL history, reemphasizing the point that this city that took pride in its toughness had no claws. Our spirit had been broken. 

And then something unimaginable happened. Metro Detroiters came to a collective realization that the rest of the country sees all of us from the city of Detroit and its suburbs as the same, regardless of what color we are or what side of 8 Mile Road we live on. That had a profound implication: if we were going to be treated the same, we better start looking out for each other better.

The Lions team that won two playoff games at Ford Field in Detroit reflects that transformation. Their new owner, Sheila Ford Hamp, was part of Yale’s first-ever freshmen class that included women in 1969—giving her a much different perspective than the one her great grandfather, Henry Ford, propagated with horrific, racial animosity. Our general manager, Brad Holmes, a graduate of North Carolina A&T, one of the country’s most renowned historically black universities, is a football genius. And Dan Campbell, our coach (who also played on the Lions 0-16 team), embodies the toughness that made us the Motor City.

This leadership team shares so much trust, respect, and love for each other that it radiates to the team around them, and to the fans. This is the victory Detroit is celebrating with this team. It’s worth remembering how far this city has come in the last 15 years to break out of our historic tribes—and perhaps encouraging to a divided America that we as a nation can become a lot better together than apart.

 

Mike Tenbusch, IntSam President

Mike joined International Samaritan in 2018 after two decades of leading social change in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. He’s a University of Michigan Law grad and author of The Jonathan Effect: Helping Kids and Schools Win the Battle Against Poverty. He and his wife, Maritza, have three children who keep them young.

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