A City Within A City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, MI – Book Review
Todd Robinson’s, A City Within A City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, MI, is important for two major reasons.
Secondly, the book is extremely valuable in that is provides information that can illuminate what the possibilities are for the future. Indeed, this is the real purpose of history, to provide an honest framework so that people can learn from the past and put a proper context on the present, with the hope of what can become of the future.
Robinson begins his book through the powerful stories of individuals like Karen Parker, an African American woman who moved to Grand Rapids from North Carolina. Parker, like so many other well educated Black people who came north after WWII.
Parker said that she was amazed at how the White community in Grand Rapids held deeply racists and discriminatory attitudes towards her and her Black friends and colleagues. Robinson used first person interviews and other sources to provide substantive commentary from African Americans living in Grand Rapids before and during the Height of the Civil Rights movement. The stories vary from Blacks being victims of redlining, refused access to more skills jobs and excluded from much of the political and economic decision making in Grand Rapids.
Robinson identifies what was practiced in Grand Rapids as a form of “managerial racism,” a kind of racism that wasn’t as in your face as in the Jim Crow south, but ultimately had the same consequences.
The author identifies the businessmen and business entities, such as the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, as the primary proponents of the “managerial racism.” At one point in the book, Robinson even headlines a section entitled, The Center City Plantation, which referred to the efforts by the business community to inject millions of dollars into the downtown at the expense of many neighborhoods.
Robinson also identifies the organizing efforts and groups that were behind either reformist efforts or more systemic change around racial politics in Grand Rapids. He identifies groups such as the Grand Rapids Study Club, which was made up of Black women who studied independently on issues related to their community. Robinson also investigates the Grand Rapids chapters of the Urban League and the NAACP and what roles they played in issues like housing, education and employment.
In addition to the author’s investigation of the Black community at this time in Grand Rapids, he spends an ample amount of time on the political class in Grand Rapids that wielded power in those days. Names like Frank McKay and George Welsh are two that Robinson explores, names which sit atop some of the buildings in downtown Grand Rapids today.
Frank McKay was a robber baron in his own right and one of the 1% in that period. He owned a tremendous amount of property and had an excessive amount of influence on the politics within Grand Rapids. Welsh, was a long time Mayor of Grand Rapids and was unseated from power, not by a popular movement, but by “moderate” Republicans who wanted to manage the city in ways that would not be as blatantly dictatorial as was the case under Welsh.
The chapters I found most engaging where the chapters around educational reform and civil rights in Grand Rapids in the 1960s. Robinson does an outstanding job of presenting what was happening with education in Grand Rapids as the Black population was growing. The author presents compelling information on how the desegregation efforts locally were one way, where Blacks were bused to predominantly White schools, but White were not bused at all.
This one-sided dynamic led to lots of conflict and sent a strong message to the Black community that there was a double standard in the local school district. Robinson demonstrates how this double standard played out, with long-term effects that provide some clarity on the state of the Grand Rapids Public Schools today.
Robinson also looks at how the predominantly White schools treated Black students and how the school administration did not prepare the faculty nor the students for the integration of Blacks into schools like Union High. In fact, White students often engaged in acts of discrimination and violence against Black students, often resulting in the schools being shut down for days at a time.
The opposition to the arrival of Black students to schools like Union High led to a coalition of White Westside candidates running for the GR School Board on a platform of segregation and anti-busing. Parents and voters turned out in numbers to support these candidates and pushed racial justice back years.
The other area that Robinson explores is the growing impatience from the Black community around housing, education and employment opportunities. Like much of the country, there was a shift from the more moderate Civil Rights reformers to the Black Power Movement. People were tired of being second-class citizens and told that their status in life was because of their lack of commitment to doing for themselves.
The Black community had had enough and began participating in actions and organizing efforts that were often led by students. The Grand Rapids Public Schools began implementing harsh dress codes, which many in the Black community felt was a lack of understanding or acknowledgement of Black culture.
The famous Mustache affair, where a Black student refused to shave his mustache led to his suspension from school. The community responded with thousands showing up at school board meetings and pressuring the GRPS to stop imposing culturally insensitive policies on Black students.
This growing tension and frustration in the Black community, especially with Black youth, was the context for the 1967 race riot that broke out in Grand Rapids. Robinson does an excellent job of sifting through the significance of that uprising, which was just one of 47 race riots to occur in the US that year.
Robinson notes that the politicians and business leaders in Grand Rapids didn’t want to deal with the real concerns of the Black community at this time, but also recognized that it was not good business when people rose up in anger the way they did in July of 67.
The sophistication of Managerial Racism in Grand Rapids allowed those in power to take action that was presented as racial reconciliation, but was just another way on maintaining the White Supremacist power structure. Grand Rapids elected Lyman Parks as its first City Commissioner in 1968. Parks eventually became President of the City Commission and then Mayor of Grand Rapids, when then Mayor Robert Boelens resigned.
Lyman Parks was vetted by the establishment and played an important role for the White Power structure, since Parks himself identified as conservative and as a Republican. This allowed Grand Rapids to continue to be a City Within a City, where Blacks were never allowed to advance collectively.
A City Within a City should be read by anyone who cares about an honest history of Grand Rapids. It should also be required reading for anyone who identifies with wanting to fight for racial justice and dismantled the White Supremacist power structure that still rules this city.