A People’s History of Grand Rapids book is now available

After years of research, interviews and archival materials, A People’s History of Grand Rapids is finally available.

Since Howard Zinn wrote A People’s History of the United States, there have been numerous books that have used his model to address the history of events of specific groups of people, but always on a national level. A People’s History of Grand Rapids is one of the first books that applies a history from below view of a specific community. In Smith’s book, people will learn about the struggle of Indigenous, Black and immigrant communities in Grand Rapids, and the organized efforts by workers, women and the LGBTQ community to win greater freedoms and equality.

In addition, there are chapters that inform readers of movements against war, environmental destruction, the exploitation of animals and police repression, along with movements for global solidarity. A People’s History of Grand Rapids presents readers with a rich tradition of social movements in West Michigan and properly frames their struggles against the systems of power and oppression that each movement was up against. A People’s History of Grand Rapids is a book that counters the official narrative about this community, and it can inspire people by seeing that they have not been alone in the fight for justice where they live.

You can purchase A People’s History of Grand Rapids at Schuler Books. If you want a PDF version of the book, which is $10, just send an e-mail to sjeff987@gmail.com.

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Revolutionary Anarchist Youth zine highlights benefit show in Grand Rapids for political prisoner Geronimo Pratt in 1996

The following post is the second in a series using archival documents from Cole Dorsey, a longtime activist/organizer in Grand Rapids and the Bay Area in California.

Below is a page from one of the many zines created by the Revolutionary Anarchist Youth (RAY), an anarchist group in Grand Rapids that existed in the mid-1990s.

There was a punk benefit show in the fall of 1996 to raise money for the US political prisoner known as Geronimo Pratt. Geronimo Pratt was a member of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, who was a target of the FBI’s counter-intelligence program known as COINTELPRO. Pratt spent 27 years in prison for being part of the Black Freedom Struggle. He was eventually released in 1997.

Raising money at benefit shows has always been a major tactic of anarchists, both as a way of raising awareness about political repression around the world, but also as a mechanism to provide Mutual Aid for political prisoners.

In addition, these events were always a great opportunity to talk about local organizing, as is reflected in the page 24 from the RAY zine here below.

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Revolutionary Anarchist Youth flyer on the Amway co-founders

Editor’s note: A dear friend and comrade, Cole Dorsey passed away recently and one of his family members passed along some of the archival materials he saved, which is what this post is about.

In the mid-1990s, the group Revolutionary Anarchist Youth (RAY) was active in Grand Rapids, doing important organizing work, along with disruptive actions and providing an analysis of politics in Grand Rapids. We came across this flyer/handout which addresses not only the wealth and greed of Amway co-founders Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel, it talks about how the increased investment from the Capitalist Class in downtown Grand Rapids impacted the surrounding neighborhoods and increased police presence, which disproportionately impacted Heartside residents and dissidents, like the members of the Revolutionary Anarchist Youth.

Here is the flyer/handout that we believe was from 1996.

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Just after the Depression years, the Grand Rapids City Government provided direct relief and created a public works project for those unemployed

The great depression that began in 1929, happened all across the globe. Grand Rapids was not immune to the devastation brought about because of the economic catastrophe.

However, during the depression years, there was one elected official who implemented New Deal-like policies, policies that provided relief to hundreds of families in Grand Rapids.

George Welsh was Mayor in Grand Rapids when the country was just coming out of the “Great Depression. According to Z.Z. Lydens book, The Story of Grand Rapids, Mayor Welsh wanted to do something to address the growing unemployment problem in the city. According to Lydens:

There were ominous moments when masses of men milled in front of City Hall, men who were seeking rescue from their jobless plight and the unmet needs of their families. Communist instigation was suspected, but the need was too obvious to call for instigation beyond need itself. To help the hungry, the unsheltered, and the unclothed, Welsh, supported by the City Commission, created all manner of public works. He adopted the philosophy that a man had a right to save his honor by working for his keep. Welsh instituted a script system of wage payment and set up a municipal food store, scrounging food where he could.

Lydens goes on to say that the city was taking care of 20,000 men, women and children through this New Deal-like program.

According to the Grand Rapids Historical Commission

Instead of money each laborer was paid about fifty cents per hour in scrip coupons which could be used at stores set up by the city. Scrip labor was not unique to Grand Rapids, but the extent to which it was used was unprecedented. The projects included snow removal, Grand River bank cleanups and dredging, demolition of old city buildings, cleaning and salvaging of materials from demolished buildings, the building of the Civic Auditorium, painting City Hall, shoe repair, canning foods, and the building of Richmond Park Pool and Bath House.

The photo above shows workers who participated in this script system that Welsh had set up. (Photo care of Grand Rapids Historical Commission)

This example of what the City of Grand Rapids did during the depression is rather instructive. First, it demonstrates that the city can and did use government resources to provide material relief for thousands of families, putting people to work that would ultimately benefit the city as a whole. It also demonstrates that in times of crisis, social charity is not the only form of relief and that municipalities can play a significant role in making sure that those who are the most vulnerable and most marginalized deserve support beyond social services.

Imagine what the City of Grand Rapids could be doing right now, if it implemented a public works project so that families could get their basic needs met. What would the city look like if there was an equal amount of funding utilized for public works projects as is provided as subsidies and tax breaks for developers?

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Some examples of the conditions for blacks in Grand Rapids and what types of discrimination blacks faced on a daily basis in the early part of the 20th Century

Over the past month, we have been posting articles based on archives from the Grand Rapids Public Library of Paul I. Phillips. In January, we posted a piece from a document by Phillips, where he lists all of the black soldiers from Grand Rapids who enlisted in the Civil War

Two weeks ago, we posted a second article from the Paul I. Phillips archives, something written in the mid-1970s, where Phillips was sharing notes about the economic, political and social conditions of blacks in Grand Rapids

Today, we want to look at some examples from 1913, where black people were featured in news stories from the Grand Rapids Evening Press. The first article, headlined, Rev. S. Henri Browne Tells Church Class of Conditions of Negroes. The article does share some of Rev. Browne’s thoughts about the condition of blacks in Grand Rapids, like substandard housing, landlords who were demanding high rent for “old ramshackle buildings,” and lack of employment.

In a second article, also from the Grand Rapids Evening Press, Rev. S. Henri Browne talked about being denied the purchase of shoes from a shoe store owner in downtown Grand Rapids.

“I submit to you it is shameful that in your city, on Monroe Avenue, is a shoe store where Rev. S. H. Browne, a college graduate, who addressed you today so ably, cannot buy a pair of shoes because he is black.”

This comment was from Sherman N. Furr, president of the Newport News, Virginia.

Both of these articles provide a small window into the realities that African Americans faced in Grand Rapids in the early part of the 20th Century. It is always instructive to see how Black people were represented in the local news media and what the news media chose to tell us about blacks in Grand Rapids.

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“Maybe America has forgotten how smoke smells”: The state of Black Grand Rapids from the perspective of Paul I Phillips in the mid-1970s

(As always, we are grateful for the assistance of the staff at the Grand Rapids Public Library, particularly those on 4th floor.)

Our last post referred to a document from former Urban League members Paul I Phillips, where he documented the number of African Americans from Grand Rapids that enlisted in the US Civil War in 1863. 

In today’s post, we continue to look at some of the archival documents from Paul I Phillips, specifically a document he wrote in 1976 about the state of black people in Grand Rapids.

The document is only 2 pages long and is more a list of notes/observations that the former Urban League member wrote. Phillips says under the heading of unemployment:

For Whites, a recession, for Blacks, a depression. Unemployment among blacks is double that among whites.

Phillips goes on to note that median income for black families in 1974 was $7,802 and for white families $13,830, nearly double.

The next observation is rather instructive, since he refers to the 1970s policies as “benign neglect,” with the depression of 1974-75 as “effectively undermining the economic gains made by blacks in the 1960’s. In response to this dynamic, Phillips writes that “an increasing number of black families are doubling up and pooling meager resources.”

He ends his notes with the statement, “this preferential treatment of blacks and other minorities must not be permitted to continue.”

Earlier in the document Phillips cites an unemployed black person who says, “Maybe America has forgotten how smoke smells. Maybe we need a refresher course.” This comment is particularly instructive, since Phillips did not cite anyone else in the 2-page document. Also, it must be said that Paul I Phillips was not a radical or a militant. By all accounts, Phillips was fairly conciliatory in terms of his assessment of institutional racism, yet in this document he makes some strong statements about the state of the black community in Grand Rapids in the mid-70s.

Phillips may not have been advocating that blacks engage in another uprising like they did in 1967, but it is interesting the only person he cites in the document makes reference to the burning of buildings in the 1967 Grand Rapids riot, buildings that were primarily white-owned.

Another thing worth noting is that the data that Phillips provides in this document from the mid-1970s, is consistent with the documentation that the Grand Rapids Urban League had been presenting in reports that looked at the 1930s and 1940s.

With all of the recent news about the lack of investment in the southeast part of Grand Rapids and the high levels of poverty, it is clear that these same issues of structural racism have plagued the African American community for nearly a century in this community.

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African Americans from Grand Rapids who were part of the US Civil War

(As always, we are grateful for the assistance of the staff at the Grand Rapids Public Library, particularly those on 4th floor.)

In reading the book, African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids (Randal Maurice Jelks), one realizes that the number of black people living in Grand Rapids was very small in the 19th century.

We recently came across a document from the archives of Paul I Phillips at the Grand Rapids Library. One document is headlined, The Negro in Grand Rapids 1840 – 1956. That document offers some census data on the number of African Americans living in Grand Rapids in the 19th century. It states that there were 9 in 1854 and 48 in 1870.

While we don’t have an exact number of African Americans living in Grand Rapids during the US Civil War, it is astounding to note that, based on the document from the Paul I Phillips archive, that the Michigan Governor (Austin Blair) was asked to enlist black soldiers for the Union Army in 1863. At total of 1600 volunteered from Michigan, with 30 coming from Grand Rapids. Again, we don’t have an exact number of African Americans living in Grand Rapids at that time, but if there were only 48 living in this city in 1870, the fact that 30 black men enlisted to fight in the US Civil War is pretty amazing.

Here is a list of those that signed up:

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1970 document sheds light on the housing crisis in Grand Rapids and the lack of political will to solve it

We came across a document at the Grand Rapids Library recent, a document that is included in the William M. Glenn Papers. William Glen was involved with the Grand Rapids Urban League and he also was part of the Housing Committee that was part of the Community Relations Commission.

Glen wrote this 3-page document on January 5, 1970, a document that was addressed to Mayor Christian Sonnevedlt. The document has as its title, Urban Renewal Housing. Early on in the document, Glen writes the following about the housing crisis:

Glen is correct in his assessment of the crisis and that it has been an issue for some time. We know that particularly in the city’s 3rd ward, specifically within the African American community, that the housing crisis was substantial. In a 1940 Urban League report, it states:

“In many instances the two-family houses are converted single family structures. Only one-fifth of the structures are in good conditions, one-third of them need either major repairs or are unfit for use. Nineteen families of the 205 (renters) do not have toilet facilities within their own unit; a greater number of families (84) do not have private baths. Over half of them live in cold water flats where they must furnish heat from small stoves, there being no central heating plant.”

That same 1940 Urban League report also states in the concluding remarks, “conditions in the Negro community are no better, if not worse, than at the time of the 1928 report.”

In 1947, the Urban League conducted another report on the State of the Black community in Grand Rapids. The 1947 report reflected very similar dynamics in terms of housing ownership and housing conditions, as the 1940 report. The reports cites the disparities between white and black residents when looking at housing, particularly at the cost of rent. A great deal of the housing disparities were due to structural racism, often in the practice of Red-Lining that plagued the black community for decades.

Another factor that contributed to the housing crisis in Grand Rapids, particularly for black people, was the construction of the highways through the city (196 & 131). In an interview I did with Fr. Dennis Morrow on this topic, he talked about 1,000 homes being destroyed and the devastation it had on families:

We don’t normally call it devastation, because something was built. It was pushed through by the government and certainly you could say that some people have benefitted from it. However, if the devastation from the riots of the 60’s had been nearly as great as the devastation wrought by the freeway construction they would have called the riots an all out war. The amount of dwellings that were destroyed during the riots were infinitesimal compared to those destroyed during the freeway construction.

The highway construction was part of the larger urban renewal efforts amongst city planners, often with the plan of wiping out or further marginalizing black neighborhoods. William Glen identifies this dynamic in the 1970 document, where he says:

The 1967 riot in Grand Rapids had a great deal to do with the exploitative nature of the housing, particularly white landlords who were renting to African Americans. Many of the properties that were burned or had other forms of property damage were targeted because they were white-owned, but also because black neighborhoods were being ignored by the City.

William Glen goes on to say that it is the City’s responsibility to address the housing crisis by investing massive amounts of money and to appoint someone who would coordinate this effort.

Glen concludes that this effort cannot be done in piecemeal fashion and that the longer we wait the worse it will get.

It is just a few weeks shy of 50 years since William Glen wrote this document. Grand Rapids is still facing a serious housing crisis, especially since the “power structure,” as Glen referred to it as, did not heed his words. One could argue that the power structure continues to ignore the thoughts of William Glen to this very day.


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Days of Our Lies: Public Access TV show provided independent news and news analysis in Grand Rapids from 1992 – 1998

For nearly seven years (between 1992 – 1998), if people had access to cable TV in the Grand Rapids area, they might have come across a show on GRTV called, Days of Our Lies.

The show was started by several community activists who had just come back from Central America and were interviewed on GRTV by the station manager. After that interview, the station manager suggested that these activists could have a regular time slot to produce a show about whatever they wanted to.

Beginning in August of 1992, these three activists kicked off an independent news and news analysis show that aired once a week for nearly seven years on GRTV.

The show used a Days of Our Lives intro, but when it got to the word lives, it said Days of Our Lies, with a Nine Inch Nails song that ran over a montage of images of national and international news.

Recently, someone sent us some of those early Days of Our Lies shows that have been uploaded to youtube, so we wanted to share them with people who follow this site. The audio isn’t great, but you get an idea of the show format and why it was important for those doing the show to provide independent news and news analysis at a time where little of that was happening.

Here are two examples from Days of Our Lives. The first one features regular news and news analysis, along with a video of Alfred McCoy talking about the US Drug War, since there was a Racism and the Drug War conference being held in Grand Rapids in September of 1992.

The second examples was from an early November 1992 show, just days before the 1992 election, where Days of Our Lies (DOOL) reporters went to a George Bush Sr rally in downtown Grand Rapids, to interview Bush supporters. These Bush supporters demonstrated the ridiculous and narrow-mindedness, which the DOOL reporters didn’t even need to comment on, since the Bush supporter comments spoke for themselves.

Over the years there were 9 different reporters and show producers. In 1994, Days of Our Lives won the Best Show on GRTV award.

Thanks to Mitchell Szczepanczyk for preserving these tapes of Days of Our Lives and for making some guest appearances on the show!!!

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56 years ago what did the GR Press report on Malcolm X’s suspension from the Nation of Islam over comments on President Kennedy’s death?

Fifty six year ago, Malcolm X made comments about President Kennedy’s assassination, comments which got him suspended by Elijah Mohammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam.

Here on the right, you can read what the Grand Rapids Press ran, which was a brief article that was from the Associated Press. The AP story quotes part of what Malcolm X said in regards to the assassination of President Kennedy, specifically the comment about “chickens coming home to roost.”

However, what Malcolm X said included a whole lot more commentary. Unfortunately, there is no full record of what Malcolm X said on December 1st, 1963, in regards to the assassination of Kennedy. We only have bits and pieces of the talk he gave at the Manhattan Center. Here is part of what Malcolm X said that day, as is sourced in Manning Marable’s book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

“God’s Judgment of White America” began with a sophisticated argument about political economies. “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us . . . it was the evil of slavery that caused the downfall and destruction of ancient Egypt and Babylon, and of ancient Greece, as well as ancient Rome,” Malcolm told his audience. In similar fashion, colonialism contributed to “the collapse of the white nations in present-day Europe as world powers.” The exploitation of African Americans will, in turn, “bring white America to her hour of judgment, to her downfall as a respected nation.” Malcolm’s core argument was that America, like the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, was in moral decline. The greatest example of its moral bankruptcy, Malcolm argued, was its hypocrisy. “White America pretends to ask herself, ‘What do these Negroes want?’ White America knows that four hundred years of cruel bondage has made these twenty-two million ex-slaves too (mentally) [Malcolm’s parentheses] blind to see what they really want.”

Therefore, the larger context of “chicken’s coming home to roost,” had to do with White America and the hate that the US government had created around the world and at home.

Eventually, Malcolm X broke his silence. In the video here, a reporter asks Malcolm X about what he said and how it has been interpreted by the news media.


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