White Paternalism and the Grand Rapids Press Editorial on the 1963 March on Washington

In Jeanne Theoharis’s important book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, makes the point that we often look back to events like the 1963 march on Washington and think that the majority of the country supported such events.

The reality is much different. In fact, the federal government was monitoring the organizing leading up to the march and the event that day on August 28, 1963. The federal government was so concerned about what might be said, that they had it set up that they could cut the sound system when necessary, to make sure people were not calling for an uprising that day.

Another mechanism that the state used that day was to have over a thousands police officers attempting to manage the march in the nation’s capitol.

Lastly, the major news outlets around the country reported on the march with some suspicion, specifically how the march was too polarizing and that it did not reflect what most Americans wanted. This sentiment was true, based on polls taken during the 1960s. According to Theoharis, a Gallup Poll taken in 1961, showed that only 22 of Americans polled supported the Freedom Rides. In 1968, another poll that was taken by Gallop, shortly after Dr. King was assassinated, showed that 73% of whites said that blacks in their community were treated the same as whites.

As an example, our post today, takes a look at how the Grand Rapids Press editorialized about the 1963 March on Washington.

Besides the Grand Rapids Press editorial on the 1963 march on Washington, we include three opinion pieces from non-Grand Rapids sources. We include these piece, because this is what people were reading in the Grand Rapids Press in the editorial section, which also influences how people understand what took place in the summer of 1963 – which are linked here.

The Grand Rapids Press editorial uses supportive language and taken out of context might seem like those who wrote this editorial were endorsing the 1963 march on Washington. However, up closer review, within historic context, we can see that this editorial is really framed through the lens of White Paternalism.

The Press editorial staff practices White Paternalism by saying, “more orderly and better controlled.” This signals that has there been any civil resistance, the marchers would have lost all credibility, in the eyes of the GR Press editorial staff. The fact is, that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other black groups involved wanted to have civil disobedience as part of the march, but they were pressured by the Kennedy administration, the AFL-CIO and the Catholic Church not to engage in that kind of action.

The Press editorial writer then goes on to say that “this was a responsible assembly,” and then he compares it to the negative response from David Lawrence’s commentary, which the Press published alongside their editorial. (see link above).

Apparently the restraint exhibited in the marchers was also a demonstration to the world that these kinds of actions need not be violent, which would surely have been the case if this took place in Russia, at least according to the GR Press editorial.

The rest of the editorial again valorizes the fact that there was no violence expressed on the part of the marchers. Nothing is included in the editorial about what it was that those who spoke or the march organizers were demanding from the federal government. In fact, the only person identified by name in the editorial, was Congressman Gerald Ford. Black voices were not centered in this editorial, indeed they were completely absent and seemingly irrelevant.

Ironically, there was violence at the 1963 march on Washington. The violence was demonstrated on the part of the state, by rigging the microphone to cut off if what was said was not found acceptable. There was the threat of violence with the presence of over 1,000 cops ready to arrest people if they were not “orderly.” Then there was the violence of state surveillance, since we know that the communications between organizers was being monitored and their hotel rooms were being bugged by the FBI. In fact, there were an estimated 150 FBI agents there, just to monitor the crowd, according to Gary Younge’s book, The Speech.

Then there was the systemic violence, which is why thousands came to DC to express their grievances. The segregation, the white supremacy and the brutality of police violence that black people experience, as Dr. King pointed out in his speech at the march on Washington. King also made it clear that the federal government failed to make good on its promissory note to blacks to be granted equal rights. King makes it clear that the violence of poverty, poor housing and lack of jobs for black people was the violence that the system imposed on black people.

Our next post will look at the reporting from the Grand Rapids Press on the 1963 march on Washington.


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New Artwork celebrates Indigenous Sovereignty and exposes Settler Colonialism in Grand Rapids

A new print, created by Carly Wormmeester, provides a powerful image of the importance of our recognition of Indigenous Sovereignty in Michigan and the Settler Colonial reality of taking over land that belonged to the Anishinaabe.

Carly’s print is based on one of our articles under the heading of Indigenous Resistance, an article entitled, More White Lies: Grand Rapids and Settler Colonialism

The print provides just enough information that exposes the lies of Settler Colonialism in West Michigan and celebrates the Three Fires Tribes.

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Boarding Schools In Michigan: An Interview with Dee Sherwood

Dr. Dee Sherwood is a member of the social work faculty at Western Michigan University. She teaches courses on the American Indian Boarding Schools and intergenerational trauma in Indigenous communities.  She is a mixed blood descendant of Paiute, French and English Nations.

Dr. Sherwood has helped to organize community events in the Grand Rapids Urban Indian community including film screenings, marches and educational forums, including events featuring Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement. She served as the advisor to the Native American Student Association at a local university. She also co-authored a curriculum guide  published by the Ziibiwing Center for Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways.

In this seven part interview, Dee talks about the origins of boarding schools in the US, how the history of boarding schools was a form of genocide against indigenous people, how boarding schools impacted indigenous communities, where some of them were located in Michigan, how this history is rarely taught even at the university level and how indigenous people have dealt with the consequences of boarding schools.


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The Human Relations Commission and the racial tensions of the 1960s in Grand Rapids: Part II

Last week, we posted Part I of a look at the Human Relations Commission and the racial tensions of the 1960s. In Part II, we want to look at the racial tensions that was known to the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and the 1967 race riot in Grand Rapids, once again using the documentation in Clingman’s book, which is linked here.

Prior to the 1967 race riot, the head of the Human Relations Commission, Alfred Cowles, gave a speech to the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, where is said that he didn’t think that things were bad in the black community. Cowles also stated at the time, “that the local minority situation in housing, employment and public accommodations was generally good but some problems still existed in the field of education. Cowles made similar comments on WOOD TV 8 in 1964.

In addition, Cowles felt that the most dangerous group in town was the Black Muslims and even compared them to the KKK. Other members of the Human Relations Commission did not share Cowles concerns about the Black Muslim and no formal action was taken.

After the Watts riot in 1965, WOOD TV 8 produced an hour long documentary that mostly included interviews with the Black community and asking them if the conditions were similar in Grand Rapids as it was to Watts before the riot in Los Angeles. Those interviewed expressed complaints about housing, employment and police brutality, but Cowles generally refused to acknowledge these complaints. Here is what Cowles said after the 1965 WOOD TV 8 documentary:

Aflred Cowles was replaced by Eugene Sparrow near the beginning of 1966, but Sparrow was not prepared to say that racial tensions would lead to a race riot.

At a meeting on July 12, 1967, the head of the Grand Rapids Urban League, Paul I Phillips, communicated to Mayor Sonneveldt, the City Manager and the Grand Rapids Chief of Police that according to the national Urban League office, Grand Rapids was on a “dangerous list” of cities with racial tensions. Despite the comments from the Urban League, Mayor Sonneveldt, the City Manager and the Chief of Police “positively denied that riots were possible in the city.”

Two weeks later, at 11pm on July 24th, 1967, the black community rose up against the injustices they had been facing for decades in Grand Rapids, and began to riot.

Clingman doesn’t provide a great deal of new information that we haven’t already shared about the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids. He does mention that there was a meeting during the riot at the House of Styles between City leaders, older members of the Black leadership and a few young African Americans who Clingman refers to as “young militants.”

One result of that meeting was the creation of the Negro Leadership Council (later renamed the Black Unity Council) that did include some of the “young militants.” Three days later the riot was over.

Clingman ends the chapter on 1967 with these observations:

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The Human Relations Commission and the racial tensions of the 1960s in Grand Rapids: Part I

The Human Relations Commission (HRC) in Grand Rapids was created based on a study that was called for by then Grand Rapids Mayor Paul Goebel. This commission was established to, “foster mutual understanding and respect among all racial, religious and nationality groups in the City of Grand Rapids, and discouraging and preventing discriminatory practices among any such groups or any of its members.

The HRC was eliminated in 1968 and replaced by what is now called the Community Relations Commission (CRC). The HRC was founded right after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education and was changed in 1968, just one year after the 1967 race riot in Grand Rapids.

The HRC, like the Community Relations Commission does some of its own investigation into policies and practices within the city and then makes recommendations based on their own findings or the prompting of other community-based groups.

For instance, in the early 1980s, people in Grand Rapids who were working on an South African Anti-Apartheid campaign, pressured the CRC to propose a resolution for the City Commission to divest from any holdings they had with companies doing business with South Africa. That proposal was adopted and beginning in 1984, the City of Grand Rapids began divesting from South Africa.

During the 1960s, the HRC was tested, as various movements, particularly the Freedom Movement (often referred to as the Civil Rights Movement) swept the country, including Grand Rapids. In 1976, a book was written by Lewis Clingman, entitled, The History of the Grand Rapids Human Relations Commission. What follows is a summary of one of the chapters from that book that dealt with the 1960s, particularly the Mustache incident, linked here

The head of the Human Relations Commission in 1966 was Mr. Eugene Sparrow. One thing that Sparrow was attempting to do was to have joint meetings between the HRC and the Grand Rapids City Commission. Mayor Sonneveldt was not a fan of this initiative and at the first joint meeting, the Mayor of Grand Rapids accused the HRC of attacking the local chapter of the John Birch Society, instead of preparing for the scheduled visit by former SNCC member and Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael.

Such a comment from the Mayor of Grand Rapids was instructive, since the John Birch Society believed that the civil rights movement was a Communist plot to overthrow the US government. Some members of the HRC did object to Sonneveldt’s accusation saying that it was the function of the HRC to combat extremism from all political sectors, whether it was from the left or the right. Clingman goes on to note that while there was police assigned to the Carmichael visit, there was no plan in place to deal with any potential violence coming from the John Birch Society, which had 2 chapters in Grand Rapids. 

In the summer of 1966, the Human Relations Commission decided to host a meeting in the community in an attempt to provide a more neutral environment for people in the community to speak freely about their concerns. A meeting was held at Campau School on August 22nd. People from the Black community were mostly upset with the student that was expelled because of facial hair.

Clingman goes on to discuss the growing tension at South High over what became known as the Mustache Affair. One interesting note in Clingman’s chapter, which referred to an article in the Grand Rapids Times, stated:

“the real issue was that the white majority, and many self-styled Negro leaders simply have not been in contact with the mass of the people in the Ghetto area.”

Clingman later makes the following observation:

In Part II of our look at Clingman’s book on the history of the HRC, we will explore his observations and documentation about the months leading up to, and including, the 1967 race riot.

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Artwork highlights a People’s History in Grand Rapids – Print #21: The First Pride Celebration 1988

Last semester, art students in Brett Colley’s GVSU class on printmaking, invited me to come talk about the Grand Rapids People’s History Project. The intent of the class was to have students investigate their own part of a People’s History of Grand Rapids and then make a print based upon an individual social movement or a particular moment in Grand Rapids history.

The following print is from Michael Morey and celebrates the first Pride celebration in Grand Rapids in 1988. After activists from the LGBT community had traveled to DC to participate in a national march, they returned to Grand Rapids and created the first openly gay organization called The Network.

The Network had as some of its initial goals the first celebration of Pride in Grand Rapids and getting the city to pass an ordinance, which included sexual orientation as part of their anti-discrimination ordinance.

The video at this link is 90 minutes of the first ever Pride celebration in Grand Rapids, which includes comments from the stage, interviews with organizations tabling at the event, music and even footage of the spiritual violence that was perpetrated against those in attendance by a group of self-proclaimed Christians who tried to disrupt the event.


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Artwork highlights a People’s History in Grand Rapids – Print #20: Ecological consequences of logging and the furniture industry

Last semester, art students in Brett Colley’s GVSU class on printmaking, invited me to come talk about the Grand Rapids People’s History Project. The intent of the class was to have students investigate their own part of a People’s History of Grand Rapids and then make a print based upon an individual social movement or a particular moment in Grand Rapids history.

The following print is from Katie Spence, which depicts one of the consequences of logging that was tied to the furniture industry in Grand Rapids in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The quote on the print is from former City Historian Gordon Olsen, from his book A Grand Rapids Sampler.

Jeffrey Kleiman, in his book on the 1911 Furniture Workers strike in Grand Rapids, entitled Strike!, cites Mayor Ellis who was frustrated by the wealthy developers who were buying up property along the Grand River.

“Encroachment of the river channel by factory owners, carelessly at best and unlawfully at worst, was only the most visible sign of the power of the special interests, according to Ellis. “The rich men have stolen property on both sides of the river,” he argued, making the channel too narrow, so that flooding could occur any time. “The men who have stolen this land should give it back to the city.”

For more on the 1883 log jam, see our post The Grand River: Flooding, Forests and Factories.


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