( pictured L to R: Rev. Nicholas Hood, Rabbi Daniel Syme)
The Biblical inference that “a prophet is without honor except in his own hometown” has long been used to measure the kind of reception that is given to our own giants of history. That sometimes the quality of their work goes unrecognized, their achievements minimized and they are treated as if it is normal, and their contributions to society underestimated and undervalued because we see them squarely from the lens of the past instead of looking at them as having informed the present which in turn informs the future for all of us.
That sentiment of deliberately or unconsciously failing to spotlight the contributions of what the men and women who shaped history in terms of civil and equal rights that produced an Obama era was evident when I spoke last Tuesday at the Fannie Lou Hammer Political Action Committee first meeting of the year. I was invited to give an overview of 2014 and to say what my expectations are for 2015. In the midst of my presentation, questions started coming in about the state of the economy in Detroit and what role African-American businesses will play in them, the future of the Michigan Democratic Party, Gov. Rick Snyder and media coverage of Detroit’s affairs in the past year.
One particular question pointedly focused on Detroit’s own Congressman John Conyers because he recently became the first African-American dean of Congress. That seminal moment in American history took place in the first week of January and it means that Conyers is now the longest serving member of Congress. That distinction places him in a special place among the political greats of all time. His portrait is now on the walls of Congress where generations to come will look and realize that he is the only African-American whose face graces the same wall that features the photos of all the other past deans of Congress.
The question was why there hasn’t been more extensive media coverage around Conyers’ ascension to the highest level of American legislative power. One person in the audience observed there has been no real media coverage at all and wondered if the skin color of the congressman had anything to do with it. Was the media ignoring an important aspect of political history?
The conversation briefly turned to what the media considers a priority and what it sees as important for a ratings bonanza. I quickly informed the audience that the front page of the Michigan Chronicle’s Jan. 14 edition was in fact leading with Conyers’ newest ranking in the world’s most powerful legislative body.
I consider it an important story because it is part of the African-American experience, which is an intricate part of the American experience. No matter how Conyers is viewed in the press and whether he is favored in certain quarters or not, it has nothing to do with his ascendance to a new place in history.
The man who authored the Martin Luther King Jr., federal holiday before Stevie Wonder turned it into a cultural campaign, hired civil rights matriarch Rosa Parks to work in his office, strongly defended former President Bill Clinton during his near political death impeachment trial is an American icon. The man who introduced the Violence Against Women Act, Fair Sentencing Act, Hate Crimes Act, Emmet Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, Help America Vote Act and Racial Justice/Innocence Protection Act, National Voter Registration Act, Sexual Abuse Act, Court Security Improvement Act, Church Arson Prevention Act and the Pigford Claims Remedy Act which ensured that Black farmers could challenge discrimination in the U.S. Department of Agriculture farm loan programs is a giant of history.
Conyers, who introduced Rev. Jesse Jackson to Dr. King, has lived a heroic life but he has done so with elegance, stature, grace and dignity. He is never one to seek the spotlight and has been one of the most accessible members of Congress. There is no political vengeance in his bones. Even in the past election where his chances of winning was up in the air mixed with an attempt to distort his record, he was calm about it and even encouraged those who wanted to run against him to do so as they pleased.
As I thought about the questions I was asked at the Fannie Lou Hammer PAC meeting about the seeming absence of media coverage on instructive moments in history like Conyers’ ascension to dean of Congress, I wondered about another giant in our community who, like Conyers, came out of an era that changed the face of this nation.
Rev. Nicholas Hood Sr., pastor emeritus of Plymouth United Church of Christ, was one of the signers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in New Orleans, the group cofounded by Dr. King. Through his work in New Orleans and in Detroit, we see in Hood a man who has earned his place in history as one of the key participants in the Civil Rights Movement.
He introduced and ordained Ambassador Andrew Young, one of King’s top aides in the ministry in New Orleans. Not only did he march in Selma, he worked closely along with Rev. C.L. Franklin to organize the 1963 March on Detroit, which was a prelude to the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. He made Plymouth church, now pastored by his son, Rev. Nicholas Hood III, a leader in liberation theology, becoming one of the first churches in the country to focus on low-income housing development and place the church at the center of Detroit’s life and existence.
Given the scope of his achievements, and the efficacy of his work, it is tempting to write off individuals like Hood as people who once played a role. But it would be a grave mistake to dismiss their lasting and impactful contributions for the “beloved community” King talked about. We would be fooling ourselves if we fail to pass the substance of the era that produced Hood, Conyers and others to today’s generation.
Every community embraces their giants with a crown because the bedrock of any society stands on the solid foundations of their work. That is why last year I was compelled to write a column in the midst of a heated congressional campaign defending Conyers’ record because I was not going to allow political subterfuge to cloud the historical record. I was not going to take part in a festival of throwing stones at his legacy or making a mockery of him. We can debate his record and policies all day, but I will not descend into the tawdry affairs of lesser men.
Conyers and Hood exemplify the finest examples of King’s legacy. Both men met King. Both men bought into his vision and demonstrated a high degree of leadership in our community and crossed every Rubicon with dignity.
One of the strong features of King’s life was his ability to bring coalitions together. His transcending message reached across communities and brought unlikely allies together. One of his alliances was with the Jewish community, and he underscored that when he received the American Medallion Award from the American Jewish Community (AJC) in New York. One of King’s strongest allies in the Jewish community was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel who marched with the civil rights leader in Selma. In fact, Herschel would later recollect his memory of the march and describe it in the most iconic way saying, “When I marched in Selma my feet were praying,” capturing the essence of that moment and the possibility of faith and freedom beyond Selma.
Another giant in our extended community walking in the transcending footsteps of King is Rabbi Daniel Syme of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, one of the leading rabbis in North America. Inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. International Board of Preachers at Morehouse College, Syme has been a vocal advocate for Black-Jewish relations that has often been punctuated by tensions in the past.
Syme, who sits on the board of the American Jewish Commitee, has sought to build partnerships with African-American churches in Detroit to create a sense of identification on issues facing our communities. Though Blacks and Jews are bound together as siblings of historic oppression and discrimination, the challenge now is how to rekindle the flame that gave men like Herschel moral ownership in the Civil Rights Movement.
Many prominent Jews, including America’s leading rabbi at the time, Stephen Wise, helped establish the NAACP in 1909. At one point Louis Marshall, the former head of the American Jewish Committee, defended the NAACP before the U.S. Supreme Court. Noted lawyer Jack Greenberg once served as head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
For example, when the 1930s Depression threatened the financial survival of the NAACP, it was William Rosenwald, the son of Julius Rosenwald, the founder of Sears who gave $1000 every year for three years and got four others, including three members of the Jewish community, to match his gift so the NAACP could pay its bills. The battles that were fought in the 1950s and 1960s had the support of many Jewish leaders who saw their community’s future directly linked to the future of the African -American community.
The alliance that King and others before him built is begging for rejuvenation today. The absence of such has made it difficult to build coalitions to tackle the broader issues affecting our communities. In searching for that alliance we cannot forget those who paved the way. We have a moral, historical and professional obligation to spotlight their work and embrace their legacies.