Kevin Boyle teaches American history at Northwestern University. His book “Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age” received the National Book Award for nonfiction.
By David Maraniss
Simon & Schuster.
David Maraniss was born in Detroit in 1949, which is to say he was born in a boomtown, an industrial behemoth of 1.9 million people scrambling to meet the nation’s insatiable demand for V-8s and tailfins. When his family left seven years later, the demand was stronger than ever. But the city was starting to shrink, its population undermined by suburbanization, its economic vitality by automation, and its social fabric by racism so deep it seemed bred in the bone. By the end of the 1950s the city’s white population had fallen by 361,000, while its manufacturing base had hemorrhaged close to 100,000 jobs. “Prosperity seemed bound to go on forever,” Time magazine reported in 1961, “but it didn’t, and Detroit is now in trouble.”
In his captivating new book, Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and associate editor at The Washington Post, picks up the city’s story in November 1962, almost exactly a year after Time’s grim assessment, and follows it for the next 18 months, until May 1964. Except for the occasional crime reporting, he doesn’t venture into the neighborhoods or onto the factory floor. Instead, he focuses on the period’s power brokers and trendsetters: the sort of men — and they were all men, this being the early ’60s — who believed they could get Detroit moving again.
It was a faith moored in politics. In 1962 progressives took control of city government for the first time in three decades. From that victory surged a wave of reform. The new mayor, 33-year-old Jerome Cavanagh, launched a courageous campaign to rein in the city’s notoriously racist police force. The United Automobile Workers’ powerful president, Walter Reuther, called for a sweeping assault on the inequalities that ran through urban life. And the city’s most prominent African American activists brought home the massive moral force the Southern civil rights movement had unleashed. That effort peaked in June 1963 when the Rev. C.L. Franklin — the father of an aspiring soul singer named Aretha — led 125,000 people down Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main artery, in a glorious “March to Freedom,” a moment Maraniss imbues with the majesty it deserves.
Marching wasn’t enough, though, not when you could be dancing in the street. Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown Records in 1959 with $800 he borrowed from his family. By late 1962 he’d set up a studio fronted with a humble little sign declaring the place “Hitsville, USA,” honed the label’s sound and the style that went with it, and signed a remarkable group of performers to put the package together. Maraniss interweaves the subsequent triumphs with another process of mass-consumption creativity — Lee Iacocca’s marketing masterpiece, the Ford Mustang — but his heart clearly belongs to Motown. Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave,” the Miracles’ “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” the Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and 13-year-old Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips (Part 2)” : In that rush of hits, Maraniss hears the joyous sound of a city suddenly, improbably filled with hope.
He carries that sense to the narrative’s end. The Mustang rolled into showrooms in April 1964. On May 16, Mary Wells’s “My Guy” hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. A week later, Lyndon Johnson used his commencement address at the University of Michigan, an hour’s drive from downtown Detroit, to call for the construction of a Great Society that “demands an end to poverty and racial injustice . . . a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” A society that looked like the city Detroit’s political class dreamed of building.
But dreams were no match for the dynamics that had taken hold of Detroit in the ’50s. The reformers couldn’t slow white flight out of the city, much less reverse it. The jobs kept disappearing. And despite the enormous hope engendered by the March to Freedom, the city’s racial tension mounted year after year, until the summer of 1967, when it exploded in a week-long rebellion that began with a mindless raid by a police department still steeped in the racism the mayor had hoped to expunge. After that, the crises accelerated, the city’s challenges deepening with each decade: more people gone, more factories closed, more businesses shuttered — even Motown left, in 1972 — more neighborhoods hollowing out, more Detroiters slipping inexorably into poverty.
Only in his epilogue does Maraniss give us a sense of the enormity of those losses. Sometime during his work on the book, he went in search of his Detroit childhood. He looked for the apartment house his parents were living in when he was born, but it had been torn down. He passed by the YMCA where he learned to swim when he was 6, a gorgeous building on a once-grand boulevard, now abandoned. And he stopped into the grade school he attended for a year, before his family moved away. It had been turned into a charter school, serving 650 kids from across the city. Ninety-five percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Ten percent are homeless. On the most recent state rankings, the school is failing. Badly.
Afterward Maraniss asks himself what in the city has lasted, a question that often haunts former Detroiters. The songs, he decides. Not the reforms, not the dream of racial justice, not the promise of a Great Society, but the wonderfully exuberant songs that came pouring out of Berry Gordy’s studio. That’s the tragedy at the core of this gracious, generous book. All that remains of the hopeful moment Maraniss so effectively describes is a soundtrack. And that isn’t nearly enough.