Detroit, MI


[ Text supplied by Jonathan Thompson, October 29, 2007 ]

Detroit was a “could have been” progressive city – all of the necessary pieces appeared to have been there, including neighborhood organizing, progressive electoral successes, and the election of a mayor, Coleman Young, who had deep social movement roots. However, these pieces never coalesced into a progressive whole, and local politics in Detroit remained on more divisive, regressive, and demobilizing path.

Detroit has a history of both Black and white radical union and neighborhood organizing going back at least to the IWW. Activism by first the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), and later the Ford and other RUMs, led in 1969 to the creation of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a Marxist and theoretically sophisticated organization. Both white and Black activists were involved in an overlapping series of radical organizations focused on local revolutionary change, beginning with the 1968 formation of the Ad-hoc Action Group and the Labor Defense Coalition in the wake of the 1967 riots. A key turning point was when the Motor City Labor League (MCLL, itself formed out of the Ad-hoc Action Group and People Against Racism) split in 1971 over the issue of whether to pursue change through local electoral politics. The Control, Conflict, Change Book Club had already existed within the MCLL, and a new organization, From the Ground Up (FtGU), was formed to carry the struggle into electoral politics.

Key activists within FtGU included Kenneth Cockrel, Sheila Cockrel (then Sheila Murphy), Justin Ravitz, and poet b.p. Flanigan. Ravitz, running openly as a Marxist, won election as a judge in the Recorder’s Court (Detroit’s criminal court); Ken Cockrel was elected as an “independent socialist” city councilmember in 1977; Sheila Cockrel managed both Ravitz’s and Ken Cockrel’s campaigns, and was herself elected to the Detroit City Council in 1993, where she is still serving. On the surface, Coleman Young’s 1973 election as mayor was a major victory for progressives – he had deep Movement credentials, was Detroit’s first Black mayor, and promised radical change. In practice, however, Young’s 20 years as mayor were marred by accusations of corruption, unnecessary confrontations, and a neglect of the neighborhoods in favor of largely unsuccessful growth- and development-focused policies. Ken Cockrel had several times considered running for mayor; his untimely death in 1989 came just as expectations were rising for him to become Coleman Young’s successor.

The radical activists in Detroit overlapped with other cases in the Cornell Progressive Cities and Neighborhood Planning Collection through the Conference on Alternative State and Local Public Policies. In 1978 and 1979, Ravitz and both Cockrels were speakers at national Conferences, and beginning in 1978 a successor organization to FtGU, Detroit Alliance for a Rational Economy (DARE) held the first of three annual “Detroit city life” conferences, using the same model as the Conference.


Key collections at the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University:

Dan Georgakas Collection #1041 (

Detroit Revolutionary Movements Collection #874 (

Al Fishman Collection #1654 (

James and Grace Lee Boggs Collection #1342 (

Chris and Marti Alston Collection #1779 (

Mel Ravitz Collection #1720 (

Kenneth V. and Sheila M. Cockrel Collection #1379 (

The Jerome P. Cavanagh Collection #379 (

Oral histories in the Reuther collections:


Detroit African American History Project biographies and interviews (


Bird, Stewart, Rene Lichtman, and Peter Gessner. “Finally Got the News.” First Run / Icarus Films, 1970.

Lighthill, Stephen. “Taking Back Detroit.” First Run / Icarus Films, 1980.


Fine, Sidney. Violence in the Model City: The Cavanagh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit Riot of 1967. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1989.

Georgakas, Dan, and Marvin Surkin. Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. Updated ed. Cambridge: South End Press, 1998.

Mast, Robert H., ed. Detroit Lives. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Thomas, June Manning. Redevelopment and Race: Planning a Finer City in Postwar Detroit. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.