the right tactic, time, and Place
[Public housing residents] decided that: “Now is the time
that we’re going to start doing something, and we’re going to
start to fight for the rights of people who live in public housing.”
—ruth williams, co-chair, Preserve low-Income and Affordable
housing Now! (PlAN), 1994
whAt tIme Is It?
Black creative genius takes many forms. Commonly it is at work when talented
African Americans produce a desirable outcome using the right tool, at the
right moment, in the right setting. For instance, a host of conditions influenced
the playing of the jazz virtuoso Charlie “Bird” Parker: his choice of saxophone,
the time of the performance, his state of mind, the mood of the venue. As his
song “Now’s the Time” suggests, Bird knew just when and how to use these
conditions to create masterful improvisations.1 In a similar vein, I examine the
political imagination of black grassroots activists in the city of Detroit, Michi-
gan. I study their unique choices in tactics, timing, and places as they mobi-
lize to hold public officials accountable to the needs of low-income citizens.
Famous for Berry Gordy’s Motown recording company as well as industrially
prominent as the “Motor City,” Detroit provides an ideal case study for under-
standing the creativity of black grassroots activism in the post–Civil Rights
Movement era. Amid stark urban poverty, this city’s rich history of labor activ-
ism, civil-rights activism, and strong black political empowerment, especially
under Mayor Coleman A. Young, has compelled black grassroots organizers to
be innovative as they pressure government to meet basic needs such as high-
quality and affordable housing.2
Consequently, this book’s main refrain is that black grassroots activists
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