Detroit Is Not a Movie

‘Detroit’ is a case study of the limits of the white gaze.

Still from the movie Detroit.
Photo Credit: Screenshot / YouTube

Are you thinking of seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s movie Detroit? Don’t.

Read John Hersey’s book The Algiers Motel Incident instead. It is one of the most remarkable books about race ever written by a white man. And it’s as accurate an account of the massacre at the Algiers Motel as currently exists.

Oh, never mind. By all means, see the movie if the marketing campaign has persuaded you it’s the kind of entertainment you like. But please don’t think you are going to gain any deep insight into what happened in Detroit in 1967. Or what’s happening now. Or most importantly what you could do to reduce the destructive grip of white power on our society going forward.

Detroit, the movie version of the torture and brutal killing of teenagers Carl Cooper, Aubrey Pollard and Fred Temple in 1967, will not engender any significant criticism from the so-called alt-right or any other division of the white power structure. Neither have any previous Bigelow movies. That’s because they reinforce the prevailing white way of thinking about the perpetual U.S. wars on people of color both foreign and domestic.


In 2016,  The National Council of Elders decided to commemorate 50th Anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic antiwar speech,  delivered April 4,  1967 at the Riverside Church in New York City.  Others, including Riverside Church also honored the speech.  Originally sponsored by Clergy and Laity Concerned,  the speech has special resonance for the NCOE because it was drafted by one of our founders,  the late Vincent Harding.

The Breaking Silence project was a success.  In New York, the UN Ambassador from Viet Nam joined the reading.  In Detroit, the Homrich 9 water rights protesters read the speech in front of the courthouse where they were scheduled to go on trial.  In Richmond, California, a Lutheran Bishop linked Dr. King’s speech to the 500-year anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 theses.  On Tax Day, April 18, the speech was read in front of the Federal Building in Oakland, California.  On April 29, climate protesters in New Mexico used the speech as a point of reference.  On April 30, the anniversary of the end of the Viet Nam war, the San Francisco chapter of Vietnam Veterans for Peace held an event at which the participants reflected on the speech.

Riverside Church, where Dr. King’s speech was originally delivered, was packed for a conversation between Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, and Rev. Ruby Sales.  Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Shalom Center held a day-long workshop at New York Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, followed by a vigil at the White House.  Beyond the Moment organized at least 30 events for April 4.  These events were followed with actions on May 1 in support of the Fight for 15.  The Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee organized multiple programs that contributed to the nationwide observance of the relevance of the speech to today’s political struggles.  A Lenten season webcast sponsored by Radical Discipleship, a joint project of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries and Word & World, provided a daily meditation on the speech.

These are examples of over 150 events and actions sponsored by many organizations throughout this country and abroad.  We are aware that there were readings of the speech in Viet Nam, Cuba, and Quebec.  Each action or program inspired, connected and energized readers and listeners. In almost every case, the participants resolved to use Dr. King’s speech as a reference point for actions continuing through April 4, 2018.

Media highlights of the project included op-eds in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Enquirer; a week of coverage by Tavis Smiley on his PBS TV show, an hour-long special by Margaret Prescod on her national webcast radio program, Sojourner; an AlterNet article by Elder Frank Joyce, and many other references, news stories and columns, including those by Leonard Pitts and Jim Wallis.  (Expanded media list to come.)


Reports and additional information are available on the following websites:


We offer special thanks to Jovan Julien of Project South and Leah Lomotey-Nakon, a research assistant based at Vanderbilt University, who gave us invaluable assistance with the Breaking Silence website. Thanks also to Ash-Lee Henderson, co-director of the Highlander Center, Carol Been and Sherri Maurin, Western Elders’ allies.


The following NCOE Members helped to organize the project and/or participated in actions or readings:

Mandy Carter

Aljosie Harding

Gloria Aneb House

Shea Howell

Joyce and Nelson Johnson

Jim Lawson

Phil Lawson

Suzanne Pharr

Kathy Sanchez

Zoharah Simmons

Arthur Waskow

Mel White

Janet Wolf

Frank Joyce

(Apologies if we have missed anyone.)

Catherine Meeks has recently been appointed as Founding Executive Director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in Atlanta

Catherine Meeks has recently been appointed as Founding Executive Director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in Atlanta. The Center will replace and expand the work of the Beloved Community: Commission for Dismantling Racism which will be decommissioned in November, 2017. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church has entered a partnership with the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta that will enable the Center to become a resource for the wider Episcopal Church.

What Keeps Me Out of Bars – John Fife

Hey Elders,
Sure will miss seeing all of you.
I know you understand that the movement we called “Sanctuary” in the ’80’s has become relevant since the election in faith communities, cities and counties, universities, and now states. I can’t be with you for check-in on the 17th but the link below will give you an update on what keeps me out of the bars and off the streets these days.
Blessings at Haley Farm,
John Fife
Tucson, AZ

The Inconvenient Hero and His Journey to the Promised Land

At 6:01 P.M. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., America’s most inconvenient hero, died on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. Just the day before he had stood before an audience and declared that “ I may not get there with you, but I want you to know, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”

King declared these great words of hope in the midst of great personal despair. He was physically ill that night when he was speaking in Memphis where he had come to support the sanitation workers strike. He had suffered many bouts of depression as he watched the work become more challenging and as he continued to battle with the inevitability of his own death. Michael Eric Dyson says, “ he ate, drank and slept death. He danced with it, he preached it, and he stared it down. He looked for ways to lay it aside, this burden of his own mortality, but ultimately knew that his unwavering insistence on a nonviolent end to the mistreatment of his people could only end violently.”

Forty-eight years after that fateful day on that Memphis hotel balcony we find ourselves left to ponder where we are in that journey to the Promised Land. King was looking at this journey through the religious lens with which he viewed everything. He told us in every way that is possible that in the final analysis he was a preacher. But he had a clear understanding of what it meant to follow Jesus, the Liberator. Just as Jesus’ path led him to the cross, King knew that his path would lead to death. Of course this should come as no surprise to anyone who dares to follow a path that is designed to set the captive free. Those who hold others as captives will not willingly relinquish their hold without resistance and those who are designated as leaders of liberation struggles are the first to be targeted for death. Captors continue to believe that the dream of freedom can be stopped by killing the leader of such a movement.

Forty-eight years later, what can those of us who are left behind say about this inconvenient hero’s journey? Some believe that having elected President Barack Obama is evidence of our arrival to the Promised Land, but those of us are awake know better. Others believe that having a chance to sit on America’s corporate boards and to be allowed tiny glimpses into the upper rooms of corporate power mean that we have arrived to the Promised Land. But those of us who walk among the masses know better. We know that we cannot be seduced by the window dressing of a few elected officials including a president and fewer corporate board memberships which benefit a small group of people for short periods of time. King lived and died for the masses to be free. He lived and died for authentic liberation. He was not striving for the whimsical freedom that comes when a few white people decide to share their white skin privilege with a selected group of people of color in order to appear as if they have an interest in all people being free when nothing could be further from the truth.

Forty-eight years later we are allowing ourselves to celebrate a sanitized King who does not make us as uncomfortable as we should be that we have lost ground since his death instead of getting closer to the Promised Land. The land that God has chosen. Where is it? How do we get there? Unfortunately the same way that King did, by laying down our lives for our sisters and brothers.

Perhaps this year as we think of King’s life and death, we can reflect upon whether or not we are willing to lay down our lives in search of the Promised Land. Are we willing to stand up against the seductive forces of materialism and false expressions of power? Are we willing to visit our brothers and sisters in prison, to resist the violence against the poor, to hold elected officials accountable and to work to unseat the ones who do not represent all of the people?

The Promised Land that King envisioned is a place where all of God’s Children can be free. Do we really want to go there?



Catherine Meeks

Mapping the Water Crisis in Detroit