Commentary: Bent but not broken–remember Flint’s history of fighting back

By Ted Nelson

This is a lightly edited transcript of Ted Nelson’s speech at the Flint Institute of Arts on Oct. 21, 2018

            When the makers of “JFK: The Last Speech” arrived in Flint to shoot scenes for their award-winning documentary movie recently shown at the Flint Institute of Arts (FIA), they were eager to take what Jan [Worth-Nelson, EVM editor and Ted’s wife] and I now sadly refer to as the “ruin porn” tour — the depressing and disheartening tour of the detritus from Flint’s decline.

Block after block of human habitations in various stages of decomposition, deterioration, and demolition. From time to time in this grim cortege, a beautiful green lawn appears.  As we took the tour with the film crew, one of them observed that  “At least the lawns provide some relief from this gruesome parade.”

Not so.  I pointed out to them that every one of these lawns is a tombstone testifying to the demise of another Flint family.  In the sod below each clump of green grass is a pinch of ash from the broken dreams and aspirations of those who lived there.

In the history of the United States, the city and citizens of Flint, Michigan have been the anvil upon which many of our most basic American values have been tempered.

There is a certain cachet to Flint — something about this hard-scrabble town that defies explanation, something about its history and spirit that strikes sparks in the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans.  Flint has become a national symbol of tenacity and spirit.

              Flint is also a town with a reputation for toughness… for violence… for economic hardship… racial animosity… political chaos… failing infrastructure… and a host of other acne-like issues that blemish our facade.

Yet here we stand, ankle deep in the ashes of our own history.  Bent … but not broken.

So where does Flint’s spirit come from? Could it be something in the water?

As Michael Moore reminded us recently in his words at the American premiere of “Fahrenheit 11/9, Flint has an incredible history of “firsts” in this country.

FLINT is the city… where organized labor got its real start

FLINT is the city… that created the middle class

FLINT is the city… that gave us the first Black mayor in the country

FLINT is the city… that gave us the first open housing ordinance in the United States of America

And FLINT is the city… that was the first to be poisoned by its own government

It has often been said of Flint that we are the canary in the coal mine of American values.

Well, that old yellow song bird is looking rather frazzled at the moment. Its feathers have been singed.  It’s been revived so many times that it no longer bothers to stand up on its perch.  Now it just lies down at the bottom of the cage ready for the next dose of civic misfortune.  Also, as you would expect, it always has several plastic bottles of water in its cage to protect against poisoning.

            It’s time for this brave, weary bird to have a makeover.  Perhaps its even time for this bird to be flipped.  Perhaps its time for us to turn this stalwart and long-suffering canary into a phoenix.

How do we do that?

Let me remind you of a piece of Flint’s illustrious history.  The time was August, 1967.  The Flint City Commission (predecessor to the City Council) voted against a fair housing ordinance, which was designed to prevent discrimination in housing. Mayor Floyd McCree, Flint’s first black mayor, threatened to resign.

Then, to everyone’s shock and amazement, a bunch of city residents staged a sleep-in directly in front of City Hall. The protest continued for ten days.  At the end of the 10-day protest, Gov. George Romney showed up for a unity rally.  He was greeted by 4000 Flint canaries… ah, citizens.  The result — in October of 1967 the Commission took another vote and reversed itself.

Then another group, one against the ordinance, collected petitions and forced the Commission vote to a public referendum. On the night of February 20th, 1968, election officials told mayor McCree that the ordinance had gone down to defeat.  Flint citizens were devastated. The canary was on her back, legs in the air.

But wait!  The next morning the election officials realized they had made a math error.  The issue had actually passed by a 43-vote margin — about one-tenth of one percent of the more than 40,000 votes cast.  Flint became the first city in the nation to pass by popular vote an open housing referendum. It made national news and civil rights history. 43 votes out of 40,000 cast. The canary won by the tip of her beak.  Oh, Flint.

            The city and citizens of Flint are descended in blood and spirit from rebels, revolutionaries, immigrants, and slaves. As Flintoids, we are a motley lot. Our colors cover the spectrum. Some of us are rich … most of us are poor.  But all of our hearts pump the red blood of freedom through our blue veins.  And we believe in the human family.  And, yes, we believe in love.

But as human beings, we are by nature contentious … to say the least.  It’s inevitable that, as we bump and weave through our brief appearance on life’s stage, our performances strike sparks. We are all artists, quarrelling about life, seeking to survive and make our contributions. It is, by nature, a truculent and dramatic process — one that sometimes ends in violence.

            To contain our darker angels, we humans have come up with an amazing creation — one of the simplest, fairest, most elegant, most equitable, most impartial, most non-partisan, most righteous, and, I would add, most sacred process for deciding upon our values, laws, and governance.  Our VOTING PROCESS.  The foundation of our democracy.  One human, one vote. The mechanism we use to keep from killing each other.

But even more important than the vote itself, is the process of voting — what each of us as individuals bring to the vote we cast, and to the laws, rules, and procedures that guide it.  At its best, we bring to each vote we cast the full measure of our human capacity — our values, our knowledge, our understanding, our intelligence, and our good will.  We owe this to ourselves and our fellow humans.  And we must be ever watchful for those miscreants who would game the system, who would slyly lean on the scales of fairness to bend it improperly to their own advantage.  The labels for this are familiar — gerrymandering, voter suppression, and voting interference, to name a few.

And when we have honored this sacred process with the diligence and effort that it requires — then we go to our polling place, fill out our ballot, and we VOTE.  We vote.

Ted Nelson (Photo Courtesy of Northern Light Productions)

In doing so, we link our spirits to those who came before us and shed their blood for this privilege.  And then we link arms with our neighbors and try once again to unleash the most powerful force on earth — the kind of force that can transform a canary into a phoenix — one city … indivisible.  One city… united.  One city, with liberty, soul, and justice for all. One city.  Flint.


©2018 Ted Nelson







Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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