Detroit: the fist and the fury, sanctification and pride

By Martin Smith | 6 June 2014
The Fist, Detroit (Pic: Martin Smith)

The Fist, Detroit (Pic: Martin Smith)

Wandering around the downtown district of Detroit I came across a huge black metal sculpture called ‘The Fist’.

It doesn’t say, but it is a memorial to the black boxing legend Joseph Louis Barrow, or as he is better known Joe Louis. Robert Graham created this impressive 24-foot tall sculpture. (He was also responsible the wonderful sculpture of Duke Ellington in New York’s Central Park.) The Fist was commissioned by the magazine Sports Illustrated and was given to the city in 1987.

I took my camera out and started taking some photos of the monument.
Almost immediately a Christian zealot who was handing leaflets out across the other side of the road approached me and started to berate me. (He’s the one in the grey tracksuit in the picture below.) Shouting at the top of his voice he said, “This is not Detroit, this is racist black power bullshit” and a whole lot of other stuff about me going to hell.

What was his problem? The first seemed to be Joe Louis himself.

Joe Louis was a black American professional boxer and the World Heavyweight Champion from 1937 to 1949. He is one of, if not the greatest heavyweight boxing champions of all time. He defended his title 25 times, a record that still stands today.

But Joe Louis was more than a boxer: for millions of black Americans and anti-racists he was a figurehead, a symbol of resistance. And for racists he was their nightmare come true.

Joe Louis was born in Alabama in 1914. Attacked by the Klu Klux Klan in 1926, his family moved to Detroit, Michigan. They were part of the post-World War I “Great Migration”. They ended up living in the poverty stricken Black Bottom neighbourhood, a black ghetto. Joe Louis worked for a time at the Ford River Rouge car plant.

Boxing was his way of escaping poverty. He would become the first African American to become nationwide hero within the United States. In the context of racist America, boxing was always more that a sport. The great poet Langston Hughes described Louis’s effect on black neighbourhoods:

“Each time Joe Louis won a fight in those depression years, even before he became champion, thousands of black Americans on relief or WPA, and poor, would throng out into the streets all across the land to march and cheer and yell and cry because of Joe’s one-man triumphs. No one else in the United States has ever had such an effect on Negro emotions—or on mine. I marched and cheered and yelled and cried, too.”

The “Christian’s” second objection was the statue itself.

He made it clear he felt threatened by the image of the statue. Why wasn’t it just of Joe Louis he yelled? “There is no boxing glove” he screamed. “It’s a black power fist.” What he hated was the fact that the downtown district of Detroit has a monument to one of America’s black heroes and one that conjured up an image of resistance to the “old ways”.

He has a point: this monument can be interpreted in a number of ways – yes a tribute to Joe Louis, yes a symbol of black power, yes a memorial to the Detroit Riots of 1967 and, if you insist, just a big fist.

Any work of art that provokes such a reaction, should at least be respected and hopefully enjoyed.

Preaching in Detroit (Pic: Martin Smith

Preaching in Detroit (Pic: Martin Smith

The zealot that hurled out his racist invective disgusted me. Being a socialist and an atheist it is easy to paraphrase Marx and just reduce religion to being the “opium” of the masses. But I had to check myself and recall Marx’s quote in full:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Round the corner from “The Fist”, but a car ride for most Detroiters, is the Second Baptist Church. For it was there that I found a heart in a heartless world.

Second Baptist Church Detroit

Second Baptist Church Detroit

The Second Baptist Church in Detroit is the city’s first black church and was founded in 1836 by black members of the First Baptist Church who were only allowed to sit in the balcony to pray. One of its founders was Madison Lightfoot. But it is his wife, Tabitha Lightfoot, who is of far more interest to activists.

Three years before the Second Baptist Church was opened, Tabitha helped runaway slave Rutha Blackburn escape jail in an act of selfless bravery and heroism.

Thornton and Rutha Blackburn were two runaway slaves from Kentucky, who via the underground railway arrived in Detroit in 1831. They found work in the city, but two years later their “master’s” son and a lawyer tracked them down and persuaded the authorities to arrest them. They were held in Fort Gratiot jail about 60 miles from Detroit.

A crowd of black and white abolitionist surrounded the jail and would not let the authorities deport the runaways back to Kentucky and into slavery. During the siege the sheriff allowed Tabitha and another black woman called Caroline French into jail to comfort Rutha.

Inside the cell, Caroline swapped clothes with Rutha. A little latter both Rutha and Tabitha told the guards that they wanted to leave, believing Rutha was Caroline, they allowed both women to leave the jail. They rushed across the border into Canada, where slavery was illegal. Rutha was once again a free woman.

It wasn’t until the next morning that the jailers found they had the wrong prisoner. By then they had even bigger problems. Emboldened by the escape of Rutha, abolitionists once again surrounded the prison, this time some were armed. They were determined to free Rutha’s husband – Thornton.

Holding a pistol and a whip, Sheriff Wilson said he was going to “scare every Nigger that was there”. Things didn’t quite go to plan for the sheriff; the crowed stormed the jail injuring the sheriff (he later died of his injuries). The freed Thornton was rushed across the border on a horse and cart and was reunited with his wife. The Blackburns eventually settled in Toronto.

Tabitha later told a reporter she was only doing “god’s work!”

The Second Baptist Church was the centre of the underground railway in Detroit for the next 30 years. Its bricks and mortar and its spiritual belief were built on blood, sweat and tears. This is also true of Detroit itself.

Monument to Underground Railway (pic Martin Smith)

Monument to the Underground Railway (pic Martin Smith)


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