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Two generations of Grand Rapids leaders reflect on how the city’s changed since 1967 uprising

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"I felt that it was very very important when decisions were being made, and these were decisions about our lives, that I needed to be at the table to have some input," James said.


This week marks the 51st anniversary of the riots that broke out in Michigan during the summer of 1967.

While the uprising in Detroit is the most well known, Grand Rapids faced a similar event, albeit on a smaller scale. The city had three days of unrest that left 44 people hurt and 350 arrested.

Ellen James is a founding member of the Grand Rapids Community College Board of Trustees and a leader in Grand Rapid’s African-American community. Tavian Moore is the president of the Greater Grand Rapids NAACP Youth Council.

James and Moore joined Stateside’s Cynthia Canty to discuss how Grand Rapids has changed over the past 51 years. 

James said Grand Rapids in 1967 was a segregated city, though she did not realize how segregated it was at the time. While there were no signs designating white only spaces like in the South, James said the black community lived in one section of town because relators would not sell property to people of color. 

It's hard for Moore to imagine growing up in that time, but he adds there are still areas of the city where that culture still exists. 

“We have made a lot of progress as a country, but there is still a lot more progress to be made when there are still portions of our city or areas in which minorities go and it's still not common, and it makes other people uncomfortable,” Moore said. 

At the time of the 1967 uprising, James said there were no people of color on city commissions or on school boards. She was motivated to join a number of groups and boards in Grand Rapids so that black residents could have a voice.

“I felt that it was very very important when decisions were being made, and these were decisions about our lives, that I needed to be at the table to have some input. Because sometimes people make decisions because they don’t know better, and then sometimes people make decisions because they do know better. 

James’ lifetime work has inspired Moore to take action, but he said he is also motivated by a sense of responsibility. 

“Sometimes I don’t feel inspiration, sometimes I feel like it’s an obligation,” Moore said. “I think that there were so many people that fought for me to even be in the position I’m in, to be able to sit down with community leaders like the mayor, the chief of police and have difficult conversations. There were so many that laid that foundation for me to have a platform, and I feel like I would be remiss of my obligations to not stand up and to not take on a strong leadership role.”

In recent years, tensions between the police and the African-American community in Grand Rapids have been in the spotlight. In December 2017, Grand Rapids police pulled guns on and then handcuffed an 11-year-old girl named Honestie Hodges in her neighborhood. Moore said the city has made important strides this year following that incident. 

“What can we do as a city to make sure things like this do not happen?" Moore asked. “Us bringing the issue to light and us going to the city commission and saying we need to develop some sort of policy to protect children and make sure that they’re not being held at gunpoint. That is moving in the right direction." 

The city has now created the "Honestie policy," which adds a youth scenario to police training. Moore said that alone won't solve the issue, but it's a step forward. 

James agrees that Grand Rapids is moving in the right direction because the community is demanding it. 

“We cannot afford to just sit back and let it happen,” said James. “We have to be active participants in making it happen.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Sophie Sherry. 

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