DETROIT—“I have a dream.” Ask anyone where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. first proclaimed those words, and the response will most likely be at the March on Washington in August 1963. In fact, he delivered them two months earlier, on June 23, in Detroit, leading a march down Woodward Avenue.
“I have a dream that one day, right down in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to live together as brothers. ...
“I have a dream this afternoon that my four little children ... will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
“I have a dream this afternoon that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job.”
Forty-seven years later, thousands of people, of every hue, religion, class and age, might not have used those words exactly, but they marched down that same avenue here in Detroit in the same spirit, opening the U.S. Social Forum. More than 10,000 citizens, activists and organizers have come from around the world for four days of workshops, meetings and marches to strengthen social movements and advance a progressive agenda. Far larger than any tea party convention, it has gotten very little mainstream-media coverage. Not a tightly scripted, staged political convention, or a multiday music festival, the U.S. Social Forum defines itself as “an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences.” It is appropriate that the U.S. Social Forum should be held here, in this city that has endured the collapse of the auto industry and the worst of the foreclosure crisis. In Detroit, one is surrounded, simultaneously, by stark failures of capitalism and by a populace building an alternative, just and greener future.
Environmental writer Rebecca Solnit says of the decay of Detroit, “the continent has not seen a transformation like Detroit’s since the last days of the Maya.” The core of modern Detroit, the automobile industry, helped facilitate the creation of suburbs that ultimately spelled doom for vibrant inner cities. Detroit, which had 2 million residents in the mid-1950s, now has dwindled to around 800,000. Poverty, joblessness, depopulation and decay have created an almost post-apocalyptic scene here.
Carried within this dystopic, urban disaster, though, are the seeds of Detroit’s potential rebirth. Legendary Detroit organizer/philosopher Grace Lee Boggs helped organize the 1963 King march in Detroit. She turns 95 this week, and will be celebrated here at the U.S. Social Forum. We visited her at her home, which might well become a Detroit historic site because of the many organizations that were born there. She has lived in that same house for more than half a century, much of that time with her husband, the late political activist and autoworker Jimmy Boggs. Smiling, she says, “It’s really wonderful that the Social Forum decided to come to Detroit, because Detroit, which was once the symbol of miracles of industrialization and then became the symbol of the devastation of deindustrialization, is now the symbol of a new kind of society, of people who grow their own food, of people who try and help each other, to how we begin to think, not so much of getting jobs and advancing our own fortunes, but how we depend on each other. I mean, it’s another world that we’re creating here in Detroit.”
She reflects on the two delegations of young people attending the USSF with whom she has already met: “I hope they understand from Detroit that all of us, each of us, can become a cultural creative. ... We are creating a new culture. And we’re not doing it because we are such wonderful people. We’re doing it because we had to, not only to survive materially, but to survive as human beings.”
From urban gardens to collective businesses to electric cars, Detroit is beginning to chart an alternative path. As the great Indian writer Arundhati Roy has said, “Another world is not only possible, she’s on the way, and, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully, you can hear her breathe.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.