• Waterloo for Michigan Democrats in 2014?

    By Bankole Thompson

    These days it’s hard to imagine what kind of campaign Michigan Democrats are running right now (if any) or plan to run in 2014 against incumbent Gov. Rick Snyder, who just dissed the Tea Party wing of his party by supporting the expansion of Medicaid for the working poor.

    It’s complex to comprehend how Democrats can marshal the right candidate with largesse to challenge Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose out-of-nowhere support for pensioners in Detroit’s bankruptcy crisis puts him in an advantage to disarm charges of public neglect.

    It is almost unfathomable that Secretary of State Ruth Johnson can be dethroned at a time when the political calendar doesn’t seem to favor Democrats. The same doubt goes for placing a candidate on the Michigan Supreme Court.

    Above all, Congressman Gary Peters’ ongoing campaign to replace outgoing veteran U.S. Senator Carl Levin is all but a sure thing given that Republicans appear to be lining up behind fundraising powerhouse Terri Lynn Land, the formidable former GOP Secretary of State who won re-election twice and obviously has mass appeal, including among women voters.

    If you are a die-hard Democrat who believes the party “is always right” and reading this you might be asking what planet I’m living on. But if you are an open-minded Democrat who reads the tea leaves, you know that the party has some serious issues and could be in more trouble trying to claim victory in the 2014 election cycle.

    The Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer is nowhere to be found, and don’t bother to look for him in Detroit either, the largest Democratic base but the most ignored that new party chair Lon Johnson now says he wants to change.

    I only met Schauer once at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, and it was a chance meeting actually because we bumped into each other at the lobby of the hotel and his aides wanted to do a quick introduction. We spoke briefly. That was it.

    At the NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner this year I had a conversation with a prominent African American in the labor movement who at the time was surprised that Schauer, who was introduced at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s 2013 Mackinac Policy Conference, has yet to make any meaningful or significant appearance in Detroit or to even meet with some of the labor officials here.

    Well, he concluded like many that it’s almost like the same old story: Democrats jet in the last minute, set up a shop on East Jefferson, make no real investment and get the guaranteed votes at the polls and then disappear till the next election season.

    I hope Johnson, the newly elected and energized leader of the Michigan Democratic Party, does not repeat the same old “game” that hoodwinks voters and doesn’t give them anything to look forward to.

    Prior to his election, Johnson visited my office for an hour-long conversation about the fate of the Michigan Democratic Party, during which he was bustling with optimism speaking of a new era.

    Johnson whose wife is Julianna Smoot, a former top fundraiser for President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, initially raising $880 million in 2008 and a similar amount in the last election, unseated the long-standing two-decades chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, Mark Brewer.

    “I think people want a wholesale change. They recognize that what we are doing and how we are organizing ourselves, and how we are putting together our message, our team, there needs to be a change. This is not about any one institution or any one person,” Johnson said. “It’s a recognition that we are not winning and leadership starts at the top and you need to bring in the tools to get that done. And you need to start now. You cannot wait till 2014 or October 2014 to start the process.”

    And waiting till 2014 is exactly what the party appears to be doing since there is no indication of a movement to build up a cohesive campaign next year.

    In my interview with Johnson, I was impressed by his plans but only if he can implement them.

    “Change to me means five things. One, we need to restructure our executive leadership. We need both a chair and an executive director. The role of the chair should be raising money, deliver the message and find others to deliver the message. Keep the table — the constituencies representing the Democratic Party — keep them together and expand that table,” Johnson explained.

    “Two, we need to double the amount of money that we are raising. Three, we need to expand our outreach to minorities, women and younger voters. This is not a process we can start in June of 2014. We need to start now. And those programs need to come from the community. If they are coming from Lansing, from the MDP, they are going to fail. They need to come and be driven by the community and those plans have to be accountable. They have to have a budget, they have to be staffed, they need a timeline and we need to start right now.”

    Next for him is technology.

    “The Obama campaign used technology in three ways that we are now applying,” he continued. “One, they used technology to understand who they should be talking to. Second, they used technology to test what messages do we deliver to those targeted voters because information moves so fast. And lastly, they used technology in a whole new way to deliver that message, to empower the person to put stuff on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter.

    “And last but not the least is recruitment. There is nothing more immediate or long-lasting that the MDP could do to recruit good candidates. I want to see a hundred new African American candidates, a hundred new Hispanic candidates, a hundred women candidates, a hundred candidates under the age of 35. Those candidates out of those hundred, 50 would win and 50 would fail. When you have new candidates, you bring them in and they will engage, bring their friends, workers, their families and you bring in new people and donors. But more importantly they bring in new ideas, approaches to the challenges we face.”

    Notwithstanding all of these grand visions, the problem right now is that the leadership of the party is finding it difficult to identify winning candidates. If the party is serious about making a realistic stake for next year it should have been looking for candidates last year, not now or waiting toward the end of 2013.

    Because there is no realistic pool of candidates from which to draw, an analogy that goes for Detroit as well, lacking a pool of qualified people to run for local office, the Dems are sure to hit a road bump next year or even a pothole.

    Given that the chances of winning any major public office is like building a federal case to win, it’s hard to predict what the outcome of 2014 will be in the Democratic fortune column.

    When Sen. Levin’s seat became open it was clear that Democratic powerhouse and female leader Debbie Dingell would have been an ideal candidate and one who polls showed had a shot at replacing Levin. But Dingell, who has fundraising prowess and understands Washington and Detroit, steadily initiating many White House projects for this region, withdrew her name from the race.

    Congressman Peters is a fine legislator who goes to bat for Democrats and has a track record of doing so, but it would take more than that for him to win statewide against a former Secretary of State who’s won twice. Yes, Peters’ fighting ability is brilliant but there is no guarantee that he could easily win the Senate race. So that race is a gamble fair and square for both Peters and Land.

    Yes, right-to-work law is fuel for energizing the base of the party, but it seems like Snyder is trying to put out that fire by pushing for and successfully gaining the expansion of Medicaid for the working poor.

    So gubernatorial challenger Schauer will have to offer more than just right-to-work and his campaign of doing so must begin in Detroit.

    Johnson, the party chair, promised to set up an office in Detroit. We’ll believe it when it comes to fruition, and if it is a sincere promise it should happen now.If not, we’ll wait for the sleeping giant to wake up.

    E-mail bankole@bankolethompson.com or news@bankolethompson.com

  • Kevyn Orr: ‘I Am My Father’s Son’

    Kevyn Orr: ‘I Am My Father’s Son’

    When Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr told the Wall Street Journal that Detroit once was “dumb, lazy and rich,” all hell broke loose in Detroit, the city that put the world on wheels, where movements for social change began and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first gave his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. Orr’s interview with one of the world’s most influential publications was greeted with condemnation far and wide, from Detroit civic leaders to personalities in the media, as well as residents and workers.

    To render a full unabated atonement and to explain himself, Orr reached out to Bankole Thompson, editor of the Michigan Chronicle, on his cell, the result of which led to a visit by Orr in what turned out to be a penetrating, thought-provoking interview that made his positions clear with the emergency manager noting that, “I am my father’s son” as he sought to explain in detail about the remarks that in the eyes of his critics could define his tenure in Detroit. Excerpts.

    MICHIGAN CHRONICLE: Why all of a sudden the epiphany of apology?

    KEVYN ORR: Well, I talked to a lot of people. I took time in doing my due diligence in figuring out with friends and some of the city’s fathers and mothers, a group of ministers — my elders if you will — and they made it clear that my words were hurtful in a way that they were not intended to be or that I had realized would be. And that an apology was appropriate if for no other reason than to atone and help the healing process, but also to let people know who I really am. That’s not how I was raised. That’s not how I’ve conducted myself in my profession. I think at this point people have done a fairly broad research into my background and my professional demeanor in other contexts and I’ve never been that way. So even in my (Channel 7 remarks) there were some folks who felt that I might have been less than sincere, and so I want to be clear about it. I apologize because my words were hurtful and in this process I never want to be hurtful or distract from the work we have to do.

    MC: Since your coming to Detroit you’ve been described as many things. Who is Kevyn Orr?

    KO: Up until this point I was a private citizen, corporate attorney, pretty straightforward guy. I don’t think people realize or understood that I always tried to deal with inclusion and outreach. I was chair of racism in the profession for the Day County Bar Association. I’ve been on the minority bar committee for the American Bar Association. I was diversity partner when I was in private practice for the first time. I was a Collateral Duty EEO Consular in the federal government. And I don’t think many people realize that throughout my career and history I’ve always been one who tried to be sensitive to inclusion. Frankly, when I first heard people interpreting my words in that way it came as a surprise to me because I’ve never been that person and never will be.

    MC: You said you were surprised your remarks were taken as an insult. Why?

    KO: Well, because I wasn’t meaning it in the way to refer to anyone….my comment was made (pertaining to) back when the city was in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. I was having a conversation about the city in the steamship era when people went abroad and bought things, nobody was thinking about the city. That was a metaphor I’ve used many times before that has no derogatory connotation. But talking to people it occurred to me why people would perhaps see it that way, in a way I’ve never meant it or never understood it to be.

    MC: When you look back now, how would you describe the Wall Street Journal interview?

    KO: The Journal interview was casual. One of the people I talked to said to me, ‘Kevin, when you are in the private sector you can be glib and use metaphors and idioms whether in court or elsewhere. But now on this job, you have to own it, now you have the cloak of a public person.’ I’d like to think that I’m not a politician but the job gives you a profile and perspective, and you’ve got to embrace that and wear it. Your words may have a different connation and meaning. I thought about that and was very thankful for the way they explained that to me. Now I understand it better. This is a different arena and I will be more (careful) in that position.

    MC: What has changed for you since you became EM both professionally, personally and now the Journal interview that led to much civic outrage?

    KO: Putting this (Journal interview) aside, I think there’s been a lot of growth. I think the learning curve was very steep. I have a certain level of comfort now with the ability to get things done. I worked very hard in the past five months to develop a relationship and some level of trust that I’m acting in goodwill. I did that with the mayor, with the council, I tried to do it with our stakeholders on the creditors’ side and on the labor side. And I’ll continue to do it. I came in saying I offer a sincere olive branch and people didn’t believe me. I then said 30 days later that we are going to produce the real numbers, I did. I did say we are going to try to negotiate in good faith and even some reporters and editors said why are you taking so long? I said I want to move in a very deliberative and sincere fashion.

    MC: You mentioned in the Wall Street Journal being a benevolent dictator. Some say it’s very arrogant of you.

    KO: I’ve heard arrogant, I’ve heard pompous. And I’m neither one of those things. I’ve never been those things. In fact, many of the friends that reached out to me said for whatever reason “you’ve been characterized in a way that’s not you.” Some of my groomsmen called me. When I was saying that it was tongue-in -cheek. And they (Journal) had asked me about somebody saying that I’m a dictator. I said I’m not a dictator.

    In fact, I believe the statement I made was that I’m very uncomfortable with that characterization. Because ideologically, politically and philosophically, I’ve never wanted to have that. So someone who takes that out of context and thinks that “he’s going around saying that’s who he is” is not even close to being true. When I came in people were concerned about what my room service tab was. I don’t think most people realize I paid that out of my pocket. I keep getting FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. I haven’t billed the city a dime. I’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars of my own money to try to come in and help us get through this. So for someone in that context to think that I’m pompous and arrogant I don’t think is an accurate reflection.

    MC: What’s been the reaction in the official corridors of power about your comments in the Wall Street Journal?

    KO: I did consult with some of the council people. They told me “you need to apologize.” I consulted with the mayor who likewise said that. People don’t realize but I actually do seek their counsel because I don’t want people thinking I’m arrogant. That’s one of the reasons I restored the delegated authority to the mayor and council, and I also restored the compensation because they have a role. I don’t want to be pompous and arrogant and think I know everything coming into the city. So judge me by my acts and deeds, not just by my words, which is actually contrary to that sentiment. So their (mayor and city council) view was “you need to do it.” I’ve since been told by many “thank you, you did it the right way. We continue to support you.” It’s been very rewarding in a sense.

    MC: But some people have said your comments gave more missiles to the opposition against an emergency manager. Reaction?

    KO: It wasn’t even close. There was no strategy or grand plan to be perfectly honest with you. It was just an offhand comment, a metaphor used before. Hopefully in trying to be sincere about what I’m saying we’ll go back to moving forward because one of my big concerns is this type of issue, which I view to be non-substantive although I believe the hurt was sincere, but it shouldn’t detract from the substance of the work we have to do.

    MC: The other issue that came up in regards to your Wall Street Journal interview is how Detroit is defined in the glare of the national and international media more often negatively. And some saw your interview as feeding into that.

    KO: Well, I think that was part of the discussion I’ve had with some people about “you have to wear this persona now, good, bad, right or wrong. You are a representative of the city and that this is an international story.” And for a lack of a better word, I have to make sure that I have that in the back of my mind when talking publicly. And maybe have my guard up a little bit more when in those environments. I think that’s been a learning experience.

    MC: Do you find yourself walking a tightrope, caught between the demands of political expediency and your role as emergency manager?

    KO: No, not at all. I’m going to continue doing my job to the best of my ability in the way that I think is appropriate for me to do it. I do want to be sincere in my apology for what I’ve said. But that’s not going to detract or impact me from doing my job. I said at the June 10 meeting I’ve never held off representation, I’ve never been detracted from getting at the work at hand. I’ve done some pretty tough things and it’s not the first time I’ve been insulted or names have been called. But I don’t expect anybody who’s called me everything but a child of God to offer me an apology. So I’m going to do my job.

    MC: Were you concerned that your tenure in Detroit could be defined by those comments?

    KO: Not at all because I think that if we do this well, and I keep telling people in the Chrysler, GM bankruptcy in 2008 and 2009, the general consensus was no one would ever buy another car from an auto company that went bankrupt. And they would be obsolete. If anything, they are widely successful. My view is that this is an opportunity for us to show the best of the American experience, the best of Detroit’s experience. Our motto is “We wish for better things. It shall rise from the ashes.” This is an opportunity for us to live up to our own motto. And when we do that, the rest of the narrative of who we are can turn into not only are we a resilient people, but we took on a very difficult assignment, we succeeded at it and we rose from the ashes. And I think if we do this, and I’m confident that we will, that will be the narrative for the city.

    MC: Let’s swing the pendulum to the eligibility question on bankruptcy, because of the hearing coming up and since labor and others are saying there wasn’t a time bomb to trigger bankruptcy. Your response?

    KO: Everybody has a right to pursue their belief. We feel strongly that we meet the eligibility requirements and most reports I’ve heard of (regarding) the factors we’ve taken into account, no one is questioning the city’s insolvency. I’ve seen that some of our counterparts are questioning good faith efforts but I view those as being very clear. We said we were going to work hard, (and) substantive settlements are still being negotiated. Going forward, I don’t have concerns about that (the eligibility question).

    MC: When you look at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) difficult dance to protect itself from the bankruptcy nightmare, now the Journal flap, your critics are saying “we’ve told you so.”

    KO: People have to stop looking for some sort of a grand conspiracy or plan. There really is none. You may recall that there were earlier reports that Christie’s has been hired by the city, coming to the DIA. What happened was we had considered that earlier on and I told our team to stand down on the DIA. We had work to do. For the first 30 days we wanted to get the city used to me and me get used to the city and sincerely develop a working relationship with the mayor and the city council. We had to get through the reporting period, produce the all hands creditor meetings report which was a lot of work. But we said we are going to be transparent, it’s out there in the open and we had to go through a negotiations period. And I don’t want the DIA issue to become a distraction from the important work we have to do. We got through the bankruptcy filing. And in every bankruptcy one of the things the debtor has to do is to account for all assets and liabilities because that’s your obligation as a debtor.

    Now, I can’t not account for the DIA because we mentioned it in the June 14 report. Whether it’s DIA, Belle Isle, parking, city owned land, all these buckets of assets of the city I have an obligation as the representative to account for in some fashion. And then I’m told it’s going to take 90-120 days for Christie’s to do their assessment. So we had to get started or risk running up against our deadlines.

    MC: Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said he was moving to protect his county tax dollars in the DIA. Is that appropriate?

    KO: I really haven’t handicapped what our neighbors are doing as far as it affects the process. I’m going to keep blinders on and do my job and whatever people feel they need to do in terms of their perspective they’ll do. So I haven’t dialed that in any fashion about what I need to do. I have to do the assessment and as Christie’s is doing the analysis there are 66,000 pieces of art. I have to do that analysis, irrespective of what’s going on.

    MC: The DIA has become a poster child in this bankruptcy equation in terms of what could go and what could stay. What are the best and the worst scenarios?

    KO:I don’t think it’s appropriate at this point for me to try to tell you that. I’m not predisposed in any way with regard to the DIA. I said that at the beginning everything is on the table. And there is a reason for that. I have an obligation in bankruptcy to act in good faith.

    MC: Some of our retirees, are being represented by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is the governor’s official lawyer. Thoughts?

    KO: Well, the Attorney General has spoken as far his understanding of what his roles are and the position that he’s taken. I would point out that with regard to retirees our team recognized that they needed representation. From day one we asked the judge to appoint a retiree committee – that’s actually done by the U.S. Trustees Office. They are in the process of doing that. So retirees will have representation through a committee in the bankruptcy court.

    MC: Some labor groups like AFSCME insist “good faith” negotiations are just semantics. This will come up in the eligibility hearing. Correct?

    KO: Sure. I’m not surprised that people on the labor side of this equation take a position that we haven’t engaged in good faith. So it’s a good thing we have a judge who is going to make that decision.

    MC: Gerald Rosen, the chief judge of the federal court, was appointed mediator of the bankruptcy process. How does this play out as opposed to a private mediator?

    KO: It’s good in my perception and I think Judge Steven Rhodes was very thoughtful. He came up with the concept of the mediator. I think it’s good because often times in these situations parties talk past each other and we keep saying the same things.

    MC: Do you sleep well at night?

    KO: Oh sure. Yeah. I’m a corporate attorney. There’s rarely been a time in my career that I haven’t been called something. That comes with the territory. Certainly with the emergency manager when I first got here I was called all sorts of names. There’s going to be some of that from time to time. I understand that. But I am resolute and focused on doing my job. I will continue so I can progress.

    MC: As an African American lawyer to an African American city, what difference does your apology make?

    KO: I don’t think it makes any difference in terms of the apology. I want people to understand that I’ve always worked hard in terms of outreach and diversity. I want them to say I’m well aware of my obligation and have been committed for a long time giving back. I want them to also know to a large degree I’m them. I am my father’s son.

  • World gives final bow to Mandela

    By Bankole Thompson

    In his classic “The Brothers Karamazov,” Fyodor Dostoevsky renders the moral and epic battle of faith and perseverance for mankind, where the forces of good and evil came to meet and were forced to face the ultimate question: Will good triumph over evil?

    And when we think about a conflict between good and evil, about good triumphing over evil, we think of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s battle against apartheid in South Africa, one of the greatest evils in human history.

    The critical Black social thinker W.E.B Du Bois was correct in labeling apartheid in South Africa as “a medieval slave-ridden oligarchy,” that sought to dehumanize, castrate and render men and women in their own land politically, socially and economically impotent.

    The world stood by for a long time and others sat on the sidelines refusing to intervene in the moral and political battle before unrelenting activists, advocates and sympathizers of the African National Congress (ANC), including students on college campuses around the world, shamed double-talking leaders including former Republican President Ronald Reagan and former conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who were engaging in so-called “constructive engagement” with a racist regime that was enforcing slavery while dismissing and castigating the ANC’s righteous battle to end apartheid.

    Today as we mourn the passing of this political lion and liberator we are accustomed to calling “Madiba,” who has touched millions of lives, we look at how ultimately he and his colleagues in the liberation movement with the support of human rights defenders finally removed this scourge on history.

    Like Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” reminds us that despite the whirlwind of changes facing our time we must seize the day, Mandela’s demise marks the death of democracy’s greatest salesman of this era, providing us another chance to not only seize the day but to articulate a new vision for a new generation, especially those who are not familiar with the battle that Mandela waged in the last century.

    Mandela’s pilgrimage on this earth, defending the rights of ordinary South Africans uncompromisingly as he sought to sell democracy as the best political tool to empower any society, is a strong reminder of his commitment to the struggle and dignity of those who were made to feel like 3/5 of a human being as Blacks were once considered here in the U.S.

    That is why the fight against apartheid mirrored what took place in the Civil Rights Movement and bears so many parallels.

    When apartheid was instituted in 1948 by the National Party in South Africa led by its prime architect, D.F. Malan, until it was finally abolished in 1994 with Mandela’s election as the first democratically elected president, Black civil rights advocates were also fighting segregation in the South to desegregate lunch counters, neighborhoods, buses and schools.

    In fact, the Jim Crow laws that began in 1890 classifying African Americans separate but equal later on set the stage for the institution of apartheid in South Africa by the White minority that was only 20 percent of the population. Jim Crow gave birth to apartheid because if the world’s largest super power that led nations out of World War I and World War II, parading as a paragon of global democracy, could allow a segment of its people (African Americans) to be treated inferior, dehumanized and lynched, what did we expect of lesser powerful nations like South Africa?

    The battles against Jim Crow and apartheid took on a more profound sense when Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., two accidental leaders, came onto the world stage to make compelling moral and common sense cases to end the twin struggles.

    That is why apartheid was the number one foreign policy issue on most college campuses across America, with the creation of divestment movements, forcing major corporations to stop doing business with the South African government.

    Although Mandela and King never met, both shared a mission to address injustice and sacrificed their lives for it.

    King was assassinated and Mandela spent 27 years in prison, still refusingto allow his spirit to be broken, and he came out a wholesome person, not a bitter or broken man. Even though his detractors expected that when he came out of prison he would fail because he had been away for nearly three decades. Mandela came out more sound and shocked his captors.

    Facing the ultimate price with your life has been the hallmark of many mass liberation struggles across continents. That is why in remembering Mandela, many today are focused on a solemn paragraph from a four-hour speech he gave at the Rivonia trial that would send him to jail for 27 years.

    “I have fought against White domination and I have fought against Black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” — Nobel Laureate Mandela in his own words from the dock at the Rivonia trial before the Pretoria Supreme Court, June 11, 1964.

    In modern political history, rarely has a political prisoner used his trial to render a powerful and cogent argument with intellectual and historical depth to indict the system of injustice that was getting ready to send him away for decades. Mandela was in full control of his destiny and his mind.

    After his famous “I am Prepared to Die” speech, Mandela and seven others, including Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Golberg, would be convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

    On Feb. 11, 1990, Mandela came out of Victor Vester prison. His release was symbolic as well as pragmatic for Blacks in South Africa and around the world. The essence of his 27-year imprisonment and subsequent release provided the political framework for emancipation struggles involving oppressed people around the globe.

    From the streets of Detroit, which led mass demonstrations, to the towns and villages in Nigeria whose leaders supported Mandela, the cries of liberation could be heard just as in the film “Sarafina.”

    Even as Mandela is leaving us at the age of 95 on Sunday when he will be buried at his boyhood home of Qunu, he leaves behind a legacy for the global struggle for human rights as well as a nation that is still mired in the fight for economic justice for the masses of Black South Africans.

    Detroit, which raised a million dollars for Mandela after his visit to the Motor City at Tiger Stadium, should aptly name a street or an educational institution after him. If the city of London in Britain, whose government once derided him, can erect a life-size statue of Mandela alongside British war heroes, Detroit, which supported the anti-apartheid movement, can name a street or school after him to honor his legendary lighthouse global statesmanship.

    Like Mandela’s South Africa, Detroit also reminds us of the conflicts of the past, the cultural struggles and the drive for economic empowerment — the ever present need to affirm the rights and dignity of all — the very principles that gave Mandela his mission and established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 — the same year that apartheid was born.

    It is no coincidence that Mandela’s memorial service held Tuesday. Dec. 10, at Soweto’s FNB Stadium and attended by more than 100 heads of states including President Barack Obama, is the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which among other things affirms that “every human being is born free, equal in dignity and right.”

    Even in death, Mandela’s family, associates and colleagues in the liberation fight made sure his memory is tied to the universal principles of human rights that informed his philosophy.

    His absence should force us into a unified moment in which everyone plays a significant role to foster common interests and goals.

    Because as King stated, “We are all caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

    Everyone mourning the loss of Mandela has a challenge to make a lasting difference in communities connected by highways and freeways in this state and Detroit in particular. And any serious political leadership that aims to empower economically starving communities would work towards creating possibilities and action-oriented programs that would lead to well-paying jobs.

    Political freedom is an achievement, but economic opportunities with sound policies that do not undercut the road for real economic transformation is what South Africa needs and is what Detroit is badly in need of.

    I asked South African entrepreneur and Mellowcabs inventor Neil du Preez, about Mandela.

    “Mandela’s vision, courage and leadership inspired all. He fought for social justice and his ability for forgiveness and reconciliation left a permanent legacy on a strong, united and democratic South Africa,” Preez said. “The best tribute that business, government, and civil society can give him is to work together to improve the quality of life of all South Africans.”

    Bishop Ed Bilong, a South African evangelist, put it this way: “Well, Madiba was a father to all, the ultimate believer in the Black race. He inspired everyone of us to believe that nothing in this world is easy and yet nothing is impossible.”

    The riveting worldwide response to Mandela’s death shows his impact far beyond South Africa.

    President Obama at the memorial rightly put Mandela in the context of global history, comparing him to King, Mahatma Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln and America’s founding fathers, calling the anti-apartheid icon “the last great liberator of the 20th century.”

    “Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement, a movement that at its start had little prospect for success. Like Dr. King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice. He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War,” Obama told thousands in Johannesburg.

    “Emerging from prison, without the force of arms, he would, like Abraham Lincoln, hold his country together when it threatened to break apart. And like America’s Founding Fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations, a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power after only one term.”

    This is truly Mandela’s legacy.

    And at the end of the day when the evening candlelight is deemed and the hour is late, all that will be asked of us also is our legacy.

    From our legacy to the fulfillment of Mandela’s unfulfilled dreams, the common aspirations of Detroiters to the very ideas that informed the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, we cannot abandon the responsibility to pass the substance of this moment to the next generation.

    Understanding Mandela’s legacy would mean working for economic freedom and eliminating social inequities.

    Mandela did his part even though he lamented that more needs to be done to combat what he called the enemies of Ghandi who influenced him and identifying them as “ignorance, disease, unemployment, poverty and violence,” that he said are commonplace in South Africa.

    While unveiling a Ghandi memorial three years after his release, he called for “Unity, so that our children can walk in peace and learn in purpose. Unity, so that our aged can live out the rest of their lives in dignity. Unity, so that we can build one nation one people one country.”

    Mandela was one of two non-Indians to receive the Asian global powerhouse’s highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India) award in 1990. The other recipient was Mother Theresa.

    In 1998, Mandela came to Harvard University to receive an award at a special convocation. Only two leaders have been given such an award by the university, George Washington and Winston Churchill.

    In his speech Mandela said, “To join George Washington and Winston Churchill as the other recipients of such an award conferred at a specially convened convocation is not only a singular honor. It also holds great symbolic significance — to the mind and to the future memory of this great American institution, the name of an African is now added to those two illustrious leaders of the Western world.”

    Mandela took great pride in his African identity and espoused it.

    Dr. Curtis Ivery, chancellor of Wayne County Community College District, paid tribute to Mandela.

    “President Mandela stands among our greatest leaders whose influence changes the very course of history itself. His life was dedicated toward the betterment of humanity, above all else. And though his death marks one kind of passing, his legacy, his spirit and what he taught the world about our collective powers to achieve freedom and equality for all people will forever thrive,” Ivery said.

    In 2008, two years before he bowed out of the public stage, Madiba issued a warning at the conclusion of a London celebration in his honor before a crowd of 46,000.

    “Madiba” urged, “Our work is for freedom for all. We say tonight, after nearly 90 years of life, it is time for new hands to lift the burdens. It is in your hands now. I thank you.”

    Email bankole@bankolethompson.com or news@bankolethompson.com

  • Pope Francis and Detroit Leaders

    By Bankole Thompson

    If there is one thing we learned in 2013 is that Detroit is still in need of leadership that demonstrates what it means and tells the truth about where the city falters without sugarcoating the facts, and one that doesn’t wait for political expediency to decide reaching a decision.

    Notwithstanding, the election of a new Mayor Mike Duggan, whose appointments so far have received mix reviews because of his inclusion of past political players in past city administrations, Detroit is still on a leadership rollercoaster ride. Still looking for leaders who will unite everyone in a collective aspiration, ones that can have an instant touch of giving everybody invested in this city a sense of belonging.

    Part of the reason why we’ve seen a rather bold private sector leadership in the city taking center stage while political leaders tend to take a back seat is because those elected officials have long given up their mandate to govern, and when they governed, they failed their constituents.

    Detroit is still lacking behind on the socioeconomic scale in the nation in terms of the level of poverty that has gripped this city for decades.

    When was the last time a mayoral campaign platform focused on poverty and children?

    When was the last time politicians discussed mitigating the dire economic consequences that are eroding the basic necessities of life for those who have lived in this city and given their entire lives to a town they loved so dearly?

    And it is an embarrassment that neighborhood development is now on the private sector table when it should be a government mandate. Taxpayers who foot the bill at city hall deserve to have decent neighborhoods. Because they pay the bills and oil the wheels of the cars that officials drive, Detroit taxpayers have long deserved better life but have been disappointed at every turn for a new political development.

    So even as Detroit continues to evolve in 2014, city leaders can do themselves a favor by emulating leadership that isn’t afraid to rock the boat, but one that is firmly rooted in the idea that what affects one, affects the rest.

    And that example is being set by the Catholic Church’s Pope Francis, the first Latin in history to hold the papacy at the Vatican in Rome.

    Francis’ introduction to the world stage has some grinning and others visibly upset while many are jubilant at the arrival of a man who is speaking from deep conviction and experiences about socioeconomic inequality and deep seethed poverty around the world.

    The revolution that is taking place now in the Catholic Church forcing extreme conservatives like Russ Limbaugh to dismiss Francis as a “communist,” and Fox News calling the new Pope the “Catholic Church’s Obama,” is simply a call to action to tackle those issues that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa and other universally accepted and celebrated figures spoke about.

    “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points,” Francis said in his Apostolic Exhortation, known as the Joy of the Gospel.

    All that Pope Francis, the 77-year old Argentine Jesuit is doing is refocusing the mission back to those who have been left out and told they are on their own by calling on Catholic leaders to build a “church for the poor.”

    And in that group includes some of our seniors in Detroit facing public safety nightmares almost daily, and now waiting for their pensions to be axed in a bankruptcy court, the majority poor who are cut out of the basic existence of life and sentenced to a revolving door, hundreds of children who are living in indecent conditions that none of us would accept for our children.

    “It is not my problem,” is how some reading this article would scream.

    It is easy to blame them for their predicaments but they too are owed decent and better services from city hall.

    It is easy to wave the flag of “rugged individualism,” and remind them that they should pull themselves by the bootstraps, but it is hard to pull yourself when you don’t have any boots to wear in the first place.

    No amount of personal responsibility message can alleviate the unbearable conditions that a lot of children in this city are going through.

    Last year at the invitation of Mary Kramer, publisher of Crains Detroit Business, I volunteered as a bartender for a fundraiser organized by the Women’s Caring Program (WCP) in Gross Pointe Park. I was encouraged by the enthusiasm and energy in the room at the garden party to raise money for early childhood programs for disadvantaged children that would prepare them for kindergarten. Because WCP believes that: children deserve a chance.

    Detroit leaders can no longer put a mask on poverty. That should be part of the goal in 2014. Take a page from Pope Francis, who has basically abandoned the luxuries associated with the papacy and has even dismissed being referred to as “your holiness.”

    Political leaders in Detroit should demonstrate what personal sacrifice they are making on behalf of the people they are claiming to serve.

    I would recommend that in 2014, our city leaders start to create programs or use their bully pulpits to forcefully address some of the inequities in our community. Detroit would go a long way if each our political leaders had a foundation or charity (not misused) that was helping raising money for WCP and other programs that are serving children and parents less fortunate.

    How ironic that often the private sector, which Pope Francis himself has accused of crash capitalism, is often where you will find individuals establishing charities and foundations to help address social equity.

    It should not be just a city paycheck that our officials work away with every two weeks. They should also add social equity to the equation and that means showing us how many children are smiling in this city everyday because of what they’ve personally sacrificed. Leadership leads by example and Francis has handed down the gauntlet.

    E-mail bankole@bankolethompson.com or news@bankolethompson.com 

    We can all in the words of Dr. King become a “Drum major for justice,” and that begins by making real and concrete difference in 2014, and those using taxpayer money as our elected officials cannot be backbenchers in this mission.