Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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September 18th, 2012 7:22 PM

A Holy Thursday

Excerpted from Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life by Michael Moore

“Don’t just stand there, the niggers are comin’!”

Walter was twelve, and he was only trying to be helpful.

“Whaddaya mean?” I asked while standing in his driveway with my baseball glove and a bat, hoping to get a game going before sundown.

“The niggers in Detroit are rioting! My dad says they’re on their way here right now! We’re headin’ up north!”

And sure enough they were. They were wasting no time hurriedly jamming their station wagon full of food and supplies and shotguns. Walter’s mother, Dorothy, was shouting orders to her six boys about what to load and what to leave behind. I stood there in awe of the precisionlike nature of this operation. It was as if they had run this drill many times before. A few doors down, I noticed another family doing the same thing. I started to get scared.

“Walter, I don’t understand. Why are you guys doing this? Are you going to come back?”

“Don’t know. Just gotta git. Dad says the niggers from Detroit are on their way here and will be here any minute!”

On their way to where? Here? They’re coming to Hill Street?

“Walter, I think Detroit’s a long way away from here.”

“Nope, no, no, it’s not! Dad says they could be here just like that!” Walter snapped his fingers, as if by doing so he could magically make a Negro appear to prove his point to me. “They’re going to get together with the niggers in Flint and then come ’n’ kill us all!”

Although I had never heard anything this fantastical before, I was not unfamiliar with the attitudes in the town of Davison when it came to the issue of the Colored People. Black people—niggers, as many wistfully called them—were simply not welcomed. There was not, to my knowledge, a single black person living among the 5,900 people who inhabited the city of Davison. Considering we were just outside Flint, a city with fifty thousand black people, this was not an accident. Through the years, realtors knew what to do if there were any inquiries from Negroes looking to move out of Flint and into Davison. And the unwritten, though not always unspoken, agreement among the city residents was to never sell your house to a black family. This kept things nice and orderly and white for decades.

This attitude did not exist a century before. In the 1850s and 1860s, Davison was a stop on the Underground Railroad, a series of secret destinations that stretched from the Ohio River Valley north through Indiana and Ohio and into Michigan, all the way to the Canadian border, where escaping black slaves would find their freedom. There were over two hundred secret stops along the Railroad in the state of Michigan. Members of the new Republican Party in Michigan worked extensively on the Underground Railroad, assisting the runaway slaves, giving them safe passage, and hiding them in their homes.

But bounty hunters from the South were allowed by federal law to come into states like Michigan and legally kidnap any slaves they found and bring them back home to their masters. This was one of the many compromises the North had made over the years to keep the slave states happy and in the Union. Thus, a slave was not free by simply escaping to a free state; he or she had to make it all the way to Canada.

So it was with some risk that hundreds of Michiganders set about to protect the victims of this cruel and barbaric system. One such person owned the home on the corner of Main and Third streets in Davison, a mere fifty-nine miles to the Canadian border. It was said in later years that the family in this house had a hiding space in their cellar and that the townspeople kept this secret from the marauding bounty hunters. (This house would eventually become my grandparents’ home.)

It became a sense of pride in Davison that the village was participating in something important, something historic. Many of the boys in the area would soon be off to the Civil War, and when slavery ended, the people of Davison were proud of the small role they played in making this happen.

Such was not the mood on a sweltering August day in the summer of 1924 when twenty thousand people gathered at the Rosemore racetrack in Davison to attend a rally of the Benevolent Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Looking at the photos from that day, with thousands of citizens in white robes, one wonders how hot they must have been, especially with those pointed hoods! Many, though, did not wear the hoods, as there really was no reason to hide their identities because it seemed that everyone and their third cousin was a member of this fine organization dedicated to terrorizing and lynching black people.

But in the summer of 1924, it wasn’t so much the Negroes in Flint (most of whom had learned to know their place and remain quiet) that were the issue. No, the problem confronting the Klan on this Sunday afternoon was the “Papists”—the Catholics. Catholics, it seemed, had starting running for office. They were moving into neighborhoods meant for white Protestants, and this did not seem like the natural order of things. Catholics had also started to intermarry, something that created a deep, sick feeling among the gathered faithful. Marriage, as you were supposed to know, was to be between a Protestant man and a Protestant woman (and, yes, it could be between a Catholic man and a Catholic woman — but not between a Catholic and a Protestant).

My mother’s dad (Grandpa Wall) did not understand such rules (and he was to be forgiven as he was, after all, from Canada). In 1904 he, an Anglican, married my grandmother, a Roman Catholic. For his troubles, the Klan burned a cross on his front yard in Davison.

“It wasn’t much of a cross,” my grandmother would later remark. “You’d think we’d rate more than a four-foot-high cross!”

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Davison and other parts of Michigan were hotbeds of enthusiastic bigotry. From Father Charles Coughlin railing against the Jews each Sunday on his nationwide radio show from Royal Oak, to the Sunday Klan rallies in Davison (and Kearsley Park in Flint), there

was enough to be ashamed of and enough to wonder about how far the state had drifted from the days of the loving humanity of the newborn Republican Party, a party that not only ended slavery but also the death penalty and sought to give women the right to vote. Now what we had were scenes like Henry Ford getting medals from Hitler.

It was the last week of July 1967, and all that was on my mind was that we were soon moving six blocks away to a paved street! But down in Detroit, some sixty miles away, the city was indeed in flames. It had been on the news the night before. From what I could gather the police had tried to arrest every black person at an after-hours club that was holding a party for two returning Vietnam vets. This offended the neighborhood and triggered immediate protests, which then turned to violence. The National Guard was called in and much of southeastern Michigan was convinced that the race riots that broke out in Watts two years prior—and in Newark, just two weeks earlier—were now in full bloom in our state.

What was not understood at the time was that, in fact, this was an uprising of Detroit’s poor — and those poor found the police and the Guard going berserk and gunning down any suspicious person with black skin.

Up in Flint, though, things were different. The year before, the city had elected the country’s first black mayor, Floyd McCree. McCree was a beloved figure in Flint, a city that was still nearly 80 percent white. Flint’s voters would also soon pass the country’s first open housing law, making it illegal to discriminate when renting or selling a home.

Although Flint’s neighborhoods were by and large still segregated, there seemed to be some sort of desire to “fix things” when it came to the issue of race.

Which made Walter’s family and their crazed fleeing seem all the more absurd to me as I stood in their driveway. Flint was not going to explode, and the black people there were not going to kill me. I didn’t even need to check in with a parent to confirm that. Actually, my biggest fear was that my mother might have heard Walter saying “nigger,” a word that was never spoken and specifically forbidden in our household. I would suffer some embarrassment if she yelled out to me to get back in the house, but there was nothing to worry about, as she and my dad were busy planning our move to Main Street.

The station wagon was filled to the brim with provisions and paranoia, and so off they peeled down the street, their tires kicking up the gravel as they fled to safety.

Flint did not riot, but Detroit raged on for a week. Each night on the local news, war scenes from Vietnam were replaced with war scenes from Detroit. It jolted the entire state. Detroit, this beautiful, bountiful city, would never be the same again. In later years it would be hard for anyone to understand what that meant, but those of us who grew up within a stone’s throw saw Detroit as our Emerald City, this place so full of life, its sidewalks packed with people, its stores the envy of the Midwest, its universities and parks and gardens and art museum (with its Diego Rivera mural), the Detroit of Aretha and Iggy and Seger and the MC5, Belle Isle and Boblo, and the twelfth floor of Hudson’s, where the real Santa sat on his throne and promised us a gift-wrapped future of endless possibilities and eternal cheer, on Comet and Cupid and...Donner...and...Blitzen...and...and...and in the blink of an eye, it was gone. All gone. It wasn’t like we didn’t know where it went or that we couldn’t remember why it went. We knew when it went; we knew the exact moment when it went. It went up Woodward and down Twelfth Street, over to Grand River and down past Tiger Stadium and it didn’t stop until it took our last morsel of optimism with it. And then we ran, da-doo-run-run, to get away from them to leave them behind, to let them suffer and wallow in the misery they’d never really climbed out of since we, the Michiganders, led the charge to free them. President Johnson sent the 82nd Airborne Division into Detroit on the fourth day, complete with tanks and machine guns a-blazing, the Vietnam War finally at home. When it was over, forty-three people were dead and two thousand buildings had been blasted apart or burned to the ground, and our spirit was buried deep under the rubble.

 

It was in this backdrop that my dad took the family to a Tigers ball game in Detroit just a couple weeks later. The tickets had been purchased at the beginning of the summer, and although my mother voiced her concern over the wisdom of such a “trip” to Detroit at this time, I suppose they decided that to throw away tickets they’d paid for was a worse crime, and so off we went.

It was a Thursday night, an unusual time for us to drive to Detroit to see a ball game. My dad preferred to drive there during the daytime; all previous excursions were made to day games on Saturdays or Sundays. But this was a game against the Chicago White Sox, who that year had Tommy John and Hoyt Wilhelm pitching for them, and former Tiger Rocky Colavito in the outfield. My dad thought this would be a good game, as both teams were in a tight pennant race.

It wasn’t. The Tigers lost, 2–1. But it was my first night game, and it may not make me sound like much of a sports guy, but it was truly a magical moment for me to see that historic field bathed in such a bright light, as if it came from the heavens, or at least a nearby Fermi nuclear plant.

When the game was over, there was a tension in the crowd as people exited into the neighborhood that bordered the riot area. It was the March of the Frightened White People, a kind of walk-run people do when they hear the sound of a tornado siren. Walk, don’t run—but run! Run for your life!

We got to our car, a ’67 Chevy Bel Air, which my dad had parked in a paid lot instead of on the usual free side street. Saving money on parking in this post-riot month was not on anyone’s mind. Getting out alive was.

We pulled out of the lot off Cochrane Street and headed down Michigan Avenue until we came to the right turn that would take us onto the Fisher Freeway north. As we approached the expressway ramp, steam began coming out of the hood of our car. Thinking there might be a gas station on the other side of the entrance ramp, my father continued on the overpass and into uncharted territory. It was there that the Chevy simply died. I looked up at the street sign. We were on Twelfth Street, ground zero for the riots. I pointed this out to my dad, and he became agitated in a way I rarely saw.

“Everybody just stay calm,” he said in a voice that was nothing resembling calm. Lock the doors!”

We obeyed immediately, but our father saw the growing terror on our faces, and he took this as a lack of faith in his ability to get us out of this mess.

“Dammit! I don’t know why we came down here! Wasn’t anyone paying attention?!”

That he could be both philosophical about why we were in Detroit and accusatory over an accidental breech in engine fluids was impressive, I thought.

My mother and sisters got very quiet. I was sure I could hear the thumping of our hearts, but the actual thumping was being caused by a black man knocking on our window.

“You need help?” he asked, as panic filled the Chevy’s interior.

My dad answered, “Yes.”

“Well, let’s take a look at what the problem is,” the black man offered.

“Just stay inside,” my dad said. “I’ll handle this.” He did not look like the guy who wanted to handle this.

I looked out the back window to see that the man’s car was parked behind us. And in the car was a woman and two or three kids.

“You at the ball game?” he asked my dad, as they met at the steaming hood.

“Yes.”

“We were, too! Came down from Pontiac. Man, that sure was some sorry game!”

The two dads lifted the hood and poked around and soon figured out the problem.

“We got a bum radiator hose,” my dad shouted back to us. The black man went back to his car and opened the trunk.

He brought out a jug of water and gave it to my dad to pour into the radiator.

“This should get you a few blocks to the gas station,” the stranger said. “But I’d go back in the other direction.”

My dad thanked him for his kindness and offered to pay him something, but the man would have none of it.

“Just glad I could help,” the man said. “Hope someone would do that for me if I needed it. You want me to follow you?”

My dad, probably still wondering if we would indeed have stopped for him if he’d been in trouble, said, no, we’ll be fine, we’ll just head back to Michigan Avenue where surely someone would be open.

And someone was. The gas station attendant replaced the radiator hose, filled the radiator up, and we were on our way. “We were lucky,” my dad said somewhere around Clarkston. “That was a good man we ran into. And that was the last night game we’re going to.”

 

Eight months later, and just six days before the Opening Day of a new Detroit Tigers season (one in which they would go on to win the World Series), Holy Week was approaching. It was Easter time, and this year the nuns thought it would be a good idea for us to see where the original “Last Supper” on Holy Thursday came from.

“The apostles and Jesus were Jews,” Sister Mary Rene told us. “They were not Christian or Catholic. They were Jews and they observed Jewish traditions. And so during this week, Jesus had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, the Jewish feast commemorating the time Jews were told by God to smear lamb’s blood on their doorposts in Egypt. This was done so that when the Angel of Death was making his rounds to kill all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, he’d know where the Jewish houses were so he could skip them. This was God’s way of sending a message to the Pharaoh: let Moses and the Jewish people go or I’ll fuck you up some more.”*

OK, well, whew, that was some story, and as I was the first (and only) son in my family, I found it mildly interesting if not creepy. God, in the Old Testament, seemed to have some sort of chip on his shoulder. He was constantly whacking whole tribes or tossing guys inside whales’ stomachs. Real attitude problem, I used to think. And why wasn’t his Angel of Death smart enough to know which ones were the Egyptian homes and which were the Jewish homes without having to mess up the Jewish front doors with difficult-toremove bloodstains? Couldn’t he just tell them apart from the different styles of architecture each group employed— the Egyptians with their split-level colonials, and the Jews with their fixer-upper slave huts? Plus, wouldn’t that blood on the door make the Jews less safe, especially considering the next morning, all the Egyptians are going to wake up to find they’ve got a dead kid in the house and then they’re like, “Let’s go get the Jews!” But then someone says, “How the hell will we find them?” and then someone else runs in and says, “Hey, they’ve all got blood out on their porches! Just burn down the huts with the lamb’s blood!”

Sister Mary Rene, like Sister Raymond and the other nuns, took great pains to let us know that, contrary to what we may have heard, the Jews did not kill our Lord and Savior. The Romans did. Jesus was Jewish, was born Jewish, and died Jewish and he’d be very upset if he thought we blamed his own people for his demise — which was supposed to happen anyway so that he could rise from the dead and start our religion! Yay!

The nuns contacted one of the three synagogues in Flint and asked if they could bring some seventh and eighth grade students over for a Passover dinner so we could learn the Jewish tradition of this time of year. The rabbi was more than happy to accommodate and we spent a week learning to sing “Hava Nagila” as a sort of thank-you to them.

I didn’t remember much about this event they called a seder, other than someone asked four questions and we couldn’t put the chocolate cake on the dish that had what passed for beef.

It was one week from Holy Thursday, 1968, the Thursday before Palm Sunday, the day that Jesus would enter Jerusalem and prepare for what would be his last Passover on the following Thursday. At St. John’s during Lent there was either a Lenten service or Mass on each weeknight. I was asked to be an altar boy on this particular Thursday. There were gospel readings and Communion and the consecrating of the altar with incense.

I was given the silver censer that held the burning coal onto which you placed the incense and then swung it around the altar and throughout the church. This had all of my favorite activities rolled into one: fire, smoke, and emitting a strange odor.

When Mass was over, one of my duties was to take the censer outside the church and dispose of the smoldering incense and coal onto the ground, putting it out with my foot.

It was a chilly evening on this early April night, and the vestments that I wore over my clothes were not enough to keep out the piercing wind that was blowing up into my black robe and making me want to get back inside as quickly as possible. I emptied the remnants of the incense out onto the still-frozen ground and rubbed them around, pressing hard with the heel of my shoe, until they were extinguished. It was then that a man in the parking lot, a parishioner who had gone out early to his car to warm it up, had heard a news bulletin on the radio as it came on. Excited, he wanted to share it with everyone as they were departing the church. With his car door open, he stood up on the floorboard so all coming out of Mass could hear his joyful announcement:

“King’s been shot! They’ve shot King! Martin Luther King!”

At that moment — in what I will recall for the rest of my life as one of the most depressing things I would ever witness — a cheer went up from the crowd. Not from everyone, not even from most. But from more than a few, a spontaneous joyful noise came out of the mouths that had just held the body of Christ. A whoop and holler and a yell and a cheer. I was still processing the stunning and tragic news about Reverend King I had just heard—heard from a man who said it with such surety that all would be well now, this Negro, this nigger, this terrorist, was somehow no longer going to bother us anymore. Hallelujah.

I jerked my head in the direction of the church door to see who in God’s name was celebrating this moment. Some people had smiles. But most were stunned. Some remained silent, while others rushed to their cars so they could turn on their radios and hear for themselves that this troublemaker was no longer with us. A woman began to cry. People passed the news back inside the church to those who had not yet come out. There was much commotion, and all I could think about was that stupid Angel of Death—and who the hell forgot the lamb’s blood tonight in Memphis? There would be no pass over.

What was special about this night? Every Easter, from then on and for the rest of my life, I would know the bitter answer.

 

* She did not use the F word. I just thought it would be cool if she did.

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