‘Whose Streets?’ pushes back on what we think we know about Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri New documentary is a potent combination of social and media criticism

Deep into Whose Streets?, the new documentary about Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown, there’s footage of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Brown, giving an interview to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

“You can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you,” Wilson tells him. At the screening I attended, there was an audible mix of gasps and laughter from the audience.

Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis spent much of the film’s run time up to that point establishing just how much racism lurked within the Ferguson Police Department and the city government. A 2015 report from the Justice Department established that Ferguson provided about as clear an illustration of institutionalized racism as could possibly exist: The city not only targeted black residents for tickets and arrests they couldn’t afford, it was also using the revenue from such stops to fund the nearly all-white police force. The court clerk, police captain and police sergeant were all implicated in sending and receiving racist emails, including one that compared President Barack Obama to a monkey.

Protester Brittany Ferrell hoists a bullhorn as her daughter hugs her in a scene from ‘Whose Streets?’

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

And yet here was Wilson telling a national television audience that racism was anathema to policing.

Whose Streets? arrives in theaters Aug. 11, marking the third anniversary of Brown’s death (Aug. 9, 2014) and the uprisings that followed it. It’s a deeply moving work, and the passion of both the filmmakers and their subjects is palpable. “FYI I was literally homeless throughout the first year of production. Worked as a canvasser and put money back into the film,” Folayan, an activist, theater geek and former advocate for prisoners at Rikers Island, tweeted recently. Davis is an interdisciplinary artist whose work is currently featured in the permanent collection at the Blacksonian (aka, the National Museum of African American History and Culture).

The focus of Whose Streets? is the residents of Ferguson and St. Louis who keep marching and screaming for justice till they’re hoarse, who keep agitating long after the national media has turned its attention elsewhere. It establishes the movement for black lives in Ferguson as one driven by young people such as rapper Tef Poe, who are fed up with being targeted by police, and others like organizer Brittany Ferrell and her partner, Alexis Templeton, as well as Copwatch recruiter David Whitt, who want better for their children.

Whose Streets? is likely to serve as a counterweight to Detroit, the new Kathryn Bigelow film about the 1967 Detroit riots and the police murder of three unarmed black people at the Algiers Hotel. It’s not necessarily fair to compare narrative films like Detroit to documentaries, but there’s a similarity in the dynamic between the two that existed with Nina and What Happened, Miss Simone? Both Whose Streets? and What Happened, Miss Simone? end up correcting, or at least augmenting, the record of ahistorical narrative films that struggle with details in which race is central.

Nina made the mistake of casting Zoe Saldana as Simone, then putting her in makeup to darken her skin and prosthetics to make her facial features more closely resemble Simone’s. Detroit fails to imbue its characters with any depth or humanity and devolves into a slog of racist white police officers terrorizing a group of people in the Algiers.

Bigelow’s herky-jerky camerawork and editing in Detroit deliberately create a sense of chaos. Whose Streets?, by contrast, presents real footage of Ferguson buildings in flames after Brown’s death, but the overall effect is far more nuanced. It’s much easier to get a sense of what happened in Ferguson as pockets of violence and property damage pockmarked peaceful, if emotional, protests. Whose Streets? refuses to equate property damage with the loss of human life.

Folayan and Davis offer a potent work of media criticism too. Folayan and Davis communicate just how much cable news, by repeatedly and selectively broadcasting the most violent, hectic footage, was responsible for making Ferguson seem like a war zone whose residents were animalistic and out of control. That narrative was furthered by a distant, largely white media corps accepting police reports as gospel. Whose Streets? challenges that by juxtaposing footage of Ferrell and her cohorts protesting to shut down a highway in Missouri with the official police account of what happened, in which the arresting officer accused Ferrell of yelling out “tribal chants.”

For a moment, we also see what it means to send black journalists into a situation like Ferguson, where police in tanks and armored vehicles are shooting rubber bullets, smoke grenades and tear gas (a chemical agent that the Geneva Convention prohibits in warfare) at the city’s black residents. There’s a clip of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Ernie Suggs walking through Ferguson at night with his hands above his head as police bark orders at black protesters. The police draw no distinction. He’s black, so he might as well be one of them.

Brittany Ferrell leads a line of protesters as they face off with police in ‘Whose Streets?’

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The film gives voice to a community that’s reeling, mournful and frustrated. It has little faith in a government that’s failed it repeatedly. Spliced with footage of white public officials delivering statements that are often canned and worded to avoid legal liability, Whose Streets? brings the idea of two Americas, and two wholly different realities, to life. “Question normal,” it demands of its audience.

Despite the gravity of its subject matter, Whose Streets? has moments of dark levity. One interview follows a clip of President Obama giving a statement about Brown in his trademark style of measured reason.

“I’m waiting on me to have a black president. I still ain’t had me one,” a Ferguson resident named Tory says. “Wasn’t he a constitutional professor? Ain’t no constitution in Ferguson. Tell that n—- he need to teach a new class or bring his a– to Ferguson … and figure out why we ain’t got no constitution.”

Whose Streets? is understandably close in spirit to The Hate U Give, the best-selling young adult novel by Angie Thomas published earlier this year. The Hate U Give is told from the perspective of a teenage girl who is the sole witness as her unarmed best friend is shot and killed by a white police officer. The book, which is heavily influenced by Ferguson, is slated for a film adaptation starring Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby and Lamar Johnson. It’s early days yet, but I suspect that the film version of The Hate U Give and Whose Streets? will serve as cinematic bookends to understanding what black people went through in Ferguson before and after Brown’s death.

The documentary ends on a hopeful note, but no one in Whose Streets? is a Pollyanna, least of all Ferrell. She’s open about the fact that she’s taking prescription medication to treat anxiety and says she’s not sure the justice she and her partner are seeking will come in their lifetimes. They’re counting on another generation of troublemakers and revolutionaries to carry on. They’re raising one in their elementary-school-aged daughter McKenzie, seen in the film with her mothers leading a crowd and screaming as loud as she can, “WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS!”

The air up there: Five black men jump out of a plane in Baltimore A skydiving tale of conquering fear and forging a brotherhood at 13,000 feet

I gather my senses, and a weird sense of calm overtakes me. My eyes water up. Everything whips past at speeds that feel closer to breaking the sound barrier than anything I’ve ever experienced. Wind crashes against my face at 130 mph. It’s impossible to hear. Feeling completely defenseless makes me alive in a way I have never experienced. Makes me alive in a way I never knew existed.


The opening triplet of Young Jeezy’s 2005 zenith Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101: “Thug Motivation 101,” “Standing Ovation” and “Gangsta Music.” When it fails to elicit a reaction, there’s cause for concern. But when Meek Mill’s 2012 “Dreams & Nightmares” doesn’t do the trick, we all quietly panic.

Hold on, wait a minute / Y’all thought I was finished?/ When I bought that Aston Martin / Y’all thought it was rented …

“Turn that down for a second,” George says from the back seat.

There are five of us. Me, Trevon (Tre), Chris (whom we all call Mayo) and Derek (who met us at the spot). We were all there for George, who is getting married in Atlanta in November and wants to cross an item off his “living list.” He hates the term “bucket list.”

“That sounds too much like death,” he told me an hour before, outside Tre’s parents’ house in Bowie, Maryland. He was scarfing down a bowl from Chipotle. “Let’s do everything we wanna do while we’re here. It makes for a better life story.”

But now, as Tre’s 2011 Nissan Maxima — “The Swain Train,” as we dubbed it — turns into the gravel driveway of Skydive Baltimore in Mitchellville, Maryland, it hits us. The driveway leads to an open field with parked cars, a mini-warehouse and planes. “I done did the DOAs / I done did the KODs,” Meek raps, with the volume nearly on mute. “Every time I’m in that b—- / I get to throwin’ 30 G’s …

We are on the cusp of embarking on the most extreme sport on the planet. The five of us are about to jump out of a plane.

July 16, 2017. For months, it seemed nothing more than a fictional date. It would never get here. And even if it did, the weather wouldn’t cooperate. A pipe dream would be left as just that.

But what was a group chat idea in April spawned into May reality as we all watched blowout after blowout during the NBA playoffs. When Derek got the ball rolling by copping his Groupon ticket first, the stage was set. Talking about it was cool, but being about it was a totally different monster. Weeks went by. Eventually a quintet took shape.

“Damn, we’re pretty high up. This it?”

Derek, Tre, George and I all went to Hampton together. Mayo is Tre’s oldest friend, from high school. We asked other friends, men and women, if they were down. Some initially committed but backed out for scheduling reasons. One friend asked, “Why the f— would I wanna jump out of a perfectly good plane?” Silently, it’s what we’d all asked ourselves.

In the weeks leading up to July 16, a brotherhood — we call it #FlightTeam — formed. What else would you call five people crazy enough to jump out of a plane? We’re all either in our early 30s or, in Tre’s case, months away from the landmark birthdate. We’re blessed with jobs in which we’re excelling. Some of us are in committed relationships. Life just feels good. And we wanted to try something new — something we’d remember for the rest of our lives. It was about seeking a thrill, but it was more about breaking the status quo. It’s hard to find statistics about black people who skydive. We knew of friends and acquaintances who’ve done it, but for the most part, what statistics wouldn’t tell us, the reactions we got when we told folks surely did.

“ ‘Brother, black people don’t do that,’ ” is what the author Touré playfully recalled a group of black men telling him before his 2007 jump. “I was breaking the rules of blackness as they saw it.”

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“Skydiving?” Brian, a bartender at my local bar quizzed me. “Man, y’all n—–s wilding, for real. If you come back, at least I know you didn’t die.” He then proceeded to show me a video another customer at the bar pulled up on her phone of a woman slipping out of her harness.

“Well, you only live once, I guess,” Ryan, a childhood friend, said to me via text. He’s currently serving overseas in the military, and even he thought the idea was asinine.

“Y’all like the only black people I know personally … crazy enough to do this,” Mayo said with a laugh when he agreed to go. “Or the dumbest. But I’m with y’all, so what’s that make me?”

The peculiar truth about skydiving is there are two types of first-timers: those who research everything they can on the internet and those who go in blind. For myself — a reporter, writer and naturally inquisitive person — it was the former. There are the horror stories. There’s video of President George H.W. Bush jumping for his 90th birthday. The most impactful to me, however, is Will Smith describing his first skydive, in 2013 in Dubai. It spoke to a lesson far larger than that of jumping from a plane.

The tutorial? Literally the instructor telling you what and what not to do.

Fear, in a lot of ways, is death in breathing form. A byproduct of living in the world, fear is the reason so many wake up years later saying, “I wish I would have,” instead of “I’m glad I did.” Combating fear is why The Fresh Prince went skydiving. Anticipation is usually worse than the event itself. “You realize at the point of maximum danger,” Smith said, “is the point of minimum fear.”

Skydiving is actually quite safe. Just last year, the United States Parachute Association recorded 21 skydiving deaths out of approximately 3.2 million jumps — one death per 153,557 jumps. The number shrinks with tandem skydiving (with the instructor strapped on your back), with one student death per 500,000 jumps over the past decade. Since 2000, 413 skydiving deaths have been reported out of 48.6 million jumps. The fatality rate was 0.00085 percent. A person is far more likely to die from being struck by lightning or stung by a bee.

If we were going to die doing this, we had the worst luck known to man. Or it was just our time to go. We were cool with those odds. More importantly, though, none of us wanted to back out on our word.


Telling your mom you’re about to jump out of a plane is almost as much of a rush as jumping out of the plane itself. “Ma,” I said the night of July 15. “I wasn’t gonna tell you, but LaToya said I probably should.”

“Justin, what? Is she OK? Is she getting married? I can’t lose out on a potential daughter-in-law. Are you in trouble? Boy, I told you don’t go messing up this good job!”

“Huh? What? No! I’m skydiving tomorrow. I’ll be fine. Trust me.”

“Going by yourself?”

“It’s like four of my boys going with me. Tre’s going.”

“I mean, are you jumping out by yourself?”

“Hell, nah! I might pass out. I need someone to pull the cord.”

“OK, fine. Call me when you get on the ground. We ain’t telling your grandma until you get back on the ground, though.”

In the car, we swap stories about telling our loved ones. In George’s words, he had to get his “affairs in order.” We’re an hour away from doing something we never really believed would happen, and we’re laughing. It’s these small moments that define a brotherhood. The order of jumping is finalized. I demand to go first (if you’re considering doing this, jump first, because watching your friends get vacuumed out of an airplane is a haze of monumental proportions). We crack jokes on each other. We predict what we’ll say as we jump.

“I’m definitely yelling ‘Free Ghost!’ ” I say, alluding to this season of the Starz series Power.

“Maybe I’ll yell out, ‘It took four All-stars to beat LeBron in the Finals,’ ” Tre says moments later.

The mileage on the GPS slowly trickles away. The weather is sarcastically perfect — as if Mother Nature is telling us, “Y’all ain’t blaming me. You’re jumping out that damn plane.” The wardrobe: Fatigue shorts, Nike Air Max and a black tee with, in hindsight, a fitting lyric from Future and Drake’s 2016 loosie “Used To This”: Beat the odds/ Do numbers/ And remain humble.

The moment was at our fingertips. The five of us knew we’d leave this field as different people. First, the paperwork. “Basically, you’re signing your life away,” Derek said. “You either sign it and jump, or don’t sign it and don’t jump. Either way, they’ve already gotten your money.”

Speaking of dead presidents, we all paid $125 for the “media” package that came with 200-plus pictures and video of the experience. Then came the wait. This was the worst. Groups in front of us went up in planes, jumped and parachuted to the ground. They resembled giant, colorful snowflakes. We all stood and watched, occasionally placing videos on Snapchat, as well as Instagram stories. The jumpers were all supportive and energetic, the consensus being, “You’ll thank yourself for doing it while you’re in the air.” As we expected, we were the only group of black people jumping together, although two people came after us — but one stayed on the ground and worked on his laptop as his daughter got set to skydive. Then came the moment three months in the making.

Trevon, George, Chris, Justin and Derek, come to the front.

Immediately, we all realize there isn’t a “class” we’ll take beforehand. The tutorial? It’s the instructor telling you what and what not to do. Within 10 minutes, we are strapped in harnesses and later to our instructors on the seatless plane — which holds 10 people at the most. My queasiness, which had been faint 30 minutes before, increases in severity the higher the plane climbs. There’s no backing out. We are at the point of no return.

Talking about it was cool, but being about it was a totally different monster.

“Damn, we’re pretty high up. This it?” I ask, looking out the window.

“Nah, bro,” says Mike the instructor nonchalantly. He’s on his 11th and final jump of the day. “We’re about halfway there.”

The Maryland terrain now resembles a Google map. I look around the plane, attempting to gauge the collective mindstate. Mayo is quiet. Derek doesn’t seem too much bothered. George is at peace in the back of the plane. But Tre? Tre, he has What the entire f— did I get myself into? written all over his face.

The door opens. It’s a passage to the rest of our lives. That’s another aspect you’re not truly prepared for: seeing a door open on a plane and clouds breezing by underneath. Mike inches us closer to the edge. He asks me if I prefer a straight plunge or to backflip out. Not that it matters, as I was kind of seated in the doorway and my legs were already dangling out.

It’s at this point where a person simultaneously feels heaven, hell, life and death. It’s a high, the greatest sex, the greatest weed … the greatest anything, really, could never replicate (OK, well, never is pushing it). But, true to form, “Free Ghost!” were my last coherent words.

As quickly as the free fall begins, though, it’s over. The parachute deploys. Whipping wind gives way to an eerie silence as I float toward the launchpad. You see how big the world is. And how small you are. You realize how peaceful the moment is. How the freedom of that exact moment surpasses the trepidation of the months, weeks, days and hours before. Skydiving made no sense at all until it made all the sense. I was temporarily suspended in air and left to my own thoughts. The air up there isn’t the enemy. It’s the ground where the problems lie.

The entire experience is over in five minutes. I was back on the ground quicker than it took to get in the air. Tre, Derek, Mayo and George are soon behind. The ride-back recap session was legendary. Viewing our videos, we saw the same experience from each other’s point of view. Over a week later, the five of us still laugh about the moment that brought us together and put us face to face with our own mortality. It’s a feat we’ll take with us to homecomings, weddings, baby showers and certainly George’s wedding later this year.

“A week later and it’s still a trip,” Tre says with a laugh. “[I just keep thinking], did we really do that?”

A thought populated my mind that night after the jump, as I boarded a flight to Boston. It was a piece from Jay-Z’s 2009 “Forever Young.” It spoke to not only what we five had just done, but succinctly about conquering fear.

Fear not when, fear not why / Fear not much while we’re alive/ Life is for living, not living uptight / Till you’re somewhere up in the sky …

Jay-Z inadvertently reminded me of something George had said. His words applied to life, personally and professionally. It applied to taking the great risks to produce the great rewards we all seek in life. “When I realized I could die,” said the groom-to-be, “that’s when I started living.”

Motown mastermind behind ‘Dancing in the Street’ recalls the 1967 Detroit riots – when black folks took to the streets Writer William ‘Mickey’ Stevenson remembers the pain, the glory, the commitment to creativity — and to changing the world

It was time for a change.

Motown was becoming bigger than music. The label was challenging the segregated whiteness of American pop with songs such as 1961’s “Shop Around” from Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, which was the label’s first million-seller. And “Please Mr. Postman,” from the Marvelettes, was Motown’s first No. 1 pop hit in that same year. Yet, by the time the middle of the decade arrived, Motown — with recordings such as Martha and the Vandellas’ hit 1964 anthem “Dancing in the Street” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s politically direct 1967 “Why I Oppose The Vietnam War” (recorded on Motown’s Black Forum label) — was dipping its collective toe into the creation of socially conscious works.

This label, based in Detroit’s midtown area, was of course the brainchild of young Berry Gordy, a former featherweight boxer with a dozen wins on record. In 1959 he launched Tamla Records, which was incorporated a year later as Motown Record Corp. He did this with an $800 loan he’d collected from family. Motown’s records were addictive, a pop culture phenomenon: gospel-inflected vocals draped over infectious, energetic beats, and most often telling stories of good folks having good times, good love gone bad, or pining away for some unrequited love. It was the kind of music that soundtracked rent parties and backyard barbecues — and eventually, after much behind-the-scenes prodding, stridently white spaces such as The Ed Sullivan Show. But the sound shifted. It had to. Too much was going on — right in the label’s neighborhood.

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Smokey Robinson and the Miracles perform live on stage. (Echoes/Redferns)

Unrest broke out in Detroit on Sunday morning July 23, 1967, and lasted through July 27. Although “the insurrection was the culmination of decades of institutional racism and entrenched segregation,” the sparking incident was when a police squad raided a “blind pig” (an unlicensed bar) near the intersection of 12th Street and Clairmount Avenue on Detroit’s West Side, about a half-mile from Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. offices and studios. Confrontations between the Detroit Police Department and the city’s black citizens resulted in one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in the history of the United States.

A new Kathryn Bigelow film, Detroit, starring Anthony Mackie, John Boyega and John Krasinski, is set to premiere Aug. 4. It brings to the screen the bone-chilling Algiers Motel incident: during the Detroit Riots, at the motel, three black men were killed and nine others were beaten by law enforcement. Overall, the civil unrest known as the 1967 Detroit Riot (and alternatively as the Detroit Rebellion of 1967, and the 12th Street Riot), left 43 dead. The Michigan State Police, the Michigan National Guard and the U.S. Army were called in. One thousand, one hundred and eighty-nine people were injured. There were more than 7,200 arrests. More than 2,000 buildings were destroyed.

A city, forever changed.

Motown, which formally moved to Los Angeles in June 1972, was still in Detroit in 1967. It was a wildly successful company; at the time, it was the country’s most successful black-owned business. By the end of 1966, Motown was home to more than 450 employees. The label owes much of its early success to songwriter and producer William “Mickey” Stevenson, the company’s first director of artists & repertoire.

Stevenson was in the background but stood next to Gordy and Robinson and played a huge part in recruiting and nurturing the talents of icons such as Martha Reeves, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops and Marvin Gaye. He assembled “the best-kept secret in pop music,” Motown’s legendary in-studio band, the Funk Brothers. Stevenson also wrote approximately 500 songs during the course of his Motown career.

Songwriter and producer William “Mickey” Stevenson at New York’s Verve Records on March 16, 1967. (PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Some of his bigger hits include the Marvelettes’ “Beechwood 4-5789” and Gaye’s “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” both from 1962, and Gaye and Kim Weston’s classic 1966 “It Takes Two.” He co-wrote Martha and the Vandellas’ fun 1964 “Dancing in the Street,” his most successful track for the label and one that functioned as a “radical anthem” during the civil rights movement. There’ll be laughing, singing, and music swinging / Dancing in the street / Philadelphia, P.A. / Baltimore and D.C. now. / Can’t forget the Motor City.

Yes, the Motor City’s discontent was a tipping point for the music of Motown. As the label sailed into the 1970s, the music became compellingly and deliberately politicized: There was Gaye’s 1971 pitch-perfect “What’s Going On,” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” The Temptations’ 1971 “Ball of Confusion” and Stevie Wonder’s 1973 “Living For The City,” among many others.

“We represented a social environment that was changing,” The Supremes’ Mary Wilson said in 2009. “The experience we had known being black was not being bona fide citizens, not being able to drink out of the same water fountains, playing to segregated audiences. When that started to fall away, and you saw that music was one of the components that was helping it fall away, that’s when it really felt like we were doing something significant.”

Stevenson, now 80, reflects on how that era, as painful as it was, shifted the Motown sound and was an authentic soundtrack to a changing America.

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In the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit riots, members of the National Guard patrol neighborhoods. (Lee Balterman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

What was it like being black in 1967 Detroit? Before the end of that July?

For me and my brothers — and I mean Smokey, and the Temptations, and the Four Tops — it was a proud thing. We were proud. ‘I’m black and I’m proud!’ We meant that. And we knew it was just a matter of time. We were doing wonderful things, and we were doing it around the clock. Listen — the work we were doing was not a job. It was a joy. We could do it ’round the clock, and that is pride. It was love.

Do you remember where you were, physically, when you first heard about Detroit heating up?

Yes. I was in Detroit, and I was at home. I had friends with me — Jewish friends. We were there at my place, and when it was taking off, my first thought was to make sure [they didn’t] leave my house. My house was in the city, right in the middle of the riots. My house was on Courtland and, like, Dexter. That’s where it all kind of happened, right in that area.

Detroit burning, July 24, 1967. (AP Photo)

And you didn’t want your friends to leave?

I didn’t want [them] to get killed. [They] would have been in danger trying to get to the airport. It wouldn’t have happened.

As a black Detroiter, I imagine that you were empathetic to some of the issues …

Yeah. Well, it was working itself up for a while. We’d come out of one riot much earlier, when I was a kid. I could see this coming back again. It was an uncomfortable situation … you had to watch yourself. Motown was out on West Grand Boulevard, which was a pretty good street. And even there, at a certain point, like 12th Street, moving in that direction — Dexter, Linwood, like going deeper, where I would say the ghetto was, you had problems. It was building itself up. I didn’t know it would break into a riot, but it was building itself up where we had to watch it. All of us.

What was happening at the label in July of 1967?

I was A&R director of Motown. We just had to stay busy, doing the best we could. We didn’t take time to deal with the problem of the city. We had enough problems dealing with the manufacturing and producing of product, to go out. We were always in a fight somewhere, in some place. Moving black product on white radio, that was not a walk in the park. You understand what I’m saying? We were in position — we had to stay in position at all times.

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A month after the Detroit uprising, what began as a demonstration turned into something else. It was Aug. 21, 1967, and the Michigan State Police intervened. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

My understanding is that Martha Reeves was on stage at the Fox Theater, in the midst of a Motown Revue, when they got word the riots were still happening near the Tiger Stadium?

If she was there, I was there. Because she was one of my favorite, talented artists — and of course my biggest song, ‘Dancing in the Street.’ I’m sure the idea was for her to keep everybody calm, because that’s the way we operated, period. It was not like, ‘Should we do it?’ That’s an automatic thought. We had this kind of thing come up in New York, and Philadelphia, and Washington. And so, it was always when things got out of hand, we would have to say to the audience, ‘Look, let’s stay under control.’ Nothing unusual for us to make that happen.

Your acts often performed in places where black and white concertgoers couldn’t lawfully integrate. What was Motown’s biggest role within the civil rights movement?

[Singing] our songs to both black and white audiences. We made it a point to insist that everybody had a chance to hear our songs. We didn’t look at it as black music. We looked at it as music. When Motown artists came on, we made everybody get involved, because if you didn’t, you were adding to segregation. You’ve got to look at it like this: Our whole staff was mixed at Motown. Our sales department was mixed. Our marketing department was mixed. We forced an issue. If you’re with us, you’re with us, or you’re not with us. Let’s build as one unit. We were very proud to push that button. Sometimes we got challenged.

How so?

Some of our trips. I remember getting stopped in the car and the police made me get out and sing. You either put up a fight and get your head blown off, or you sing. Which one you want to do? If I sing now, I’ll be able to sing later. If I stand and fight, there’s no telling where I’ll be. You got it? I can name that with a few artists. I know Smokey had problems with that. It’s not like it was an easy time. We had to deal with it, but we had made up in our minds, we gonna make this thing work. I tell everybody — I don’t want to overtalk this thing — but I tell everybody, ‘This is God’s work.’ We were just instruments at that time. We took on great stands because we had no other way to think.

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Detroit, July 1967. (Lee Balterman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

How did you and Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson talk about the creative direction of Motown, after the riots?

When the riot was on, nobody could get to the studio. Remember, we were on a main street, so we’d have had a huge problem. When it calmed down … we went to the studio. And when we went in — fortunately we didn’t have broken windows and none of that kind of craziness — we went in going to work. We went in trying to figure out, what’s the next best songs we need to get out? What sessions can we pull together now? I know that sounds odd, but we were a machine. We worked like a machine, not like individuals. ‘What happened to you? Anything happen to you? Are you all right?’ No. We didn’t get into that. If you’re standing there, you’re all right. Go to work.

Were you inspired by the uprisings to think about the socially conscious music that Motown started making, going into the 1970s?

Not so much the riots. We were inspired by the workings and the help of Dr. King and people like that. Our job was, in our heads, to let it be known that we’ve got to back this up, be behind it, care about one another. Take a stand. When we put out the album, [featuring] King, on our label [Black Forum] … we were into that kind of thinking. We thought that if we didn’t work together to fight this thing, it was not going to go away. So we did it with music, with artists — and backed financially as much as we could.

When did you notice that a tide was changing socially and culturally? When did you notice that perhaps the music you all were creating was helping black folks be seen in a way that we weren’t seen before, and kind of being able to exist in a way we weren’t able to before?

Certain spaces and certain places we couldn’t get in or get on, or be on that show, or whatever — all of a sudden, we started getting calls, ‘Come do this show.’ It took people like Dick Clark and others who broke that barrier. ‘If I put this Motown act on, I could have the hottest show on TV.’ He was absolutely right. They had all white artists. No blacks. Clark was a huge gambler, and he really believed in the music. I got to give it to him. He made it a point and took a risk. He stood his ground and became the hottest thing on television. Then there were people like Ed Sullivan who refused to let us come on and sing a whole song. If he brought you on, it was only for him to say a few words right at the end of his show. You know what I mean? And we changed that theory. We made him put on The Supremes, and do two songs, and talk to them.

Unspecified, circa 1970: Martha and the Vandellas with Dick Clark. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Supremes, (from left to right) Cindy Birdsong, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross, pose with host Ed Sullivan onstage at The Ed Sullivan Show in New York on Dec. 20, 1969. (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Left, circa 1970: Martha and the Vandellas with Dick Clark. Right, The Supremes, (from left to right) Cindy Birdsong, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross, pose with host Ed Sullivan onstage at The Ed Sullivan Show in New York on Dec. 20, 1969. (Left, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. Right, CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Motown music is the music that changed the world. It also helped to heal a nation while it was suffering through yet another one of its horrific racial ruptures. Why do you think this particular music helped?

I believe in my heart, and quite a few of us do — Smokey, we talk about this all the time – Motown was God’s game plan, and we all bought into it. That whole sound happened at a time when our country was at its worst. And the love of the music … reached everybody. This music’s got so much love, and so much caring in it. Those moments … while you’re listening … all that hatred, all that dislike for one another, was no longer there. That changed the world. Not only here in America, in London, all over the place. That had to come from a source bigger than you and I. I’ve heard men say to me that the time when Motown was going on, and the riots and stuff was going on — ‘Man, I used to get in the van, pull the cover over my head, and listen to Motown music. When I heard those words, that was incredible for my heart. It took me to a wonderful place.’ That’s exactly what the music was for. It lasted for 60 years. It’s still lasting.