Figure Skating in Detroit is aiming to change the color of the sport This girls-only program uses figure skating to build self-esteem and academic achievement

Asked recently which event she was more excited about — the 2018 Winter Olympics or the recently released Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya — 13-year-old figure skater Kendyll Martin quickly said the Olympics. After all, she hadn’t even been born when Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted at Cobo Arena and wasn’t familiar with arguably the most dramatic moment in figure skating history.

Her dad, Carl Martin, chuckled. He remembered it, but he and his family are focused on how figure skating can be more widely available in communities of color.

Kendyll was introduced to the sport in kindergarten through a program at her private school. But she is more the exception than the rule. Many black girls, in Detroit and elsewhere, have not been exposed to the sport or its benefits.

Figure Skating in Detroit (FSD) is aiming to change this. The girls-only program is an offshoot of New York’s Figure Skating in Harlem, which uses figure skating to develop leadership skills, self-esteem and academic achievement.

Kendyll’s mother, Robin Martin, learned of FSD on the news and took Kendyll to a free workshop. Kendyll, who had stopped skating because her school’s program had been dismantled, was excited to have an opportunity to get back on the ice. Her parents were pleased with the program’s focus on skating, education and leadership.

Applicants are required to be Detroit residents and undergo an interview. Geneva Williams, director of Figure Skating in Detroit, uses the interview to determine the quality most important to her and the program: commitment.

In exchange for the time commitment — roughly two hours per day, four days a week — and maintaining at least a B average in school, the girls receive ice skates, uniforms, mentoring and on-ice instruction. Parents are asked to participate as well. Williams doesn’t just want them to provide transportation and fees, she wants them to attend some of the workshops.

The cost to the family is about $250, which covers instructor’s fees, costumes and equipment, and skates. Anyone who can’t swing that amount is asked to pay what they can. The Michigan Women’s Foundation, individual donors and other local foundations subsidize most of the program’s expenses. Williams’ goal is to get 300 girls to join by the end of 2018.

“I was impressed and excited that they offered skates,” said Robin Martin, although Kendyll hasn’t taken advantage of this yet. She still uses skates that were purchased before she joined FSD. Robin added that the cost to join the yearlong program is equivalent to what she would have paid for one or two private lessons.

She’s right. The cost of figure skating can be can be stifling, and it is likely part of the reason there aren’t more black figure skaters. A new pair of figure skates can start at $500. Add coaching costs, ice time and outfits and the tab can jump to $10,000 just for a low-level skater. This is steep for most families, let alone those living in Detroit, where the median household income is just above $26,000.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, 52 girls travel to Jack Adams Arena in northwest Detroit to skate. They range in age from 6 to 15, and Williams suspects most have never practiced the sport before.

“They are learning wiggles and basic skills,” reported Kendyll. More advanced skaters, like herself, work on spins and jumps. Her favorite is the loop jump and the scratch spin.

The girls are divided into four groups based on skill level. Besides on-ice instruction, they receive off-ice training in ballet, jazz, choreography and expression.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, the girls are separated by age and participate in a program called I Can Excel (ICE).

“I take classes like financial literacy, life skills, STEM and dance,” said Kendyll. Nutrition and tutoring are also offered on these days.

Barb Reichert, spokeswoman for the U.S. Figure Skating Association, likes all of it. “I admire how Figure Skating in Detroit puts a laser focus on education and then provides the support to be successful in the classroom and beyond,” she said by email.

Gary Miron, a professor in the College of Education and Human Development at Western Michigan University, is also excited about the program.

“Kids engaged in extracurricular activities tend to perform better than kids who don’t,” he said. Students who compete in gymnastics, cross-country and track tend to have high GPAs, he said, and figure skating would probably fit into this group of sports tied to high academic performance.

Williams added that understanding the physics of figure skating can help girls understand physics generally. It is these connections between sports and science that fortify her belief in the program.

Another benefit for the participants is the backing of Olympian Meryl Davis. The 2014 ice dancing Olympic champion is not competing in Pyeongchang, but she has been promoting both programs in Harlem and Detroit. She visits and gives skating tips to the girls from time to time.

Kendyll has met Davis a few times, and the encounters leave her somewhere between dazzled and intrigued. Still, she’s not interested in pursuing ice dance. Instead, Kendyll hopes to learn more complex jumps and spins so she can compete. FSD does not train girls for competition, so she’d have to join or partner with a figure skating club to do so.

Williams is not opposed to helping the girls compete, but right now she’s trying to secure funding and participants to ensure the longevity of the program. And Figure Skating in Detroit may be just as helpful to its lead organizer as it is to the girls who enroll. Williams was caring for her sick husband when she first heard about the program. When he died, Williams needed to grieve and find something she was passionate about professionally and emotionally. Though she is not a figure skater, FSD has helped spark the next iteration of her career.

The Detroit area attracts some of the most elite skaters and coaches in the world. This has been true since the 1960s, a long time before Little Caesars Arena was scheduled to host the U.S. Figure Skating National Championships in 2019.

But while black folks make up most of the Motor City’s population, only a small fraction appear to be members of the figure skating clubs around the region. The United States Figure Skating Association, the national governing body for the sport, does not track the race of competitors. Pictures from ice shows and competitions are the best evidence that black skaters exist.

All of this — the population, the number of skating rinks in the city, the figure skating talent, the need — is why Figure Skating in Harlem chose Detroit as an expansion city for the program last November.

Pistons, Cavs, Jay-Z and the Red Wings: 72 hours in the New Detroit Three new arenas have changed the face of the D’s downtown, and a hometown girl wonders if it’s for the better

Digital images of perhaps the world’s most famous rapper flash across giant screens. The screens rise toward the ceiling of Little Caesars Arena, the most recent of three new sports venues to emerge in downtown Detroit. It’s where the Pistons play.

Near one side of Jay-Z’s 360-degree stage, LeBron James, perhaps the world’s most famous current NBA player, can barely control his fandom as Jay-Z delivers his 1999 hit with UGK, “Big Pimpin’.” James and the rest of his team are in town ahead of a Pistons game. For nearly two hours, the arena is roaring. And as the last few fans spill onto Woodward Avenue — the drag in downtown Detroit that also houses Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers play, and Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play — the party ain’t over. Far from it.

The sold-out Little Caesars Arena for the Jay-Z concert.

313 Presents

That’s because the area is a far cry from what it was 15 years ago, when the downtown landscape was practically bare. Empty and windowless brick buildings were the standard. Every now and again you could fall into a hidden gem — a teahouse in neighboring Corktown, near the old Tiger Stadium, served a good quiche, and crumpets with fresh preserves. But those kinds of places were few and far between.

But now? There are sports bars, dive bars, throwback juke joints and new late-night spaces thriving next to revived longtime staples. Taxis line the streets, and people are texting friends to find out where the after-after-parties are. The basketball, baseball and hockey arenas, which also host concerts and even Catholic masses, are central to this bustling scene, daytime as well as nighttime. It wasn’t until this new NBA season that all of the Detroit teams, finally, were playing within the city limits. Welcome, kindly, to the New Detroit.

Now where are all the black folks?

Women hold a coat to shelter themselves from the rain as they enter Little Caesars Arena for the Jay-Z concert.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated


In the fall of 1998, I was wrapping up an internship at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and heading to my first full-time job as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. A roommate’s mom, who was white, asked about my plans. When I told her about Detroit, her reply was, “Ugh. Detroit. The armpit of the Midwest.”

The armpit. Insulting, of course. And, I think, racist. I say that because we’re talking about a majority-black city, and one that has been through so much — too much. In the fall of 1998, it seemed the city was only and absolutely declining, although around the dinner table we’d delight in announcing the city’s upswing, based on the smallest of developments. For me, though, the best development was that I was home.

“It’s like a phoenix all of a sudden. You see people enjoying being outside and you’re hearing great stuff about Detroit.” — Rick Mahorn

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, in Oakland County. In one of the white-flight townships to which so many families, white and black, moved after the ’67 riot. Yet I have many memories of my maternal grandparents’ home on Indiana Street between Lyndon and Eaton on Detroit’s West Side. They’d moved after the riots, so Mother actually grew up on Lawton Street. Her childhood home and the block it was on burned down decades ago, never to develop again. It looks now like too many Detroit neighborhoods do.

But downtown Detroit? Working at the Free Press, I drove in at least five days a week. And after the day was done, there wasn’t much to do. Near the newsroom was The Anchor Bar, a socially/racially integrated dive beloved by both Red Wings fans and newspaper reporters. I had more grilled cheese and steak fry lunches there than I care to recount. The Free Press’ offices were about a mile away from where the three new stadiums have sprouted. While cafes and chain restaurants abound now, a week before I started, the big news story was that a Starbucks was opening on East Jefferson. It’s right near Belle Isle, a 982-acre island park that functioned as a student hangout on summer weekends.

An abandoned building in June 2005.

JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

And the city of Detroit was nearly throwing a ticker-tape parade for the cappuccino outlet. Legendary Detroit Piston Rick Mahorn remembers with a laugh that Starbucks excitement. “When I first got to Detroit, in ’85, I was living downtown because I wanted to be close to water, and it was a beautiful view. Wasn’t a lot to do downtown. … I made that commute all the way up to the Silverdome and then the Palace.”

A Detroit native suggested we do a “hole tour” of Detroit: go to the spaces that used to be places.

The Silverdome, which was imploded on Dec. 5, was in Pontiac, about 31 miles from Detroit’s city limits. The Palace of Auburn Hills, which is soon to be flipped into a “high-tech research park,” is a good 35 miles away from the 313 — Detroit’s area code.

“We love [being back],” said Mahorn, who’s now a radio analyst for the Pistons. “It gives you a more up close and personal feeling. [Team owner] Tom Gores saw a vision to partner up with [Red Wings owners] the Ilitches and the Dan Gilberts [who has invested nearly $2 billion in downtown Detroit] and [current Lions owners] the Ford family. Those things used to be a competition, and now it’s a togetherness to develop the resurgence of Detroit.”

It’s also of course about business and jobs, this downtown sports district with both Comerica Park and Ford Field less than a mile away from the multipurpose arena. “When you look at what happened in the late ’60s, and how everybody started moving out, now [Detroit’s] like a phoenix all of a sudden. You see people enjoying being outside and you’re hearing great stuff about Detroit.”

Scenic view of downtown Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

But before downtown’s Woodward Avenue was filled with shiny new spots such as Nike Community Store, Lululemon and Under Armour Brand House, as well as line-out-the-door breakfast spots such as the Dime Store or Hudson Cafe — Detroit had not only decades of segregation and decline from which to rebound. It had what felt like a singular tragedy.

A new, fresh, black mayor was elected in 2001. Kwame Kilpatrick was 31 years old, had played on Florida A&M’s football team, was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and became the youngest mayor in the city’s history. Ridiculously long story short, he was a massive disappointment — it started with him using his city-issued credit card to rack up thousands of dollars in personal, luxurious charges, and it ended with an FBI felony corruption case that got him thrown in a federal prison for 28 years. The Kilpatrick case featured sex and money and race and captured big headlines just about everywhere. My old newspaper earned a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of his misdeeds.

But the story, the trajectory of Kilpatrick’s life, still makes me sad. And what makes me sadder is that Detroit was the biggest loser. Eventually, in 2013, the city filed for bankruptcy: the biggest “municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.” Even with some new crowds bringing money to Detroit’s casinos — and those came with much conflict and pushback — Detroit was officially broken.

Ben Wallace came to the Pistons in 2000. He remembers the first piece of advice he and his teammates were given. “People were encouraging us not to go downtown, not to hang out downtown. ‘Whatever you do, avoid going downtown,’ ” said Wallace, who led the Pistons to their third NBA championship in 2004.

The Pistons retired Wallace’s jersey last year; he’d returned to the team after stints in Chicago and Cleveland and finished his career in Detroit in 2012.

He lives in West Virginia now but finds himself periodically in Detroit, like last summer when he was hanging out downtown and marveling at the new arena, which wasn’t quite finished then.

“To see the city coming to life, and people actually walking downtown and enjoying themselves, having a great time. To see people, to see things going up, it was amazing,” Wallace said. “It was a proud moment for me to see the city breathing and finding the light again. It was great for me to actually … see the city thriving.”


At the Free Press, we used to have a weekly features meeting. All were welcome to attend and discuss story ideas. One attendee, a Detroit native, suggested that we do a “hole tour” of Detroit: go to the spaces that used to be places and talk about the history that used to be there. All over there was emptiness where grandeur used to exist. Detroit wasn’t 360 degrees of pretty. But it was home.

I sold my small suburban condo and moved to downtown Detroit to live with my college roommate Joy, a white woman who grew up in Brighton, Michigan. Brighton neighbors Howell, a town known as the KKK capital of Michigan. Robert Miles, grand dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan, lived in a nearby township and hosted rallies there.

Joy and I both worked downtown, she for the rival Detroit News, and quite frankly, as girls from the ’burbs, we wanted that authentic Detroit experience. We saw things that were starting to happen and figured it was an ideal time to be part of building a community.

“When you look at what happened in the late ’60s, and how everybody started moving out, now [Detroit’s] like a phoenix all of a sudden.

Comerica Park had just opened, and with it came new life. Hockeytown Cafe was erected next to the historic Fox Theater — a place to grab grub and a brew and head to the rooftop lounge. I remember hanging out with some Detroit rappers and managers there for an open bar event, and you couldn’t have told us we weren’t Hollywood lite.

Downtown Detroit on an uptick? It seemed like it. Detroit hosted the Super Bowl in 2006, and everyone was amped to flex and show the sports world how we’d grown. As is the case in most Super Bowl host cities, empty spaces were quickly rented out, transformed into magical one-night-only party venues with the aid of corporate checkbooks. But daily conveniences were scarce.

Joy and I spent our weekends on Interstate 75, driving 22 miles north to a grocery store in Troy. The headlines back then were that the entire city of Detroit was a “food desert” with no major supermarket chains in the entire city. Joy and I lasted downtown a year. But now there’s a Whole Foods on Woodward, technically in midtown. It opened in 2013, a 21,000-square-foot location, and it’s apparently doing well.

Something Jay-Z rapped to the crowd on Saturday night resonated. See, Jay-Z is from the public housing projects of Brooklyn, New York, and knows about struggle, and about seeing your worn and torn neighborhood transformed into something greater than anyone could have imagined. All this happens as the black and brown people who kept that place alive aren’t able to benefit from the new richness: gentrification.

Paul’s Liquors next to Little Caesars Arena before the Pistons Game. The store has been there before the changes began downtown and is a stop for many of the regulars in downtown.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

There’s an area of Brooklyn called Dumbo, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. In his recent and Grammy-nominated “The Story of OJ,” he raps, I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo for like $2 million/ That same building today is worth $25 million/ Guess how I’m feeling? Dumbo.


Fans cheer after a goal is scored during the Red Wings game on Nov. 19 in Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

The next night, the crowd at Little Caesars Arena was different — as I expected. Twenty-four hours before, a hip-hop icon stood center stage and told a sold-out, mostly black audience that kneeling during the national anthem is an act of patriotism and not something for which athletes should be persecuted.

But on this night, there was a white crowd, a characterization that could very well be a stereotype of hockey fans. They were there to take in the Red Wings vs. the Colorado Avalanche. And it did seem like a lot of folks wondered why a lone black woman was roaming around, taking in Gordie Howe’s statue (one of three statues of Red Wings legends that were brought over from Joe Louis Arena, where the team played the season before).

A man stretches on the escalator during intermission at the Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

As happy as I am for all of the new development in downtown Detroit, it comes at a cost — a feeling that hit me as I was sitting perched high in the press box looking down as the Zamboni smoothed the ice rink where Jay-Z’s elaborate stage had been the night before. Culturally, as well as geographically, things just feel so segregated.

On one side of the coin is a pristine new district, one that should be celebrated, as it’s taken exactly 50 years for Detroit to rise from the dust of the 1967 riots. On the other, much of this has come at the expense of long-standing businesses such as Henry the Hatter, which couldn’t afford the 200 percent rent increase and was forced to shut down.

Hallie Desmet, 21, and Megan Elwart, 24, hold each other during a Red Wings game at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. The two traveled from Marquette, Michigan, to see the team play for Hallie’s 21st birthday.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

“I’ve lived all of my life in Detroit,” said David Rudolph. He’s a small-business owner who played outside linebacker on Michigan State University’s 1988 Rose Bowl-winning team. “What I’m used to is a city that basically lacked a lot of things, so it is kind of special to now live in a city that looks like and starts to feel like other places across the country. Now we have a cross-section of different types of restaurants. We now have all of our sporting [goods] in the area; you don’t have to travel.”

The flip side is there, though. “It’s always been a black town,” he said. “I was born in a time when the legislative body was African-American. Now you’re starting to see people who are non-African-American come to the city. … Their presence is way more noticeable. Boutique businesses, small businesses, entrepreneurs coming from all over the place. There seems to be a spirit that is attracting these folks to the city, which is great. I remember those bad jokes of ‘Can the last person please turn off the lights?’ [But] I never left Detroit. I was really keeping a seat warm … keeping warm whatever was viable about this city through my presence and my business, which has been here for 23 years, through my tax dollars.”


The Detroit Pistons play the Cleveland Cavaliers at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

The next night at the arena, the Pistons game hosted its biggest crowd of the season. The Cavaliers were in the building, and seeing King James live, even if you’re a diehard Pistons fan, is a moment. Fans mill about the newness of the arena loading up on Detroit-famous coney dogs, burrito bowls and Little Caesars pizza.

Pistons fan at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

This night, it’s a diverse group of people, an aesthetic that looks like what some pockets of greater Detroit look like. At a Detroit NBA game, there’s no one culture defining the fan base of Detroit’s newest and shiniest sports arena. It just feels like everyone.

I took my dad with me to see the Pistons. He came to Detroit after he graduated from Alabama State University, and he’s told people he’s from Detroit since forever — he arrived in ’71. He and my mom still live in Oakland County, about 15 miles from downtown, and don’t have a real reason to head downtown with any regularity. Dad marveled at the jam-packed traffic that hit about a mile before we got to the parking structure. There was never traffic on a Monday night in this part of downtown, not that either of us could recall.

Piston fans at Little Caesars Arena on Nov. 20 in Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

“It’s good, in terms of what’s happening,” said Rudolph. “Revitalization. There’s so many good things that I see. I only live seven minutes from downtown. I’ve found over the last couple of years is that I actually travel less out of the city to do a lot of things. Which is what we’ve always wanted. Not always to have to go to metro Detroit to eat. Everything was always outside [downtown]. I slept in Detroit, but I spent all of my time outside of Detroit. So now things have changed. It’s kind of fly. … We’re rediscovering our own city.”


There’s nothing like summertime in Detroit. Nothing.

The downtown festivals gave us life. At Hart Plaza, every weekend there was something different to do. The African World Festival was the spot to go to and stock up on shea butter, black soap and incense for the year. Each summer there were gospel festivals: Detroit staples such as The Clark Sisters, Fred Hammond and the Winans family would perform. And the Electronic Music Festival featured some of the best house music and Detroit-based ghetto-tech music you’ll ever treat your ears to. There was one festival that was noticeably different: the downtown Hoedown, which was the country music festival that would take over Detroit’s downtown streets. It was the one weekend where you would see white people out on, say, Larned Street.

“You’re starting to see people who are non-African-American come to the city. There seems to be a spirit that is attracting these folks to the city, which is great. I remember those bad jokes: ‘Can the last person please turn off the lights?’ But I never left Detroit.” — David Rudolph

To be at Hoedown, metro Detroit white folks had to engage with the city. They probably felt it was “an armpit.” Homeless folks, with few exceptions, were black. In our minds, they gazed without context at the burned-out buildings and gutted areas — a painful reminder of what racism did to this city 50 years ago during the 1967 Detroit riots.

But today, downtown Detroit is filled with a sea of white folks. I barely counted anyone who looked like me as I dined two days in a row at The Townhouse for brunch. The second day, I took Jemele Hill with me and we sat in an atrium where a DJ played and where of all the patrons, there were four black folks — including us. This is the new Detroit.

On the Pistons team is former NBA player (and native Detroiter) Earl Cureton as Community Ambassador, a role he’s held since 2013. He’s helping the team embed in all kinds of Detroit’s neighborhoods.

Cureton, who played forward-center at Finney High School on Detroit’s east side back in the early ’70s, is charged with connecting the franchise to real Detroit. Cureton grew up in the infamous Mack and Bewick area.

“Tom Gores’ plan was [get] the team to be impactful for the city, not only to entertain basketballwise,” Cureton said at halftime of the Cavaliers game. “We made an attempt at doing that, out at the Palace of Auburn Hills, but now that we’re back — which makes me so happy — we have the opportunity to connect, [and] not just to the downtown area but to areas away from downtown that desperately need it.

“And by the players being right here, it gives them the opportunity to mingle and mix with the kids. The kids get a closer relationship, seeing them, just like I did when I was a kid.”

It’s all different, though. Soon, once the Pistons’ practice facilities are completed, many of those players will take a look at the plush residential lofts popping up on downtown Detroit’s landscape, and at some of the restored historic neighborhoods located not too far from where they punch in. There’s a side that says the white people are here, and so goodbye, poor people. And there’s a side that says wealth is needed to help ease inequality. The way forward likely is someplace in between.

Folks wanted the best for this city. So many black folks stuck around, through the riot, and then the recessions, in hopes of seeing this city rise again. It’s rising again now, and their place in it is uncertain. But it feels like some moves are being made, so that new Detroit is still theirs. Maybe, as the sign flashes when you’re on the escalator at Detroit Metro Airport, my hometown can be America’s Greatest Comeback City. Maybe it can be true for everyone. It’s time.

‘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.