Photo: MGN Online

Describing unique sets of challenges within their various municipalities, Black mayors formally organized across the state of Michigan to collaborate and leverage their combined interests to garner the resources necessary to address and solve what they said were common issues in their majority Black cities.

Mayor Marcus Muhammad, Benton Harbor, Michigan Photo courtesy of Marcus Muhammad

Under the name Black Mayors of Michigan, the executive heads of 14 cities launched their new organization on May 16. They represent a collective body of approximately 328,370 people, according to the 2020 census, and with those numbers, the group aims to benefit their citizens with the use of their own tax dollars.

Mayor Marcus Muhammad of Benton Harbor told The Final Call that issues such as large concentrations of lead service lines, declining school districts, crime, disinvestment, inequity, dilapidated housing, environmental injustice, and crumbling infrastructure, all require a united effort among cities often overlooked regarding the allocation of government funds.

“When we start talking about the plethora of problems of the mounting issues that we all share, that’s why it’s so important that we not continue to try and address it unilaterally,” Mayor Muhammad said. Speaking as a block of cities is more effective than speaking as individual cities often overlooked or taken for granted in state politics, he explained.

Official Seal of the State

“We know that all politics starts local. The state of Michigan is a battleground, and (with) the 2024 presidential election, some political pundits have already said that Michigan will be the deciding vote,” Benton Harbor’s mayor stated. Noting that with the retirement of Debbie Stabenow, the thin Democratic lead in the U.S. Senate could very well be determined by Michigan voters, he said.

“The Black Mayors of Michigan will play a very critical role in who the next president will be, as well as those who will go to Washington representing Michigan as a U.S. Senator.”

Highland Park is a city of approximately 9,000 in Wayne County near Detroit, and its mayor, Glenda McDonald, told The Final Call that working with other Black mayors is a win-win not only for her city but also for Michigan as a whole and that what is good for people locally is also good for the people nationally.

“I believe all politics is local because we live it every day in the area where we serve and in order to be a part of a community, you have to know what (are) the issues,” Mayor McDonald said of bringing awareness to the Michigan electorate and increasing voter participation.

“Without the proper education of the issues on the people that are running, you can’t make a sound decision. So on the local level, we have to make sure that we are working with our citizens in order for them to reach out and ask the questions that they need, but we have to teach them how to ask those questions,” Mayor McDonald added. “We all get the information in our inboxes, we all receive all the fliers, but are you taking the information and actually doing research?”

Stating that one of the challenges facing many urban communities, particularly among young people, is their willingness and ability to identify local self-interests, which Mayor McDonald said are best addressed by the appropriate candidates, and that voters must become aware of their positions before an election. She insisted these are among the most important activities year-round and not just during a campaign season.

“Not knowing who they are, what they’re really about, what do they plan on doing for your community, how will they do those things?” Mayor McDonald asked. “It’s imperative that the local leaders, our activists, and our community organizers have those conversations.”

Regarding crime, violence, and blight, Mayor Lamar Tidwell of Ecorse, Michigan, told The Final Call that high rates of unemployment, poor education, aging homes, crumbling or outdated infrastructure, and a lack of economic development, compound the number of problems needing reliable solutions in too many communities across his state. He agreed that unifying efforts among like-minded mayors are of paramount importance.

“You’ve got issues with infrastructure because most of us live in older communities,” said Mayor Tidwell, a retired police lieutenant who served 25 years in law enforcement. “You’ve got issues with crime because you’ve got low economic standings. We’ve got the highest rates of unemployment, which tends to create more crime because people have got to eat, you don’t have the tax base to hire adequate police services, and there’s no programs set to help in economic development in those communities,” he said.

“The vast majority of the programs that help communities, they don’t give the same resources to Black and Brown communities,” Mayor Tidwell continued. “I think the biggest issue you’ve got with the crime is the fact that you’ve got people that come from different environments, to be policing in an environment that they’re not used to,” he said.

The hometown officer, who once lived in the community where he worked and knew everyone, is no longer the case and he explained that too often, those living in underserved cities or towns are unemployable by police departments, often because of youth offenses.

“The good officers that want to be hired, they go to other communities where you’re paying more money, that’s why I said, ‘economic development’ which causes you not to hire and retain those good police officers because we can’t afford them,” Mayor Tidwell explained of what he described as a “vicious cycle” of crime, poverty, and poor policing.

“That’s all over the country, (it’s) not just in small communities. The big cities are always going to have a hard time hiring police officers, and if you look at some of the large urban communities, look at the percentage of Black officers when compared to White officers,” he said. “They need more training on ethics and race in the academy and talk about diversity. They need to talk about it, but they don’t look at that and it’s a key factor,” Mayor Tidwell said.

Muskegon Heights mayor, Walter Watt, told The Final Call that he agreed negative cycles must be broken and that organizations such as Black Mayors of Michigan can play a positive role toward making their communities into safer and more decent places to live. Mayor Muhammad was elected the group’s chair and Flint, Michigan Mayor Sheldon Neeley was elected co-chair.

“It’s vitally important that we have created this organization of ‘Black Mayors of Michigan,’ because if you look at each and every one of our communities, we all have the same needs, concerns, (and) issues, and too often, it has been that during election season, politicians, they’ll come to our communities, handshake and slap us on the back,” Mayor Watt said of what has become a predictable election season ritual.

“When it’s time for us to get the things that we need or the support that we need for the things that are vitally important to our community, it’s not as friendly. Some of our communities are small, some are mid-sized, and some are large, so we’re divided in numbers from a voting perspective,” he said of his city of approximately 10,000 people.

“But when you add us all up collectively, we’re talking about 300,000 plus voters that support a Democratic Party that needs to start recognizing an importance there,” Mayor Watt said. “Being bonded together with this organization, we have more leverage to get the demands that we need and want for our communities. There are no other communities in this state that are in need of vital services than our communities,” he said.