Message to the Grass Roots

January, 2008.

This place is much more fascinating than it looks. The church at Fourteenth Street and Marquette was briefly known as Fourteenth Avenue Baptist Church before its all-former-white-southerner congregation chose the name Temple Baptist Church. Even though the neighborhood was ethnically mixed by the middle of the 20th century, blacks were forbidden from attending services here.


One thing I have learned while studying American history is that the people in this country are almost always disinterested in the histories of other cultures. White catholics don't go out of their way to learn about the stories of brown muslims, or black baptists, and likewise Afro-Americans rarely can be bothered to care much about Latino or Arabic or Polish history, and vice-versa, and so on, and so on, etc., etc. While I may not exactly be white, I am definitely not black, and even though for most of my upbringing I was surrounded in one of America's largest black populations, I have learned very little about their history. Getting lectured about the Emancipation Proclamation in high school, or listening to Motown on the oldies station while my mom was driving doesn't exact qualify as grounds for understanding the black culture.

As a result of our ignorance of our neighbors, we have remained estranged from each other, and have failed to live up to the American motto of "E pluribus, unum." It means, "Of many, one," implying that our nation is made up of many races and creeds, but we are supposed to be one people. We have somehow avoided adhering to that ideal, and are still a motley nation of many isolated camps who deposit our taxes into the same dumpster while managing to tolerate each other most of the time, thanks to our self-imposed geographical and social barriers. Meanwhile, the politicians we "elected" thrive on the strife and divisions they help foster between the races, and on our inability to step back and look at the big picture.

So let's all do ourselves a big favor and take time to learn about someone else's history with an open mind. I think you might find that we're more similar than you realize, and that if we don't hang together, we will surely hang separately.


In 2010 the City of Detroit Historic Designation Advisory Board compiled a report that meticulously details the history of this site and the congregations who have worshipped here over the decades, and it does a far more exhaustive job than I could ever hope to of telling the story, so I will extrapolate the most interesting tidbits for you here.


Construction began in 1916 and was completed in 1920. The architect was J. Will Wilson, of the firm Wilson & Catto. Though he is essentially forgotten today, historian Clarence M. Burton described Wilson as one of the best architects in Detroit. Wilson designed several other structures in the city, including the Chateau Frontenac Apartments, the Arcadia Theater, a bathhouse and other apartment buildings, but this "Arts & Crafts-inspired Tudor Revival" church is probably the only one of Wilson's commissions that survives anywhere.

Temple Baptist's white congregation moved to a new location in 1951, and soon afterward the King Solomon Baptist Church from Black Bottom would move in. The original church building ceased to be used in 1999, but the struggling congregation still exists.


A quick sum-up from the .pdf report describing King Solomon Church's importance is as follows:
The church grew to national prominence under the leadership of its longtime pastor, the Rev. Theodore Sylvester Boone, and is significant as the location of Malcolm X’s 1963 “Message to the Grass Roots” address, one of the minister’s most influential speeches and a key turning point in his career. As an early member of the Progressive National Baptist Convention (an association of African American churches that emphasizes civil rights and social justice) and the site of that body’s second annual conference, King Solomon Baptist Church played a prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement in Detroit and nationwide. In that conference and others, it hosted numerous guests including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, and the Rev. Benjamin Mays. Prior to the King Solomon era, the building was the home of Temple Baptist Church which, by contrast, did not allow African Americans to become members or attend services. Its pastor, the Rev. G. Beauchamp Vick, founded the Baptist Bible Fellowship International, now among the largest fundamentalist Baptist organizations in the United States with a following of over one million members.
Here you can see the palimpsest-like way in which the addition has been grafted over the church's old exterior wall:


The two additions to the complex were grafted onto the church in 1937 and 1940, and the curiously fortress-shaped "Main Auditorium" building was also built across the street at 6102 Fourteenth, which I believe is where the congregation worships today. With a seating capacity of 5,000 people, it was the largest black-owned auditorium in the city:


A very strange industrial fire door style setup here:


Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the NAACP once gave an address here during a fundraising tour after the organization's landmark 1954 victory in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. King Solomon was also the site of a radio address by U.S. Representative Charles Diggs immediately after the gruesome racially-motivated murder of Emmett Till, in Mississippi.


King Solomon Baptist Church continued to host conferences of nationwide significance throughout the 1950s and '60s.
In September 1963 [Rev. Dr. Martin Luther] King returned to King Solomon Baptist Church, this time for the second annual conference of the PNBC. It was a critical year for the Civil Rights Movement, in Detroit as well as in the nation as a whole. According to one observer, “[1963] was the turning point, the year when Detroit became conscious of itself as the spearhead of the Northern black movement and the rest of the country became aware of the movement emerging in Detroit.”
In November 1963 the Rev. C. L. Franklin of Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church and other integrationists excluded nationalists from a meeting of the Northern Leadership Conference that was held at Cobo Hall.
To quickly sum up what is meant by integrationalists and nationalists, integrationalists were those, like Martin Luther King, who believed that blacks ought to have an equal place in American society alongside whites. Nationalists, like Malcolm X, believed that blacks were their own displaced nation of people within "white" America, and should fight for sovereignty and independence. Malcolm X expressed in his "Message to the Grass Roots" that those integrationists, such as Dr. King and Rev. Franklin, were merely Uncle Toms being used by "the white man" in order to control "the negro," because they had allowed white support of their organization.

In response, the Northern Grass Roots Leadership Conference, as it was named, was held here at King Solomon Baptist Church, where Malcolm X gave the keynote address to an audience of 3,000 in the Main Auditorium.


That address, his “Message to the Grass Roots” speech was later described as “the most influential single speech of [Malcolm X’s] life.” Malcolm X actually spent most of his childhood growing up in Lansing, Michigan.


Here is a recording of that very speech that Malcolm X made in the Main Auditorium on November 10, 1963:

 

The “Message to the Grass Roots” speech at King Solomon Baptist Church also served as a sign of Malcolm's impending break from the Nation of Islam--the black Muslim religious organization he had been a minister of--which was founded in Detroit in 1930. Grace Lee Boggs, another Detroit visionary who was in the crowd that day, was quoted as observing a sudden change in Malcolm X’s speaking style during this event, and felt that it foreshadowed a realignment of his allegiances.
Malcolm X visited King Solomon again on April 12, 1964 to repeat his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, first given earlier in the month at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio. While Malcolm X maintained his earlier position that violence might be justified if African Americans continued to be illegally and violently oppressed by the white majority, the primary purpose of this address was to encourage his audience to exercise their right to vote.

It is easy for born-middle-class "whites" to view speeches such as Malcolm X's as inflammatory, militant, and radical. Notice I put the word "whites" in quotation marks. What is "white," really? It could mean German, Polish, Irish, French, Hungarian, Russian, Lappish, Finnish, Cornish, Sicilian, (or it could likewise mean Catholic, Unitarian, Methodist, Lutheran, Jewish...), or any of several other flavors of what has generally come to be generically (and carelessly) referred to as "white" when applied to Americans, who usually are of some mixture of the above ethnicities.


But now, let's remove the whole "black" / "white" dichotomy for a moment. Imagine that you--whichever of those many possible "white" ethnicities you may happen to be--belong to a group who are being discriminated against and abused because of your race. Let's say you're Estonian, for argument's sake. If you Estonians were systematically ridiculed, excluded, passed up, held back, held down, beat up, beat down, had your wives and daughters raped, your churches bombed, your houses vandalized and burned, simply because you're Estonian--you'd be pretty f@#$ing upset at the people doing it, wouldn't you? I know I sure as hell would be militant about it, and I would hope that you would be willing to fight about it too.

So you have to understand these things in the proper context, often by putting the shoe on the other foot. You don't necessarily have to agree, but you have to have an open mind to the situation.


King Solomon Baptist was not only famous for Civil Rights Movement history, it was also an important center in arts and culture.
The Boone House, a center for poetry and the literary arts, was established at King Solomon in the early 1960s by Wayne State University poet-in-residence Margaret Danner. It attracted talent such as Detroit natives Dudley Randall and Ron Milner and Harlem’s Langston Hughes. Randall drew inspiration for his most famous work, “The Ballad of Birmingham” from other Boone House poets, and Hughes collaborated with Danner to record “Poets of the Revolution” on the Motown Records label.
You may recall that the Motown studio was located only several blocks away from here.


The church also has strong ties to the history of gospel music:
The Rev. James Cleveland and Albertina Walker, the “King and Queen of Gospel Music,” founded the Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA) at King Solomon in 1968 with an initial meeting of 3,000 participants. These included Dr. Mattie Moss Clark of the Clark Sisters, Thurston Frazier, Lawrence Roberts, and Sara Jordan Powell. The GMWA is now the largest international organization of black Gospel musicians, with over 30,000 members, meeting annually in August. Cleveland, who originally came to Detroit from Chicago when hired by the Rev. C. L. Franklin as music director, trained Franklin’s daughter, Aretha, as a gospel soloist. Historian Charles Simmons credits the prestige of King Solomon Baptist Church, in combination with the influence of T. S. Boone in organizations such as the Progressive National Baptist Convention, as having helped popularize Gospel music, which had not yet gained the degree of mainstream acceptance that it enjoys today.

Now naturally I was curious upon entering this room here, seeing as the curtain has been ripped back from the truth about the structure, as it were, revealing that which has been covered over:


I sat and deliberated for a long time on whether I wanted to attempt the shaky and dangerous climb up into those rafters to glimpse the original ceiling of the church.


Ehhh, screw it. Let's go.




Not very fancy, but definitely a trip to see the old light fixtures still hanging in place.


Unfortunately I neglected to go in the basement before we left...there's never anything interesting in the basement after all.

Except for a little gymnasium, with a rather historic boxing ring...
The church also became known for its wealth of youth-related programs. An indoor roller skating rink served the neighborhood from the 1960s until the mid-1980s. Boxing trainer Emanuel Steward coached a generation of athletes inside the church’s gymnasium, including National Golden Gloves champion Thomas Hearns. 
Oh well. It was the "one that got away."

According to Donald Whitaker, who resided north of Grand Boulevard and attended many of King Solomon Baptist Church’s activities in the 1960s, the church’s youth programs helped to maintain the neighborhood’s strong sense of community. It was an oasis in the desert,” he says, “due to the recreational and social events that generations now don’t have.”

References:
City of Detroit Historic Designation Advisory Board Final Report, Proposed King Solomon Baptist Church Historic District

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