Ken Coleman: When it comes to L. Brooks Patterson’s bigotry, I refuse to be silent

L. Brooks Patterson addresses delegates at the 2010 Michigan Republican State Convention | Bill Rice, Wikimedia Commons

L. Brooks Patterson, the longtime charismatic and curmudgeonly Oakland County executive, died on Saturday at age 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. 

Yes, I’m sorry that the disease took his life, but I can’t ignore his bigoted — if not racist — history. Patterson’s life and times are being written and recorded this weekend and will be archived for all time. The entire story must be told.

For the last 24 hours, many elected officials, media types and others have praised Patterson for his leadership, his record and his wit. There’s no question that he’s an important part of Michigan political history. 

He served as Oakland County prosecutor for more than a decade. He had been county executive since 1993. The Republican even ran for governor in 1982. Patterson, who was raised in Detroit, was a tireless champion for his suburban county, which, for years, ranked as one of the nation’s wealthiest.

However, Brooks also played the role of Michigan’s Archie Bunker, the crusty, bigoted lead character on the CBS television “All in the Family” sitcom series of the 1970s. Bunker was written satirically. But for African Americans, there’s never been anything amusing about Patterson’s racist history.

L. Brooks Patterson

When it came to civil rights, social equity and decent civility, Patterson’s record was dubious, at best. In 1971, Michigan made national news when 10 empty Pontiac public school buses were firebombed. Klansmen, foes of busing to achieve classroom race integration, were later convicted. Among them was Robert Miles, the former KKK grand dragon who lived in Howell. 

Busing had become a major flashpoint in Michigan. Anti-busing crusader and Pontiac resident Irene McCabe, represented by attorney L. Brooks Patterson, fought busing and Judge Damon Keith’s 1970 order to allow Black and white kids to attend school together. The Keith ruling, a case handed down before the bombing, was known as Davis v. School District of Pontiac. 

I believe that Patterson’s actions during 1971 certainly helped to create a climate of hate and gave oxygen to the demons who carried out the bombing. 

Patterson was a spry 32 years old then. Some grow and evolve over time. They gain wisdom, become more tempered. Brooks didn’t.

Detroit | Creative Commons

Forty-three years later, in a revealing 2014 profile on Patterson published in the New Yorker called, “Drop Dead Detroit,” Patterson declared:

“What we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.”

Really, Brooks?

Far too often, media folks and politicians shrugged, chuckled and passed off these type of comments as, “Well, you know, that’s just Brooks being Brooks.” 

I, however, refuse to be silent on Patterson’s dubious actions and comments when it comes to Detroit, America’s largest city with a majority African American population. 

Fact is, when it comes to legendary metro Detroit politicos, Patterson is far more akin to Orville Hubbard, the stubborn segregationist mayor of Dearborn during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s than Coleman A. Young, the integrationist mayor of Detroit during the 1970’s, ’80s and early ‘90s, to whom the Republican is frequently compared. 

Coleman Young | Wikipedia Commons

Like Patterson, Young was a warrior for his turf, but the African American appointed a 50-50 Black and white administration after his historic 1973 election win — including a white police commissioner who was a former FBI agent — and encouraged regional cooperation. In fact, Young was a leading force in creating the so-called “Big Four” annual summit involving Macomb, Oakland and Wayne county leaders, along with the Detroit mayor.

Conversely, for almost five decades, L. Brooks Patterson continually and enthusiastically chose to offer mean-spirited, dog-whistle oratory, playing to people who sided with him during the divisive 1970s public school busing debate and likely voted for Donald Trump in 2016.  

As a 51-year-old who has been in and around politics for more than a quarter-century, I simply can’t bury that part of the lede.  

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

1 COMMENT

  1. Nailed it. Patterson cut his teeth on currying racism and turned it into a half-century career. Rather than join forces with Wayne and Macomb Counties to drive policies that would have helped all of SE Michigan, Patterson chose to demonize Detroit and turn his back on everything from economic development to transportation planning.

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