Detroit has lost some impactful residents during 2020 and not all have been from COVID-19.
Moses Baldwin, a highly respected Detroit police officer, was one of them. He died on March 30 at age 90, but it was not coronavirus-related, according to his daughter, Rochelle Mitchell.
As protesters have pounded the pavement in Detroit and across the entire world for Black Lives Matter protests, with many backing “defunding the police” measures, Baldwin’s life is a reminder that there have been responsible police officers who stayed active in their community. Many faced racism themselves and did not brutalize those in their charge.
Roosevelt Lawrence, author of “Blacks Who Wore the Blue,” said that Baldwin was a mentor to him. Lawrence joined the Detroit Police Department in 1975.
“He was someone who I wanted to follow around and be a sponge regarding meetings that he was involved in throughout the community, and in the police department,” Lawrence said.
Baldwin, affectionately known to some as “Doc,” was a proud 1947 graduate of Miller High School, which was located in Detroit’s historic Black Bottom community, a largely African-American neighborhood. Nestled just east of downtown Detroit and just south of Eastern Market, the school’s alum list reads like a who’s who of Michigan Black history.
U.S. Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr. attended the school. So did Coleman A. Young, Detroit’s first African American mayor. Della Reese, the popular recording artist and actress; Milt Jackson, the great jazz vibraphonist; and Kenny Burrell, the legendary jazz guitarist, also attended the school.
Although the institution closed in 2007, Baldwin enjoyed attending its annual alumni picnic, which is held every second Sunday in August on the former’s school grounds and attracts hundreds each year.
“This is a great event that I hope will continue,” Baldwin said last August. “A lot of history is here.”
He played on the school’s legendary boys basketball team. Those teams won consecutive city championships between 1947 and 1950 and were coached by the great Will Robinson, despite the fact that the school’s basketball gym was tiny and didn’t meet regulation size. When it opened in 1919, the school was designed for junior high kids.
Robinson went on to win two state championships at Pershing High School, become the nation’s first African-American division head coach at Illinois State University, and serve as a Detroit Pistons executive. Baldwin called Robinson a “great motivator.”
Baldwin later joined the Detroit Police Department in 1952 at a time when few Blacks were on the force. In fact, fewer than 150 African Americans were members of the 5,000-member force. At one point, Baldwin played on a Detroit Police Department basketball team that was dedicated to helping to improve community relations.
The police team play hoops with neighborhood squads, as well as a unit made up of Jackson Prison inmates. During the mid-1960s, Black police officers began to demand better representation from the Detroit Police Officers Association (DPOA) and department brass.
Frustrated at the lack of responsiveness, Baldwin and other Black officers created The Guardians of Michigan in 1963, an advocacy group composed largely of Detroit Police Department African-American officers, as well as members of the Wayne County Sheriff Department and other police agencies throughout the state. Baldwin was a past president of the organization.
“He came up through the system at a very racially biased time,” Mitchell said. “That was the purpose of the Guardians, to rally to get support among the Black membership. He was strongly against the DPOA, so that’s what caused him to start the Guardians.”
The Guardians of Michigan were also concerned African Americans civilians who were often marginalized by Detroit’s white community. The Detroit Police Department created in 1971 an undercover decoy initiative called STRESS (Stop the Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets). The unit was responsible for a disproportionate number of Blacks who were fatally shot by white police, Baldwin and his organization bucked the blue line and backed their civilian neighbors and city residents.
“We demand the elimination of STRESS as of today,” Baldwin said that year. “We also are telling all Black officers assigned to that unit that they should ask for an immediate transfer out.”
Baldwin retired from the force in 1978, but remained active in the Detroit community. Several years later, he joined the Detroit Public Schools as an investigator.
Because of the COVID-19 crisis and the closure of many homes of worship and the stay-home order, his family opted to have a viewing rather than a large church service. Many attended the gathering, which included a Detroit Police Department escort.