This Friday, October 7, the National Writers Series welcomes two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a Washington Post associate editor, David Maraniss. Anne Stanton, a co-founder and executive director of the National Writers Series, introduces us to Maraniss before the Traverse City event.

What Detroit Gave to America

In 1963, Detroit was firing on all cylinders fired up by Motown tunes, the birth of the Mustang, and victories of civil rights activists and labor. The Motor City’s engine would sputter soon enough—there were indeed signs it was in trouble. But New York Times best-selling author David Maraniss newest book credits Detroit for the long-enduring gifts it gave to America.

Maraniss, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a Washington Post associate editor, will take the Opera House stage on Friday, October 7 to talk about Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story. New York Times best-selling author John U. Bacon will serve as guest host.

Once in a Great City recalls the city’s greatest moments and its leaders: the historic Walk to Freedom, UAW President Walter Reuther who changed the lives of the working class, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Henry Ford II and Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh, an acolyte of JFK.

Maraniss lived in Detroit until the age of six, attending a rigorous and integrated elementary school and rarely thought about Detroit until seeing a Chrysler Eminem commercial during the 2011 Super Bowl game.

“It choked me up with all the iconic images that I remembered from my childhood. My wife said, ‘Why are you falling for this? They are just selling cars.’ Of course, but why did Detroit hit me that way? What did Detroit give to me? And to America? In fact, it gave a lot—from automobiles and music to civil rights and labor—all born or tested in Detroit,” Maraniss says. “That was my motivation in writing this book—to honor Detroit while at the same time understanding the enormous troubles Detroit endured. A bright shining star [that was] dying at the same time.”

Maraniss focuses on an 18-month period when Detroit was at its pinnacle. One of the biggest contributions came from the UAW and its president, Walter Reuther, who fought for middle class wages for auto workers.

“In that sense, America’s working class owes Detroit,” he says. “The irony was that Reuther was pretty prescient in seeing the future and the problems that technology would bring to the industry. He was progressive on race and pushing for racial equality in ways that his rank and file eventually rebelled against. The creation of Reagan Democrats in suburban Detroit was a backlash against the very union and its ability in making a move to the suburbs even possible.”

Maraniss also writes about how Detroit auto workers served as the “bank” in support of the civil rights movement.

“Auto workers provided a lot of money to support the South in 1963,” he says. “When Martin Luther King and his followers protested in Birmingham (Alabama) and all those awful dogs and hoses were sicced on protesters, it was the auto workers who bailed them out of jail.”

Detroit, with the largest NAACP branch in the country, had a large and emerging potent black middle class of lawyers, leaders and preachers, which played an important role in the civil rights movement. One of those preachers was the Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s father.

“He invited Martin Luther King that summer to raise funds for the civil rights movement and hold a march. It was the largest march in history at that point. One hundred thousand people marched down Woodward Avenue. This was June 23, 1963, and Martin Luther King delivered the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech before he gave the speech later in Washington D.C. He did it in Detroit first.”

Of course, there were shadows of the city’s demise. Unemployment was high among African Americans and emotions ran hot when a policeman shot an African American prostitute in the back. The historic Gotham Hotel, which catered to the country’s most famous African Americans, was ruinously raided and replaced by a hospital parking lot. Urban renewal, inspired by concern that black neighborhoods were falling apart and blighted, would in fact devastate the fabric by displacing the traditional black communities, Maraniss said.

“It really tore apart the black neighborhoods—it’s where all the freeways went, and there was a ripple effect. [The African Americans] moved to other parts of the city in ways that increased the racial tensions that were already there. There were already dozens of neighborhood groups that were formed to prevent African Americans from moving into those neighborhoods,” Maraniss says.

One of Detroit’s most enduring legacies was Motown. In 1963, Berry Gordy took Detroit’s most stunning talent on the road:  Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, the Miracles, and Stevie Wonder, then just an awkward 11-year-old boy, who attracted Gordy’s attention with his harmonica tunes.

“Clearly the Motown chapter was the most fun chapter to write,” Maraniss says. “I usually write in silence, but my wife, Linda, was blasting out Motown the whole time I was writing. I have the CDs of every Motown record ever.”

Maraniss believes that Detroit is on the rise again in important ways.

“The population is going up for the first time in decades. The number of young people moving into the city is really encouraging. Millennials and techies and foodies and musicians and artists and start-ups. So it has a certain vibrance to it that it didn’t have before. The central lesson for Mayor Duggan is that to revive the city you have to revive the neighborhoods. It can’t be just millionaires investing in downtown and millennials moving in. The people who built Detroit have to be brought up, which is a really hard thing to do. Public schooling is not just a problem in Detroit, but also the country. You have to keep working at it. I’m not presumptuous enough to think I have all the answers, but I know that’s the heart of it. Jobs and schools. Even these young kids coming in, living in Detroit, when they get married, they’ll move out unless the situation is improved.”

Sponsored by the National Writers Series, the David Maraniss event begins at 6 p.m. with a cash bar, live music and Morsels. The event begins at 7 p.m. For tickets, call the City Opera House at 231-941-8082, go to or visit their Box Office at 106 E. Front St. in downtown Traverse City.

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Photo(s) by Lucian Perkins