The Michigan Chronicle is the state’s largest black newspaper. It was established in 1932. By July 1967, it was well established as a weekly paper dedicated to covering issues of importance to the black community. In the days following the Detroit’s civil unrest, Floyd Johnson submitted a letter to the Chronicle titled “Open Letter to My Soul Brother.” WDET’s Michael Perkins reads Mr. Johnson’s letter, which was published Aug. 5, 1967.
“Open letter to my soul brother on racial strife.
It’s common knowledge that most of the people involved in the breaking and entering, looting and setting fires were Negroes, seeking revenge and capital gain by the shortest method they knew. This just shows how truly insecure we are. We have leaders of all kinds, but none who really get down to the real question of what we want out of life, or how we should go about getting it.
The first thing that came into my mind Sunday was, ‘this is just revenge’. We all, at times, brewed about what happened back in slavery times, or how the white man today still tries to hold us back. We feel we should hurt him in some way. But you can’t hurt him. He has the money, he has the power. You kill one, another will take his place; you loot and burn his stores, he will build another, and your money will help him build it.
‘Not my money,’ you say. Maybe you don’t own any property, maybe you don’t own a car, but you smoke, drink, eat, use telephone [sic], buy clothes, and on all of these, you pay taxes. You say these few pennies don’t count. Don’t they? The white man with money doesn’t miss them, but you do. If you didn’t, there would be no reason to loot. And by doing so, you have hurt the Negro property owner. We should be living for tomorrow, not the past.
Let me tell you about a friend of mine. A businessman who gave me a break when I needed it. When things were tough for me, in 1958, I went to him for a loan. He loaned me $350 for 60 days, interest free, and all I gave him as collateral was my I.O.U. He is a white man. His name: Abe Farris. His store: Abe’s Furniture, at 14th and Buchanan, was looted and burned to the ground, as well as his warehouse across the street. He knows Negroes did this, but I guarantee you, he is not looking for revenge. This will cost him plenty, but he will build his store again in time, and again do business with you, employing Negroes in his store, just as before. What you did to him will be forgotten.
This should be our way of life. Don’t use revenge as an excuse. We talk about equality, but this is not what we actually want. We want to go much further. What we want is to put the white man under our heel. We want to be able to tell him the only place he can live is down there across the tracks, or say, ‘Sorry, you can’t eat here. You have to go around the corner.’ The man is no fool. He knows what you want to do, and is not going to let it happen. Not this way, anyhow. Violence is not the answer.
True, he has opened certain areas to us. He has given a few key positions to certain Uncle Toms, who are not helping their people at all. We claim to hate the white man so much - yet - some of us admire him so much that if we could change today, we would give the rest of the Negroes hell. We want the things he has so that we can discriminate against our less fortunate brothers. Flash our diamond ring. Speed past him in our big car, on the way to our big house in the whites’ neighborhood. In other words, we would be saying, ‘Now I am white too.’
Surely you didn’t loot it to spread it around and help your poor brothers. And everything you took will do you no good. They will either get you into trouble, or be taken from you by some selfish brother who thinks as you do. In the end, nobody will be helped. Everyone will be hurt, including you - if no other way but tax wise. If you had worked hard and earned what you got, nobody could take it away from you. Then you could prosper enough to reach back, take another less fortunate brother by the hand, and pull him up too.
We must be qualified to take charge in key positions, positions of power, and then work towards the betterment of all people, without malice towards any. Judge by character, not race. After all, this is what we’re asking the white man to do. Money is power, and you cannot hope to have either for any length of time without experience and knowledge.
My friend, these are our rehabilitation years. We are in the process of building the Negro’s future like never before. It probably will take the next 30 years or more. We cannot expect to do it in less. We must educate ourselves, and gain understanding. If we are to assume any kind of power, we must have the knowledge and wisdom to use it. Right now, only a few of us could assume the responsibility. We must teach our children, and they must teach theirs. Millions of lives are at stake.
If we own just one-fourth of the large enterprises the white man owns, we could go much farther than he in a lot shorter time. We are quick to learn. We have that quick thinking ability, and our intuitive powers are great. Now we must put them to use. We are truly a gifted race of people, and one day we will prove it to the world. I am sure you know we can, and have done so much with so little. This can’t do. There is nothing we can’t do if we work together. We must prove it to them. And if we try to help ourselves, we will help us. They need us as much as we need them. So let’s have no more of this looting and fire foolishness. We are wasting precious time. Let’s get down to serious business.”
Michael Perkins is WDET’s Senior Sales Representative. This reading originally aired in 2007.