By Sherri Kolade
Lifelong Detroit resident Ray Smith grew up with pictures of Jesus Christ, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and then-President John F Kennedy on the mantle of his family’s home, like many Black children did during the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“My grandma had a pic of all three of those individuals — I looked at those images [growing up],” Smith (born in the 1950s) said. “That’s all we heard was Dr. King growing up.”
As a young boy, Smith also experienced his family talking about Dr. King’s visit to Detroit decades earlier in 1963 at the then-Cobo Arena when he delivered a speech at “The Walk to Freedom” event, which still impacts him to this day.
“My family was involved at marches, as well,” he said, adding that they talked about Dr. King’s marches and attended them.
The Eyes of Martin
Smith is one of many men in Detroit and locally who embody what Dr. King spoke about when it comes to doing the good work of moving forward equality and equity for all, especially those who are still looking to overcome someday.
Smith, president of the non-profit Black Bottom Group (BBG), a multi-purpose media, education and entertainment company in Detroit, told the Michigan Chronicle that BBG initiated the State of Michigan History Center process that secured the Black Bottom Historical Marker recognizing Black Bottom Detroit as a legally recognized historical area last summer. After about two years of working on it, the Michigan Historical Commission granted the BBG permission to erect a historical marker.
The state historical marker is at Lafayette Central Park, 1500 E. Lafayette, Detroit. The marker highlights famous Black Bottom residents, such as Coleman A. Young, Joe Louis and Ralph Bunche.
Smith said that the marker is significant to the community because it is a reminder of the residents who lived in Black Bottom, those who had their homes and businesses destroyed decades earlier when they were forced to move due to the 275 freeway plowing through their community, among other things.
“I’m part of the city of Detroit, and I am a resident who keeps doing the work and turning the wheels of justice to make sure that we are doing our part,” Smith said.
Smith added that if Dr. King were here today, he would look and say that “the harvest is great, but the laborers are few.”
“Whatever part you play, make sure you play it [so that it] uplifts the Black community, as well,” he said. “The dream still lives on — he lives on through the work we do. … It starts with us.”
The Feet of Martin
Inkster resident and community activist Joe Claybron is a mentor who would probably agree with Smith. He too has a passion for looking at a community, Inkster, in this case, and making pathways that uplift it.
Claybron has actively taken steps to take back the streets and pour into them. Ironically, he is now on the other side of justice as he took out some stress years earlier when he was in a gang and had a fateful brush with law enforcement, which led him to do 15 years in prison. He was released around three years ago. Claybron, a now inspiring community leader, continues to shine a spotlight on the seemingly forgotten, primarily Black city he grew up in that’s been crime-ridden and under-resourced for years.
“I was a standout athlete, and though I didn’t know what it was at the time… it was a beautiful upbringing. Everything changed due to the economy. We have no real small businesses out here. No real mom-pop shops. Really, you live here, but you work in another city. It’s in bad shape out here. We’re looking to change all of that in the next five to 10 years,” Claybron said.
During his stint in prison, he founded an organization called Nubit. The goal is to help other activists, including helping many returning citizens start working and helping them be an asset to their community. The group has worked with the City of Inkster on several projects.
One of his bigger projects is turning his vacant childhood home into a haven for women fleeing violent situations. He hopes to have it completed in 2022, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed some of his plans. But being the optimistic person he is, he is confident that it will be done.
Claybron, who moved to the city about two years ago, opened up his tax office business earlier in 2018, and said that he saw, especially during a bad winter storm, a lot of people didn’t have a place to go. So he converted half of his office into a warming center. The Red Cross even let him borrow 30 cots to run his operation 24 hours a day for about 14 days.
“There were men, women, children — young women as young as 17 coming in with babies — it was a mess. We fought through it,” he said, adding that he was raised by both his parents in a community where his home was the community house. “I’ve always had the community in my blood. It was never a chance where I’m going to be like, ‘No I’m not going to help them.’”
Dr. King’s good work of bringing everyone together and pushing forward is still evident in the lives of countless Black men locally and beyond who are making it happen in various ways today. More work still needs to be done, though, especially during COVID-19 where needs are growing every day. What would Dr. King say about not resting on your laurels helping? People don’t have to wonder too hard.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” Dr. King said.