Jan 15, 2007
Livingston County has gotten a bad name as a racist community, based on large part because Robert E. Miles, the Grand Dragon of the Michigan Klu Klux Klan, lived in rural Cohoctah Township, just outside of Howell, until his death in 1992.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, it’s worth noting and praising the one group in the county that has battled to change the county’s image with actions since its inception some 18 years ago, The Livingston 2001 Diversity Council. The group was formed in 1988 in response to a cross burning in the yard of a black family in the county, and it was initially called Livingston 2001. It was so named because the children in kindergarten when the ugly incident occurred would be graduating from high school in 2001, and hopefully, entering a world where that kind of hate and prejudice was just an ugly footnote in history,
It’s a grass roots organization made up of business people, private citizens, educators, government officials and clergy who live or work in Livingston County with the mission of making the community ever more welcoming, harmonious and prosperous for people of all races, creeds and backgrounds.
A few years ago it changed its name to reflect its mission after 2001, and jut a few weeks ago it launched a new web site. One way that the group meets its mission is by bringing in diverse groups for entertainment and the exchange of views, sponsoring special events and sponsoring groups like the Diversity Club at Howell High School.
This month the council, along with the Howell High School Diversity Club, is bringing in the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit to perform “Speak for Yourself, a candid play about race and hope at 7 p.m. Jan. 29 in the Howell High School auditorium. Diversity Council and Diversity Club leaders see the 45-minute interactive performance as a way to continue an ongoing community dialogue on diversity. Immediately after the performance, a University of Michigan faculty member will facilitate a discussion.
There are some wonderful people here in Livingston County, and it really is a great place to live. But, unfortunately, there are still some small-minded people here too. Unfortunately, they are also the people currently controlling the Republican Party right now that currently dominates the county, and its’ hard to shake that racist image when we keep having some the incidents we have had. People who do not live here and have never been here automatically think of racism when Livingston County is mentioned.
In the early 1990s Klan members staged a rally on the steps of the historical Livingston County Courthouse in downtown Howell. We had an African-American Michigan State Trooper attacked in a Brighton bar in 2002 because he was apparently dancing with a white woman, in 2005 we drew nationwide attention when a downtown Howell auction house displayed and sold Klan memorabilia in its front window at least twice, we have people trying to ban books, a few years ago when the very Diversity Club that’s sponsoring the Mosaic Youth Theatre displayed a diversity flag a group of small-minded people tried to say it as a gay pride flag, we have people picketing Victoria’s Secret and we have people trying to push Bible study in a public school. The flag controversy spawned an anti-gay hate group calling itself Livingston Organization for Values in Education (LOVE), and it managed to get one of its members elected to the school board last year.
That kind of behavior does not help our image, and we also see apologists for this kind of behavior that does not help us shake that image. For a perfect example of that you can check out Rich Perlberg’s column in the Sunday edition of the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus. Perlberg, the general manager, justified it all by saying other communities do it too.
There will be a lot to talk about. Livingston County, of course, has this lingering image of racism that is unfair on at least two fronts. First, we get painted with a broad brush largely because one outspoken Ku Klux Klan leader chose to live here. Second, although there is prejudice and near segregation here, we aren't really that much different than just about any other community in the state.
Or have I missed the integration that has sprung up in Midland, Milford, Monroe and Menominee?
Now, I can’t speak for Midland, Milford or Menominee, but I can speak for Monroe where I grew up. It has always been integrated. I went to school with African-American kids from elementary to high school, played on the same sports teams and lived in the same neighborhoods. Monroe has four times the black population than Livingston County does.