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A City within a City

The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Todd E Robinson

Publication Year: 2012

A City within a City examines the civil rights movement in the North by concentrating on the struggles for equality in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Historian Todd Robinson studies the issues surrounding school integration and bureaucratic reforms as well as the role of black youth activism to detail the diversity of black resistance. He focuses on respectability within the African American community as a way of understanding how the movement was formed and held together. And he elucidates the oppositional role of northern conservatives regarding racial progress.
A City within a City cogently argues that the post-war political reform championed by local Republicans transformed the city's racial geography, creating a racialized "city within a city," featuring a system of "managerial racism" designed to keep blacks in declining inner-city areas. As Robinson indicates, this bold, provocative framework for understanding race relations in Grand Rapids has broader implications for illuminating the twentieth-century African American urban experience in secondary cities.

Published by: Temple University Press

title page

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xvi

In 1966, Karen L. Parker migrated from North Carolina to the city of Grand Rapids, located on Michigan’s west coast. Like most black migrants who had arrived before her at the Michigan Central railroad station of the state’s second-largest metropolis, Parker had an odd feeling that she had reached a place sequestered from the rest of state. ...

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pp. xvii-xx

Like all book projects, this one benefited immensely from the professional and personal support of a number of extraordinary people. I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to acknowledge their contributions publicly. In particular, I am indebted to Matthew Lassiter, a mentor and friend, who read and offered feedback on every draft of the manuscript. ...


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pp. xxi-xxii

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1. “Rowing, Not Drifting”: Black Organizational Reform before World War II

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pp. 1-23

During the First Great Migration, nearly 1.6 million black southerners headed north between 1910 and 1940. Initially, almost 40 percent of them settled in eight large cities, five of which were in the Midwest, but many ended up in smaller “off-line” locations, such as Grand Rapids.1 Many blacks “were only temporary guests” in the larger cities before moving on. ...

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2. Citizens’ Action: Managerial Racism and Reform Politics

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pp. 24-50

Despite a decade of depression, which heightened the level of inequality between blacks and whites in the city, the black population in Grand Rapids had several reasons for believing their grievances would receive greater consideration in the post-World War II era. First, the unheralded acts of black resistance began to dismantle the overt signs of Jim Crow in the city. ...

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3. The Suburban Oasis: The Origins of Segregated Space

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pp. 51-90

With the second ghetto virtually intact in Detroit, Chicago, and New York by 1960, the absence of a clearly defined first black ghetto was conspicuous in smaller cities, such as Grand Rapids, during the postwar era. The overwhelming emphasis on urban shifts in larger cities tends to mask the fact that smaller black communities developed differently. ...

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4. The Mustache Saga: The Rise of Black Youth Protest

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pp. 91-113

During the 1960s, public schools were vibrant arenas of political and cultural contention, providing an open environment where children of various religions, races, and social classes interacted without parental guidance or supervision. For many Grand Rapids residents, the gap between what children were learning in schools and the values their parents embraced at home led to deep concerns. ...

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5. A Black Child’s Burden: Busing to Achieve Racial Balance

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pp. 114-144

“Must we have our children standing before us all of the time?” This May 15, 1971, article in the local black newspaper asked readers to reassess why children were on the front line of the freedom struggle in Grand Rapids. The author warned, “If you as parents don’t make up a plan of action your children will take action—either for better or worst [sic].” ...

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6. Where Do We Go from Here? Setting the Course for Racial Reconciliation

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pp. 145-177

“It was the years,” Ella Sims recalled, “that white groups and white organizations, who’d never thought of a black board member, were looking for one, and it seemed that I got stuck on every board throughout the city.” Sims was exactly the type of black “indigenous leader” the business community needed to know to preserve the city’s integrity in the wake of the 1967 racial uprising. ...

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Conclusion: Secondary Cities and the Black Experience

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pp. 178-186

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Detroit, Saginaw, Flint, Benton Harbor, and Muskegon were listed among the top twenty-five most racially segregated metropolitan regions in America. With two more Michigan cities—Grand Rapids and Jackson—listed just on the outskirts of the top twenty-five, Michigan ranked as the most segregated state in the nation.1 ...


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pp. 187-216


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pp. 217-226

E-ISBN-13: 9781439909232
Print-ISBN-13: 9781439909225

Page Count: 236
Illustrations: 12
Publication Year: 2012