Detroit’s latest major public art work — a street mural celebrating the phrase “Power to the People” — is born out of the Black Lives Matter movement spreading worldwide. The art has roots in ’60s- and ’70s-era activism that sparked major social reform. And the Detroit artist who designed it has a direct link to the genius troublemaker who created a Motor City masterpiece 87 years ago. 

On June 19, 2020, city officials unveiled the mural painted on a popular downtown street, a pedestrian-only block of Woodward Avenue called Spirit Plaza between Hart Plaza and Campus Martius.

The street mural spells out “Power to the People” in big block letters. The “O” in power is represented by a red fist with a black background. 

“It’s all about the big positive change that we want to make for everybody right now. We are experiencing such an incredible moment,” said Hubert Massey, the Detroit artist who designed the work. A group of 20 Detroit teens produced the art over the past week. 

One block away is “The Fist”, the monument dedicated to boxer Joe Louis. It was unveiled in 1986 and created by sculptor Robert Graham. He once said: “Cultures are known not only by what they make, but by what they destroy.” 

Earlier this week, the city removed a bust of Christopher Columbus that stood on downtown Randolph Street facing E. Jefferson Avenue for 110 years. It’s one block away from the Power to the People mural. 

Street murals dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement are emerging nationwide. It began earlier this month, when eight artists and a group of ad-hoc volunteers joined to create the Black Lives Matter mural in Washington, D.C., on the two blocks leading to the White House. Since then, at least a dozen other murals have been painted in high-profile public spaces from coast to coast. 

Detroit’s mural was planned, financed, designed and created within one week, said Rochelle Riley, Director of Arts and Culture for the City of Detroit.

The nonprofit Detroit Heals Detroit, which helps youth deal with trauma, approached Riley about creating a Black Lives Matter mural like other cities. Ten students from the group along with 10 other Detroit Public School students agreed to be judges on what the art should look like as well as select what artist would design the work. 

Massey was among 35 artists asked to submit an idea. He said the idea came quickly to him.

“It just worked on so many levels. I didn’t have any doubt that’s what it should be,” Massey said. 

The Black Panthers used the slogan “All Power to the People.” Pro-democracy students used it to protest America’s military campaign in Vietnam. It was also popular during the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Massey said he thought of the song by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band that was a hit in 1971. 

Jaanaki Radhakrishnan, 15, helped paint the mural. “This is an important message to remind us and our government that we, as the people, hold all the power,” she told the New York Times about the work. 

The mural isn’t political, said Riley. 

“This is about empowerment.  For the first time people around the world are hearing the cry for justice in the U.S. that’s been going on for so long,” Riley said. “We want to live the best we can, and that includes everyone. Power to all the people.”

The mural cost around $12,000. No taxpayer money was used, Riley said. It was financed and supported by contributions from  the Knight Foundation, Bedrock, Eastern Market Corp., Motor City Paint, Murals in the Market, General Motors, Mint Artist Guild, University Prep and Hubert Massey. 

Massey has a long history of creating public art in Detroit; in Mexicantown, Greektown, the Cultural Center, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Detroit Athletic Club and the TCF Center, where his fresco “Detroit: Crossroad of Innovation” celebrates the city’s diverse industrial and cultural heritage.

One of Massey’s main artistic inspirations is the work of the Mexican Muralism movement. 

It began in the 1920s and often refers to epic, politically-charged public murals that portray common people as the heroes of society. A major artist of the movement is Diego Rivera, creator of the Detroit Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Rivera produced the murals during the Great Depression — a time when there were massive street protests demanding sweeping political and social change. 

Massey trained with Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Dimitroff, two assistants to Rivera. The pair helped produce the DIA murals.

“I do feel the spirit of all that great public art in this,” Massey said, referring to the Power to the People mural. “I am grateful to be part of it.”

Louis Aguilar is BridgeDetroit’s senior reporter. He covered business and development for the Detroit News, and is a former reporter for the Washington Post.

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