The ongoing clash of the November election has had protests, lawsuits, and even calls from President Donald Trump to outright ignore the will of the voters, but it all seems to be coming to a close soon. On Dec.14, Michigan’s slate of Democratic electors will officially cast their Electoral College votes for Democrat Joe Biden.
The elector for Michigan’s 13th congressional district is none other than longtime Detroiter Helen Moore, 84, who has been an activist fighting to improve education for Black children for more than six decades.
Moore spoke with BridgeDetroit ahead of the Dec. 14 vote about her experiences with racism, fighting to improve education for Detroit’s Black children, and the changing demographics of the city.
Moore was born Aug. 31,1936 in Newport, Tennessee. Her family moved to Detroit when she was three after her dad got a job at Ford. Moore says her family was the only Black family in the otherwise all-white neighborhood near Chene street on the city’s east side.
1943 riot erupts
Some of her earliest memories in Detroit are from a race riot in the summer of 1943.
“I think it started on Belle Isle. We were in school at the time, and I remember I was like 5 years old and my sisters and brothers. There were five of us. We were all told by the principal: ‘Don’t go out.’ We didn’t know what was going on,” Moore said.
Moore recalls the principal letting all the white children leave the school, but locking the door with a chain to keep the Black students inside.
“When the whites came with sticks and guns to kill us, [the principal] chained the door, and we had to wait till my father and the people that lived in our same flat to come down the street to release us,” she said.
The 1943 riot erupted after tensions between Black and white Detroiters reached a breaking point on Belle Isle, according to the Detroit Historical Society. Over the two days of violence, multiple rumors intensified the fighting. One rumor claimed a Black man raped a white woman on the Belle Isle bridge, while another claimed a white man threw a Black woman and her baby off the same bridge.
By the end, 700 people were injured and 34 people were killed, the large majority of whom were Black. No white people were killed by police, but it’s estimated at least 17 Black people were killed at the hands of police.
Moore said she was appalled to see how many white Detroit Police officers took part in the anti-Black violence. Seeing public officials be openly anti-Black made her want to get more involved.
“That was a frightening situation for a child my age, and I think it had a bearing on getting me involved in civil rights and how I am today,” she said.
Becoming a school activist
Moore read a lot about civil rights issues going on in Detroit and the rest of the country, but she didn’t become active in protesting until her own kids were in school.
Coincidentally, damage done to her neighborhood during the 1967 uprising pushed Moore and her family to move west of I-96 to the Barton-McFarland neighborhood. At the time, the neighborhood was predominantly white. She ended up sending her children to Barton Elementary School, which had a great reputation for academics at the time.
“So we put our children in Barton school and guess what happened? Other Black people started moving into the neighborhood. And the next thing you know, there were quite a few of us Black people with children in Barton school,” she said.
Once more Black faces occupied the halls of Barton Elementary, she says there was a noticeable change in the school. Moore noticed Black students weren’t really being educated.
“Teachers wouldn’t be teaching. They had the best education, probably in the state of Michigan. And then these weird things started happening in the school. The Black kids were sometimes doing things wrong, and the white teachers would not correct them. It just was a really bad situation,” she said.
And just like that, Moore’s passion for activism boiled over. So in 1969, she organized parents, both Black and white, to change the way Black students were being treated.
“We came here for better education, and it’s not happening. And I think it’s because our children are black. And the white teachers they just don’t care,” Moore said.
The group called themselves Black Parents for Quality Education, even though there were some white parents in the group. Having white parents get invested in the struggle made Moore happy. She says it was good to know other people were seeing the same things as her.
“Judy Corliss, I remember her. White parent who was very close to me. All these years, she and I work together. She said the name was good, because you need to show people that Black parents are concerned about their children, and they think that [the white teachers] are not,” she said.
The first major protest the group organized was to gather community folks to block teachers and school administrators who they deemed to be racist from entering the school. The goal was simple, get people who weren’t racist in the school.
“We were up at 5 o’clock in the morning, we blocked the doors. We didn’t let nobody come into our school until we got the principal we wanted and we got the staff that we wanted,” she said.
It only took about two weeks before parents across the country began doing similar things in their communities, all in the name of getting their Black children a quality education. For Moore and her group in Detroit, the police soon got involved.
The officers threatened to arrest Moore if she didn’t call off her supporters. Moore didn’t flinch, and in fact, she called their bluff. Moore asked all the parents to grab their children and stand with them to show the police who they were protesting for.
“And the police saw what we were doing. And they dropped me instead of throwing me in the police car. They called the commander and I could hear it. And he was saying ‘oh my God, if you rest those parents with all the children, we got a real problem.’ So they decided to give us a ticket,” she said.
Moore never expected her first major protest to land her in court, but there she and the other parents were. Dressed to impress the judge, scared of what might happen, and still without a guarantee that the schools would actually improve. But Moore says Black leaders in the city came to their aid.
“Kenny Cockrel came in, Coleman Young, a whole lot of other folks came and said to the judge, ‘these people are only standing up for their rights, for their children have education. You cannot put them in jail,’” she said.
Kenneth Cockrel Sr. was an attorney in the city who advocated for poor and working-class Black people. He is perhaps most well-known for organizing political campaigns like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Young was still a young charismatic state senator at the time, but he would go on to become Detroit’s first Black mayor.
Eventually the judge dismissed the case, and told the parents and attorneys that he wouldn’t punish parents for standing up for their children. Moore remembers it felt like a perfect ending to a movement, but it didn’t take long for her to realize there was more fighting to be done.
Her kids eventually moved through school and all of her kids graduated from Cass Tech. The entire time her kids were in school, she was president of the PTA group and kept using her voice to cause change at school board meetings. When her youngest daughter graduated from high school, she remained active in education issues.
The group eventually transitioned from Black Parents for Quality Education to Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition, which was focused on keeping the schools out of the state’s control at first and then focused on getting the schools out from under the state control in the 1990s.
“We fought and we finally got our elected school board back. We went to Lansing and we went to the Capitol. We protested like every day as hard as we could to get our school system back,” she said.
Moore says seeing the state take control over and then dissolve other predominantly Black school systems in the state was hard, but it just made her group fight harder.
“We were able to keep our school system but we did not know how much debt they had put us in. When we got our school system back, the debt was over $2 billion,” she said.
The battle continues
By the time Moore’s group had finally gotten the type of control it wanted for the schools, there was more debt than she could believe, dozens of Detroit schools had closed, and over-reliance on standardized tests had already taken its toll.
With the elected school board back in Detroit and the schools being out of emergency management, Moore’s focus has been on getting literacy as a basic right for all children.
As of 2019, only 7 percent of students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District can read at or above grade level, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The percentage of Detroit students who performed at or above the NAEP proficient level in 2019 was 6 percent.
Nearly half of all adults in metro Detroit — about 47 percent — are functionally illiterate. With last school year and this current school year disrupted heavily by the COVID-19 pandemic, Moore believes the literacy problem will only get worse in Detroit.
“How can you expect someone, anyone in our country to be engaged in civics or the process at all if they can’t even read? You can’t take part in our democracy unless you can read, so why is it that you have all these people working so hard to make sure Black students aren’t able to read? It’s the same reason they didn’t teach [Black people] to read during slavery,” she said.
Moore and others went to court again in 2016, suing the state of Michigan over the condition of predominantly Black schools. They argued that Detroit’s children were being kept from attaining functional literacy, and were thus being kept from accessing all of their rights as American citizens.
Earlier this year, the case reached a settlement that will see more money go to Detroit schools. Moore says it doesn’t fix the systemic causes for why the schools declined in the first place.
As the settlement stands, it includes roughly $40,000 for each of the seven students who joined the suit, nearly $3 million for the Detroit Public Schools Community District now, and a promise from the Whitmer administration to pursue legislation that would bring an additional $94 million to the district.
But Moore’s biggest takeaway is there is still no legal precedent for a constitutional right to literacy. Moore says the attorneys opposing her case wanted to make sure the case didn’t go federal.
“[The attorneys] were afraid that if it spread all over the United States that all these Black and Brown children would be receiving a quality education … So all I’m saying to you is the struggle continues. And I’m in the middle of the struggle. And let’s see what happens in the future,” Moore said.
Why does Moore keep fighting for Black children in Detroit’s school system decades after her kids graduated from high school? She says it’s her calling to fight for Black and Brown children.
“I don’t care what anybody says that we are not free until all of us are free. So that keeps me going. And I see a light at the end of the tunnel, because there’s always going to be some people that will come along that will fight against the racists. And they will be standing up for the rights of our children, I don’t think we’ll ever stop. Because after 400 years, if we had really stopped at all, we wouldn’t be here. Listen, there wouldn’t be a Black person in the United States if all of us had stopped and said, ‘Oh, we can’t do this anymore. Just kill us and fall dead.’ So we’re still here, and as long as we’re still here, we got a chance of being free,” Moore said.
From education to Electoral College
Right now, Moore is shifting her focus from education advocacy to the Electoral College, a process she doesn’t really understand.
“Maybe I’m missing something, but why can’t we just allow the voters’ decision stand? All this extra stuff seems to make the process more complicated than it needs to be,” she said.
Regardless of her feelings on the Electoral College, Moore says she was flattered to be asked to cast the official vote by her 13th congressional district Democratic organization colleagues.