The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, the right to publish information and opinions without reprisals or interference from the government. Some understand it’s never been that simple. Throughout this nation’s history, the mainstream press has played an active role in suppressing or silencing the voice of African Americans. In response, African American communities have a long history of publishing independent newspapers to challenge dominant narratives and advance Black liberation. Newspapers like the Michigan Citizen, co-founded by Teresa Kelly, are part of this legacy and contain a rich history of activist journalism that has given a more accurate accounting of the Black freedom struggle from the perspective of the community itself.
Though Teresa has now spent what is most of her life in the state of Michigan, that’s not where her story begins. She points to her early work in the late 1960s on the south side of Chicago as the time in which she became engaged in community activism. “I had been teaching at St. Sabina’s on the south side and a neighborhood organization called the Organization for the Southwest Community (OSC)…it was an Alinsky organization, and he trained us,” Teresa recalled, “which is where I met soon-to-be husband, Charles Kelly.” The organization was funded by the Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches promoting integration on the south side at a time when white flight was at its peak and neighborhoods were changing rapidly. One of the organization’s first and most important campaigns was maintaining a library on the south side after Chicago regionalized the library system. There was an attempt to move the library to an outlying suburb and the OSC successfully organized against it. “Beverly was an affluent community–primarily all white and we said no, if anybody needs a library it’s our community and we were successful,” she explained. “We were involved in making sure that first regional library stayed in a Black community did not go out to Beverly.”
In the 1970s, Teresa moved with her family to Benton Harbor, Michigan and in 1978 began publishing the Michigan Citizen, a weekly community newspaper. “My husband and my two daughters started the Michigan Citizen right there on our dining room table.” The Kellys intended to start a community organization in tandem with the paper but it proved difficult in the small city. “We always viewed ourselves as a grassroots paper,” Teresa explained, “because when we started it back in Benton Harbor we had gone with the idea of starting a community organization and doing the newspaper, in Chicago we were community organizers.” The racist way in which Benton Harbor’s existing paper, the Harold Palladium reported on Black people in relation to crime and how the city government was ran made it clear that something different was needed. “I’m not raising my kids in a city where this is what they see,” said Teresa. “That nonverbal message was stark.”
Critics of the Michigan Citizen often had the audacity to accuse the paper of being biased, despite antiracism being the very root of the publication. “They’d say, aw you’re all that black stuff, you’re racist and then you’d try to explain the definition of racism, you know, well where’s the power? It was a struggle,” Teresa recalled. Almost from the first edition of the paper, the Kellys drew retaliation from a system that grew uncomfortable seeing the inequity it was perpetuating in Berrien County on full display in the pages of the Michigan Citizen. The police harassed Charles Kelly and the children of a woman he was buying a tavern from tried to run him out of the business. It caused the family a lot of grief and financial hardship but the Kellys weren’t going to back off running the paper.
“We kept putting out the paper and we were determined not to buckle, and again we attributed that to the you know the stance of the paper.”
One of the most important stories covered by the Michigan Citizen was the case of Maurice Carter, who was wrongfully convicted of shooting a police detective in 1976 by an all white jury.” We were in our first year probably of publishing at Benton Harbor and I got this letter to the editor. He was a prisoner, he said he had been falsely convicted in Berrien county. His home was Gary, Indiana and he pointed out all of the problems he had in court with his court appointed attorney, who had since been disbarred so I printed it.” The letter would lead to a decades long struggle to get the conviction overturned and set Maurice free. It was a struggle that the Michigan Citizen reported on throughout the years. Maurice sent the articles from the paper to CNN and they sent an expert to administer a lie detector test, which he passed. His case was eventually picked up by the Innocence Project, a program at the University of Wisconsin to free wrongly convicted prisoners. “It was the only non-DNA case that Innocence Project ever took up,” Teresa explained. “Keith Findley from the University of Wisconsin got a hold of me and said the case was so egregious he couldn’t not take it.” Carter’s sentence was finally commuted by then Governor Jennifer Granholm after 29 years of imprisonment. Even with failing health due to untreated kidney disease during his incarceration, Carter was determined to clear his name. Unfortunately, he would never get the chance. “He died 90 days later, to the day,” said Teresa. The Carter case was immensely personal to the Kellys because they covered it from the beginning. It left a lasting impact on Teresa and was representative of the commitment to reporting on matters of social justice by the Michigan Citizen.
In 1985 the Kellys made the decision to move east after it became too difficult to sustain the paper in Benton Harbor alone. “It was just too hard to keep the paper going in Benton Harbor. There was no market,” Teresa recalled. “We came here and stationed ourselves in Highland Park because we had been subject to so much political pressure in Benton Harbor. We became the paper of record for the city of Highland Park.” The Michigan Citizen kept an office in Benton Harbor and began expanding its circulation in Highland Park and Detroit, becoming a critical part of the political landscape in all three cities.
Of the many critical topics it covered, the paper provided the most comprehensive documentation of the devastating impact of state-imposed emergency management under Public Act (PA) 72, PA 4, and PA 436. Emergency management disenfranchised Black citizens across the state, dismantled public school districts, and exacerbated water affordability crises in Highland Park and Detroit by raising rates, shutting off water to hundreds of thousands of homes, and moving to privatize public water systems. While the Detroit Free Press was touting emergency management as a necessary, welcomed process, the Michigan Citizen was reporting on its disintegrating effect upon communities that were losing their schools and access to water. “We always took a pro-community stance.
It was always our position when we came to Detroit and especially during emergency management,” said Teresa. “Emergency management was a scam perpetrated on Black cities.”
Perhaps there is something to be said for journalists keeping their distance from the subject, but sometimes you just have to put the pen aside. Teresa didn’t just cover community resistance to the water crisis, she engaged in the struggle to prevent the shutoffs. “I was just tired of not participating,” Teresa explained. “Things had gotten so drastic and things were so critical. I just got tired of it you know? It was like the whole city should be up in arms.” In 2014, emergency manager Kevyn Orr ordered the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to begin aggressively shutting off the water of up to 3,000 homes per week for late payments–a scheme to reduce its debt to make the DWSD a more marketable asset to private investors.
To preserve access to water for the city’s most vulnerable residents, activists were forced to take drastic, yet tactically effective measures. They resolved to stop the privately contracted Homrich Wrecking Inc. in their tracks on East Grand Boulevard. “We decided that the one thing that we could do to stop those shutoffs was to stop the trucks, so we did it,” said Teresa. “We went out there and they were shocked. It was very scary because you’re like 6 inches from this truck and what if he knocks you down and keeps coming…it was frightening,” she continued. When the police showed up, Teresa and several other elder protestors were roughly arrested. The charges were later dropped, however, after videos of the arrests went viral. This act of civil disobedience sent a clear message: The people of Detroit weren’t going to give up fighting for water access as a human right. The following week, another group of protestors continued the demonstration and gained national news for their arrest and lengthy trial as the Homrich 9.
The Michigan Citizen ended print publication later that year after 36 years in circulation. Charles Kelly passed away in 2006 but Teresa and their daughters kept putting out the paper until December of 2014. Reflecting on the relevance of print media in today’s digital world Teresa believes the fundamentals of community-based journalism is what matters most. “I think it’s needed. Well at least reporters are needed and there has to be a way. If you’re struggling to get free I think information is one thing that helps.”
- Kelly, Terry. “A Free Man, Carter Vows to Clear Name.” Michigan Citizen, Aug 2004, ProQuest. Web. 14 May 2020.
- Guyette, Curt. “Justice Delayed.” Michigan Citizen, Nov 2014, p. 2. ProQuest. Web. 14 May 2020.
- Detroit Equity Action LabVoices from the Grassroots
- Howell, Shea. “Water Choices.” Michigan Citizen, Jul 2014, p. 2. ProQuest. Web. 14 May 2020.
- Perkinson, James W. “Why I Chose to Block Water Shutoff Trucks.” Michigan Citizen, Jul 2014, p. 1. ProQuest. Web. 14 May 2020.
- Philp, Drew. “No water for poor people: the nine Americans who risked jail to seek justice.” The Guardian, 20 July 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/20/detroit-water-shutoffs-marian-kramer-bill-wylie-kellermann
Teresa Kelly, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, April 5, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.