Date: 3/2/2019; July 13, 2019; August 27, 2019
“Marian, we have whole lists of people that we are forced to cut off.” This is what the Mayor of Highland Park told Marian Kramer in the late 1990s about looming mass water shutoffs. “No,” she replied, “no one will force you if you take a stand for the benefit of the people. Don’t cut that water off.” This was the beginning of a decades-long struggle to secure safe, affordable water for poor and working-class communities in Highland Park and Detroit. It is paramount to understand that the majority of the people in Detroit are low-income families struggling to keep up with unaffordable bills and day-to-day expenses, making the water struggle a fight for racial and economic justice.
Marian Kramer-Baker is one of many people who have spent decades working on the issue of water shutoffs and are still at it today. Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1944, she is the national president of the National Welfare Rights Union, a member of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, a member of the People’s Water Board, and veteran of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. “I was inducted into the Civil Rights Movement at a young age of five years old,” she recalls, “when my grandfather was working at a tavern across the street from my house on Atchafalaya Street in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.” Her grandfather had stabbed a white person and it was only a matter of time before the KKK would be out to get him. They moved her grandfather to Texas and Kramer-Baker and the rest of her family followed a year later.
Kramer-Baker later ended up going to Southern University, where she joined the task force workers for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). CORE was a leading organization during the Civil Rights Movement that used non-violent direct action tactics to fight for Black equality throughout the United States. Her participation in CORE actions like sit-ins, voter registration drives, and picket lines got her thrown in jail a couple times for protesting against Jim Crow. However, her family supported her involvement in the Movement and her experiences in the south, along with the church, have shaped her organizing in the decades since.
After her time down south Kramer made her way to Detroit. Her first reason for coming to Detroit was to get married to her first husband, a white man named Dave Kramer. At the time, it was illegal for them to get married in the south because of laws that outlawed interracial marriage. So after returning back to the South to retrieve her things she permanently moved to Detroit in 1965. When she arrived, she and other activists got straight to work on issues in the city through involvement with the West Central Organization (WCO). Urban renewal was a major focus of WCO’s organizing work to prevent the displacement of poor and working-class Black communities for white-led developments. An example of this was the expansion of Wayne State. People were being forced out of their homes for the school and members of WCO were arrested for trying to resist the construction and save the community.
Through her involvement with WCO, Kramer got involved in the Welfare Rights Organization which was an outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement. Kramer-Baker and her family had been on welfare when she was younger, so she became familiar with the unfair treatment Black communities were subjected to. After meeting CORE and Welfare Fights leader George Wiley during the Poor People’s Campaign, Kramer-Baker became increasingly involved with welfare rights, particularly in public housing. “I’m really grounded with the women, poor women in public housing, Jeffries Public Housing,” she recalls, “and we built welfare rights in public housing in Detroit.” Kramer-Baker counted Black women organizers like Selma Goode and Gloria Brown among her comrades and mentors during this time.
Detroit was a hotbed of activism in the late 1960s as greater numbers of militant young people got involved in the Movement. Kramer was so proud that the young people began to get involved and even create their own movements in the classrooms, factories, and streets of Detroit. Among this generation of organizers were Ken Cockrel, Mike Hamlin, Luke Tripp, John Watson, John Williams, Chuck Wooten, and General Baker, all of whom became leaders of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW). It was through LRBW that Kramer-Baker met her second husband, General Baker, and long-time organizing comrade Maureen Taylor. Through her involvement with CORE, WCO, the National Welfare Rights Organization, and LRBW, Kramer-Baker was able to learn the fundamentals of organizing, welfare policy, and how to affect change.
More recently Kramer-Baker has taken on the issue of water shutoffs in Highland Park and Detroit as an extension of her work with Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MRWO). With water necessity for human life, it’s sad how expensive and difficult cities have made it for people with low-incomes to get. According to Charity Hicks, a founder of the Detroit People’s Water Board who led opposition to the city shutting off water to low-income Detroit residents, the water crisis came about because the people in political power viewed African Americans as dispensable. “In the late 1990s, Kramer discovered that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department was shutting off running water to thousands of Detroit-area residents who had gotten behind on their bills, without giving those low-income citizens any help or even the opportunity to appeal” (CoGenerate). Right in her own neighborhood in Highland Park she found out that people were living in their houses without running water because they couldn’t afford their bills. This angered Kramer-Baker and she and other MWRO organizers confronted the officials in Highland Park and Detroit. Furthermore, she co-founded the Highland Park Human Rights Coalition (HPHRC) which took a little time to gain attraction because people were scared that the Department of Human Services would take their children for not having running water in the home. “We finally got quite a few people water back on,” she recalled, “but not like it should have been.” HPHRC has been a leading force in the struggle against privatization of water in Highland Park and for safe, affordable water held in the public trust.
To address the issue of unaffordable water bills in Detroit, MWRO worked to create the Water Affordability Plan. The Water Affordability Plan was developed by municipal utilities expert Roger Colton and introduced by Councilmember JoAnn Watson to set water rates based on a person’s income and ability to pay. “The plan would subsidize water and sewer bills for low-and fixed-income residents in Detroit using late fees and contributions from customers who opt to kick in an extra few bucks each billing period,” Kramer-Baker explained. The plan would have also banned the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department from shutting off water to customers. The Detroit City Council approved it in 2005, but has stalled on implementing the plan ever since. This success opened her eyes to different water related challenges such as pollution of Great Lakes waterways and widespread industrial dumping in the Detroit River.
Water shutoffs in a city with already high poverty levels cause immense negative impacts on communities. “When the City of Detroit shuts off water, it creates an immediate threat to the survival of individuals as well as a denial of the right to the city for low-income residents as a group” (A People’s Atlas of Detroit). We the People of Detroit created a map that shows the unequal effect of water shutoff policies on working-class African Americans, in comparison to Alex Hill’s map, which shows the white-owned businesses with the highest unpaid water bills but are not facing shutoffs. More recently, neighborhoods like Brightmoor–a majority Black community located in the northwest section of Detroit–have suffered from massive water shutoffs to a lot of its residents. “Brightmoor is one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the city’s decision to shut off water to 140,000 residents who can no longer pay their utilities,” Martina Guzman reported. When mass shutoffs began under emergency management in 2013, Kramer-Baker drew from her background in the Civil Rights Movement to fight back. With 3,000 homes being shutoff every week, Kramer-Baker joined a group of activists to blockade the entrance of Homrich Inc., a demolition company contracted to carry-out the shutoffs. Kramer-Baker was arrested with 8 others who became known as the Homrich 9 and helped force a moratorium on water shutoffs that summer.
Marian Kramer-Baker has been a powerful activist in her community. Starting from a young age she has fought for equality by joining various organizations in an effort to help struggling families. Her experiences in the South shaped her organizing work today while she continues to fight for equality in low income communities and a water affordability plan. She continues to inspire all ages to get involved and encourages older generations to spark interest in our younger generations, especially through her involvement in the General Baker Institute, named after her late husband. “The question of just having water turned on goes beyond that to the quality of water. We’re looking at environmental justice,” she explains. “Yes, we represent poor people, but this goes beyond poor people. I could be a senior – plant flowers every day – but there’s too much to be done.”
- Linda Campbell, et al, eds., A People’s Atlas of Detroit (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2020)
- Martina Guzman, “Turn On the Water,” Slate, January 13, 2021, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2021/01/water-shutoffs-detroit-south-africa.html.
- “Marian Kramer,” CoGenerate, 2007, https://cogenerate.org/purpose-prize/marian-kramer/
- Marian Kramer Interview by Loretta Ross, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, February 1, 2014.
- Drew Philp, “No water for poor people: the nine Americans who risked jail to seek justice,” The Guardian, July 20, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/20/detroit-water-shutoffs-marian-kramer-bill-wylie-kellermann
Marian Kramer, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, March 2, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.