McClinton, Claire


Date: 8/22/2019

Michigan has a tradition of activism that passes in and out of multiple generations. Those who came of age in the 1960s, though, have a unique role in the struggle. Like most industrial cities in the state, auto plants were the lifeblood of Flint and the United Auto Workers (UAW) was strong there. In addition to her roots in union organizing, Flint native Claire McClinton was deeply impacted by the Civil Rights Movement and her affiliation with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW). 

 Like most “Flinstones” growing up in the city, Claire saw the UAW advocate for better pay and conditions but something was missing. When she moved into a skilled trades job it became clear that the union was not doing its part to support Black autoworkers. “I was hired into a non-traditional job, skilled trades job. So, it was very challenging for me as a black woman to be in the non-traditional. And, I didn’t always feel that the union was doing all that it could to support me and others who were breaking through those skilled trades.” As she came into full consciousness about the depth of struggle facing her community, she realized there was much more work to be done. The Flint that Claire knew began to slip away in the economic decline of the 1980s as manufacturing, the lifeblood of the city, disappeared. Flint lost thousands in residents and the eroding tax base exacerbated the city’s financial woes. In response to the city’s financial troubles, Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager, a move that would prove disastrous for city residents. Claire’s previous decades of organizing experience prepared her for the fight against emergency management in the city of Flint and the resulting water crisis.

 In 2011 an emergency manager was appointed to the city of Flint for the second time in 10 years. The Michigan Supreme Court, however, mandated that Snyder’s recently-passed emergency management legislation–Public Act 4 (PA 4)–be put on the ballot after activists secured the necessary number of signatures for a referendum. After voters successfully repealed PA 4 following a state-wide organizing campaign, Governor Rick Snyder and a Republican state legislature pushed through a new version during a lame duck session and implemented the law against the will of the people. The emergency manager appointed to Flint had unprecedented power, effectively erasing the democratically elected municipal government and disenfranchising voters. 

Claire and other activists recognized that emergency management was not about getting the city’s finances in order as the governor had claimed, but was in reality a means to privatize its resources to the benefit of corporations. “We could look at all the experiences around the state with the schools, with the cities, and we could see that corporate interests were benefiting from the emergency manager system. The emergency manager system was a conduit and a tool to steal assets from these cities,” said Claire. Together with other Flint activists she formed the Democracy Defense League (DDL) to oppose the privatization of the city and the erasure of Flint’s democratic rights.

In April 2014 the emergency manager Darnell Earley made a decision that would have disastrous impacts on the lives of Flint families for generations. The EM decided the city could save money by switching its water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewer Department (DWSD) to the highly polluted Flint River. This single act plunged Flint into perhaps the largest humanitarian crisis the state of Michigan had ever known after the polluted water corroded pipes and deposited toxic levels of lead into the Flint water system. “The emergency manager switched our water source. I mean, it’s as simple as that, you know. We had an emergency manager and there were powers-that-be who decided that they wanted to secure access to our water rights, build a new pipeline…make money for the bond market,” Claire explained. The state refused to acknowledge that there was a problem with the water. Even after activists collected water samples and had them tested the true scope of the crisis did not receive widespread recognition until 2016, nearly two years after the switch.  

 As the repercussions became clear, Claire and the Democracy Defense League that had formed to oppose emergency management now took the state to task over the poisoning of thousands of Flint residents. Water rights became the central focus of Claire’s organizing work. Claire and DDL took their fight to the courts filing lawsuits that challenged the legality of the emergency management law. They also made it a point to raise awareness through tireless engagement with the media and organizing demonstrations in downtown Flint. Every year on April 25th, the day that the city switched the water, the DDL brings folks together to remind the world that the water crisis is ongoing. “The water crisis brought folks together who ordinarily would not cross paths” Claire reflected, “I think it has helped to promote more humanity among people.” In 2017 several officials including a former emergency manager, head of the Michigan Environmental Quality (MDEQ), director of the Flint water department, and several others were charged with manslaughter for 14 deaths connected to the water contamination. However, former governor Snyder has avoided prosecution.

The activism of Claire McClinton and others brought international attention to the water crisis in Flint, including an investigation from the United Nations. What happened in Flint was a clear example of environmental racism that demonstrated the dangers of emergency management. The fight for water rights in Flint caused a chain reaction and compromised water sources began to be identified in communities all over the country. The damage to residents of Flint cannot be undone but Claire continues her work as a water rights activist. She is quick to remind folks that the water crisis began with emergency management and the erosion of local democracy by private interests. As she looks to the future of her organizing work she is determined to advocate for water as a human right and the full restoration of community control within the city of Flint. “The things that the people in this city have built and maintained all these years that was taken from us even before the water. What it looks like, is to restore all of the things that’s been stolen from us through the emergency manager system and undo all the privatization and the outsourcing that has gone on so that we can restore ownership of what we built and maintained all these years would be a start.”



Claire McClinton, interviewed by Marcia Black and Peter Blackmer, August 22, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.

Claire McClinton Oral History (2019)

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