A 12-year-old girl on an unexpected drive with her loving grandparents would have a soul-touching, heart-lifting experience once she reached her destination. The year was 1963 and her destination was Woodward Avenue, where 125,000 people gathered for the Walk to Freedom to hear Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preach the words, “I Have A Dream,” for the first time. She watched as her grandmother cried tears of joy and her grandfather’s chest swelled with pride. Their unspoken emotions would have such an impact on JoAnn Watson’s life that she would go on to give young girls like her that same soul-touching heart-lifting experience when she spoke words of inspiration and wisdom as an activist, pastor, and member of City Council.
She has been, and is now, a fighter for the people of Detroit, doing any and everything she can to help the people just because it’s the right thing to do in her eyes.
Mama Watson was born on the Eastside of Detroit into a big, loving, nurturing family. She remembers having the best Sunday dinners with her grandparents, parents, and nine younger siblings, who each received unconditional love. She also remembers filling out a Financial Aid application for the University of Michigan and finding out that she qualified for everything they offered because of her family’s income, despite spending her entire life thinking they were middle-class. “I thought we were middle class. We were not. We may have had a middle-class lifestyle, but we did not have a middle-class income.” It is a blessing to have parents, as well as a community, that makes sure that their children don’t have a need for anything no matter how much they may be struggling behind closed doors.
At 12 years old, when Mama Watson had her heart-lifting experience at the Walk to Freedom March, she would be forever connected to the movement. “And then, of course, to hear the booming, thunderous ovation of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the crescendo of ‘I Have a Dream,’ it absolutely lifted me to a point that can’t be described. It touched my soul, my heart. It connected me with the larger movement in a significant way. So, at 12 years old, I absolutely felt thrust into the movement, and I never left it.” She immersed herself in the Black Freedom Movement, learning from the Shrine of the Black Madonna, the Group on Advanced Leadership, Malcolm X, as well as follow resources in the community that were left and progressive. Growing up on the West Side of Detroit that was a hub of Black radical organizing, she was able to witness the work of many organizations. “I declare, I had, from the Black Panther Party to the Republic of New Africa to the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, I had many, many tentacles of the movement that were connected in my life.”
Mama Watson remembers organizing a conference to address hate crimes that were happening on college campuses while she was still working with the national YWCA of the USA. Before the big conference that would be held in Phoenix, Arizona, she got a call from the U.S. State Department telling her that she might want to cancel the conference because there had been threats of attacks. She felt responsible for the lives of everyone who would be making the trip to Phoenix, including her four children, so she almost canceled. One of her elders, Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian, told her that they were going forward with the conference, and if they came to attack, so be it; this is what they were going to Phoenix for. They had the conference and there were no attacks. “Every now and then, you just move forward with faith and courage and leadership. So, that lesson has helped to guide me as I continue with my work trying my best to make a difference in the lives of people, whether I’m a legislator elected, whether I’m a person working in the faith movement.” Mama Watson learned that when fighting for liberation, nothing is going to be easy; if you’re going to do something, if you want to make a change-big or small- you just have to jump right in and do it, and when you’re doing it, do it with faith, boldness, and courage.
Racism in Detroit today heavily takes the form of gentrification and unaffordable essentials, such as water and housing. Mama Watson remembers when Detroit was filled with thriving Black-owned businesses and homeowners. “So, there’s just some clear, palpable changes that occurred during my lifetime that I can point out and direct, and some of them are related to gentrification, institutional racism, systemic displacement of people who used to be the largest Black homeowner base in the country and the desecration of Black-owned businesses and neighborhoods…There were Black pharmacies and Black stores, Black cleaners. There were Black stores and businesses. These businesses no longer exist.”
“Detroit was synonymous with the American dream of homeownership,” explain the authors of A People’s Atlas of Detroit. “Despite the barriers presented by institutional racism, thousands of African Americans were able to purchase homes in the city. Detroiters’ homes became a proud symbol of Black middle-class membership.” Today, Detroit is definitely not the same. The foreclosure crisis and Great Recession of 2008-09 decimated Detroit’s Black middle-class and much of what they had built was taken from them by banks, insurance companies, and credit unions. Decades of systemic racism had contributed to the financial crisis and, eventually, emergency management.
Detroit was placed under emergency management in 2013 after decades of organized abandonment directly following the Great Recession. Emergency managers come in and take over. These are people who don’t know anything about the city or the people, but yet make all the big decisions for the people. People know who they want to represent them and so they choose to vote that person into that specific position. As the Civil Rights era slogan states, “One Person, One Vote.” When that vote is essentially contradicted by an emergency manager taking over, then rights are taken away. Because of the abandonment of automakers and middle-class workers, the emergency manager, Kevin Orr, declared bankruptcy on behalf of the city of Detroit. Many residents fought against him on this, but he had autocratic power. This meant slashing social services, pensions, schools, and public assets. Meanwhile, millions of dollars went towards attorneys, consultants, and privatizing public assets instead of basic services for the people of Detroit.
JoAnn Watson is a woman who just does what’s needed to be done. Her whole life is about action. She sees what’s going on and jumps right in. This was true during her time on City Council from 2003-2013. “As a city council member, I felt very strongly that you have to hit the ground running and not go along and get along.” She reminisced about a woman in her late seventies coming to her for help after already being turned away from the mayor’s office as well as several other council offices. The Water Department was going to put a lien on her house because they said she owed $27,000 on a water bill. When Mama Watson stepped in to help, she found out that there had been a mistake and the Water Department owed the woman $344. These are the important fights because someone has to show up for the people.
To address the fundamental issue of water insecurity, Mama Watson introduced a resolution for a Water Affordability Plan in 2005. The plan would have set water rates based on a person’s income and ability to pay and protected against shutoffs, but was never implemented by the City or DWSD. In the decade before emergency management, Mama Watson was a champion for working-class Black Detroiters. She fought against the corporate takeover of Detroit, pushed for a Marshall Plan for Detroiters, developed plans for a Black cultural district called Africatown, and served as a mentor to veteran organizers Monica Lewis-Patrick and Debra Taylor, who worked in her office. “Pound for pound, she is the greatest legislator that has ever existed in the city of Detroit,” Lewis-Patrick said. “She is the queen of Detroit to me.”
JoAnn Watson is a woman who just does what’s needed to be done. Her whole life is about action. She sees what’s going on and jumps right in. “As a city council member, I never felt as if I was going to sit back and see how things were going. I jumped in.” Right now, JoAnn Watson continues to work within organizations, such as We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective, the Black Legacy Coalition, and Coalition for Police Accountability and Transparency. She continues her work because she has a vision for the future of Detroit. “Detroit needs to be rebuilt,” she explained, urging the continued need for a Marshall Plan in the city. She wants to see Detroit be rebuilt as far as housing stock, jobs, green technology, environmental justice, and the arts. She wants this plan to be centered around young people, by young people, and for young people. “They give us an opportunity to have a strong approach to restore, renew, revitalize, and transform this beloved community which deserves it,” she explains. “I believe that Detroit’s greatness is still here, and even greater times are ahead.”
- Newman, A., Campbell, L., Safransky, S., & Stallmann, T. (Eds.). (2020). A People’s Atlas of Detroit.
- Livengood, C. (2018, April 29). In Detroit and Flint, Two Tales of Emergency Management. Crain’s Detroit Business. https://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20180429/blog026/659321/in-detroit-and-flint-two-tales-of-emergency-management.
- The Education Trust-Midwest. (2020). A Marshall Plan: Reimagining Michigan Public Education. State Of Michigan Education Report.
JoAnn Watson, interviewed by Peter Blackmer, March 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.