By Edward McClelland
In his Autobiography, Malcolm X titled the chapter on his Lansing years “Nightmare.” In 1931, when Malcolm was six, his father was fatally struck by a streetcar. The coroner ruled it an accident, but Malcolm believed his outspoken father had been lynched by the Black Legion, a Klan-type outfit that had burned down the family’s home two years earlier. (In the Spike Lee movie, the deadly streetcar has the destination “LANSING” in its marquee.)In Malcolm’s time, this was known as the corner of Logan and Main. It was the heart of a middle-class black ghetto surrounding the Oldsmobile plant, which had drawn most of the fathers up from Tennessee. Hence, it was the busiest corner in the city three times a day, for a few minutes before and after every shift change.
Main Street was Lansing’s black elementary school, the alma mater of Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Starting in third grade, the black kids from Main Street were bused over to our white school. The spring before, us white kids spent a day at Main Street, assigned a black “partner,” an exercise in ebony-and-ivory handholding intended to prevent the racial outbursts then occurring at Sexton High School, where blacks had occupied the principal’s office, and students dared not step in a bathroom claimed as the opposite color’s turf.
Unlike Boston or Detroit, Lansing integrated without riots or bus burnings. Nothing makes me prouder of my hometown. By the time I got to high school, the principal was black, and a guy could piss in any urinal without watching his back. Malcolm’s niece was a classmate. The tangible results of putting blacks and whites in the same classrooms were yet to come: in the 2010 Census, Lansing had the highest percentage of mixed-race residents with an African-American parent, leading the Grio to ask, “Is Lansing the interracial love capital of America?” Every city claims it’s not racist, but Lansing has the biracial children to prove it. As far as I know, Lansing is also one of only two cities (with Washington D.C.) where Martin Luther King and Malcolm X intersect. I hope that means it’s defeated the hate that drove Malcolm out of town.
Edward McClelland is the author of Nothin’ but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland.