Friday, September 19, 2008

A New Beginning for Detroit: Kenneth Cockrel Sr. and Jr.

Today is the first full day on the job of the new interim mayor of Detroit, Kenneth Cockrel, Jr.  For those of us who were around in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as those who were not, there is a certain "Circle of Life" feeling seeing Ken Cockrel Jr. become Mayor of Detroit: his father, Kenneth Cockrel Sr. almost certainly would have been Mayor of Detroit had he not died suddenly.

Ken Cockrel Sr. 1938 - 1989
(Courtesy: Detroit African-American History Project)

An attorney and politician, Ken Cockrel Sr. served as one of Detroit's most powerful voices for social justice in the 1960s and 1970s. A self described Marxist-Leninist, Cockrel relentlessly challenged the racial and economic status quo in Detroit through his defense of African Americans in the courtroom, as an activist against police brutality, and then during a term as a city council member. Through his efforts on behalf of the people of Detroit, Cockrel became a leader in the city and was widely touted as a future mayor at the time that he died suddenly from a heart attack.
Cockrel was born in 1938 in Royal Oak Township. His father worked at the Ford Highland Park plant and his mother was the first African-American graduate of Lincoln High School in Ferndale, Michigan. Both his parents died when Cockrel was twelve years old and he went to live with relatives in Detroit. Cockrel attended Northwestern and Central High Schools but dropped out when he was seventeen. He served in the United States Air Force as an airman second class. After his discharge in 1959, Cockrel entered Wayne State University and graduated in 1964 with a degree in political science. He immediately enrolled in Wayne State's law school and received his law degree in 1967.
After receiving his law degree, Cockrel became a partner in the law firm of Philo, Maki, Cockrel, Rubb, Spearman, and Cooper and immediately launched a legal career that would change the social and political landscape of Detroit. Through a series of highly publicized cases, Cockrel highlighted the oppressive social structure under which Detroit African Americans lived. In his first such case, Cockrel, defended Alfred Hibbitt, who was accused of shooting two police officers in a 1969 shootout at the New Bethel Baptist Church. Cockrel won an acquittal for Hibbitt by citing the racist activities of the Detroit Police Department.
Cockrel burst into the consciousness of all Detroit during the trial when he was charged with contempt for calling the presiding Recorders Court judge a 'lawless, racist, rogue bandit, thief, pirate, honky dog fool." He successfully defended himself against the contempt charge, partly by exposing that the Wayne County Jury Commission systematically insured that juries were overwhelmingly white, male, and middle class. In 1970 Cockrel successfully defended James Johnson who shot and killed a co-worker at a Chrysler auto plant. Cockrel won an acquittal by demonstrating the oppressive working conditions at the plant, which he argued pushed the defendant to a mental breakdown that resulted in the shooting.
Ken Cockrel Sr. in the 1970s (left) 
Cockrel also became the leader of the citizens group that led the protests against the Detroit Police Department's STRESS (Stop the Robberies-Enjoy Safe Streets) unit, which had a long record of police brutality in the African-American community. His successful defense of Hayward Brown, who was accused of shooting a Detroit police officer, hinged on demonstrating that Brown fired in self-defense because the actions of the STRESS unit had created a climate of fear among Detroit's African Americans. Coleman Young disbanded the STRESS unit when he became mayor in 1974.
Cockrel was elected to the Detroit City Council in 1977 where he continued his fight for social justice. He was particularly vocal in his opposition to the granting of tax abatements to businesses in an attempt to keep them in the city. Cockrel retired from the Council in 1982 and returned to private legal practice. Cockrel's dedication was recognized by a variety of organizations. In 1973 he received the Distinguished Achievement Medal from the Detroit branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Outstanding Leadership Award in Civil Affairs from the Cotillion Club. In 1976 he received the Frank D. Reeves Award from the National Conference of Black Lawyers.

Former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has left the building...
Ken Cockrel Jr.
Age: 42
(Courtesy of Detroit City Council)
Kenneth Cockrel Jr. was President of the Detroit City Council; which means he immediately transitions into the post of Interim Mayor of the City of Detroit. [Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel is Ken Cockrel Jr.'s stepmother.]
Kenneth V. Cockrel, Jr has served on the Detroit City Council since 1998. A former journalist, Wayne County Commissioner and community activist, Councilman Cockrel made history as the youngest person ever elected to this body in 1997. He was reelected in 2001 and was elevated to the position of President Pro Tem. Cockrel was elected to his third term in November 2005 and elevated to the position of President after receiving more votes than any other City Council candidate. 

In 2006, President Cockrel passed an ordinance designated the areas around public libraries, schools, parks, recreation centers, and public pools as drug free zones. The ordinance stiffens the penalties for those who are found to be trafficking illegal narcotics in these areas. President Cockrel is also currently working ordinances which target those who post illegal signs on city property and the owners of abandoned, dangerous buildings. During this year Cockrel also launched the Friendly Neighbor Program, a pilot project being done in partnership with Faith Community Homebuyers. The program seeks to place city-owned homes in need of in repair into the hands of residents who want first-time homes. In 2007, Cockrel passed an ordinance which prohibits Detroit Police officers and other city employees from racial profiling. That same year Cockrel launched the Detroit City Council Green Task Force which educates the Detroit Community on green principles and encourage the implementation of green practices in new construction, existing buildings, neighborhood communities, and government operations.

President Cockrel. is the son of the late attorney, community activist, and former Detroit City Councilman, Kenneth V. Cockrel and Carol Cockrel, a former Detroit Public Schools teacher. He is a native Detroiter with a strong commitment to the people of the City of Detroit. The President meets weekly with community groups and regularly holds town meetings on issues ranging from drug trafficking and illegal dumping to entrepreneurship and economic development. Each year, the President gives away more than 500 turkeys to senior citizens and needy families through his Annual Thanksgiving Turkey Give-Away.

A cum laude graduate of Wayne State University with a Bachelor of Arts in print journalism, President Cockrel is a former reporter for the Detroit Free Press, the Grand Rapids Press and the Cincinnati Inquirer. He is a graduate of the inaugural class of the Michigan Political Leadership Program at Michigan State University as well as the Program for State and Local Government Officials at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Shameless Plug: please read my husband's blog The "D" Spot...

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