Erma Henderson

Erma Henderson (1989)

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Themes: Poverty, Progress, and the Rise of African-American Businesses and Professionals | Leadership |

Guests: Erma Henderson
Host : Trudy Gallant
Producer : Trudy Gallant


Summary: This program, originally broadcast in late 1989, consists of an interview by Trudy Gallant of Detroit City Council President Erma Henderson. At the time, Henderson was preparing to leave the council after her fourth term. Henderson, who was the first black woman elected to the council and the first black person to serve as the council's president, had passed up an opportunity to run for reelection to the council to make an unsuccessful bid to be elected mayor.

In a wide-ranging interview that includes film clips of highlights from her political career, Henderson talks about the role of women in politics, her relationship with longtime Detroit mayor Coleman Young, efforts to fight crime in the city, and the importance of citizen involvement, both in the fight against crime and in politics generally.

Henderson, who finished fourth in the mayoral primary, says she ran for mayor against Young, a powerful and popular incumbent, not because she expected to win but because she thought that important issues needed to be clarified for the voters. She wanted to speak out against complacency and voter apathy.

Apathy, Henderson argues, is not just a local issue. "We've got to realize if we don't get over our apathy . . . we will never control our own destiny."

In particular, Henderson observes, the campaign to reduce crime requires active participation by people in the community. Henderson lays out her ideas on community policing as well.

But beyond her views on specific public policies and the importance of political participation, the interview illuminates the personality of Detroit's most significant African American woman politician. It touches on her friendship with Young, whom she had known since childhood, and her friendships with other prominent figures like W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson.

The discussion also illustrates Henderson's early activism. While a student at Detroit's Eastern High School, she successfully agitated to integrate the photos of black graduates into the annual composite photo of seniors. Previously, black students' photos had been included in a separate row at the bottom of the composite, so white students could trim off the row and be left with an all-white composite.

The program offers insight into the life and mind of an important Detroit political figure, and lends valuable perspective on significant public policy issues and the political landscape of Detroit at the end of the 1980s.