Kwame Kilpatrick's Broken Promise
Detroit's youngest mayor had every opportunity to succeed. Instead he acted like a gangster, pimping Detroit out of millions of dollars.
While I was an undergraduate student at The Ohio State University in the early 1980s, I attended a lecture by the famed Harlem author Claude Brown, who read from his 1965 semi-autobiographical novel, "Manchild in the Promised Land."
His story about a hardened, streetwise thug coming of age on Harlem's mean streets with pimps, drug dealers and gangsters felt familiar to me. Yet he had loving, determined parents who ensured he survived his childhood.
Growing up, it seemed like nearly every Black man I knew was struggling like him; I was impressed that he rose above his circumstances to become an attorney and successful author. His presentation left me wondering if a Black man had no obstacles and a strong support system how high could he rise.
Nearly 20 years later, Kwame Kilpatrick, who would soon be the youngest mayor of Detroit—America's Blackest city—embodied the answer to that question.
I came of age about 100 miles north of Harlem, in a community figuratively closer to Claude Brown's Harlem than Kilpatrick's upper-middle class existence on Detroit's west side.
Kilpatrick seemed to have it all: intelligence, good looks and charisma. Besides that, he came from an educated, progressive, socially-conscious and politically connected family. Although his parents, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick and Bernard Kilpatrick, were divorced, they were very involved in his life, and groomed him for success.
He attended Cass Tech—the right high school—a highly respected historically Black college and obtained a law degree. He moved into his mother's statehouse seat in Lansing. He was 31 when he was elected Detroit's mayor.
He was a "man-child in the promised land."
For even as battered as Detroit was by forces of de-industrialization, economic dislocation, rampant crime and depopulation, it still maintained a fierce pride about itself. Detroiters liked living in an African American-run city and were still easily seduced by charismatic leaders and the appeals to Black nationalism redolent in the Kilpatrick campaign.
Because he came from good stock—a strong, healthy and devoted family—he avoided the pitfalls that claimed many other Black men of his generation. In fact, he used his ability to successfully navigate traps and dangers of being a young Black man in Detroit as a selling point in his campaign. It not only made him a role model, but those survival skills were an indicator of the tenacity he would use to restore Detroit's glory, his youth notwithstanding.
His election as Detroit's mayor over the older establishment candidates—Gil Hill in his first race and Freman Hendrix in the second—was almost an act of defiance. It was a statement in Detroiters' faith and ability to produce a homegrown answer to their future and a decision about who was best suited to lead them on their terms, not those of so-called "outsiders" or the media.
Kilpatrick knew that and took advantage of the faith placed in him. It was a misplaced faith. In the end, while he didn't succumb to drug dealing, drug abuse, violent crime and misanthropic behavior that plagues Detroit like biblical locusts, he engaged in behavior just as nihilistic and arguably more damaging to its immediate future.
In fact, after his conviction and incarceration last month on 24 federal felony counts of mail fraud, wire fraud and racketeering, it's clear Kilpatrick acted like a gangster, pimping Detroit out of millions of dollars.
Instead of using his power and influence to invest in and build up a badly broken Detroit, he selfishly used it to enrich himself, his family and cronies at the expense of people who deeply believed in his possibilities—and tied them to their own.
Unlike nearly every male character in Brown's "Manchild in the Promised Land," Kilpatrick had every reason and chance to succeed. He had opportunities most Black men—especially in Harlem and Detroit—could never even dream of, even now.
There was no reason for him to fail.
But he did, and now a life so promising has been reduced to a cliché: The tragic tale of a man who rose too fast only to come crashing down to earth, under the weight of his own hubris.
To call this a Greek tragedy is too easy. It does not capture the full magnitude of demoralization and devastation his actions have wrought. It is more reminiscent of the rise of a leader from a lost and battered people who expect him to lead them to the Promised Land. Only somewhere along the way, he loses his vision, mission and bearings and doesn't take them to the land of milk and honey, but over a cliff.