Remembering the Legacy of Henry Marsh 

Heart of Activism, Beacon of Conscience

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles, Biography,   From Issue 726   By: Mike Thompson

19th May, 2011     0

Henry Marsh's recent passing at age 89 caused recollections of my conversations through the years with the former Saginaw mayor and civil rights leader. 

It always struck me, through Mr. Marsh's later years, how historical accounts would always emphasize that he kindly worked with people of all colors. 

This was ultimately true, of course, but the exchanges regarding white racism weren't always so kind and accommodating, especially in the old days. 

I first learned this when I asked him once to forget the highly publicized 1960s for a moment and to describe what Saginaw was like for black people earlier, during the supposedly quiet 1950s. He had arrived in 1954 from Nashville's Fisk University to begin his law practice. 

The normally genteel gentleman didn't hesitate to unload. 

“At most, there was one white restaurant where blacks could eat,” Mr. Marsh declared. (I always called him Mr. Marsh because he was 34 years my elder, and because it simply seemed properly respectful.) 

“There wasn't a single bar that was integrated,” he continued. “You could not stay at The Bancroft Hotel or any other hotel that was white-owned. You could not buy a home outside of the black neighborhoods. There were stores where you could not try on clothes. No black had ever been elected to any office of any sort. To the best of my recollection, there were no white-collar or supervisory black employees at General Motors or in any of the other plants. Black teachers were strictly confined to the black neighborhoods.” 

He wryly concluded, as if issuing a challenge, “I could go on and on.” 

Whew, I responded to Mr. Marsh. I had thought this was Saginaw, not Selma. 


A Hurtful Learning Experience 

1955 marked the first time Mr. Marsh attended City Hall to watch election results arrive. His new friend and African American labor leader Harry W. Browne had a big lead for a City Council seat. It looked like Browne would become the council's first black member. Then a boatload of votes arrived from the outer West Side precincts, overwhelmingly for white candidates, and Browne was denied the seat by 79 ballots.  

There was joyful bedlam on one side of the room, and despair on the other. Needless to say, the two groups of observers were virtually segregated. 

Whites had been told by some (not all) civic leaders that Saginaw “was not ready for a Negro councilman,” and that's how they responded. 

Marsh temporarily decided at the time that grassroots action was more important than holding elective office. He laughed when he recalled in his lawyerly lingo, “I immediately commenced to begin running my mouth.” But he was laughing through the pain of hurtful past memories, as many of us do. 

His first step was to form a group that challenged the level of law enforcement in black neighborhoods by an almost all-white police force. He wasn't so soft-spoken, as per his later reputation, when he declared that some corrupt cops permitted “open prostitution and thinly-cloaked gambling.” 

Then, in 1958, Mr. Marsh became the first chairman of the city's now-defunct Human Relations Commission. Again he minced no words in declaring, “A public opinion poll of 250 people from all sections of town reveals the general public is not really willing to accept Negroes and Mexicans into their social, religious and educational groups.” 

He raised an arched eyebrow when he reached into a box and showed me a yellowed clipping of a survey that a predominantly white Northeast Saginaw church had conducted during the late 1950s. 

Whites that would have been considered liberal at the time compiled the survey. It clumsily asked whether respondents would approve of a church that became “25 percent colored, 50 percent colored or 75 percent colored.”

Mr. Marsh sarcastically wrote, “What percentage of me did Christ die for? Or  what percentage of the world? (He was a Jew, and very dark.)” He added a devastating footnote that stated, in part: “If the racial composition of a group of people who worship the same God is of such significance, I feel that not only should the church not consider any expansion plans, but that the doors of the present church should be closed, for it can serve no useful purpose where its life is premised upon the assumption that the color of a man is of any importance to God.” 

He wouldn't name the church. He also wouldn't name the banker who showed him a Saginaw map with red felt-pen lines that designated borders for refusing to sell homes to African American families.

Believe it or not, much of the East Side - not just the West Side - was redlined at the time. 


Elective Career Began in 1961 

Mr. Marsh became more diplomatic, but certainly not an appeaser, when he won the City Council seat in 1961 that Harry Browne should have received six years earlier. He probably could have become mayor sooner, achieving “first black American urban mayor” status. However, he felt it would be better that G. Stewart Francke, whom he highly respected, should serve as a then-rare two-term mayor during the difficult early '60s.

Thus Henry Marsh selflessly waited until 1967 to receive his mayor designation. 

In many historical accounts, he is known for making peace in Saginaw after the tragic 1967 race riots in Detroit threatened to spill northward up I-75. In fact, many young black activists were resentful that he ordered the raising of the Genesee Bridge (at the time a drawbridge) to block flows of potentially destructive downtown traffic from both directions. He was concerned not just about the possibility of blacks crossing the bridge to wreak havoc, but also about what whites might do. 

From then on, Mr. Marsh was known as a sort of compromising black political conservative, similar in a sense nowadays to Juan Williams on FOX News. But folks should have known better. Shortly after the racial “disturbances,” he spent considerable political capital on passage of an anti-discriminatory fair housing ordinance in a quest to thwart the mortgage red-liners.

After he quit the council in 1969 and ended his career in elective politics, he also championed various justice issues and performed voluntary legal work on behalf of many of them. 

As time wore on, Mr. Marsh was hardly a conservative. He was locally displeased starting in the mid-1980s when Saginaw's Mayoral office became a multi-term plum, demonstrating that he certainly was capable of being objectively critical among his fellow and sister African Americans, who for a time claimed the majority of council seats.

But he also was disturbed nationally by Richard Nixon's politically race-based Southern strategy, later followed to the utmost by Ronald Reagan and then somewhat by George H.W. Bush, and he was dismayed by the rhetoric of assorted local white politicians and leaders.  

When Barack Obama campaigned for president, an aging Mr. Marsh sadly took note of the campaign claims that Obama was actually a Kenyan Muslim terrorist. He virtually predicted the intense friction and hatefulness that was reaching a peak at the time of his merciful passing from congestive heart failure.

He had predicted that Obama would face ongoing bias that most national pundits failed to anticipate.

He was uncommonly wise right up until the end. 

Other historical accounts may portray Henry Marsh as a gentle diplomat in Saginaw civil rights. I see this, but more. I also see him as a lion for fairness and justice. His history of activism is underestimated. He became far more than a kind old fellow who served on various boards and committees.

A fire burned inside that in this day and age, will be sorely missed. 


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