Remembering One of Detroit's She-roes
Even before Coleman Young's first mayoral election made him the father of a new kind of politics in Detroit, Erma Henderson had already begun giving birth.
In 1972, two years before Young was elected mayor, Henderson began reshaping the face of local politics by becoming the first black woman to be voted to the Detroit City Council. She went on to the council presidency in 1977, eventually becoming one of the most powerful women in city and state politics until she surrendered her seat on the council in 1989 to run against Young for mayor. (She lost, and there are plenty around Detroit who still wonder whether the city did, too.)
Sure, Young blazed trails, but Henderson, as the saying goes, did it in heels. Her accomplishments, historic impact and unyielding love for this city were so great that she continued to hold the title of council president emeritus long after she'd left the political stage.
In her wake, she also left a new generation of political figures, many of them black, many of them women.
"She showed women around the world we could fly as high as we dared to dream," said U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a Detroit Democrat.
A staunch human-rights activist, Henderson was a mover-and-shaker who never rose above the people she served. You could often find her at one community meeting or another, huddling with seniors or talking to young people about public service. (I remember her showing up on my college campus 20 years ago to talk with a bunch of us students who'd taken over an administration building in a protest. We were scared she'd chide us. Instead, smiling and sweet, she encouraged us to keep up the struggle.) And though she didn't wield the sort of fiery temperment that made Young famous, she was as tough and relentless a political fighter as Detroit could want.
Henderson's career on the Detroit City Council ended 20 years ago, she made one pledge to her constituents: "I will never be quiet."
And she still isn't. Even now, with her voice gone silent, Erma Henderson's legacy continues to resonate for all to hear.
Rest In Peace, Mother...You've earned it.