Episcopal Bishop Coleman McGehee, Rabbi Richard Hertz, and Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton launched MCHR in December 1980 amid a growing conservative climate in religion and politics. While the religious “vox populi” had been captured by the Moral Majority, and the voices of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson advanced a narrow interpretation of the Bible, the election of President Ronald Reagan caused a more specific alarm over respect for human rights. “Those of us who were concerned about what we heard felt that we could speak with a more balanced perspective about the things the Moral Majority was saying,” recalled McGehee. “We wanted a forum to discuss and act on racism, unemployment, sexism, militarism, and economic justice. Our core group of religious leaders contacted other religious, labor, community and business leaders from Detroit and the suburbs and decided to organize themselves.”
“At that time, MCHR was a unique coalition — from the outset the focus was on the religious community,” recalled Tom Fenton, who served as MCHR’s first full-time executive director from 1984 to 1990. “The timing was just right for the organization to take off.” In the 1980s, many justice issues were in the forefront, and MCHR quickly made name for itself in the anti-apartheid movement. “We quickly took the leadership in Michigan and later we were recognized nationally as one of the leading grassroots anti-apartheid groups,” Fenton said.
By 1984, the organization was providing information intended to discourage investment in South Africa, and encouraging guidelines protesting the sale of South Africa’s Kruggerand gold coins. And MCHR emerged as a movement of people who found there were practical things we could do to fight apartheid,” he said. Sister Joanette Nitz, of the Dominican order, joined the South Africa committee in 1985 and worked to further MCHR’s opposition to apartheid in South Africa, and racism in the U.S. The committee grew dramatically, with several hundred attending events organized with other groups to sponsor speakers who had suffered torture and imprisonment because of their opposition to the apartheid government. As South Africa moved toward democracy, MCHR participated in the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s visit to Detroit in July1993.
MCHR began to work on race relations in Detroit. The MCHR Freedom Tours took busloads of Detroit area students to civil rights sites in the South beginning in the summer of 1989 to teach young people about the history of racism and help them understand the civil rights movement through visiting historic landmarks. Organizers hoped the program would develop a generation of young leaders committed to working for racial justice in their communities and in the world. In the Tour’s second year, the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News sent reporters and photographers on the bus with the students. “The organization was most visible during the time when the freedom tours were in full swing,” said Charles Rooney, a member of the MCHR Board. “It was annual, involved children, and was a highly creative idea.”
During the ’90s, human rights looked more promising and there was less intensity. Still, MCHR continued to work and its sponsorship of Detroit’s first environmental justice gathering in 1994 developed into the Coalition for Environmental Justice. A conference on sanctions against Iraq led to the creation of Metro Detroit Against Sanctions (MDAS), one of the leading national groups challenging U.S. policy against Iraq.
Today MCHR is still strong and its membership continues to focus on MCHR’s mission to educate, organize and advocate on behalf of human rights. We oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and have re-committed ourselves to working for enduring peace in the world. Abayomi Azikiwe, MCHR Chair, sees a “renewed need for MCHR to focus on a recommitment to the democratic process.” This year’s national elections are “an invitation to begin the slow and arduous process of correcting the domestic social ills and foreign policy quagmires.”
MCHR will continue to collaborate with other organizations working on behalf of human rights. After 27 years, MCHR is still on the Detroit scene, educating and mobilizing with others to build a freer and more peaceful world for our children and the world’s children.