The Other America

Project for The Past is Present
Curated by Jens Hoffmann
Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit
Collaboration with Katherine Ball


Katherine Ball and I collaborated on a project in Detroit, this is what she wrote about it:

One of the reasons that Harrell and I chose the MLK speech as a topic for our project is because we both thought it was strange, and perhaps telling, that I went to Grosse Pointe South High School and never heard about MLK’s historic speech there. I only learned about MLK’s speech when Harrell and I met in Detroit to do research on the city for the exhibit. We learned about the speech in conversation with the librarian at the Walter Reuther Library. He told us that it was so dangerous for King to speak in Grosse Pointe, and that the sheriff, oddly enough, sat on King’s lap as they drove across the border from Detroit into Grosse Pointe. Harrell and I left both reeling from that image and headed down Woodward with the smoke billowing up around us from the streets below. Even then, I didn’t realize the full gravity of the situation—I sort of shrugged it off and fell back into my roots of Grosse Pointe privilege—until Harrell turned and said to me, “Martin Luther King certainly didn’t speak at my school.” Since then, I have been wondering why I didn’t grow up knowing about MLK’s speech. Was I asleep in class that day or is it because the GPS High School didn’t put much emphasis put on educating students about the speech? I contacted GPS High School to see if they had contact with anyone who saw the speech, they wrote back to say they sent out a request through the Mother’s Club and had one hit, but the person did not want to be contacted on this as she was embarrassed by the event. This left me wondering, how does the underemphasis, and perhaps intentional overlooking, of this historical event further ingrain the racism and classism that is still extremely present in Grosse Pointe? To extrapolate outwards, how does the underemphasis of African Americans in US history continue to stoke the flames of racism that our country has tended since its inception? I still had many questions about the speech: Who was the sheriff? Was he still alive? What was the Grosse Pointe Human Relations Council that brought King to speak and does such a pro-equality group still exist in Grosse Pointe? And what about Breakthrough, the ultra conservative group that picketed the event? I went to the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library to look for answers. King’s file consisted of mainly articles from the Detroit News and Free Press and none of them were on MLK’s speech at GPS. I left not with answers, but with larger questions about the way history is recorded. How much of our history is recorded through biased media reports, rather than retold through the voices of people that actually participated in the events? If we want to redirect the hegemonic trajectory of our country, do we need to be proactive on how we record and retell our history? Luckily the Grosse Pointe Historical Society does have an archive on King’s speech, including an audio recording of the speech, the transcript and the FBI letter that has become the mural.
— Katherine Ball