It was home to the highest-paid factory workers in the entire civilized world.
Then it became a city abandoned by many and cited by all in scholarly national narratives on the pitiful plight and awesome blight of post-industrial America.
Today headlines scream that its children are poisoned, many permanently so, as tempers flair, fingers point and the future darkens even more over a town turning to dust.
In all the decades I spent in Flint, Michigan, no one drank the river water. Or swam in it. Or fished in it. You’d have to be crazy.
Fresh glacial water from Lake Huron flowed through city taps as the Great Sit-Down Strike of 1937 brought about recognition of the UAW and rising prosperity for all - workers and wealthy alike - in what is recognized by historians as the birth of the American Middle Class. I learned much from old men who had mattered.
Michael Moore’s stunningly prescient “Roger & Me” was filmed on the streets of Flint in the late 80s. Observing its 25th birthday in 2014, “Roger & Me” correctly predicted the demise of American industry, beginning with corporate abandonment of the epitomic factory town.
I had introduced Mike to an unsuspecting public over WTAC-AM and WWCK-FM in the late 70s with a program called “Radio Free Flint.” It ran Sunday mornings from 8 until 10 - a live, unrehearsed talk show with minimal censorship and an accent on challenging involvement. Our radio station switchboard would light up like a Christmas tree.
On one program Michael featured an extended segment interviewing the head of the Flint National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) appearing with the Grand Dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan. They got along fine. This was in 1982 when WWCK became the highest-rated rock station in America and won a National Billboard Magazine Award for Best Local Programming - All Markets.
Mike was back in Flint last week seeking the resignation and arrest of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder for hapless leadership, criminal negligence and grand malfeasance in office. I know that’s strong. But look what happened.
In the great Flint Diaspora following “Roger and Me” years, the city’s population was cut in half, leaving barely 100,000 suffering souls - 56% African-American. Of these, 41.5% are living well below federal poverty levels. A quarter of Flint families have an annual income of less than $15,000 a year.
Flint’s drinking water became contaminated in April of 2014 when a state-appointed emergency manager reporting directly to the Republican governor’s office was running the city. To save money, city government was ordered by the State of Michigan to abandon its use of Lake Huron sources and draw water directly from the Flint River. Along with other consequences of pollution, the river water turned out to be markedly acidic and highly corrosive, leaching lead from pipes and fixtures - many over a century old.
Originally denying any problems existed, only after a year and a half, in October, did the governor’s office allow the city to switch back to input from Lake Huron, except irreparable damage had already been done. The fresh water surged into ruined, deteriorated plumbing. Too little too late.
Estimated cost of repair? A quarter of a billion dollars. Time frame if such funds can be raised? Years. Population affected? Anyone who drank the water. Number of children already poisoned? Over 8,000.
There are no easy answers here, but perhaps a hard lesson has been learned. Expedient political decisions can bring unexpected personal consequences.
I offer a powerful reminder to Governor Snyder:
“Inasmuch as you have done unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” Matthew 25:40.