Benny Napoleon has been in the news a lot lately. In a few weeks, he’ll go before the voters in Detroit, hoping to become the city’s next mayor.
For some reason, seeing Napoleon in the spotlight got me to thinking about a little-known incident that took place in Michigan 24 years ago. It’s a fascinating story you’ve probably never heard – one that involves a community with a troubling reputation, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, and the man who wants to be the next mayor of Detroit.
The date was Feb. 21, 1989. That’s when a young attorney from Detroit named Benny Napoleon stared down a racist icon by the name of Robert Miles at a meeting of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in Howell. There were only a few people in attendance that day – I was one of them – and those of us who were there will never forget the scene.
It’s no secret, of course, that Howell has spent decades battling an unfair reputation of being a haven for racists. For the most part, this can be traced back to Miles, a Klan leader who hosted huge racist rallies at his farm northwest of town.
For many years, Howell’s collective reaction seemed to be that if we all just ignored this reputation, it would go away. That strategy never worked, and things really came to a head in the fall of 1988, when a cross was burned on the lawn of a black family just east of town.
Robert Miles actually had nothing to do with the cross-burning; two other men carried out the crime. Still, when the headlines on the cross-burning came out, the reaction across the state was predictable: “See! We told you!”
That disgusting incident shook Howell to its core, and it brought about a seismic shift in the community. A pro-diversity group called “Livingston 2001” was formed, and Howell decided for the first time to aggressively battle its bad reputation.
Howell’s proactive approach brought praise across the state, including from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. To show their support, commission members decided that they would hold their February 1989 meeting in Howell.
What they didn’t expect was that the Grand Dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan – the man who was almost singularly responsible for Howell’s racist reputation – would be there to welcome them.
Robert Miles wasn’t just a racist leader in Michigan; he was one of the leading white supremacists in the country. He spent six years in prison for the infamous Pontiac bus-bombing case in 1971, and was also convicted of helping to tar-and-feather a Willow Run High School principal that same year. The man did some evil things.
Miles lived on a farm in Cohoctah Township, northwest of Howell, and frequently held huge cross-burnings and racist rallies at his place, attracting hundreds of Klansmen, Nazis and skinheads from all over the country. (Check out the 1991 documentary “Blood in the Face” on YouTube to see one of these rallies for yourself.)
I was one of the editors of the Livingston County Press and Brighton Argus back in those days, and I had gotten to know Miles a bit. Every time we wrote about him, he’d stop in to buy a few copies of the paper, or he’d call to sarcastically thank me for keeping his name in the news.
For the most part, though, Miles kept a low profile in Howell. He never came to public meetings, never spoke out, never brought attention to himself.
All of that changed on Feb. 21, 1989, though. And this is the part of the story where Benny Napoleon comes in.
At the time, Napoleon was a 32-year-old attorney who was working his way up through the ranks of the Detroit Police Department. He was also the chairman of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, so when the commission came to Howell that day, Napoleon was the one wielding the gavel.
It was a Tuesday morning, and the crowd was sparse. I had no idea that Miles would be there, but I decided to stop by and check it out, figuring I might be able to get a column out of it. Napoleon opened the meeting by asking for public comment, and a couple Livingston 2001 supporters stepped forward to thank the commission for coming to Howell.
“Thank you,” Napoleon said. “Is there anyone else who wishes to address the commission?”
That’s when Miles stepped forward, and jaws began to drop. None of us had ever seen the local Klansman speak out at a public meeting before, so this was something historic. For the next five minutes, Miles delivered an angry tirade, basically saying that everyone in Howell should send him a thank-you note for its reputation.
“As far as this committee of 2001 is concerned, they are free to preach,” Miles said. “I don’t believe you’re anything but hypocrites. I didn’t create the county’s image. Your local newspapers did this. We really wish you well with some of your friends. You really don’t need us as any of your enemies.”
He then went on to say that if the leaders of Howell wanted him out of town so bad, he was willing to sell them his farm for $250,000 so that he could move to Coos Bay, Ore. “Our people are through in this county,” Miles said.
Through it all, Benny Napoleon calmly stared him down. He’d been face-to-face with plenty of bad guys in his day, so the sight of a KKK Grand Dragon wasn’t going to fluster him. I recall very well being impressed with Napoleon’s calm, cool, smooth demeanor.
“He does have a right to express his views, although I’m sure no one on the commission shares his views,” Napoleon said after the meeting. “I think it’s important that people know there still are people like Robert Miles in this world.”
That was one of the last times I ever saw Miles. He never made it to Oregon, and he died in 1992. Howell didn’t mourn the loss. And even though the local Klansman has been dead for 21 years, Howell continues to aggressively battle its reputation. Livingston 2001 is now the Livingston Diversity Council, and it remains an active voice in the community.
Napoleon, meanwhile, went on to become the chief of police in Detroit, and then Wayne County sheriff. Now he’s hoping to be elected mayor.
If that happens, he’s obviously going to have no shortage of fish to fry. Somewhere on the agenda for Detroit’s next mayor, though, has to be a plan for improving race relations in the region.
For whatever it’s worth, Benny Napoleon took a step in that direction 24 years ago.