The former Detroit mayor and co-author of the memoir Surrendered describes his time in solitary confinement and explains why that low point was the first time that he found true freedom.
Former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick
Tavis: Tonight, though, we begin with Kwame Kilpatrick. He was elected mayor of Detroit at the age of 31, a position that immediately put him on the national stage. But in 2008 he was forced to resign his post and eventually went to prison on an obstruction of justice charge.
Now out of prison he’s hoping to build a new life which includes his new text. It’s called “Surrendered: The Rise, Fall and Revelation of Kwame Kilpatrick,” and he joins us tonight from Dallas. Kwame Kilpatrick, nice to have you on this program, sir.
Kwame Kilpatrick: Tavis Smiley, thanks for having me. Appreciate it.
Tavis: Let me start by asking what is the obvious thing for me when I saw the book when it first came out – that title, “Surrendered.” By “surrendered,” you mean what and to whom?
Kilpatrick: Well, first to God and to his will for my life. Then secondly, letting go. Trying to make things happen myself, trying to engineer my own fate and my own future without accepting what the will of God is for my life. So that surrendered is both an inside feeling but an outside action. Allowing God to will and act in my life, but also make decisions on that basis.
Tavis: For those of us who are believers, and I count yourself and myself as part of that group, obviously, we know that we have all sinned and fall short of the grace of God, and yet some of us get so far outside of the will of God. Since you went there, how did Kwame Kilpatrick get so far outside of God’s will, by your own admission, for your life?
Kilpatrick: One of the things I explain in the book, Tavis, is that process, because there’s no one thing. It just didn’t happen when I became mayor. I even speak about it in the book.
I was teaching school, I was working a job at the court of appeals, I was coaching basketball, I had a Boy Scout troop and I was going to law school at night. That pace that I was on during that period didn’t stop until 2008, until I found myself sitting in a county jail cell.
So I was always trying to do the next thing. I had all of this ambition, all of these things that I wanted to do, and I say it all the time, that my gift, my anointing, took me to a place that my character couldn’t keep me.
At the same time when I was developing my avocation, my interests and my intellect and my specialized knowledge in politics, there was a lot of other things going on that distracted me from also developing my spirituality, maturing as a man and as a husband and doing that in a way that I can succinctly do both at the same time.
So there were a lot of different things, and I talk about one after the other in the book, and I think people will even share that testimony or understand it very vividly.
Tavis: Before I go forward, I heard myself in quoting that bible verse just a moment ago, and I caught myself. Before my mama calls me right quick to tell me that I misquoted the bible, the verse is actually that we fall short of the glory of God. We never fall short of his grace; we just fall short of his glory. So I want to get the record straight about that. I’m very clear. Mama, I caught myself, so you ain’t got to call me.
Kwame Kilpatrick, back to you. How much of this, to the point you were making a moment ago, has to do with the chase that you were on, how much of it had to do with getting too much, too soon? I’m almost scared to ask that question, because I never want to demonize young folk who happen to achieve at a young age, including you.
But does any of this have to do with having too much – too much power, too much authority – too much, too soon?
Kilpatrick: The short answer to that is no, but I think it’s on an individual basis. I don’t have this broad generalization that you’re too young to get something. There’s no age limit or age height or requirement for cheating on your spouse or betraying your family. That is not an age thing.
Lying under oath about a sexual relationship is not an age thing. So no, I don’t agree with that. I believe that maturity, though, does not have a number on it either. I think that there are some quite dynamic and mature 30-year-olds and I think there are some old fools in this world.
I think what we have to do is look at each individual situation. Mine, becoming a CEO and executive of a $3 billion public corporation at 31 years old, I think it’s the second-toughest job in America, behind president of the United States. The incredible race history, the incredible economic woes and all of the history of Detroit, a city that put the world on wheels back in the early 1900s and at the same time leads a lot of the negative statistics that we see today, including joblessness.
It was a tough role to play and manage a family and manage children, and then also manage what you thought was a vision for the future. So all of that happening at once was a little much for me. I think that the current mayor, Dave Bing, in the city of Detroit, before he got the job he thought it was a lot easier. But I think Detroiters and he would tell you that it’s much tougher than he thought it would be.
So I don’t know about the young thing only. I can say this, Tavis, that inside that cell, that prison cell, I was in solitary confinement, where I believe this book was born. I was in a cell so small that I could touch all four walls, but that was the first time I felt closed in at certain point. That was the first time that I realized true freedom in the eight years that I had prior to that in running for mayor and being mayor.
Tavis: How does one find freedom, Kwame, in those conditions, in those circumstances? How does one find freedom?
Kilpatrick: One of the things you have is a conversation with yourself, the higher self and the lower self. You have to face yourself head-on, and that’s the hardest part about being in that situation. You have to look at all your ugly parts, all your stinking stuff, and you have to determine who you are.
Are you this person that they say you are? Are you the person as a result of the things that you’ve done? In facing that person you come to a conclusion at the end, because you start to figure out who you are, really. You develop a memory on the experiences that you’ve had, on the voices that you’ve heard.
You may hear the Tavis Smileys, you may hear Mom, Dad, grandparents. You hear preachers that have spoken to your life, and you start to understand a little bit more about who you are, not the job you had or not the role that you play, and in that comes a freedom.
There’s a freedom in understanding who you are in God, and your purpose and your calling, and it develops a swagger. When you go through a horrific experience like this, the first thing you lose is your swagger. You can actually go out and play like you’re all right, you could show a good face for the camera, but you’re struck.
Your confidence is struck, you’ve guilt-ridden and you have condemnation riddled through your soul. So to find that again there is a sense of freedom in there. I understood what the writer of the text said, “Those who the king have set free are free indeed,” once I was in that situation, because I was free from people as well.
Tavis: Speaking of being free from people, I was saying to you before we came on the air here, and I’ll put this out on the air now because it’s true, I came to Detroit two or three times over the past few years while you were incarcerated and did everything I could to try to see you.
I called mutual friends of ours, and let’s just say for the record again that you and I have been friends for a long time. I noticed going through the book there’s a picture of you and me in the book together from years ago. So that when I came to Detroit I tried to see you, and I’m just going to say this – folk didn’t make it easy. The powers that be did not make it easy for me to get inside to even try to visit you while you were incarcerated.
I raise that to ask this question – as hard as I tried to get in and I couldn’t get in on the days that I was in Detroit to come visit you, I wondered when that didn’t happen whether or not Kwame Kilpatrick even wanted to see people while he was incarcerated or whether or not he was too embarrassed to face people behind those bars. What’s the answer to that question?
Kilpatrick: Well first there was a period of time, when I was first sent to state prison, that I really didn’t want to see anybody. I didn’t want to face people, not just because of embarrassment but because I felt like it was a time that I really needed to be by myself.
I’d never been by myself in my life. I’ve always been a part of teams – basketball, football, politics – and I found a sense of comfort in the fact that I was by myself and I knew that I had to make the most out of that opportunity. But that wasn’t what was going on when you were visiting.
There were a lot of people not allowed to see me. The Michigan Department of Corrections, they shut that down. They would figure out ways for people not to come. It was an interesting experience. Milan in the federal system did the same thing. They told me that I was not going to be treated special, so I was treated especially bad in a lot of areas. (Laughter)
So I didn’t get the same treatment as everybody else, so they were shunning people. I know Reverend Jackson and a lot of other people attempted to come see me and were turned away at the door and were not allowed. Even if they called first they were given the runaround.
So Tavis, no, I did hear that you tried to come see me and I wish I would have had a chance to talk to you at that point, because when you were coming was six months after I’d been there, and I’d been through the period of time where I felt like I really needed to close myself in.
I had already started working at the prison school, I was a teacher assistant, I was tutoring people, I was on the yard every day. So I was through that solitary period and more into what I believe walking into the rest of my life at that point, because I started that inside.
Tavis: I’ve got just a minute to go and I could spend hours talking to you about this, and now that you’re out we’ll get together and spend those hours together talking about the rest of what’s in this book and other questions and comments I have to share with you off-camera.
That said, the rest of your life, how do you envision now the rest of your life, starting with this other trial, the federal trial that’s about to start? How does Kwame Kilpatrick, at still such a young age, see himself navigating the rest of his life?
Kilpatrick: Well, first, I do have a big fight next year in the federal fight. I think it’ll be a lot different than the first one, one, because the first time I was guilty. I accepted responsibility for that, and a lot of people wanted to take advantage of that guilt.
On the second, I’m not guilty at all, of nothing, of anything that they said, so it’ll be different. But I think I found my calling, my purpose, inside the prison. I mentioned the fact that I was a teacher’s assistant; I tutored men on science, social studies, math, reading, writing. What I saw is that correctional education has to be a place where we work.
Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow,” it talks about the crisis of mass incarceration, I don’t think people fully understand what’s happening in communities when 2.3 million people are behind bars right now, 700,000 or so of them are getting out every single year and going back – 72 percent are going back within three years.
If we don’t have some kind of serious cognitive restructuring inside the prison system we’re going to lose any notion of having a strong and vibrant and positive African American community in particular, but communities of color across this country.
So that’s a place where I want to work, that’s a place where I want to put my effort. I’ve developed a company in that area to really make some movement, and partnering with national organizations as well as institutions of higher education in that area.
I believe I’m a servant, whether I’m in elected office, which I don’t want to be in, for the record, don’t at all, but I’m a servant, and I want to serve God’s people. I think this is the place that I have the unique experience to do it, finally. I have a policymaker, a teacher, a mayor and I’ve also been an inmate and a lawyer, so I have unique experience that could bring some positive fruit in that area.
Tavis: The former mayor of the city of Detroit is out of prison now. His new book is called “Surrendered: The Rise, Fall and Revelation of Kwame Kilpatrick.”
Kwame Kilpatrick, an honor to have you on this program. Thanks for sharing your story. I appreciate it.
Kilpatrick: Hey, thanks a lot, Tavis, for the opportunity, and people can go to KwameKilpatrickbook.com, order the book. I think you will love it.
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