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Ben Carson, A Man Made In Detroit


The city of Detroit is the birthplace of Ben Carson. He's running for the Republican presidential nomination, the lone African-American candidate in that crowded field. As part of our series Journey Home, NPR's Brakkton Booker explores how life in the Motor City shaped Carson's conservative views.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: A room full of mostly African-American high school students in Midtown Detroit break into their school chant.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Ben Carson, we've got the power. The world is ours.

BOOKER: They're celebrating retired neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson, the man their school is named after.


BEN CARSON: Well, first of all, it's always a pleasure to be back in Detroit and particularly to be at this high school.

BOOKER: For a generation of black parents, Carson's life story was used to inspire their children. He was raised by a single mother who could not read. Due to his poor grades, his classmates called him dummy. All that would change. Carson became a top student. He went on to medical school and eventually became a surgeon at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Carson made history by becoming the first doctor to separate twins conjoined at the head. He stopped by this high school ahead of his presidential announcement.


CARSON: One of the things that really bothered me when I was a kid was poverty. I didn't like being poor. I remember we used to have popcorn balls at school, and they looked so good. But they cost a nickel. And I never had a popcorn ball the whole time.

BOOKER: To get a sense of Carson's childhood, an old friend of his, Brad Wilson, took me to Southwest Detroit on a rainy spring afternoon. As we drive down I-75, the downtown skyline gets smaller in the distance.

BRAD WILSON: There you can see the salt mine, the salt stacked up.

BOOKER: Is that what I'm smelling too?

WILSON: No, that's the refinery.

BOOKER: That rotten egg smell permeates the neighborhood.

WILSON: Now this is the street that Ben grew up on.

BOOKER: The neighborhood is full of small, postwar, ranch-style houses, all sitting in the shadow of those refinery stacks. When Ben Carson lived here in the 1960s, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum.


MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) Calling out around the world, are you ready for...

BOOKER: The Motown sound became synonymous with the Motor City, and the Vietnam War dragged on.


EDWIN STARR: (Singing) War - huh - look out. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Listen to me.

BOOKER: In the summer of 1967, 43 people died in riots in Detroit. And amidst the unrest on the streets and the rise of the Black Panthers, Ben Carson chose an unconventional path. He joined ROTC. Kevin Fobbs met Carson in ROTC in 1969. He says classmates had plenty of insults for them.

KEVIN FOBBS: Sellouts and Uncle Toms and so on because of the fact that we were even putting the uniform for - of the man - on.

BOOKER: Fobbs is the former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Michigan. Says the discipline of ROTC coupled with Carson's faith helped solidify Carson's conservative views.

FOBBS: So you have all those things working at the same time. And then you have those few of us who decided that there had to be another way. And that other way actually was ROTC.

BOOKER: Timothy McDaniel met Carson in junior high. The two remain close to this day.

TIMOTHY MCDANIEL: Before he announced his run for politics, he was considered one of America's heroes and darlings by all the people.

BOOKER: Since then, Carson has become much more divisive. McDaniel noticed this last year, while organizing the 45th anniversary reunion of their high school class. In 2013, Carson compared Obamacare to slavery. And that didn't sit well with their former classmates.

MCDANIEL: Some wanted to tell him about the fact that we all grew up together poor. And now that he's no longer poor, they want to remind him that we all came from the same place.

BOOKER: Carson ended up not going to the reunion. And even though McDaniel says 99 percent of the class are Obama supporters, they're still happy about Carson's success in life.

MCDANIEL: We're very proud that, you know, he's running for president. He's from Southwest Detroit.

BOOKER: But, he says, they just don't agree with Carson's politics. Brakkton Booker, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.