Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Detroit Riots

BOND: Now the department, the Community Relations Service becomes a part of the Department of Justice, and Ramsey Clark is the Attorney General. And then the Detroit riot breaks out. Not to say that there are no other mini riots between these two, and what's that like?

WILKINS: That was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, because Detroit was a city I had known. It's close to Ann Arbor, lots of my buddies had grown up there, and I had done some courting there. All of a sudden, there's real fire fights. You could drive around the city at night and you can hear guns. There was a complete curfew. It was eerie, it was like being in a war. And my job was, at night, to go out and see – we did not believe all the reports that were coming in. Governor Romney was really useless. And my job was to go out at night and to see how much violence there actually was, because we had the Army there. And the question was how – and we wanted to get the Army – the President wanted to get the Army out of there quickly, because he did not want his Army to kill any people. And so I would go out at night and I was in places where there were shootings, and I was in a place where there was an awful police incident. And part of the problem was that you saw the National Guard was kids. And they were kids from out of state. This was the first time they had been to Detroit. They are scared to death, but they've got loaded guns. Well, I'm telling you, that was dangerous. And one night we were – my assistant and I – and he was another black guy because the white guys just couldn't go out at night – my assistant and I were out someplace and we got to the corner of Grand River and Joy Road. I will never forget this. And all of a sudden, a convoy just surrounds us. There were state police, there were National Guardsmen, there were local police, there were sheriffs and everything. And I had fancy credentials as a federal official. And they were here, in my inside coat pocket.

"Out of the car," they screamed. "Out of the car. Out of the car." And you emerge from the car and you're two black guys and you're surrounded by like twenty or thirty white men with guns, all of them pointing them guns at you. And they're all scared, too. And so I just say, "Scream 'Justice Department' at the top of your lungs." And we screamed, "Justice Department. Justice Department. Justice Department." And they're screaming at us, you know. And I really at that point, I think I'm going to die. And I was thirty-five years old. Same age as my father when he died. My father's last words were "Thirty-five and through." And I said "Thirty-five and through at the corner of Grand River and Joy Road." I wasn't afraid. I just said, "Damn." You know? Disappointed, really. But I kept on screaming and I couldn't, you know, no way am I going to pull out my identification. Finally one guy heard. And he said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute." And he obviously was an officer and he walked over and he opened my jacket and he took it out. He said, "Okay, okay, put the guns down." But that was close.

The other thing that struck me about Detroit – well, there was black militance. I really saw for the first time the real – there was theoretical working, intellectual work on blackness, black separation, black power, black – but it was more than just a slogan. It was really serious work on the conception of blackness and a separate identity and the power and the humanity of blackness. That I saw for the first time very clearly in Detroit.

The other thing I saw was, every night we were sent out by the President we would eat together. We were all doing other stuff all over the place. And you could not get a drink in the town, the town was dry. But Mayor Jerry [Jerome] Cavanagh sent a whole bunch of booze. So we would go up to Cyrus Vance's office, have a drink – I mean, his room – and go down and have dinner. But one of the people we wanted to see was Walker Cisler. He was the mover and shaker of the city, the head of Consolidated Edison or Detroit Edison. And John Doar, the head of the Civil Rights – legendary head of the Civil Rights Division, and I had been up interviewing people who had been arrested and who are these people who had been in the prison? We came back and I was downstairs filling out some reports and John called me and he said, "Roger, we have located Walker Cisler and he has invited us to dinner at the Detroit Yacht Club. I just thought you'd want to know that." I said, "What? We are going to the Detroit Yacht Club to dinner?" I couldn't believe it. The Detroit Yacht Club was a segregated institution. Now, we were not there – we're there because black people were rioting. And the former Deputy Attorney General of the United States – I mean, the former Deputy Secretary of the Defense of the United States, a future Secretary of State, the then-Deputy Attorney General, a future Secretary of State, the legendary white civil rights hero, and a flag from the Defense Department are all going off to this segregated joint, and are going to leave me, which they did. It was quite a lesson about our country. And Cy Vance never, ever, ever explained it to me, [never] said, "I'm sorry." All the little minions came and said – tried to make me think it never happened, "Mr. Vance would never do that." You know, the guy was not man enough to come to me and say, "Roger I am really sorry that this had to happen, but it was really important for us to see this guy."

BOND: Yeah. "We had to – "

WILKINS: Nothing.