Robert Martin, August 8th, 2016
Spiritual Name - Fisherman Robert Uncle Bob Martin
WW: Today is August 4th, 2016. My name is William Winkel, and I am in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project and I am sitting down with—
RM: Robert Martin.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
RM: You’re welcome.
WW: Can you tell me where and when you were born?
RM: I was born April the 7th, 1953 in Detroit, Michigan.
WW: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
RM: Grew up on the east side, on Townsend and Mack. Geographically, that would be about three blocks little north of Mack and Grand Boulevard, but the biggest landmark by us was Belle Isle. I was six blocks from Belle Isle.
WW: Was that neighborhood integrated when you were growing up?
RM: Yes, it was.
WW: What was the makeup of the neighborhood?
RM: We had, for the most part in our neighborhood, there were factory workers, for the most part. Most of the adults that I knew at that time, they either worked at Ford, Chrysler, GM, or Uniroyal, which was on, at that time, Jefferson and the Boulevard.
WW: Was the neighborhood cohesive?
RM: The neighborhood was cohesive to me because in 1953 and moving up to the riot as a young person, my folks came from Alabama; my grandmother and my parents came from Alabama. So the kind of experiences that they had growing up, by us moving in that particular neighborhood, we didn’t experience at the level that they did.
WW: What schools did you go to?
RM: I went to Jones Elementary. I went to Butzel Middle School, and then I went to Martin Luther King High School.
WW: Are there any stories you’d like to share from growing up in that neighborhood?
RM: Yeah. To me, that neighborhood was the best neighborhood of any neighborhood anywhere. I say that as a child, there were so many children in that geographical area. We had enough kids in the neighborhood to play—one block could play baseball against the other block. We had all kinds of things that we could do on Mack Avenue. It was a self-contained neighborhood in the sense that you could do all of your business on Mack between East Grand Boulevard and Van Dyke, and they had everything that you needed. We had an A&P, we had all kinds of shops, hardware, everywhere. Doctor’s offices, dentist’s offices, pharmacy, they had everything in that particular neighborhood. Basically, our neighborhood was self-contained, even though we traveled outside of it.
WW: Growing up in the city, did you face any racism as you traveled outside your neighborhood?
RM: I didn’t face the kind of racism, again, that my parents and grandparents did, because my grandmother was a real strong believer in God, and her thing is if you acted right and you talked right and you treated people right, regardless of the way that they treated you, there was a certain way that you were to treat them. And if they didn’t treat you the way you wanted, you just leave them alone. So, she would not allow us to get heavily in playing the race card because coming up from down south, they work together. For an example, my grandmother would tell me to take flour down the street to your mom’s house and bring back three apples. Your mom had flour and we had apples, but that was not the point. The point was the adults communicated with one another and worked with one another. They exchanged things, even though you didn’t necessarily need it. It kind of made it difficult for me to be upset with you knowing that your mother and my mother and my father got along. It kind of made it a little hard.
WW: Growing up in Detroit in the ‘60s, being a teenager in the ‘60s, were you caught up in any of the social movements that were going around?
RM: Yes, I was aware of the civil rights movement, followed Dr. King, followed Malcolm X, followed a lot of things that were going on. I understood what civil unrest was, I was a member of the Black Panther Party, I don’t mind saying that. I wanted to belong to something that I thought was meaningful. We had an office on Mack and Baldwin, and I wanted to be a part of something where it seemed like I was giving back to the community. I know that they were controversial, of course, at that time, but there was a certain courage and boldness that I believe that they had that allowed me to begin to express myself in a different way.
WW: Growing up were you influenced at all by Reverend Albert Cleage or other Detroit black militants?
RM: I was aware of them. When you say influenced, I was really more strongly influenced by Dr. Martin Luther King because I had an opportunity—my grandmother took me to his speech at Cobo Hall. I was 10. I heard a lot of voices in our community, some I agreed with, some I didn’t. But I was aware of issues that were going on, and I tried my level-best to navigate myself through life being aware and dealing with those issues.
WW: In what age do you feel that you got more involved in Black Nationalism, black militarism, the Black Panthers?
RM: I was 14. I was 14, and I was looking for something, like most young people do. I wanted to be involved in something. A lot of the social programs that they were involved in, to me, were intriguing. They were thinking about feeding the community. You had two sets of folks in the neighborhood: You had those that were working and taking care of their families, but then, you still had a little bit of a subset of those that were not working and you could see a little bit of a struggle there. To be involved in an organization that addressed the needs of those that were less fortunate, it had that appeal to me.
WW: Speaking about the subset of people who weren’t working, those were people who just can’t get a job in the current economy or they were disabled or—?
RM: It was a combination of could not get a job, but it was also—I mean, the jobs were scarce. If you had a job, you could do well for your family. It’s just, I think sometimes, it’s just the types of jobs that were offered at the time. Our family, the majority of my uncles and my father were factory workers. Factory work was a hard job and it paid well considering some of the other types of jobs, but I didn’t see a lot of African Americans working for the city at that time. There weren’t a lot of African American police officers, things of that nature. You could see that some of the jobs that were available to us, it really had to do with heavy or hard labor, things of that nature. Some of those jobs, I’ve seen people go to work at the beginning of the day in the factory and quit because it was so hot or so difficult to work at the end. Again, you try to make the best of the situation.
WW: In 1967, you were 14. That summer, as you were exploring the civil rights movement, exploring your own work with the Black Panthers, did you sense any violence coming that summer?
RM: No. I guess the interesting thing about Detroit for me, we had family on the east and west side of the city, so we were able to travel around the city pretty well. I didn’t notice any tension, but at 14—I’ll be honest with you—as a 14-year-old, most of the tension that I probably had as a 14-year-old was probably in me, as opposed to inside of somebody else, seeing tension in somebody else. Didn’t really notice a lot.
WW: How did you first hear what was going on?
RM: I heard it on the radio, seen it on the television. Heard that the riots started on the west side, over on 12th and by Monday, it started to spread throughout other parts of the city. In our neighborhood, it started to show up, I’m going to say like Monday afternoon, it started getting east. All of the basic neighborhood stores, like you heard from other people, you could go there and you could get credit; there’s a lot of different things that you could do. I don’t think we thought of the economic impact of what was going to happen to our own neighborhood when we had the riot in our neighborhood. I think folks believed out of frustration that this thing would happen and then after it was over with, people would come back and rebuild and open up the same store, and of course none of that happened.
WW: Were you with the Black Panthers in 1967, right?
RM: I wasn’t rioting as a Panther, rioting.
WW: No, but were you with them?
RM: I joined them the same year.
WW: Okay. How did the fellow Black Panthers react to what was going on?
RM: There was a mixed feeling. If you’re working in the neighborhood and you have your hand on the pulse of the neighborhood, you don’t necessarily want to see that neighborhood destroyed, so you always had two factions of people: people that were frustrated and could not see a way out, and then people who, over the long haul, realize if you destroy your own, it’s probably not going to come back. But that voice, at that time, wasn’t heard.
WW: It was drowned out?
WW: How did your family react to what was going on?
RM: They were upset. They were upset with the fact that we would destroy what we had. Martha June The Queen, who is my founder and spiritual leader of the Order of the Fisherman Ministry at that particular time, was a very prominent radio personality on the radio. She was very instrumental in really making the Motown sound live in the city of Detroit. When The Queen was on the radio, when she played a song or there was a commercial, she just had a certain style, God have given a certain gift to be able to talk to folks. When the riot started, I was out that Monday, and of course, I was on Mack Avenue. I maybe went four blocks over to Kercheval and different places and seeing folks loot and take stuff. My grandmother did not want me—I did not go in and take anything—my grandmother did not want me to bring nothing back to this house, and she listened to The Queen on the radio that day and the word for us could travel fast. All the kids started to hear, “You need to get home because The Queen is on the radio and she’s saying that you guys need to stop tearing up the city, and you need to get home.” So of course, my grandmother being the kind of person she was, she went out looking for me. I was heading home, and she was looking for me. She said, “Boy, you get yourself here in the house before you wind up getting yourself killed over somebody else’s mistake.” I came home and we listened to The Queen on the radio for three straight days. She talked, she talked about the city and talked about how proud she was of the city and The Queen was not born and raised in Detroit. She was born in Memphis, Tennessee. She came from the south, as well. But she’d seen the beauty, she’d seen the potential, she’d seen the opportunity folks had seen when they came from the south for jobs, the ability to own property, even start businesses in the city. She’d seen all of that as a way for us to have a connection to the city. She wanted the neighborhoods and she wanted the business community and the religious community and even the police department to work together to try to ease some of the problems that folks were facing at that time. So, her voice carried weight for us. The term that young folks use today is “street cred.” The Queen had street cred. If she told you to go home, you went home. It was just that simple because she was just that powerful in the city in the sense that her word carried weight. People trusted her. Many of the families listened to her on the radio and she inspired folks. She was able to really kind of quell the riot in a sense. It would have been worse had her voice not been on the radio.
WW: How did it feel when the National Guard came in, and later the federal troops?
RM: See, the National Guard came to the west side; they didn’t come to the east side. The east side had the federal troops. They were at Eastern High School and what they basically did, they marched a division of army officers right down Mack Avenue. Turned and faced and had weapons, and when we’d seen them put bayonets on their guns and weapons then all of a sudden everybody knew they weren’t playing. Even folks that really called themselves being upset and frustrated, they realized that they were not playing. Folks started to leave the street, by that time, I have to honestly tell you, we had—and I say “we” because I was in the riot—we had destroyed a lot of property, had harmed and hurt a lot of businesses, and we had put ourselves in a situation, from an economic standpoint and from a neighborhood standpoint, that we were not going to recover from.
WW: Did you stay with the Black Panthers after ’67?
RM: I stayed with them until ’68. Then I got out of the Black Panthers, and I just kind of—I was looking for something. It had a purpose then, I was still searching, and I think the thing that I was looking for at the time was something that my grandmother was telling that was already inside of me. I was really looking for a relationship with God. But you know how you want to belong to something? I’m not saying that belonging to anything is wrong, because there are people who belong to church, and it’s powerful. There are people who belong in gangs, that’s powerful. You need to find something as a person that you can be connected to and do something where there’s a positive result. Many of the things that they did was positive, but there was a lot of frustration because I think sometimes some of the views and some of the context and some of the discussions that they were having with the establishment, so to speak—sometimes when you’re upset and frustrated because things are not happening, you can kind of mess your own message up to a certain degree by being angry and not being positive. I’ll put it in those terms.
WW: Did you view the city differently afterwards?
RM: Yeah, because it was different. There was no question that it was different. I found out later on as an adult that we had an opportunity to have the Mexico Olympics; we were in the running to have the Mexico Olympics here, and actually, Detroit was in a better position to receive it than Mexico was. But because we had our racial differences, we missed out on that opportunity. But as a 14-year-old then? What did that mean to me? It really didn’t mean anything. It meant something to me as an adult as I continued to look at the history of how the city was growing after that. I could realize that we made a big mistake as a people because we were exercising frustration as opposed to exercising wisdom.
WW: How do you view the events of July, 1967? Do you see them as a rebellion or do you see them as a riot or an uprising?
RM: It’s a combination of all of it. You could take the rebellion part as the first part that started off on 12th because people were upset with the way that they were being treated at that time. Then it moved to, in a sense, it moved to a riot in the sense where people just, as it spread across the city, people just decided, again, to destroy their neighborhoods. Again, it’s not the 14-year-old talking now; it’s the 63-year-old man talking now. That’s unfortunate.
WW: How do you see the city today?
RM: I see the city growing in some ways and in some ways kind of the same way that it was before the riot happened. We have some of the same kinds of issues. Our neighborhoods now are worse than it was in ’67 because in ’67, it’s not that we didn’t have areas of the city that were bad, but a lot of the areas that we stayed in, the people had a sense of pride and they took care of their neighborhoods. Again, you had safety. I could go to the store. My parents could send me to the store. They wouldn’t have to worry about me coming back. I have a grandson now; I can’t send him to the store. He may not come back because things have changed to that point. I do see progress downtown, though I am concerned that if they don’t begin to do things in the neighborhoods, to bring the neighborhoods back, that all of a sudden, you could possibly have people upset about what’s going on downtown. I think the city planners really need to talk about what they’re going to do in the entire city, not just a certain section of the city. If you ask me, do I believe in progress? I certainly do. To see some progress happening somewhere as opposed to progress happening nowhere is progress. But if it’s only going to be in an isolated area, and it’s only going to benefit certain folks who maybe, economically, are able to benefit, or even if educationally they’re able to benefit, then you’re wired up with the same kind of powder-keg issue that you had. ’67 wasn’t the first riot in Detroit. As great as the city was, and when I thought about ’67, I thought about how you could have—if you went around the city, there were areas where there were streets that you went down and there were only two-family flats on it. Or streets you went down that were single homes, or streets you went down, there were apartment buildings, or streets you went down and there were four-family flats. You had the kind of ability to move in different areas of the city, even though there were some areas of the city that were restricted because there wasn’t the white flight that happened after ’67. After ’67 happened, I really wish that all folks would have stayed and fixed what really needed to be done in the city. But then you have folks that were afraid to be in the city; they decided to move to the suburbs. The suburbs, for me as a kid, was my father’s hunting ground. My father was a hunter back in the day, so when you went out to some of the areas where the suburbs are now, that’s where folks hunt. I really wish folks would have worked to kind of really address a lot of the issues, not only the job issues, but the issues with education and everything that relates to a high quality of life, and then the city would not have sunk as far down as it has sunk. It would not have to take so much to bring it back up. When you go to cities like Chicago and Toronto and places like that—Chicago had a riot in ’66, but they didn’t allow it to get to the level that it did here in ’67. Chicago had an opportunity—I was blessed to go there last year and go around, even though they have their problems, go around in some areas and see where Chicago is thriving. This city’s spirit, to me, as a born and bred and raised Detroiter, there is no spirit like the spirit of Detroit. You can keep all of the cities, New York, you can have all of them. I don’t want to sound like I don’t respect them; I do. But there’s something about Detroit, man. There’s something about the spirit of the people and there’s something about what we had before the riot that I wish that we had not lost. Again, I’m going to tie this back to The Queen. Martha Jean The Queen kept talking to us about trying to rebuild that spirit. She actually called it Lady Detroit. All her efforts—even establishing the ministry that we’re in now—was for us to be a positive part of the renaissance of the city. This building that we’re sitting in was a carpet store at the time of the riot that was burned out. She was able to come over and see this as a place where she could establish a ministry. The people that were working to help her to do it, they couldn’t see it. They didn’t have the same vision that she had. We’ve been here in this location for—I’ve been here for forty-one years—we’ve been in this location now for almost forty-four years, and we’ve tried to carry out many of the dreams and stuff that she had as far as trying to make this neighborhood viable.
WW: That’s amazing. Is there anything else you’d like to add today?
RM: My prayer is that the city of Detroit will continue to have a renaissance. My prayer is tied with a lot of the visions and dreams that The Queen had, that we would be able to have strong neighborhoods again, a strong school system. I had an opportunity to work for the Detroit Public Schools; I was blessed to work for the Detroit Public Schools in construction for thirty-three years. Retired from Detroit Public schools. For me to ride around and look at some of the schools that have been closed and have been vandalized, it’s almost in a sense that I’m looking at the riot all over again in a different way because many of the things that made the city of Detroit great was the fact that you had school and church in the same neighborhood. That was big for me as a kid. Heard the Catholic Church bells ring and just knew that church and school meant a lot. Even when you look back in the city, a lot of the property values, a lot of the property around the school was more expensive because they valued that property because they wanted to be able to send their child to a neighborhood school. Those kind of ideas, I hope and pray, can come back 9in some form. I know the city won’t be exactly the way, a carbon-copy of the way it was before because of demolition, because of the blight, and because of the changes in this city. But this city still has and still is great. I’m never embarrassed when I go someplace else in the country and somebody asks me where I’m from. I’m from the D. I don’t say that just as an African American, I say that as a native Detroit. I’m from the D! I’m from Detroit! And Detroit is great. I know some people say, “Yeah, you got this—you can’t go—” There is no city that you can go to that doesn’t have issues. I just believe in the city. I believe in the good of the city. I believe in the people. I believe in its purpose. I believe that if we continue to work together and live together and have dialogue and conversation and continue to try to find ways to invest in the city—there definitely needs to be more investment now—this city can be great again. It can actually rise up from the ashes again. I’ve lived in the city all my life. I have not thought about moving or living anyplace else. It’s my home. I love the city and I love the people in the city. I don’t have a problem with people coming in and joining in in the good of the city. That’s what I’m interested in, whatever things that we can do that can cause this city to be great again, where we can share its story and its rich history, and even share its mistakes with others to make things better is really what I’m interested in. Like I said, all of those things were imparted in me by my grandmother and imparted in me by The Queen. I’ll never forget that. I’m trying my best to be an active participant in making sure those things happen in my lifetime.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me. I greatly appreciate it.
RM: You’re welcome. God bless you.