John Colling, August 31st, 2016
WW: Hello, today is August 31st, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. I am in Detroit, Michigan, and I am sitting down with—
JC: John Colling.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today, sir. Can you please start by telling me where and when you were born?
JC: I was born in a house in Detroit on the lower west side on ___ (??) street. Born and raised there, up until the time I got married.
WW: What was your neighborhood like growing up?
JC: Our neighborhood was an interesting neighborhood because it was both racially and ethnically diverse. Just north of where I lived was a mainly black area. Just west was a mainly Polish area. Just south was a Mexican area, and to the east was a Chinese area. We had everybody from all those various things growing up in our neighborhood. Good learning experience, because you learn to accept people for who they are, not what they are.
WW: What did your parents do for a living?
JC: My dad worked for Detroit Edison Company for all his life. He started when he was 15 years old and worked until the day he died. He was a clerk in the meter department.
WW: What year were you born again?
WW: What did your mother do?
JC: My mother was a housewife. Back in those days, most women didn’t work. The Second World War was when women started working because they worked in the plants to replace the soldiers and sailors that went to war. Employers learned that women can do the job.
WW: Growing up in the city, did you stay in your own neighborhood, or did you go around the city?
JC: Well, when I was very young, all I had was a bicycle, and everybody had bicycles back then. I grew up on the lower west side, but we would often go on our bikes to Belle Isle and some other places. You know, Belle Isle had canoes you could rent and we used to like doing that, or we’d go down to the beach at Belle Isle. As for going over the entire city, a lot of northwest Detroit wasn’t built then. They were building out there when I was a kid. Might be hard to believe, but that’s true.
WW: What schools did you go to growing up?
JC: I started out at Cheney Elementary School, went to Condon Intermediate School, and Western High School.
WW: What did you do after you graduated high school?
JC: First, I went to work for Detroit Edison and I started going to Wayne State. Took me fourteen years to get through Wayne State, but I did it. And I paid for all my own tuition and books, too. I’m proud of that fact.
WW: What year did you graduate Wayne?
WW: What did you do after you graduated Wayne?
JC: Actually, well, while I was at Wayne—I got my degree in broadcast journalism, and before I graduated, I got a job with a local radio station as a news reporter. The one that’s the outside guy? For that story we take you to—that was me. I did that for four years, in the meantime going to school at night and getting married.
WW: What radio station was it?
JC: WKMH, in Dearborn, which later became WKMR, and I have no idea what it’s called today if it still exists. They change what they’re called every so often.
WW: When did you begin working for the city government?
JC: 1966. Actually, that’s kind of an interesting story, too, because I was a reporter for the local station and my beat was downtown Detroit. I covered council meetings, mayor’s press conferences, and so forth and so on. One day, I was down there, and the head of the PR department, who I knew pretty well says, “We have an opening. Why don’t you come and work for us?” And the pay was half again what I was making, so it was a no-brainer. I went to work for the city of Detroit.
WW: Did you enjoy your time working with the city?
JC: Oh, yeah. I was a Detroiter through and through. I loved the city—I still do. I loved the fact that I was able to do something positive for the city with the police and fire department. Yeah, I like it. I liked the people I worked with and the people I worked for. It was a good experience.
WW: What was some of the work you had to do for your new job at the city?
JC: Well, we were assigned to various departments, and we were responsible for doing any news releases, contact with the media, publications, like the police department needed a new recruiting brochure. I wrote some speeches for one of the commissioners. Anything in that area fell in my lap.
WW: And you continued to live in the city during this time?
JC: Oh, you had to, when I worked there. It was required. But I did live there anyway.
WW: What neighborhood did you live in then?
JC: Actually, it was out near the Warren and Southfield area. It’s the house she grew up in. Her father had passed away, and her mother remarried, and we bought the house, which it’s a nice neighborhood, we liked it there. We were there for ten years.
WW: Going into the summer of ’67, in your office or you personally, did you feel like there was any violence coming to Detroit that summer? Or did you sense any tension?
JC: To me and the people around me, the uprising or whatever, riot, protest, whatever you want to call it, wouldn’t happen in Detroit because the mayor at that time, Jerome Cavanagh, was taking steps to prevent it. And, like, at the police department, I redid all their recruiting stuff to show black faces on their recruiting brochures and posters and so forth. That was something I did willingly because I grew up—I played on an 11- and 12-year-old baseball team with six white guys and four black guys, so these were my friends and everything. I was all for that. We were doing things, and the mayor was doing things, and we were sort of surprised when it happened here. We just didn’t think it would.
WW: Would you like to talk about the work you said you were doing? You were helping the police department with increasing their recruitment of black officers or just increasing the diversity in general?
JC: Other things, too. They were setting up neighborhood programs at each precinct. They had—I don’t remember his name—they had a guy who was in charge of this whole program, and I felt very proud that he asked me to go out to a couple of police precincts and help set up those community relations programs.
WW: Was it Hubert Locke?
JC: No, no. That’s a name from the past, but it wasn’t him. But anyhow, I think that the mayor was probably the most surprised person in the world. He was a very personable person, very likeable, down-to-earth guy. I know he felt that somehow he failed, but he didn’t. He tried as hard as he could.
WW: Going into the summer of ’67, how did you first hear about what was going on that Sunday morning?
JC: Well, my father-in-law owned a restaurant, and on Sunday morning, he was putting in some new booths, so we went out to help him do that. I got home, it was 11 o’clock—no, it was the phone was ringing. It was my boss. He said, “You know what’s going on?” And I said, “No, what’s going on?” He says, “Well, the riot’s started.” He says, “Get down to police headquarters and set up a newsroom so the news people can come in.” He says, “Remember, we’re going to have national and maybe international people.” I hopped in my car, got downtown at 12 o’clock at police headquarters, and I notified the commissioner’s office that I was there to take care of it. There again, I’m proud that he had enough respect for me to say, “Okay, go ahead.” I had to set up—where was a good question. Right next to the commissioner’s office was a conference room. Obvious place, because he or the mayor could come and go there through a side door without going in the hallway, not getting waylaid by all the news media while he’s walking to and from the news conference. In those days, that was before computers and before a lot of things we take for granted today, you had to have telephones, because radio people particularly phoned in their stories, so that some of the TV people, before the film got back to the station, they could give a report orally. The police had their own communications department. They had radios and they handled all their own television at headquarters. Of course, being assigned there, I knew the guy in charge of that, and I said, “Could you give me, say, a dozen phones up in the conference room as quickly as possible?” He says, “Sure can.” He gave me fifteen, but it was around a big oval table, and then the next thing as well, typewriters. We didn’t have computers back then. So where am I going to get typewriters enough for the media? Well, I just sort of what we called midnight requisitioning. I went to the nearby offices, and I labeled everything so I could put it back where it was, but I took all the typewriters I could find and put them in there. By 3 o’clock that afternoon, we had a functioning newsroom for the news media. But, then how do we get the news out there? And again, they took my advice, and I was very pleased that they did. I said, “Let’s get two police officers of rank to be periodic, coming in with different things. We don’t want the mayor or the police chief—” that was before the governor got involved— “We don’t want the mayor or the police chief running in there every fifteen minutes to answer questions, so I named two guys, Ted [unintelligible name] who was an inspector and Bruce Kennedy, who at that time was a lieutenant, and later became police chief out in Grosse Pointe. I knew them personally, I knew that they would be good for that job, and they were. They were both excellent. Periodically, they would come in with updates on what’s going on. If we had a bigger thing going, like when the National Guard was called out—by then the governor was involved—then one of the principles, like at that point, the governor and the mayor came in. We scheduled those in advance so the news media knew they were going to be there. They could get a running account any time they came for the two spokespeople, and they could get the top information right from the horse’s mouth. That system worked out fine. Like I say, I got down there at noon. My boss told me he’d have people come to back me up as soon as he could. By 3 o’clock, nobody had showed. I was running the whole office by myself. Reporters came in to tell them what to do and help them out and so forth. Shortly after that, I had two other people coming in. our function there was to make sure—we did news releases, too, based on what the spokespeople were saying, so anybody that wasn’t there could get that. Anyhow, to make a long story short, I left Monday night at 6 o’clock. I was there from noon Sunday to 6 o’clock Monday when I was relieved. That’s interesting, too. Here’s a riot going on in Detroit, and by Monday it’s the second day, and I’m at police headquarters, and I’m relieved. “Go on home, John.” I live out on the west side of Detroit, and I had to drive through the riot area. How does one do that? Well, you know, people have been shot at on the freeways—nobody had been killed or anything, but they had been shot at—so I thought, I don’t think people are going on the freeways. So I hopped on the freeway and drove all the way home without seeing another car, and of course nobody expected anybody to be there, so if they’re going to take pot shots, that’s not where they’d go. I called her during the day and I said, “I don’t know how far this is going to go.” I never expected it to get out to where we lived, but you never know. And I said, “I’d like you to take our daughter and take our dog and take our bird and go out and visit your mother in Garden City for a while,” which she did, and that made me feel a lot better. She asked later on in the day, Monday, she says, “Are you safe down there?” And I said, “Well, the governor’s in the office to my left, and the mayor’s in the office to my right, and I’m at police headquarters; I can’t think of a safer place to be!” It was an interesting change, too, because when the military came in, they put up a barbed wire fence around police headquarters, and you had to have a special pass to get in and out. Of course, I was issued one because I was legit, but it just seemed so funny, the place you go to every day for work, to give a guy with a jeep, a machine gun on the back of it, your pass. That was a strange time, to say the least. Of course, you adjusted to it.
WW: Couple of quick questions: Did you see anything in your initial drive to police headquarters from the restaurant?
JC: No, I didn’t. Actually, Detroit has a little part that sits down and is interrupted by Dearborn. Here’s Detroit, and I lived here, so I drove through Dearborn where it picked up on I-94, and I drove downtown on I-94. At that time, there was no problems on the freeway, so I got there quite easily and quite safely, no change.
WW: And, when you arrived to police headquarters, what was the initial mood? Was it chaotic, was it calm--?
JC: Actually, at that time, they only had one commissioner and police chief. Later, they got a board of commissioners and a police chief, as they have today. But I went to the commissioner’s office and talked to his secretary, who was outside, and he had an aide who was also in his outer office there. Ray Gerardin was the name of the police commissioner. I said, “Tell Ray—” I was on a first-name basis with him—“tell Ray I’m here, I’ll handle everything with the news media, he doesn’t have to worry about it.” And she says, “Good.” And that’s the last thing I heard from them until I came back with my idea of how to set up the news, which I went back and talked to the commissioner’s aide. He got the approval. The commissioner was busy, so I didn’t bother him. He says, “Yeah, let’s do it that way,” and we did. But everything was business-like down there. The police department are used to handling certain circumstances, and they’re professionals. There was no panic, it was, this is what we have to do and this is what we’ll do. They were good people, doing a good job. I have nothing but respect for all of the police personnel that I had to run into during that time. I worked there for ten years, and I had nothing but respect for the top people there during all that time.
WW: Good. When the first reporters started coming in and coming to your make-shift conference room, what were their attitudes like? What were some of the common questions?
JC: Let me back up a little bit on this. The third floor was where the chief’s office was. There’s a long hallway down in front of the building and the news and Free Press had offices right there. Because they’re people I knew on a first-name basis too, I went down and told them I’m setting up a conference room. They came down to [unintelligible]. They’re just trying to do their job. But they were helpful. Then, as the media came in, the reception desk down in the front lobby told them where to go. “Is this the place?” is usually the first question I got asked. “Yeah, come on in,” I’d say, “We’re going to have a report in ten minutes, wait, and make yourself at home.” Had to have things like coffee and donuts, that was another thing I had to take care of. Actually, I’m quite proud that everything ran like clockwork once it got going and we had no problems from then on as far as the media could learn what the rules were. They left the local media, which if you’re going to have a news conference planned, call our offices, we’ll get us right over there, we’re probably in that area. We did that. That was, again, before cell phones, but they did have radio contact with their home offices. I knew most of the news people in town, too. That was part of my job. It wasn’t, “Hi, I’m John Colling with the police department.” It wasn’t, “Who?” It was, “Hi, John, whaddya got?” They had usually assignment people who handled assignments and I knew all those people cause we held press conferences all the time over there. Maybe a cop got killed, you know, we’d have to have a press conference. I got to know people pretty well.
WW: You mentioned earlier that your boss was thinking that there might be international press there and out-of-town press? Do you remember who some of those outlets were?
JC: We did get ABC, NBC people come in. The local ones were all there, 2, 4, and 7. 9 had someone but not coming in—that’s a Canadian station—they didn’t come in as often as the other ones, but they stopped by, too. They didn’t want the riot to go across the bridge, but the people in Windsor were interested in what was going on as well, so once again—there’s certain rules. I had been a reporter for four years, and I had been on the other end, and there were certain rules that everybody knew and stuff like that. [unintelligible] The way we were followed—what everybody was doing normally is what everybody did normally and as everybody came in there they did what they were expected do.
WW: So how long did you have your break on Monday?
JC: My break on Monday? I didn’t have a break on Monday. I worked until six o’clock that night.
WW: I thought you went home.
JC: I worked all night Sunday night until six o’clock Monday. I went home and I hit a bed. She was out at her mother’s house. I went to sleep. I was tired. It’s an interesting thing, too. During that night, with my background, I also had a Third Class Radio and Television Engineering Permit, so I knew something about tape recorders because I was a radio news reporter and I taped a lot of people. In the middle of the night, things slowed down, around four o’clock, but things kept going until like three. Four o’clock, it started slowing down. I was playing with one of the telephones and I look and just out of curiosity, I unscrew the mouthpiece, just to see what’s down there, and there were two prongs there. When you put the mouthpiece on, it connected the circuit. I looked at those two prongs and I said, I wonder. They had some of their communications working around the office, a skeleton crew, in case something came up. So I called up and said, “Can you bring me two alligator clips and connect it to a jack that can go into a tape recorder?” He says, “Yeah, sure,” so in about ten minutes they had that. We had a tape recorder there. I plugged it in, I attached it to the phone, called the other phone across the way and it works. The tape recorder, it could pick up on the other way. So all of the radio, and even some of the TV people thought it was a great idea, and all of a sudden, one of the other guys is using it and they’re…. That’s funny, because years afterwards I was working as a public relations person for a college up in Flint and I went with one of my cohorts, we went to a seminar in St. Paul, Minnesota. As part of the seminar, the guy says, “You can unscrew the bottom of the phone and if you’ve got the right clips, you can send stuff to the tape recorder.” Boy, I should’ve patented that. I never thought about that at the time, but that came out of a little bit of down time.
WW: When did you go back to the office?
JC: To my office?
WW: Back to work.
JC: Back to work, well, actually, it was a horrible thing because they weren’t thinking. After we got off, we worked 24 on, 24 off, so I went home at six o’clock Monday and came back six o’clock Tuesday, and worked until six o’clock Wednesday and then came back—does that screw up your body cycles and everything because one day you’re working all night and the next day you’re working all day, but that was it. Things slowed down, but we still staffed it for a while. You never know. Incidentally, I wasn’t the only one there all that whole time. Two of my fellow publicists showed up around 3:30, 4 o’clock Sunday, and they stayed there all night with me. Three people there doing the job, which worked out pretty good. I’m trying to remember which two came, and I think I do, but I would rather not mention it here because if somebody else listens to this and says, “Wait a minute, I’m the guy that showed up!” Anyhow, two of my fellow publicists showed up. They did the same thing, news releases and answered media questions. At times, the room was just packed with people, especially if we’re just saying, “The mayor’s going to be speaking at two o’clock.” At two o’clock, we’d have a packed room. The two regular spokespersons weren’t that important. They were important, asking questions, they got answers and so forth. Later on, we got the governor there, that was also a big deal. I couldn’t tell you which day it happened, because I just don’t remember, but after a while, it became pretty clear that the police department was getting overwhelmed. So Mayor Cavanagh asked Governor Romney, George Romney, if he could send some National Guards in, which Romney regrettably did, so the National Guard showed up. That announcement was made by the governor and the mayor, the two of them. That was packed. That was a big thing. Later on, the governor thought, well, we still need some help and asked the president, Lyndon Johnson at the time, if he could activate some military people to come in and help out, which he did. He sent an airborne unit in, and that, again, of course was with the mayor and the governor during that news. All the big news was done that way, and we were always packed, because we gave an advance [unintelligible]. This is two o’clock, this is five o’clock, we’re having meetings, it’s two o’clock, or three o’clock, three-thirty, we got a news conference. It worked out fine. The National Guard was assigned to the west side of Detroit and the paratroopers were assigned to the east side, and the east side calmed down quite a bit with the army. People are saying, “Well, wonder why?” This is strictly my opinion. Nobody else’s opinion, strictly my opinion. When the National Guard was activated, where did those National Guardsmen come from? Rural Michigan, mostly. When the airborne came on, where did most of those guys come from? Inner-cities, African Americans, and so forth and so on. I think maybe because of their feelings for growing up in the city and their understanding, they had a more effective job. The National Guard did a good job too, don’t get me wrong, but the east side seemed to settle down a lot quicker once the airborne got there. I can’t remember the name of the general who came with them—
JC: Morton, yeah. He was an accessible guy. Also, I can’t remember the name of the federal guy—
WW: Cyrus Vance.
JC: Cyrus Vance, yeah, that’s a name I should have known because I knew who he was. I used to walk up and talk to him and ask questions, they were both very, very helpful. Everybody worked together on that. That’s how you get things done. Neither one of them wanted to face the news media, which was fine with everybody there. It’s better coming from the governor and the mayor, the police chief, the local people here. I agreed with that. The general was quite a guy. I was in the army, and he did the whole army guy. I liked him. [unintelligible] I liked him, but they were both very approachable and very helpful.
WW: You said the governor regrettably called up the National Guard?
JC: The governor had to activate the National Guard, that’s a state unit. The mayor couldn’t do that.
WW: Do you mean regrettably as in the situation spiraled out so the National Guard was needed?
JC: It wasn’t out of hand, but it was getting to be overwhelming. You had police officers out there, like me, that worked thirty hours in a row. They lose their effectiveness at that time. I was much brighter and sharper when I first got there than I was the next day at six o’clock. They just needed more personnel, so they asked for the activation of the National Guard, which was a good step. They did a good job. Again, because of the demands, because this is almost 24-hour action at first. Things started dying down at four o’clock, they started picking up again at six. The fire department, it was the same way. Incidentally, there’s something—I can’t remember the number, you might know—I think it was 32 suburban fire departments sent men and equipment in to help Detroit. It was an overwhelming task for departments that weren’t set up for that. You can do so much. Again, you can’t run people 24 hours a day for a week. You’ve got to have a little break for them. It all folded in. In my opinion, each level, things fit in nicely, worked nicely, and everybody cooperated well with…. There were some charges that President Johnson, who was a democrat, held up things because Romney was a republican and wanted to embarrass him. Romney had to ask him, saying, “We can’t handle it.” I don’t know if that’s true or not. I didn’t hear any communication on that, I didn’t see anything. All I know is I was told we’re going to have some military come in. At that time, we didn’t know they were going to be paratroopers. Paratroopers are tough guys. They were welcome, they did a good job, the general did a good job. There weren’t any military guys that came in with the national guard into police headquarters, so they might’ve been there out in the field, but I didn’t come into contact with them. Pretty much everything that is poignant of what happened while I was there. I do have a newspaper at home with a picture of me at the news conference standing behind the governor. I tried to find that today and I couldn’t find it. It’s somewhere. Naturally, being a native Detroiter and being very proud of my city and everything, I just found it difficult to believe that that had happened here. It happened in Watts, it happened I think in Baltimore; it shouldn’t have happened in Detroit, but it did. I can tell you this, too, from personal experience: The African American population of Detroit was not all involved. There were parts of the city which were largely black, largely African American, who they pulled the police out of and nothing happened. It was good, peaceful people. Down in southwest Detroit, particularly the part that goes down by River Rouge and the Dearborn plant, that was one. They had no police protection down there, or they were just cursory, respond to calls, but you could’ve spit on one of those streets and no cop would’ve pulled you over because there weren’t any. In other parts of the city, too. It was concentrated pretty much in the businesses of downtown. My wife’s uncle had a business at Warren and Grand River, and there was a lot of destruction, burning, looting down there, and they never touched his business. It’s my belief, and I think his belief, it’s because he hired black employees. He had a staff that was very well diverse and integrated. I tend to think that the people who were doing this were, in same cases, targeting. “You cheated me, so I’m going to come and burn you down.” I have no way of knowing, I didn’t know any of the people that did that. It all started, as you’re well aware, a raid of a blind pig Sunday night. But boy, it sure popped in Sunday morning. A whole lot of people were waiting for the chance. It had happened in other cities. Why? Don’t ask me. I have no idea of knowing. Where I come from, my neighbor across the street, he was African American, he was as puzzled as I was. He and I would go—we parked our cars in the street back then—we’d go out at the same time. He’d say, “What’s going on, John?” I’d say, “I’m heading back down to the police department.” He’d say, “I wish this stuff would stop.” From my experience, my opinion, you can’t condemn the entire group of people because it wasn’t the entire group that was doing it. In fact, in some instances, they found Caucasian people out looting along with everybody else. It definitely wasn’t what you’d call a race riot, which we had in Detroit in ’43. People were out maiming and killing other people just because of their race. That wasn’t what this was. Anything else you may—
WW: Who was your boss?
JC: Oh, yeah, his name is John Joy. I knew him when I was a reporter, but I also knew him because we went to school together in high school. He wasn’t the one that hired me; the head of the department hired me, and John was assigned to the police and fire department. He was getting a promotion, and that’s why they had the opening. He says, “I can’t think of anybody I’d rather have over there following me than you.” That was the number one assignment. We had three big rates of publicists. We had junior publicists, intermediate publicists, and senior publicists, and I was hired as a senior publicist. Cause again, they knew me from…. I got some other stories I want to tell you, too.
WW: Did you see the city any differently after the unrest calmed down?
JC: I didn’t see the city any differently. In fact, again, I was sort of chauvinistic about Detroit. I liked working downtown. I liked working with the police and fire department. When you walk around the building downtown in Detroit, you say to yourself, “This is where America’s functioning, in these buildings down here.” I’m a part of it. That didn’t change. Again, I started in ’66 with the police department. I worked there until ’76, for ten years. I’d be working there until I retired if I could have, but the city had other ideas. They eliminated my job, and eliminated me with it.
WW: When were you let go?
JC: ’76. Everybody that had my job was let go, with a couple exceptions, but I won’t go into that.
WW: What was the reaction in the police department and the fire department when everything calmed down? Was it just plain relief?
JC: Back to normal. These people were professionals. In both cases, police and fire, they were well-trained. When you have a job, let me tell you what your job is: your job is a guy with a gun just shot somebody down that alley, your job is to go down that alley and get them. You’re going to have pretty good people, in my opinion. And of course, there are bad people in any group. There’s bad priests, but that was not—99% of them were people that risked their lives for us, and I had nothing but the greatest respect for all of them, police and fire.
WW: How do you refer to what happened in ’67? Do you see it as just unrest?
JC: I call it a riot. A lot of people take question with that. They have other questions, but it’s a free country, you can call it whatever you want. People were breaking into stores, stealing, burning places down, and again, the number escaped me, the number that were shot and killed was what, 32?
JC: 43. That’s not good stuff. That, to me, comes from more than just a civil disturbance. That was a riot, they were shooting people. In some cases, it might’ve been by accident, like the one woman that was in the hotel that got shot through the window? They probably weren’t shooting at her. Someone’s just shooting in the air and the bullet got her. But others seemed to be very definite that they were being shot at and were being killed. They were shooting at firefighters. Firefighters are on ladders, trying to put out a blaze, and people were shooting at them. Don’t understand that at all. The only thing with that is that they wanted that building burnt to the ground and they didn’t want anybody to stop it. Afterwards, everybody went about the normal business of protecting the city and protecting these people. I kept enjoying working there.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to add today?
JC: Anything I’d like to add? I think I pretty much covered everything I’ve got in my notes here. If you have any questions, I’d be glad to answer them for you.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today, I greatly appreciate it.
JC: Well, I hope this serves some value. As I told you before, I’ve been doing oral histories for about [unintelligible] years, and I’ve always been on your side of it, not this side of it, so it’s a new experience for me.
WW: I’m glad you were able to come in.
JC: I’m glad to come in, I’m glad to have meet you.