Frank Joyce, October 17th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is October 17, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project, and I am sitting down with Mr. Frank Joyce. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
WW: Will you please start by telling me where and when were you born?
FJ: Sure. I was born in Detroit in 1941. My parents lived here until–and this is right away we’re right off into something that’s something a little fuzzy but not that much–sometime when I was quite young. They moved to Berkley, Michigan. We left Detroit. Some people who read this interview may be familiar with Marsha Music’s essay about the kidnapped children of Detroit, and I’ve said ever since I understood that really important concept that she put out there that I was kind of a pioneer kidnapped child of Detroit. My parents were white flighters sometime in the late-1940s. I started elementary school in Berkley, and then at some point we moved from–I think I was still in elementary school–and they moved to Royal Oak. I finished school in Royal Oak and graduated from Royal Oak Dondero High School.
WW: During that time, you’re growing up in the suburbs, did you come to the city or did you tend to stay in the suburbs growing up?
FJ: I’ve recently been writing something where I’ve been thinking about this. We came to Hudson’s to see Santa Claus. As so many suburbanites did. I have some memories of that. Otherwise, we came to baseball and football games. I remember that as a child. But one thing that’s relevant to this project that I just remembered is–and my grandparents lived on Ivanhoe in Detroit until some point in my childhood and so we would come to Detroit to visit them until I was, I don’t remember how many years old. They then moved to Texas.
One thing that I do remember is times that we would be in Detroit as a child and we would be in what was then known as “the ghetto,” and my father making it clear just by the condition of the housing that we saw primarily that we were both better off than those people, and in some way better. I remember that as sort of an early lesson in the culture of white supremacy. Similarly, as a child I remember being on vacations and trips in rural areas in the South where impoverished communities, rural communities, black communities were pointed out to me as some sort of evidence of white people being, again, not only better off but better. To digress on that for a minute, because I’ve written a lot about race over the years and continue to do so, and I’m working on a new book now in fact that is not exclusively about race, but that’s a big part of it. This self-fulfilling prophecy nature of white supremacy, which is that you create a structure that advantages whites. And then you use the physical evidence of that advantage of proof that you deserve it. It’s the born on third base but thought I hit a triple phenomenon that some people have used. Again I, in a way, I maybe have more awareness and more conscious of this now, in the last few years, we’re sitting here in 2016, even though I’ve paid attention to this stuff for a very long time now. I think a lot of things are becoming clearer to all of us about our collective history, but even in my case, our individual history of how things work. So sorry for the long-winded answer, but.
WW: Not to worry. So, having those little moments growing up where you–that was pointed out to you, when did that click in for you growing up? At what point did you become an active agent, say, against white supremacy?
FJ: Here’s the hopefully short version of how that evolved. I was of a generation that I and others have characterized as rebels without causes who found causes. As I mentioned, I graduated from Royal Oak Dondero High School in the class of ’59. As some people know, Tom Hayden graduated from Dondero in the class of ’57. There was clear evidence in Royal Oak at that point of this pushing against authority. Tom, for example, was involved with creating a forerunner of the underground press, a publication called The Daily Smirker, which is a satirical publication that made fun of the school authorities, and, you know, things that teenagers like to make fun of. I was involved in a May Day protest in my senior year in high school. It wasn’t that we had a lot of political consciousness about race or much of anything else, but we were pushing these boundaries of authority, we were questioning authority as became clear later.
What I trace as my first overt political act was in the summer of 1960, I was driving down the infamous Eight Mile Road, and I happened, at the intersection of Eight Mile and Greenfield, and I happened to notice a picket line, a demonstration that I couldn’t really figure out what it was. But I was intrigued by it, so I made a U-turn on Eight Mile Road, and I came back, and I saw that it was a protest at a place called The Crystal Pool, and the protest was over the fact that the pool–remember this is 1960 in the North–that Crystal Pool denied admission to African Americans: it was a white-only public swimming pool in Oak Park, Michigan in 1960. And I said, “Well that’s not right.” So I joined that picket line. Memory is fallible as we know, but I’m pretty sure that John Watson was on that picket line and others who came to be kind of prominent and early activists in Detroit. It happened that there was news coverage, television coverage, of that demonstration which my father saw on TV either that night or the next day, I don’t remember which, and shortly after that I was a homeless teenager, is how I characterize it now.
But part of my rebellion was in my own family, and part of it was in a larger context, but he just considered that like, I had crossed some line at that point and basically I got thrown out of the house. I’ve told this story in writing and a few other times. The good news is that at that point I had a factory job, and I was economically in a position to be self-supporting. I was working at a factory part-time, going to Wayne State part-time. So, I was homeless for two days until I found an apartment, stayed with a friend at first, and had been pretty economically independent for quite a while before that.
Anyway, that was a very explicit political act that somehow, this racial discrimination resonated with me and kind of set me on my life course ever since.
WW: Where did you go from there? You’re at the picket line, and you see the consequences of picketing and protesting.
WW: Does that inspire you to keep going?
FJ: It does. I was going to school, as I say, part-time at Wayne State, I was working in a factory, but I had been the president of the student government at Royal Oak Dondero, and I was active in student government at Wayne State as well. In that milieu in 1960 and beyond, there was of course a lot of social ferment and people like Kenny Cockrel and John Watson were students at Wayne State, and so I became involved.
I read an article in a magazine, The Reporter magazine I believe it was, about an organization called the Northern Student Movement. The Northern Student Movement was founded by Peter and Joan Countryman on the campus of Yale University initially as a group of college students supporting the Southern Movement and SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] in particular. We’re not here to talk about the whole history, but the short version is I wrote them a letter, we didn’t have email then, I wrote them a letter, they wrote back, we came to be in communication. I went to a conference on the campus of Yale, and I founded what became the Detroit chapter of the Northern Student Movement. I also became active in the Detroit chapter of the Friends of SNCC–we were sort of an overlapping group. NSM took on its own political evolution, but one of the projects that NSM did that I helped to start in Detroit was a tutorial program which brought college students into mostly elementary schools and other community settings in Detroit, it was a little like a Big Brother Big Sister program. We would do after school programs with young kids in schools to help with reading and so on and so forth.
That very quickly became a radicalizing process because A) I was engaged in Detroit, I was living in Detroit, I was going to school in Detroit, my job was actually in Ferndale, but I became immersed in Detroit the city, which I hadn’t known anything about as a kid growing up mostly in the suburbs, but also became radicalized by the tutorial project at understanding the segregation that existed in the Detroit Public Schools, and the disparity between predominately white schools, which there still were then, and black schools, and so on and so forth. So this all became a part of a radicalizing process that continues to this day, where were we? That set me off and I’ve been a lifelong political activist ever since. One group lead to another: I was active in the anti-war movement, I became active in labor movement, I worked on the staff of the UAW [United Auto Workers] for many years, I became involved in part of my growing up in that time and in that movement was the emergence of new media. I was very early involved in the staff of the Fifth Estate newspaper, I was the news director at WABX, the sort of legendary radio station–not in the first wave of WABX, but later in the late-1970s. I was the news direction at WDET for a while in the 1980s, then went to work in the communications department of the UAW from which I retired 12 years ago now.
WW: Wow. Coming back to the Sixties, so you mentioned you were a founder of the Northern Student Movement in Detroit.
FJ: Right, correct.
WW: Friends of SNCC. Did you do work with ACME in ’66?
FJ: Well, yes. The Northern Student Movement had its own evolution as a chapter in history that is underreported and needs to be written. One of the spin-offs from the Northern Student Movement was that we continued to do these tutorial programs for quite a long time, but we also got engaged not just in Detroit, but this happened in Boston, in Harlem, in Baltimore, in Philadelphia, in community organizing projects around issues of education, housing, police brutality, etc. In Detroit, that took the form of helping to create an organization called the Adult Community Movement for Equality, known as ACME, which was located on the East Side, and basically headquartered, we had an office on Kercheval and Pennsylvania, Mcclellan, that area of Kercheval. ACME became very quickly–while it had a pretty sophisticated political program again around schools, housing, education, etc.–we quickly became very involved in conflict with the police because the police very quickly came to see us as some sort of threatening, radical influence in the community.
Of course this was in the mid-Sixties, we’re sort of in the ’64-65 framework here, but by then, particularly as a result of the civil rights movement in the South, there was a lot of political surveillance going on. We knew people who came to be involved in what became the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and so on. It’s well-documented how much police surveillance there was of what was perceived as radical activity in Detroit. I brought with me today some recently unearthed, to me files that have a lot to say about that police surveillance and that are police documents. I also have gotten some of my own surveillance files from the Detroit Red Squad, from state police, from the FBI, etc., etc. I’d like to say I brag to my kids sometimes that I have the biggest police file of any white guy in Michigan, meaning that of course much more surveillance was devoted to black radicals, but partly because of my association with black radicals, I show up in a lot of these files as well. I was very immersed in all of the emerging movements in Detroit and elsewhere. I was active in the national leadership of NSM as well.
The other thing that happened out of the Northern Student Movement, however, that’s relevant to Detroit history is that before SNCC went through its famous racial divide, at least a year ahead of that, the Northern Student Movement had our own conversation on the question of, “Should white people be working in white communities?” So people like me, who were involved in ACME and in the black community on the East Side of Detroit, basically–and this was not an acrimonious or hostile debate, it was a genuine and serious conversation of “What’s the best strategy here?” I was very persuaded that it made sense for white people to focus activities in the white community.
Somewhere in this time range, ’65-66, we first created a group called Friends of NSM, which was basically the white people who had been active in NSM became Friends of NSM both to raise funds and provide support for the Northern Student Movement, but also to begin to think about, “Well, what would it mean to craft a message and be involved in the white community?” Friends of NSM evolved into an organization called People Against Racism, PAR. PAR became an organization in its own right that flourished for a while: through the late 1960s we had chapters on college campuses, we had chapters in cities literally from coast to coast, from Boston to Palo Alto and places in between. Again, I think it was a more influential organization than the history books tend to give us credit for. That’s partly my own fault for not paying enough attention to that, and particularly for not doing a good enough job of record-keeping. But it turns out there’s more records than I had thought at the Reuther archives and elsewhere, and thanks to taxpayer dollars engaging in political surveillance, there’s a lot of stuff in police files that’s very helpful about the history of NSM and People Against Racism and other organizations. More of that stuff is out there to be looked at by people who are interested than I had realized.
It gave me a really rich opportunity to live in a very dynamic time and have this perspective of coming from the suburbs and into the city, sort of eyes wide-open. And really learn an enormous amount from what is sometimes called the ‘Up North Movement,’ as well as engagement with people who where active in SNCC and Detroit Friends of SNCC, etc.
I only in that time period went South one time, and that was to Selma in what is known as Turn-Around Tuesday. The movie Selma does a halfway decent job I thought, or a more than halfway decent job, of depicting this. Many people know about the Selma to Montgomery March, they know about Bloody Sunday, but after Bloody Sunday there was a call that went out to people to come to Selma and show solidarity and attempt to march once again across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. There was a big meeting in Detroit after Bloody Sunday, and funds were raised, and volunteers were sought to go South. My colleague and comrade and lifelong friend from ACME, Will McClendon, and I, went to Selma as a part of that trip. The march itself, as history shows, was the march where those who showed up went to the Edmund Pettus Bridge again, where we were confronted with a massive display of force from the Alabama State troopers. At that point, Dr. King and other leaders were negotiating with the federal government for some sort of federal protection, which they by that time did not have. So this was the march where Dr. King led people to the bridge, then stopped and prayed and turned around and came back, which was aggravating and disappointing to those of us who were there. But in any case, not knowing what was going to happen next week, we turned to Detroit. I just cite that because virtually all of my political activism has been in the North while supporting the Southern Movement, but as a larger proposition I think also the movement in the North is also kind of underreported as a chapter in the history of the Sixties.
WW: Speaking of Martin Luther King, did you happen to march with him in’63 here?
FJ: I marched in’63. I met Dr. King when he was here I believe for one of his speaking engagements at Central Methodist. We had a situation at that point with–this is a great story, actually, I don’t think I’ve ever told this story before. Within NSM at that point, because we were doing these tutorial programs and we were involved with a lot of young people in the schools, including high school students, and we were increasingly engaged. I remember we picketed the Neisner Store, for example, in downtown Detroit over employment discrimination issues there. There was a lot of activity, to state the obvious. We had a particular case where a really incredibly charismatic, for lack of a better term, young woman was very active in promoting the movement in her high school, and had encountered enormous opposition from her parents, which is something I happen to know a little bit about. And so we knew that Dr. King was coming to town and somehow we reached out to him, and asked would he agree to speak to this young woman’s father, and he said that he would. This entailed me meeting him at a church that he was speaking at, not at Central Methodist, riding in a motorcade with him from that church downtown to Central Methodist, sort of briefing him on what this situation was about, and indeed the father had agreed to come–who wouldn’t come to meet Martin Luther King, at that point? and they did speak, and he never really became fully supportive of his daughter, but he didn’t put up the resistance and opposition that he had before. I had a couple of other personal encounters with Dr. King at other times, but that’s one incredible story. That I remember. What year was that? I don’t know. I’m going to guess … it certainly was after the 1963 march in Detroit, and I also attended the’63 March in Washington in August and helped, as I recall, organize a bus of people who went to that as well. It’s kind of a [inaudible] thing; if it happened I was probably there.
WW: So you mentioned the pushback that this young woman was getting from her father. As you’re protesting, as you’re picketing around Detroit, do you get pushback from other groups?
FJ: Oh yeah. That’s kind of a loaded question.
FJ: Yes. In particular, there was an organization called Breakthrough that sort of devoted itself to being the opposition. They would be the Trump Movement of our time, they were part of the backlash and of the opposition to this push for civil rights and racial equality in the North. I can’t recall how many encounters I had with them, Donald Lobsinger and Breakthrough. I do remember being on a television show once, and describing Breakthrough as a parasite organization–this is sort of coming back to me as I’m talking about this–but I said, “You know, if we went out of business, they’d go about of business, too,” because their sort of sole purpose in life was to protest us and to hassle us and to show up at Grosse Pointe South when Dr. King spoke there, for example, and try to disrupt that speech. There was another event in Grosse Pointe South that–this was prior to Dr. King’s famous speech there–I don’t remember some of the details of this, but I remember I was a speaker at the event and Breakthrough disrupted and were escorted out. They did not succeed in destroying that event either, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Two other things come to mind when you ask about the opposition in addition to Breakthrough. One was of course the police, and that was particularly focused on Kercheval relative to ACME. At any demonstration we had anywhere in Detroit, there was a massive police presence, and there was massive police surveillance.
The other organization that I would cite as having been incredibly hostile to the movement was The Detroit News, a tradition which continues to this day. I mean Nolan Finley is one of a long history of white editors of The Detroit News who have tried to put the brakes on any and every effort to bring about any sort of progress, but was particularly antagonistic and hostile on issues of race. I know this is on the record, and I’ve said it many times before, so I don’t mind saying it now, I’ve characterized Nolan Finely–who, for those who don’t know, is currently and has been for many years the editor of The Detroit News now–as, “’white supremacists’ chief spokesman Nolan Finley,” because he has routinely–and I’m talking about modern, current times–2016 and over the last several years, however long he’s been there, he has been incredibly hostile to African Americans, and incredibly hostile to change and incredibly denigrating toward African Americans. I remember an editorial he wrote, which I quoted in something I wrote and which has now been deleted from The Detroit News website, in which he basically said, “The reason we need an emergency manager is that black people are not capable of governing themselves.” Again, this is not ancient history, this is within the last few years. There’s a big fog machine that I think confuses a lot of people about how the mechanics of institutional racism and institutional white supremacy works. The Detroit News has been a bastion of opposition for as long as I can remember in my lifetime in this town.
WW: In speaking about the opposition you faced from the Detroit Police Department, could you speak a little bit about the Kercheval Incident in ’66?
FJ: Sure. As I said earlier, ACME–and thank goodness for a woman whose name is Nancy Milio who wrote a book called 9210 Kercheval, and Nancy was a social worker who was active in this very same area, and she created a Moms and Tots center which was considered very radical in the practice of social work at that time. A little digression here: Aaron Krasner, known as Ike Krasner, was a faculty member at Wayne State University in the Department of Social Work, and was himself an activist and radical in this time and helped to make Wayne State University a center of radical new thinking about social work. To be honest, I don’t know that Nancy Milio even went there, but I want to give Ike Krasner some credit and some recognition here for what he did. She was a nurse, and as I say, she created this Moms and Tots center that had a very complicated relationship with ACME. We were sort of dealing with the same constituencies in some cases. In any case, she came to publish a book about her experiences on Kercheval, and thank goodness, a lot of her book is about ACME, and she reproduces some of the documents that ACME produced including a manifesto, if you will, that sets out a quite sophisticated program addressing, as I say, education, health, and the whole gamut of issues of institutional racism.
But the thing that came to define ACME’s existence more than anything was this conflict with the police. At one point they came up with some pretense, they raided the ACME office and tore things up and destroyed things and took documents and so on and so forth. On a daily basis, there was this sort of police presence and there was at that time a unit of the police known as the “Big Four,” which was always four, big white men who rode around in big Chryslers and who basically contended for control of the streets, is the way that Will McLendon, who was one of the leaders of ACME, and I would put it. They did this all over the city, and they did it in every city in the United States, and they still do it in every city in the United States. But what made it different in the context of ACME is that it always had this very clear and defined political edge.
Do people call you Bill or William?
FJ: Billy? Okay. This was a source of constant conflict and ACME, as I look at this now, we certainly did some things that I’m sure they found deliberately provocative: we picketed police stations. I remember one time we organized a little sort of yippee-like intervention. They were doing an open house at the Fifth Precinct, I get the Fifth and the Seventh mixed up sometimes, but anyway, it was the precinct whose headquarters at that time were on Jefferson and Connor. We kind of invaded the open house and I remember one of our members, Moses Wedlow, who was an extraordinary guy by any measure, sort of took over giving guided tours of the precinct and said, “So this is the little room they put you in when they’re going to beat you,” and we completely disrupted this goodwill community outcome. I cite that just because it’s kind of a fun story on the one hand, but also because it was evidence of this, “We mess with them, they messed with us.” So come to the time of the Kercheval Incident in 1966, for which I was not physically present, by the way, but this led to an encounter that, I guess from the police’s point of view, got out of control in which they pride themselves of over a three-day period having gotten back under control again. Let me stop there and see if you have a follow-up question or where else you want to go with this.
WW: So still speaking about Kercheval, who were some of the other major Detroit activists that were involved, say in the Kercheval Incident?
FJ: Well of course the local activists were Will McClendon and Moses Wedlow, Clarence Reed, a number of other names. Part of the notoriety of the Kercheval Incident is that General Baker and Glanton Dowdell, who at that point were very prominent African American activists in Detroit themselves, were stopped on I think it was the second night of the incident on their way to Kercheval and a number of weapons were found in their vehicle. I think that that’s important because there is this debate, which I’ve weighed in on in many ways and many times about “Was it a riot, was it a rebellion, was it civil unrest?” and my argument in part that it was a rebellion was that in the case of Kercheval at any rate, everybody involved knew that these were overtly political people. You can say, for example, of a blind pig on Twelfth Street, a year later in July of 1967, “Well, that was just sort of the day-to-day tension and struggle between mostly white police and black citizens,” but you couldn’t say that about Kercheval, because ACME was known to the police, had an office, was a political organization, and was already in a kind of medium intensity conflict with the police.
I was pleased to read recently Hubert Locke’s interview for this project and Hubert and I have a long history, and I have great respect for him and for the work he did in the effort that he made in the city. But I noted that in his interview about the Kercheval Incident, and others have made the same point, for all of the pride they took–“and boy did we know how to handle this, and we put on this overwhelming display of force and so we contained this”–he gives a lot of credit to a massive rainstorm that took place on the third night of what was going on and that swept everybody–the cops, and everybody else–off the street. Had that rainstorm not happened, might there have been a different outcome? Well obviously, we’ll never know. We do know, however, that whatever significance is attached to the rainstorm, it was because of Kercheval that from Mayor Cavanagh to the Police Commissioner and everybody on down, there was this confidence that “we know how to handle this.”
FJ: Other cities–Newark, other places–this may get out of control, but we have proved and we’ve trained and we’ve learned and we’ve equipped the police to make the kind of presence and so on and so forth that that can contain conflict once it starts. I think hardly anybody disputes that that played a role in them kind of misunderstanding what started on Twelfth Street in July one year later.
WW: Did your work change after the Kercheval Incident? Was there a sense of worry going forward that the police were going to be more openly antagonistic toward you?
FJ: That’s a great question. I think that we thought they probably couldn’t be anymore antagonistic than they were already. A couple of other things happened at the same time. For one thing, of course, Will McClendon and Clarence Reed were charged for inciting a riot and we became involved in their legal defense in the immediate aftermath of Kercheval, and they were I think unjustly convicted, they both did, in Will’s case, quite a bit of time, in Clarence’s, not so much. It would be fairer to say that we were in a certain way put on defense from that point forward in a way that we had not been previously. That did have a disruptive effect on ACME and its ability to do what it was there to do.
At the same time, personally, I was going through this transition that I mentioned before of shifting into, “What do we need to be doing in the white community, and what kinds of programs and organizing and educational materials and so on,” because that was the period of the evolution first to Friends of NSM and then to People Against Racism, so my own attention was shifting more towards People Against Racism.
I also was becoming more involved in the anti-war movement at that point. And I remember very well the conversation within People Against Racism about the war, because it was a formative experience for us. We developed position papers and we had a long conversation at the end of which we said, “This is a racist war. If we are People Against Racism, we must be against this war.” The grounds for believing that the war in Vietnam was a racist war was twofold: First, we felt that this kind of death and destruction and brutality was a continuation of the racial practices that we were coming to understand that went with slavery, that went with genocide against the indigenous people of the United States, and that this war was not going on against white Communist countries. The allegation, in the case of Vietnam, or the cover story was, “Well, we’re stopping Communism.” “Well, why don’t you stop Communism in Poland? Why don’t you drop napalm on the Polish people if you think that that’s the way, if that’s how you have to achieve regime change?”
So we thought the war was racist on those grounds, and we thought we thought the war was racist because we understood that black and brown people were experiencing a way disproportionate impact of casualties, of being killed and injured in the war. All of these threads were converging in 1967, in that year from ’66-67, both in my own personal life, and in how the movement in Detroit and around the world was evolving.
Somewhere in there, I don’t know that I could put even an approximate date on it, but somewhere in there, ACME kind of fell apart. Keep in mind that as a result of COINTELPRO, and as a result of police surveillance and intervention, none of the organizations of the Sixties really survived, not SNCC, not SDS, not the anti-war coalitions sort of lasted more into the early-Seventies. But I have long maintained that too little attention is paid to, I have to say it, the success of political repression, the success of intervention and arrests and assassination, obviously in the case most notably of Malcolm X and of Martin Luther King. As too few people know, scores of civil rights activists, particularly in the South but not exclusively in the South, were killed.
By vigilante groups, by the police, etc., etc. You know it’s funny. When we want to go make an intervention in some foreign country we often cite the repressive machinery of the state as stifling dissent and free speech and democracy and so on and so forth; well, it works, and the evidence that it works is, you don’t have to go to some country in Latin America or Africa or Asia to prove that, you can go to the United States. That did begin to have an effect. I’ve written about this: we had our own internal problems, I think we weren’t prepared to deal with the level of repression, we didn’t understand U.S. history, we didn’t really understand what we were up against, and there were other flaws that I can look back on now in terms of what our philosophy and our goals and objectives were, but we for sure were not ready for the level of political repression that we encountered. So, the short answer summary of that is that ACME kind of fell apart.
WW: Before we get into ’67, so during the year before ’67, what was the state of, say, left-wing activism? In Detroit, was it a cohesive group, or was it multiple groups working toward the same goal but independently? Because you mentioned you’ve worked with John Watson, you’ve worked with General Baker, you’ve worked with Will McClendon. Was it a unified group?
FJ: I would say is that it was sort of all of the above. What I mean by that–I’m not trying to be cute–I think Detroit is a special place. I think the history of the movement in Detroit, if for no other reason than the importance of the League of the Revolutionary Black Workers coming from Detroit, and because of the history of Detroit preceding the 1960s because of the labor history of Detroit and the deep roots of political struggle and particularly the Black community in Detroit that goes way, way, way back. I think the Detroit movement had a vitality and an energy that was important and extensive. But I think we also had all of the political contradictions that were to be found both in the national movements and so on.
The most important of those contradictions, and again I’ve written quite a bit about this, is that I think the movements of the Sixties themselves never overcame the racial divide. I think you have the “white movement” on the one hand, which was SDS and the women’s movement and a big part of the anti-war movement, and then I think you had the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement and the League of Revolutionary–you know, the name was the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. It’s not that those things didn’t overlap and intersect: white people went to the South, obviously, and I as a white activist was very engaged with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. I mentioned earlier later in that process when Jim Forman left SNCC and came to Detroit because this is where the League was, and he and I taught a class together. It’s certainly true that there was, however you slice it, there was some contact between white activists and black activists.
That being said, there were organizations that were overwhelmingly white, and other organizations that were overwhelmingly black. Even more as my own politics and understanding has evolved to this day, I understand that we have a–I sometimes call it ‘eugenic capitalism,’ I sometimes call it ‘race-based capitalism,’ I sometimes borrow Jim Lawson’s phrase ‘plantation capitalism’–we have a particular animal that we are dealing with here, not just in Detroit, and not just in the United States, but the history of colonialism on a global basis that requires and compels us to understand the power and the dynamic of race. I think we tried hard in the 1960s to do that, but I don’t think we got there. I think we didn’t understand it from an analytical point of view as well as we can now, and we certainly didn’t understand it from an organizational point of view. I can go on and on that, and I have in writing .
FJ: And I will some more, but we don’t have all year here.
WW: So going into ’67 and then going into the summer of ’67–were you and other activists anticipating anything in Detroit? Watts has happened, Newark is going on. Are you anticipating that there will be an uprising in Detroit?
FJ: That’s a great question, and I don’t know that anybody has asked it exactly that way before. I think that we certainly thought it was entirely possible, how could we not? Particularly those of us who had been very directly involved in the Kercheval situation, and who knew how volatile things were and who knew–and I’m sure there’s things in writing that maybe you’ve already looked at or whatever–but whether in The South End, or things that the Cleage’s (??) were publishing at that point, no one was under the illusion that this cover story of ‘Detroit is different because things are better here and because we’re the poster child for liberal policies and model cities and so on and so forth,’ we knew that was all nonsense. We knew that one-millimeter below the surface was conflict with the police, was racial segregation, was institutional racism, so the possibility that at any given moment something could break out was in our minds. But I don’t know that anybody sort of specifically predicted that what was going to happen would happen. None of us were surprised, that’s for sure.
WW: How did you first hear about the incidents going on at Twelfth and Clairmount?
FJ: What a story! So, I was not in Detroit at that point, I was in London, England, attending something called the Dialectics of Liberation Conference with Stokely Carmichael. You can look this up: there’s websites that talk about the Dialectics of Liberation Conference, and there’s some accounts from people who were there of sort of me, and Stokely, and some of things that went on in that regard. I honestly don’t remember the sequence here, but somehow, news accounts began to make their way into the international media of the time. The Dialectics of Liberation Conference, by the way, was this radical gathering of activists from all over the world, including from the United States, that itself had sort of an interesting take on, “Where are we at in this point of history?” and so on and so forth. At some point, with all due respect–and I really mean this, to my friend Hubert Locke–as I recall it, he didn’t tell this in his story, but at some point Hubert Locke reached me in London and said, because of Kercheval and other reasons, “Do you know what’s going on here, and do you have ideas about anything we can do about it?” was sort of the way I remember it. I said, “Well, I’m vaguely of what’s going on,” and this would’ve happened whether I’d gotten that phone call or not, but I said, “I’m coming back to Detroit.” I remember–this was easier to do then than it is now–but I remember changing my flight, and the earliest flight I could get, it still took me any number of hours before I could. But I came back to Detroit early.
By the time I got here, of course things had escalated to an incredible degree. But I remember that People Against Racism, which was my primary organization at that point, started to organize and I remember we had a meeting at a church in Royal Oak, and we established some sort of outpost as I recall at Grace Episcopal Church, where Father David Gracie was located who had been a longtime supporter of the movement to bring people together to talk about what was going on to try to figure out whether there were supplies that we could raise, that people need that were being dislocated and so on and so forth. I was up to my eyeballs in it. At that point, the Detroit Police no longer had any reason in talking to me, and I didn’t have any interest in talking to them either, but it’s just a funny little footnote of history, getting that call from Hubert.
A parallel story is that I was still at that time the news editor of The Fifth Estate newspaper. So one of the other things that happened as things were still smoldering, is that I was still the news editor of The Fifth Estate at that point, and as a result of people that I knew on the East Side, I was told of a story which turned out to be basically a story of the National Guard assassination of a young man who was named, I remember to this day, John Leroy. I got to work on a story about the brutality of the police and, in particular, the National Guard during the rebellion. The Fifth Estate published a story, which was referenced actually in The Fifth Estate exhibit that was done here at the Detroit Historical Museum, a front-page story called “Who Killed John Leroy?” Peter Werbe and others at The Fifth Estate and I are still proud of the fact that we think before the Free Press got into investigating what happened at the Algiers Motel, we were really the first publication to raise and document a story about the incredible brutality and repression.
Perhaps others have said this as well, I think its widely understood in some circles at least that our interpretation even at that time of what we knew in the moment was the main reason that the 82nd Airborne came to Detroit was to control the National Guard, it wasn’t necessarily to control the population, because the National Guard was out of control and basically the police were out of control at that point. Who knows how many more people would’ve been killed had it not been for the 82nd Airborne, which had brought–I’m not saying any of this would have called to bring the 82nd Airborne into Detroit. By the way, a side note, the law that had to be used to allow the 82nd Airborne to participate, to be deployed domestically, was specifically a law about insurrection; I cite that in terms of this ongoing debate about rebellion or riot because the law sort of anticipated exactly–well, maybe not exactly–but a situation like this as a time when federal troops could be deployed domestically. In any case, not only were they a far more disciplined fighting force obviously, but there were a lot of black people in the 82nd Airborne and there were not a lot of black people in the National Guard at that point, that was an overwhelmingly white organization. As I say, but for that fact, probably even more people would’ve been killed than were killed–of course, all of whom were killed by the police.
Anyway, the story of “Who Killed John Leroy” is something I’m proud of and proud of because it was at least shining a tiny little light on, ‘let’s look at what was the conduct of the police and the National Guard and the federal troops in this.’ And it’s an old story in US history of course, that the military is created in part out of fear and anticipation of slave revolts going all the way back to slavery, and of course of having to clear territory and otherwise deal with Indigenous Americans, so there is this continuous line throughout our history that is a part of my mission to this day continues to be to help white people understand that. I don’t know where that leaves us, but.
WW: So now the 82nd Airborne has come, and the rebellion is put down, essentially.
WW: I have a couple of effect questions. So what effect did the rebellion have on your activism?
FJ: Well it didn’t diminish it in any way, that’s for sure. I think, again, my primary sort of base at that point in addition to The Fifth Estate was People Against Racism, and we became even more active, and it became even more apparent to us that institutional racism was a very powerful and brutal force in American life. So we continued to do the work of People Against Racism, and at that point as I say, we have active chapters in a number of cities and on many, many college campuses. I think it’s fair to say that I had not thought about it this way until now, but I think it’s fair to say that in the same sense in which 1966 was maybe the beginning of the end for ACME, maybe 1967 was the beginning of the end for People Against Racism because, in part, I think we got, there’s this drip-drip-drip isn’t the right expression, but there was this relentless political repression and surveillance and so on. We were a white group so weren’t experiencing it the way Black Panthers or SNCC or anybody like that was, but we still knew that even for the kind of work we were doing, there was a lot of opposition.
Of course, we previously referred to Donald Lobsinger and to Breakthrough, but these kinds of organizations are a permanent feature of American political life. They ebb and they flow, we happen to be in a time of the presidential campaign of Donald Trump which obviously is capturing a lot of this, “I want my America back again,” and we know what people mean. There’s a left-wing version of, “I want my America back again,” too, by the way, but the right-wing version of, “I want my America back again,” is, “We want white people clearly in charge,” that’s what that’s all about.
I cite that just because obviously post-’67 in Detroit, the anti-war movement is still gathering steam at that point, but personally I think it’s fair to say that even within People Against Racism, we began to pay more attention to the war as a focal point of our activities, for better or for worse, not even entirely sure why that happened, but part of why it happened was that that was still a growing and very dynamic component of the movement.
In any case, were there people in that period who dropped out of politics? Well, nobody that I knew. I think maybe people did get burned out. And people sort of did take a break from politics at various points along the way, but I don’t know, I was as busy as ever.
WW: You touched on a couple points in our interview so far. The term ‘rebellion’ and why you use that terminology. Could you go in-depth with it for a couple moments?
FJ: Sure. I’ve already said that I think, don’t take my word for it, take the government’s word for the fact that it was a law about insurrection that was used to create the legal justification to send the 82nd Airborne to Detroit. I’ve also said that in the context of the Kercheval Incident, that was a conflict between an overtly political organization and the police and it had a long history before August of 1966 and a history after that. Also I’ve talked about the fact that–and I think for white people in particular this is important to understand–language does matter. The investment that a lot of white people have in calling this a riot is precisely because they don’t want to concede that black people had anything to rebel about, and because the characterization of this as criminal activity as opposed to political activity fits the whole ideology of white supremacy in the first place. Because whites perceive blacks as an underclass, a criminal class, etc., and going all the way back to slavery, the demonization of black people in order to create a moral justification for slavery and for the oppression and segregation and exploitation of black people is at the core of the identity of the United States of America. That’s hard for people to accept, it’s hard for people to hear, it’s hard for people to understand, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. So this debate–‘riot’ versus ‘rebellion’–this argument over a word does not take place in a vacuum, it takes place in the context of this.
Interestingly enough, fast-forwarding to the present for a minute, so now we have Nate Parker’s film Birth of a Nation, and there’s a growing understanding and a better understanding of African American history and of the fact that the institution of slavery has always faced resistance from black people, but that resistance has also always been distorted and mischaracterized and demonized in and of itself. Again, there is this continuing from whether you’re talking about Nat Turner or Denmark Vesey or some of the episodes leading up to and during the Civil War of mass black desertions, of blacks joining the Union Army. I could go on and on about some of this history, but the importance of it is to understand that this is a linear process. We’ve been having this argument about ‘rebellion’ versus ‘riot’ since the 1600s, and it’s as an important a conversation to have today as it was then.
I’m actually encouraged that we’re in a new wave of scholarship, and in a new kind of conversation about race. You know, I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I find some of the things for example, some of the programs that the African American History Museum is doing here. There hasn’t always been an African American History Museum. It is the cumulative effect of this movement and of the civil rights movement for example creating spaces in colleges and universities for scholars to do African American studies–white and black scholars I might add–to produce new work and better understandings of our own history whether you’re talking about 10 years ago or 100 years ago or 400 years ago, we are better positioned to, I hate the term ‘conversation about race,’ but partly because we’ve never not had a conversation –we talk about race all the time, and we have from the beginnings of the slave trade been talking about race, and white people talk about race all the time, and white people talk about their fear of rebellion and their fear of uprisings, and their fear of revenge and of justice. I can speak as a white person of a certain age, I’ve heard variations of the, “Well what if they started treating us the way we’ve treated them?” It’s not like white people don’t know what’s happened here, they know deep in their heart and their head what has happened, and they have a lot of fear, and that is also a big component of this ‘we have to call it a riot.’
WW: Wow. Thank you so much.
FJ: I have a follow-up to that.
End of Track 1 [1:08:18]
WW: Part two: The Frank Joyce interview.
FJ: Well, we were on a little tangent there, but let me stay on the tangent for a minute.
FJ: Because it fits with another point that I want to make. I have long singled out The Detroit News for its prominent and particular role as an advocate for and defender of white supremacy and racial privilege and racial segregation and the attitude that white people are a better-than black people and more deserving than black people and so on and so forth. I think one cannot understand either how did we get to the point of 1966 and ’67, and I think I haven’t said this yet, but I do consider ’66 starting at Kercheval and ’67 to be one continuous event, just happened to last about 340 days, and continues in its own way to this day, because it’s not like this conflict is over with or is resolved.
In any case, I think The Detroit News had a particular role to play in creating the conditions and attitudes in Detroit that preceded ’66-67, but I think they continue to play that role and in particular–and actually this is a good segue into the other point that I want to make. One of the other arguments that I make for ‘how do we know it was a rebellion, not a riot,’ is by reverse engineering what happened after the rebellion. I compare what happened toDetroit, and I use that term on purpose, after 1967 to what happened to Haiti after the Haitian uprising in 1791, if that’s exactly the right year, I think it is. What I mean by that is that Detroit was punished, and that the fears of white people which always just below the surface are of rebellion, are of uprising, are of revenge and fear motivates white attitudes in a way almost as much–maybe as much–in 2016 as in 1616, 1716, and all the years in between. And it is this notion that deep down inside we know that what we’re doing is wrong, and that whether it’s Christianity or whatever, that somehow, somewhere, there’s gong to be a price to paid for this on one hand, and on the other hand, there’s this notion that we must keep a lid on this. We must punish those who rebel. All of the known slave rebellions, for example, Denmark Vesey, Nate Parker, and so on and so forth, they were all hunted down and hung. The communities–whether it was the Church or the neighborhoods or the communities from which they sprang–were punished too. We have this notion of collective punishment, which is that, “Okay, we’re not saying everybody did it–not everybody went into a store on Twelfth Street, and took a TV set, or whatever–but in order to see to it that this doesn’t happen again, we are going to reassert our power and our control.” Militarily. So for example, and I wrote a piece about this shortly after the rebellion, we hear today a lot about police departments being weaponized with surplus weaponry from the Pentagon and from war. Well in Detroit, shortly after the rebellion, at taxpayer expense, not because the Pentagon was giving anything away for free, a bond issue was passed which was used in part to buy heavy weaponry for the Detroit Police Department: military personnel carriers, assault weapons, all kinds of other stuff, and I wrote about that at the time.
That in a way was only the half of it because as hostile as suburbia and as out-state Michigan might have been to Detroit as it was becoming a predominately black city, all of that hostility greatly intensified after 1967. You see that play out certainly in the state legislature again and again and again, very dramatically on the question of regional transit, for example. We’re facing a ballot proposal about creating a Regional Transit Authority, and it will be, I believe, number 27 in a series of regional transit proposals everyone of which up to now has been defeated. I’m optimistic about this, I think it’s evidence of the fact that some things maybe have changed here. But the 26 defeats are a dramatic example of this attitude of, ‘We do not want to do anything that facilitates interaction and transportation between black Detroit and the suburbs.’
As you may know, but others may not, I remember not that many years ago Wal-Mart wanted to build a store in Livonia. People militantly opposed Wal-Mart’s building a store in Livonia not because of the reasons that Wal-Mart meets a lot of antagonism: it’s bad for small business and so on and so forth, people explicitly stood up and said, “If there’s a Wal-Mart in Livonia, black people will work there, and black people will come here to shop, and we don’t want that.” This notion of rigid residential and economic segregation between the suburbs of Detroit–I mean white flight is of course what made Detroit predominately a majority black city in the first place. Once white flight had taken place, the notion that was crystallized so clearly and repeated only recently by L. Brooks Patterson of what we should do with Detroit is build a wall around it and throw in the blankets and corn, characterizes for me not the only response but the predominant response to 1967 of hostility, of punishment, of control, of antagonism.
Glibly people say, even Nolan Finley will said this, “We live in a racially polarized community.” Well we sure as hell do, but it takes certain kinds of behavior and certain kinds of attitudes and certain kinds of legislations and certain kinds of practices on the part of white people to create that polarization and to keep it in place. Those forces are still very powerful. I think they’re not as powerful in 2016 as they were probably in 1969, but they are baked into the institutional and power arrangements of our society in that sense. Thomas Sugrue of course is one of many who’ve written about this, but in that sense they continue to be baked into the intuitional arrangements and into how we talk about race in Detroit to this day.
WW: Wow. Thank you.
FJ: Thank you.
FJ: Wrap it all up and tie a bow around it.
WW: [Laughter.] A few more questions first.
FJ: Sure, okay.
WW: So I asked you earlier how the rebellion affected your work. How did the rebellion affect activism in Detroit in general? Did you personally see an uptick in say organization or activism?
FJ: Well, to refer back to something I said before, it’s hard to sort of separate out, “Okay, what was the impact of the rebellion?” versus, “What were these other macro-forces that were in play?” By the end of the 1960s, for example, SNCC and SDS and all of these organizations with the something of the exception, as I said, for the anti-war movement, were beginning to crash and burn, for a variety of reasons.
FJ: Certainly, rebellions were a national phenomenon from Detroit to Newark to Watts to etc., so that plays into the national mix here. Certainly, the intensification of the war in Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia at the same the intensification of the anti-colonial struggle in Africa, in Latin America as well were part of kind of the big picture forces that were in play here. The other thing I think it’s fair to say is that I don’t care whether you’re talking about the labor movement in the 1930s, for example, or even the Civil War for that matter, things run in kind of waves and phases and they run out of gas and then things are more dormant for a period of time until, for whatever reasons, these things happen. The period we’re in now, with Black Lives Matter, for example, and other organizations that are reframing and reenergizing these political conversations. I include the Bernie Sanders Campaign in that, for example. We’re in a maybe a pre-movement or early-movement time again, but how much weight to give to political repression, how much weight to give to other things, things did kind of run out of gas. Even the anti-war movement, which I stayed active in until the very end–in which I’ve, a year or so ago, co-edited, published a book about, even the anti-war movement–basically ran out of gas in 1973 at the time the Paris Peace Accords sort of officially ended US participation in the war. Now we know the war didn’t really end until 1975, but certainly by 1973, the anti-war movement was out of gas as well, except for some die-hard people like me.
And there were die-hard people in all of these movements who continued on. One of the things when I talk to young people today, which I of course very much enjoy doing, is nobody told me when I was your age that you should start thinking about this as the work of a lifetime. But it is the work of a lifetime. The overwhelming majority of people who were active in the Sixties are still active in some way or other, obviously not as intensely as they were, but there’s a real core of people like me who, we zigged, we zagged, we had kids, we had families, we did some other things, but we continued to be politically active. Anyway, to try to sum that up in a slightly more coherent fashion, I just can’t pinpoint where in the winding down of that movement the rebellion fits.
WW: Okay. To you, is there a difference between the organizations that blossomed before the rebellion and after; say SNCC fell before the rebellion, and then is there a difference between say SNCC and Ad-hoc Action Group or DRUM or League of Revolutionary Black Workers, was there a strikingly different tone to their work compared to the work in the early Sixties?
FJ: You know I really don’t think so. I’d love to have a conversation with somebody who disagrees, but I see that more as evolutionary, not some big break and then we started over.
FJ: I think that we all were learning things at the time. In retrospect, we clearly didn’t learn enough. As I said before, we really were naïve about a lot of things. We were naïve in part because, using this term in the broadest possible way, we were a New Left. It’s not that we didn’t have some connections to the Communist Party and to some of the key organizations of previous struggles and previous movements, but we were in part rebelling against them too. What that meant, and there’s an upside to this as well as a downside, but it meant that we were figuring it out on our own. Now, amongst organizations that I think doesn’t get the credited desserts in American history is the Communist Party. I was pleased to see R.D.G Kelly has recently written a book in which he talks about this. Particularly on the issue of trying to form organizations and movements that could bring blacks and whites together in the workplace, in communities, and so on and so forth, the CP was trying to do that, and had no small success at doing that for a very long time. Of course, they paid a price as well, and of course, there’s a bigger story to tell there.
Let me just think about it personally. There’s a lot of continuity in the evolution of my own political thinking over 50 years, and it’s a mosaic and every piece of it fits somewhere. I think, for example, I give a lot of credit to initially Jimmy and more so Grace Boggs, but I think as their political thinking evolved, and as they brought us to a point of understanding that we need to take a fresh look at how this society is organized and one that was, to use Arundhati Roy’s phrase, what a better world might look like. I think again Detroit in many ways leads the way in this of not being stuck, of not being doctrinaire, of being able to step back from our own movement and look at, “What did we do right, what did we do wrong, and more immortally, what do we need to be doing now?” But there’s many threads, but I do see it as a whole piece of cloth, if you will.
In some ways, just a specific point–picking up, reacting to the Ad-Hoc Committee, in some ways some of the work that we did attracted more support from whites after the rebellion than it had before. In its own way, that goes to my argument about rebellion because it wasn’t just that the response of the white establishment or whites in general was 100 percent repressive. Again, go all the way back to slavery, and go all the way back to the Indian Removal Act, or pick any symbol you want of the genocide against indigenous people in the United States and elsewhere, there are always some whites who are saying, ‘More carrots, less sticks’. To further mangle that metaphor, I think that we began to see some resources that were available, some from foundations and from wealthy individuals and from other organizations who kind of got it and said, ‘The root of this problem is segregation, it is economic exploitation of African Americans, and we need to address that part of the problem too.’ So, that didn’t prevail, the bad guys won out and the punishment and control people were more powerful than that, but there was a liberal response for sure.
WW: Speaking about Detroit groups in particular, you mentioned how groups were burning out and sputtering out.
WW: What was the lifespan of Detroit’s hard-core political groups?
FJ: Well I don’t know if Shelia talked about this in your conversations with her, but of course one of the things that was important to Sheila and me and a lot of other people was what is known–we’re getting really into the weeds here of history–was what is known as the split in the Motor City Labor League, because one of the things that emerged in that period was, out of DRUM and what became the League of Black Revolutionary Workers and so on, a multiracial organization that was trying to build on what had we learned and what had we organized up to that point. It created very successful programs such as the Control, Conflict, and Change Book Club for example, which I’ve been trying to recreate ever since–one day I’ll succeed. That goes to the point earlier of how after the rebellion, there was even more energy, and more organizing, and more activity going on. But, how much of this might’ve been in part exploited by COINTELPRO or the police or whatever, we began to encounter serious political differences about ideology, about strategy, about Marxism, about many, many of these questions.
There was an organization called the Motor City Labor League, it divided in a very bitter conflict, and I think did contribute to the demise of at least a significant part of the Detroit left. It would be wrong not to mention that, and I’m glad you brought it up, because that certainly played a big role.
WW: Another very loaded question: do you think that the quote-unquote “shadow of ’67” still hangs over the Metro area?
FJ: Oh, absolutely, very much so. When I wrote my piece in The Free Press earlier this year about ‘riot’ versus ‘rebellion,’ I had that very much in mind, and I started that piece with saying something like, ‘It’s a part of the summer ritual,’ because not a summer has gone by since that that anniversary isn’t marked, it’s like 9/11 or Independence Day or something. This metropolitan area pays attention to 1967 on every year ending in the number seven, and I’m sort of fantasizing out loud here, but maybe we’ll know we’ve made some real progress when a year goes by and nobody does that. It is a part of the summer ritual here, and I say that to say that the ‘riot’ versus ‘rebellion’ debate, it’s like a smoldering ember and the flames shoot up all over again, so in that narrow way, it continues to cast a shadow. In a broader way, in a far broader way, as a result of what has been done to Detroit, as I was saying earlier, the destruction of the Detroit Public Schools, for example, emergency management, bankruptcy, the distortions of the tax code that are punitive towards Detroit, the question I mentioned earlier, the isolation of Detroit by the refusal to create a regional public transportation system, I could go on and on and on, but in those ways, very directly, we are still in the shadow of 1967 for sure.
WW: Well thank you so much for sitting down with me. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
FJ: God, I don’t think so.
FJ: Of course, on the way home, I’ll think of five things.
WW: I’d be happy to sit down with you again.
WW: Thank you so much.