Isaiah "Ike" McKinnon, May 16th, 2017
This interview uses profanity and/or explicit language.
WW: Hello, today is May 16, 2017, 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 Ike McKinnon. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
IM: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.
WW: Could you please start by telling me where and when were you born?
IM: I was born in 1943 in Montgomery, Alabama.
WW: And when did you come to Detroit?
IM: Well, my family moved to Detroit in 1953, the reason being that there were more jobs, and my father moved us here and we initially lived in the Brewster Projects, which is infamous for so many great people coming from there. Hopefully I’m one of them [laughter]. But we lived in the projects for a bit and then we moved into the area of the Medical Center on St. Antoine. So I went to Lincoln Elementary, which is now I believe Spain or Carson. But that’s where we started.
WW: Do you remember your first impression of the city?
IM: The first impression was this big, crowded place in which there were very few empty houses. I remember that because, later on as I did research, I think the occupancy rate in 1953 was about 99 and a half percent occupancy. And to see all these people—number one, living in the projects, but number two, all these houses, and I’d never seen anything like this, you know? To see the streetcars and all the cars up and down the street, it was just amazing. Coming from Alabama as a young boy, I just couldn’t imagine, and I was just really moved by the number of people and—certainly being crowded, but stores everywhere and just loads and loads of people. What really stood out for me even more so was that I’d never been around that many people of color. I mean, in Alabama we had people of color but not the great number that we had in Detroit, and it was just amazing for me to see that.
WW: When you came north, did you expect the racism of the South to follow you?
IM: You know, I expected that things would be different in Detroit, because as a young boy, you know, you really aren’t totally aware of all the racism that’s there. Certainly, you know, I went to an all-colored school in Alabama, and when I came to Detroit and going to school there are no white kids in Lincoln Elementary, and that was kind of a surprise. And when we would go downtown, we would see whites and blacks, but there was no integration as such. I mean we saw—there were certain restaurants you couldn’t go to. The thing that really stood out to me, certainly later on in my career, I saw only one black police officer in all those years that I was here in Detroit. I never saw a black police officer in Alabama, there wasn’t any, but in Detroit it was kind of surprising. And so it stood out for me. And those are things that I took note of as I lived there.
And what was really interesting is living close to what was called Hastings Street, which was the place that everything was happening. And to see all these black people with businesses along Hastings Street. And you would see whites who would come there, whether for services or business or whatever it might be, but there appeared to be some interaction. But it was just interesting to me to see that the great number of black people and the businesses that they owned and the places that they went to. But certainly there were places that you couldn’t go to. There were restaurants you couldn’t go to. And my mother and I would go shopping across Woodward at a place, a market called Tomboy. And you had to leave there early because across Woodward we had a great number of southern whites who lived over there, and you were told in no uncertain terms that you had to leave by a certain time, and we would—I was 10 or 11 years of age, and, you know, the things that were said to us.
WW: And how long did your family live at the Brewster Projects?
IM: We lived in the Brewster Projects probably for six months, and then we moved to 4125 St. Antoine. People say, Ike, you have a memory for numbers. Well, you know, when you live someplace as a young boy. 4125 St. Antoine. And that’s when I first met my first group of friends in Detroit. And to see those neighborhoods—they were clean, they were not upscale, but they were clean— and the families that were there. And across the street there was a church called New Bethlehem Baptist Church, and a little store—Mr. Dean’s store—down the street, and this group of friends that I met. But interesting for me was, that’s the first time I became aware of Reverend C.L. Franklin, who is Aretha Franklin’s dad. He had a church at Willis and Hastings, and I would go into the church and hear Aretha Franklin sing, I think she was 14 years of age or younger. And so those are things that really stood out for me living in that area. Then we moved to 4211 St. Antoine, you know, because it was a better house, but that was a neighborhood that I first became aware of things that were happening in Detroit.
And I got my first job. I was delivering coal for 10 cents a bushel. Back in those days we had coal stoves. And I would deliver coal, and sometimes I would make five dollars a weekend [laughter]. You know, in 1953, 1954, as a young boy that was good money. So I would have my wagon and bushels of coal on it, and pull it up around through the area that is now the Medical Center. So those are things that really stood out for me.
WW: The racial incidents you faced at the projects, did those incidents follow you to your new home, or were you more comfortable in your new home?
IM: Interestingly, there were very few racial incidents in the projects, and at 4125 and 4211, except for—there was a nurse who was white who had been killed. At that time Children’s Hospital was on St. Antoine, just north of Warren. And a nurse had been killed, allegedly by a young black man. And so what really stood out for me, and my first true interaction with the police, was over a weekend—and this was really publicized—they arrested a thousand young black men on suspicion of murder of this women. And my mother cautioning me not to go outside, and she cautioned my brother who was three years older, “Don’t go outside because they can lock you up.” And in those days you could be held by the police for 72 hours for suspicion of whatever the crime might be. And what was really kind of even more of a problem was that you couldn’t make a phone call. And this was maintained on your record, that you were arrested for suspicion of murder. And so young black men, or young white men, but particularly poor people, if you tried to get a job, if you tried to go to college, they had on your record that you were arrested for suspicion of murder. So you can just imagine [laughter], you know, if you had tried for something or a job, and you had been arrested four times for suspicion of murder—I mean, there was nothing to it, but that was it. Eventually they had that overturned, but that was one of those things that stood out for me, my mother cautioning me and my brother. And thank god it never came to fruition that I was arrested.
But that was my first interaction. The most—
WW: How old were you then?
IM: I was 12. When I was 14—I was at—I was 13, turning 14, I was at Garfield Junior High School, and I had just graduated to go to Cass Tech, which at that time was supposed to be the second-best school in the country, behind a school in Massachusetts. And I—the first day of school back in ’57, 1957, was a half-day. So I made an effort to go over to Garfield to say some words to my favorite teacher that I’m still in contact with, Mr. Raymond Hughes, he’s 97 years old. So I let him know that I’d gotten into Cass Tech, and he was happy and so forth—because he was this person who was like a mentor to all of us young boys. Anyway, I went to school, said hi to Mr. Hughes, Mr. [Teasley ?], who I’m also in contact with now, and as I was leaving the school, probably around 1:30 or something like that, this car that was at that time called the Big Four—these four very large white police officers—they grabbed me and threw me up against the car and proceeded to start beating me. You know, 14 years old, hadn’t done anything. But the name calling, it was just—it was brutal. And they beat me between my neck and my stomach. And I was saying, “Sir, but why?” And the more I asked why, the more they beat. And what’s really stood out for me is that I remember looking as they were beating me, and the name calling—this one individual, he was just so mean and nasty, the anger on his face—but I looked around at the people. This was an all-black neighborhood. And they were standing around watching. Of course nobody came to my aid, but then I realized why, because if they’d come they would have been locked up and beaten too. And so after they finished beating me up—no reason given other than the fact that I was a young black in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the right place at the right time for them—they told me in a very angry way and disparaging way, to get my ass out of there. So I ran home and I didn’t tell my parents. And the reason being that if I told my parents, both of them would have gone up to the Thirteenth Precinct at that time, and they probably would have gotten locked up or beaten too.
But I made myself a promise that evening that I was going to become a police officer. And the reason being that I wanted to make sure that those kinds of things didn’t happen to people like myself, or anyone that was an innocent person who would be savagely beaten by the police. I never knew that I would become Police Chief, or Doctor McKinnon, or Professor McKinnon, or Deputy Mayor. But I made myself that promise. And in 1965 when I was discharged from the Air Force I joined the Detroit Police Department, and fulfilled that part of my promise.
WW: What year did you join the Air Force?
IM: 1961 I joined the Air Force. And went to basic training in Texas, went from there to North Dakota, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, spent three years there. And then I went to the Philippines and then to Vietnam for my last year and a day, and I was discharged.
WW: When you left in 1961 and came back in ’65 you said?
WW: Did the city seem any different to you, or did the city seem on edge?
IM: The city was really different in that the young people—what I was a lack of respect for their elders. Growing up in Detroit, we would never swear in front of seniors, we just wouldn’t do that—of adults. I mean, as a military person, as a young person, we would swear. But you wouldn’t do that in front of adults, and particularly—there was something about not swearing in front of adults and swearing in front of women. And so when I came back I noticed this was more prevalent than I’d ever seen before, and I would ask people, “What the heck is going on?” And my friends would say, Man, the world has changed.
And this was in the midst of all the things that had started in Montgomery, had gone through Mississippi, Arkansas, and other places, and the Civil Rights Movement. And I sensed that certainly people were upset, they were concerned. But I flash back to what happened to me as a young boy, and probably this had happened to a lot of people, in particular those people who were migrating from the South. We had an inordinate number of people who migrated from the South to Detroit for jobs, and because of the way that they were being treated in the South. So my assumption is that they came to Detroit assuming that things would be better, but in reality—it was better in a sense of, you had some freedom, but you still had those problems that existed because of the racism.
WW: In 1965 and 1966, given the uprisings going on around the country, did you personally feel that they could happen in Detroit?
IM: Initially I didn’t think it could happen in Detroit, the reason being that when I was in the police academy, when I think they had the Watts Riot, and I think there were—it was Newark? —and we were told about these things, but I didn’t think it was going to happen in Detroit. My assumption was that Detroit—we had the most single homes of any place in the world, I think, at that time. We had this incredible population and people appeared to be working. But I was naïve to believe that it couldn’t happen.
And so in 1966, my first full year as a police officer, I was detailed to work the area of Twelfth Street, Linwood, and Philadelphia, because there was a belief that something could happen in Detroit. So I worked undercover with a man who became police chief, Bill Hart, and a man by the name of Tom Taylor, they were two senior officers. And so we were out to scout the area and see if, in fact, things were going to go—and then nothing happened. So we got to ’67, and again, my assumption was that things were going to be okay. However, not to realize that there were other forces that were working, that there were people who were truly, deeply upset and concerned about what was happening in the country, which led to 1967.
WW: Do you remember how you first heard about what was going on?
WW: Could you tell me more?
IM: I was in my apartment at 3265 West Boston, Apartment 101 [laughter], and my phone rang at six A.M., and it was Sergeant [Claddy ?] Barryman. He says, “Ike,” he says, “This is Barryman.” He said, “The riot just started last night; we need you to get to work right away.” And I didn’t—maybe I was in a daze or something, but, “Sarge, you’re kidding—Sarge, you’re bullshitting,” is what I said. So I hung up the phone. So right away the phone rang again [laughter], and he says, “Ike, I’m not kidding, there’s a riot coming right here, get to work right away.” Not realizing that the riot was just a few blocks from where I lived. I was at West Boston, and Wildemere was a block from Dexter, and it was all over the area. So I jumped in my car, got my uniform, and took off for work.
On my way to work, I could see some stores on fire. And, my god, this is crazy. And this is 6:30, 7:00 in the morning, Sunday morning. But I also saw people on their way to church, I saw people who didn’t know things were going on, they were living their lives as they would—had been. So I reported to duty, and they assigned me, along with another officer, to go back to the Tenth Precinct, where I lived, and we were assigned to work there during that time. And as I got to the precinct, they had a scout car with four officers, and they were sets of three scout cars. So 12 officers. And we went on patrol. And it was beyond one’s imagination as to what one saw—what I saw. And the people—I mean, they were stealing, they were looting. I mean, thousands and thousands of people walking down the street with sofas, with TVs, with whatever they could have. You know, it was beyond one’s imagination that this was happen. And I said, “Damn, this is happening in my city.”
And so we went on patrol, and we started trying to stop people from looting. And as you locked up X-number of people, and you got them in the car and you took them back to the precinct, there were hundreds and hundreds of people that would go back into the stores. I remember this one—there was a drugstore at Rochester and Linwood, and, I mean, we went in—we caught people coming out, in the store with loads and loads of stuff. And as we got them and put them in the car, you could see in the rearview mirror, just looking back, I mean, hundreds of other people running into the stores and just taking stuff. So to me it became almost comical. Because I realized at that time that we were overmatched, and we were outmanned. We had 55 hundred police officers, but the city had a million-and-some people, you know, and if they all were going to rebel and do what those looters were doing, we were outmatched.
WW: What were the expectations that were presented to you as a police officer when you’re going out there? Like, go out and arrest people, or go out and just try to contain the situation?
IM: Go out there and contain, and arrest if you can. But there were no specific instructions that were given—you know, if you had a well-trained police department, and you were dispatched to a certain area, this is what you were supposed to do. But we were not. We were ill-equipped to handle that situation. And the belief was that, certainly, this wasn’t going to happen in Detroit. For instance, the 12 of us were driving down Linwood and I was the only black person, I should tell you, with this group of 12 officers and one sergeant. And so we’re driving on Linwood and people are looting. And my sergeant, who was not the brightest guy in the world, says, “Okay, let’s get out of the car and let’s get into a line across Linwood, and we’ll get these damn people off the street, okay?” And so I’m going, okay, you know, this is interesting. But you’ve got to be mindful of what you say and how you say it. As I said, he wasn’t the brightest guy. So we’re across Linwood just south of Davison, and so the sergeant in his inimitable way yells out, “All you fucking niggers get off the street!” And I’m going, oh my god, you know, we’re going to die out here, we’re going to die [laughter]. And the people, it’s like in unison they say, “What did you say?” “I said all you fucking niggers get off the street!” And I mean, they started stoning us. I mean, god, I’m going, this is the dumbest guy in the history of the world, you know. And here I am caught up in this, the only black guy there. Of course, I’m certainly—my history is that I’d heard this word countless times on DPD [Detroit Police Department]. And so we ran back and got in the cars, and took off.
So this was just one of the examples of the craziness of how it was, and of the type of people that we were dealing with on the department [laughter]. I laughed then and I laugh now because I remember I got home, I called my buddy, Jess Davis, we graduated from the academy together, and he was telling similar stories that happened with him. He said, “These guys are ill-equipped to handle this kind of situation, and you just can’t do that and hope that it’s going to resolve itself now.”
WW: Were there any other stories from those early days that you’d like to share?
IM: Sure. There’s some funny stories. And again, my attitude or disposition is that if something’s funny, it’s funny, and I’m not going to overreact to anything. I’ve always been a person who was somewhat relaxed and calm and cool. And so we had taken a group of prisoners downtown to 1300 Beaubien, and on the way back we decide that we’re going to go up Michigan Avenue and got to Livernois and go down Livernois. On Michigan Avenue, west of Junction, we see these people looting. And so we also see this big white Cadillac convertible that’s driving next to us, and we had three police cars, marked police cars. And these guys pull up in this white Cadillac and there’s two guys, one the driver in the front seat, the other guy in the jump seat, and there’s a sofa that’s across the back of the car with the convertible top down, and two guys are holding TVs. And I started laughing, I said, “This is absolutely incredible, I mean, where in the world could you see this kind of stuff happening?” And it was so comical to me that these things were over and over and over.
It became a reality for me when I was going home that night. A sad reality. I had my 1965 black Evergreen Mustang convertible. Back in those days, the back window you could zip out, it was plastic. So I was in uniform, my badge on, my shield on. On the lapel here you had the insignia of the precinct you worked, which was two. I didn’t have my hat on. But I had everything that identified me as a police officer. As I pulled up off the Lodge Freeway, made a left turn onto Chicago, this car pulls up with two older white police officers. And I said, “Police, police, I’m going home.” And they both got out of the car with their guns drawn. I stepped out of the car in uniform. And they said, “Tonight you’re going to die, nigger.” And I said, “What?” And it was like slow-motion. I could see the one officer with gray hair and a brush cut start to pull the trigger. I dove back into my car and with my right hand I pushed the accelerator and took off as they started shooting at me. And thank god they missed me, but I drove home and I called my sergeant. And I said, “Sarge, this is what happened.” And he said, “Well, Ike, you know, there’s some assholes out there.” And I said, “You’re telling me there’s some assholes out there?” [Laughter] That was all that ever happened. So that was a sad reality to me that here we had these two police officers who shot at me, and it hit me in terms of, if they shot at me, a fellow police officer, what are they going to do to other people in the street, the city? And I always question the number of people—we had 43 people that were killed during the riot. How many of them were like me? Because if we go back to what happened at the Algiers Motel incident, where there were three young men killed— these are the people who are supposed to serve and protect the people of the city of Detroit. And we have this code that we live by, allegedly, and the first paragraph says that as a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is the serve mankind, to safe-guard lives and property, protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation, respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality, and justice. That’s the first paragraph. And so I always tried to live by that, and I said to myself and I said to my sergeant, they sure as hell were not respecting the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality, and justice, and this guy says, “Sarge, you’re right, they’re assholes.” So it gave those individuals who had any thoughts or hatred for people their literal license to kill. And I’m sure that that’s what happened, so— [phone rings] I’m sorry.
[Break in tape]
WW: Did you ever feel that level of unwelcome or the threat against you before this in the police department?
IM: Oh yeah, my very first day in the police department. I was assigned to the Second Precinct. And I experienced some racism before but my assumption was that when you joined the police department things were different, that we had this code that we live by. So my very first day I walked into the Second Precinct and went to the front desk and said to the officers there that I’m probationary police officer McKinnon, I’m here reporting for duty. The guy says, “Go upstairs, go upstairs.” I went upstairs and that was the squad room. In the squad room there was a pool table, Ping-Pong table, and it was a big room, and an area that we had roll call. And so I walked in and everybody was white. Oh god, okay. So nobody spoke. And I recognize this one guy, this guy I went to high school with. And I called his name and extended my hand to shake his hand. Didn’t do it, turned his back. So the sergeants come up for roll call. And they would say, “Roll call, fall in!” And everybody would—it’s not like you see on TV, the people sitting in chairs, you would stand at attention and you would do a movement to stand to the person next to you. So the sergeant starts calling out the names and assignments. And like, two is the precinct and one would be the territory, two-one, okay, so Smith and Jones two-one, so-and-so scout two-two—so we get to scout two-seven, and he gives this officer’s name, I still remember it, and then he says, “McKinnon, scout two-seven.” And at that point the officer says, “Jesus fucking Christ, I’m working with the nigger.” Now this is at roll call, my first night on the job, and everybody starts laughing. The sergeant said nothing, but everybody’s laughing. And when you’re faced with that horrible reality of what you’re dealing with, what do you do? But I had made myself a promise and a pledge that I was going to be on the department to try and stop those kinds of things from happening. So even if I had responded in kind and tried to fight these guys, this crazy black guy who attacked this white officer at roll call, who was going to say that I did something right?
Anyway, so after roll call, you would walk out to the cars, and I walked to the car with this guy who made this comment. I said, “Excuse me, am I working with you?” Didn’t say anything. I said, “Excuse me, am I working with you?” Nothing. So I turned around and walked back to the sergeant who was standing with the clipboard. “Excuse me Sergeant, am I working with that officer?” He said, “Yeah, that’s your partner.” So I went and opened the door and got in the car. Never said a word. We worked together for eight hours, didn’t say a word. Didn’t say a word.
At 5:30 the next morning we’re driving around—he’s driving, I’m just sitting there—and he pulls up to a restaurant that’s on Michigan Avenue just east of West Grand Boulevard—turns the engine off, gets out, walks into the restaurant, sits at the counter and orders food. And I started laughing. I said, “If this guy thinks that this is going to drive me off the job, that’s not going to happen.” So I jumped out of the car, ran to the restroom quickly, came back out, and never ate, never said a word to me. So I call other black officers and asked them about their experience. Same things, same things. It’s ironic that— the next day the same thing happened. The third day this guy by the name of Andy Parker—you remember the names of people who are good to you—he comes up after roll call, he says, “Hey, Andy Parker, what’s your name?” I said, “Ike.” He said, “Nice to meet you.” That was a true change from the first two nights. And he told me this, he said, “Listen, there are some assholes on this department, you know, and they’re going to try and drive you away.” He said, “Don’t let them get under your skin.” I said, “Thanks a lot, I really appreciate that.” And that truly helped too, you know.
But that—I think every black officer before me and after me—well, not after me, but about the same time—experienced the same kind of welcome on the department. But you had to be thick-skinned, you had to know that you had to be there because if you were going to make a difference in the community you had to stand tall, which is what I think we tried to do.
WW: Did you see your situation improving at the precinct leading up to ’67, or no? Was it more of the same—
IM: It was more of the same things. There were some officers who treated you better. Others, they just didn’t speak to you. They just didn’t. And of course you would see them on the street acting or saying things to people—there was not a day that went by that I did not hear a racially derogatory term, either towards me or towards someone else on the street. An example, I was working with this white officer, and this elderly gentleman, he had his lunch pail—back in those days, guys carried lunch pails—it’s about probably 5:00 in the morning, he’s walking to work. And this guy—officer who’s driving pulls over, and he says, “Hey boy, come here.” I said, oh Jesus, man, this guy’s probably in his sixties, you know? And the old man is, you can tell he’s an old southern guy, and his speech was just— “Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir.” And he said, “Where the hell are you going boy?” “I’m going to work, sir.” He said, “Goddammit boy, you shouldn’t be out here on the street.” “I’m just going to work, sir.” And I exploded. And I said to this officer, I said, “Listen, you asshole, this man is not a boy.” I said, “You will get his name and you will call him by his name, you understand that?” So the officer said, “You don’t talk that way to me.” I said, “Listen, I will kick your ass.” I said, “Right now I will kick your ass.” So this old man-- can you imagine this old man, just petrified because here’s this black guy dealing with the white officer and they’re about to fight. And I said, “Are you going to charge this man with anything?” No. I said, “Listen sir, I am sorry this happened to you. Why don’t you leave and go.” He said, “Yes sir, officer.” Can you just imagine the story that this guy told somebody later on. So this officer—I said, “Listen, let’s go, right now.” I said, “I’m going to kick your ass right now. Let’s go. You don’t treat people this way.” He said, “Listen, you’re supposed to be my partner.” I said, “I’m supposed to be your partner? You haven’t fucking talked to me the whole night and now I’m your partner?” I said, “You’re going to treat this man this way?” “I’m going to go into the station and tell the sergeant about this.” I said, “That’s fine.”
So we get into the station, and the sergeant was a very fair person. And I said, “Sarge, this is what happened. And I’m right, and he’s wrong.” So this officer took off sick and went home. And so the sergeant, he said, “Ike, listen, you’re standing up strong for what you believe in.” He said, “I’m sorry these kinds of things are happening.” I said, “Well, Sarge, thank you.” But that’s as far as it went with supervisors, I mean, they wouldn’t step up and say this guy is wrong and those kinds of things. But that was a start of things that I saw happening, and started taking action because of what had happened to me. And it was important—and I would talk to other black officers and white officers about the necessity for people standing up. We’re supposed to serve and protect, not to beat people’s asses or to talk to them slightingly. And that’s what I started doing.
WW: Going back to ’67, did you go right back into work after that incident?
IM: Oh yeah, the next morning I went to work. And I told guys about that and—“Jesus Christ, man.” And that was it.
WW: And during this week you stayed working out of the twelfth—
IM: Tenth precinct.
WW: Okay. How did—backtracking again—when you first arrived that early Sunday morning, what was the atmosphere in the Detroit Police Department? What was the situation like? Was it chaotic?
IM: It was chaotic because we didn’t know what we were doing. We really didn’t. They told us, if you have a shotgun, go get it, because we didn’t have the weapons, you know. And again, we were not prepared for it.
WW: What was the feeling in the police department when the state police and the National Guard came in?
IM: There was help. But there was this un-relying feeling that these guys were ill-equipped, too. I mean, no one was prepared to handle this. State police were seen as guys who did the freeways, and National Guards were seen as people who were weekend warriors, so there was not any respect for them in that sense of speaking, but they were help just in case things went crazy. But they were—these were guys who, as I said, were weekend warriors who appeared to be petrified as to what was going on in the city. And nobody wanted to get shot, you know, but they were not police people, they didn’t know how to handle those kinds of situations, and to a certain extent neither did we.
WW: Was there—by the time the federal troops came in—
IM: Oh, yeah.
WW: Was there, like, a breath of—like a sigh of relief then?
IM: Absolutely. There was a sense of respect in that, the 101st, they don’t bullshit, they come in and they take care of business. And you had all these black people who had been in the 101st or in the Airborne or things like that, so they knew that things would be serious. And you never saw these guys do anything out of the way in terms of taking someone’s life or beating someone’s ass or things like that. They were strictly strong, and they were respected by the people in the community. It was amazing how that happened. I mean, there was lack of respect for the National Guard, but for the 101st, that was serious.
WW: Did you have any interactions with either the National Guard or the federal troops that week?
IM: Yeah, yeah. I was with the National Guard one night— I don’t remember which night it was. And we were on patrol in the area of Linwood and Joy Road. And all of a sudden these shots start ringing out, and you could hear the sound of shots but you could see the bullets skipping along the pavement. And so it was the first and only time I’ve been able to do a cartwheel. I dove out of the jeep and I did a cartwheel, two of them, and landed up against the wall—there’s a bank, Detroit Banking Trust it was at that time, the building’s still there—I landed up against the wall, and the bullets were still skipping along the pavement [laughs]. And me and the National Guard’s people and I think there was one older Detroit police officer. And we didn’t know where the shots were coming from. And so the older police officer said, “Shoot those lights out.” And so the comedy here was that everybody was trying to shoot the lights out, and they kept missing the lights [laughs]. And so it was a comedy, I wanted to say, I don’t believe this stuff—and with rifles and everything—and so finally this older guy, he’s just, “I got it.” And it was like the movies. He has a chew of tobacco in his mouth, you know, he spits out the chew of tobacco, shoots the streetlight out, and he’s right under the streetlight, and the damn thing falls right on his head [laughs]. There’s comedy in everything that you see, to a certain extent, but I’ll never forget that. And it’s my assessment that probably most of the shooting came from guys trying to shoot the streetlights out. And it caused problems. And maybe that was what was happening with us, when I did the cartwheel out of the jeep. It was a frightening time.
WW: Do you remember how you first heard about the Algiers Motel incident?
IM: Sometime during the insurrection, someone said there were three colored men had been killed at the Algiers Motel. I didn’t question as to why at the time it would happen, but that was the word that I got. And I think that was the first inkling that something—and then right after the riots. There was word within the police department that three white police officers had killed three young black men, and it was at the Algiers Motel, so. And I had lived at 237 Philadelphia, which was not too far from the Algiers Motel, at some time later, so it was interesting for me. And I had been on patrol in that area, too, so that stood out for me.
WW: How, for you, did the week wrap up?
IM: Well, it ended with me going back to my precinct, the second precinct, and on patrol. We were working 16, 18 hour days. It was tiring, it was hot as hell. Hot as hell. There was no air conditioning in cars. It was—we didn’t know the number of people that had been killed, we didn’t know the amount of property that had been destroyed, although we were there to see the houses burn, the buildings burn, but in its totality we didn’t know. The news media didn’t report the fatalities, didn’t report all the bad things that had happened. And so because we were working so much, we didn’t know everything that was going on. I had seen things, but to the extent of how it had impacted me, it didn’t really truly start impacting me until it was all over. And that’s when we were coming down from all these days of being on guard, and I started getting migraines. Never had a migraine in my life. Migraines. Went to the doctor and he said, “It’s stress. It’s the stress that you’re under.” And who wouldn’t have that kind of stress after all these days of being involved in these things that we had been.
WW: You’ve referred to ’67 as a couple different things. How do you interpret what happened in ’67?
IM: Well, it’s a rebellion. It’s a rebellion. It’s a riot. But probably the proper term would be to say rebellion. When I was out there in the midst of it, I said, “Man, this is a riot.” But the more you look at it, the more you think about it being a rebellion.
WW: Given the stress that you were under, and everything that you’d experienced, did you ever think about moving out of the city?
IM: No. I never thought about moving out of the city. I thought that part of my goal and mission in life was to make this a better city, and to make people better. I realized that this was a set-back for us, but it was my goal to continue to stay here and do the best that I could. And that was it for me.
WW: In the immediate aftermath of ’67, how did the Detroit Police Department react? Especially when—how did they react when people said they had lost the rebellion?
IM: Well, understanding that the Kerner Comission said after the riot, rebellion, that America was moving towards two societies: one black, one white, one rich, one poor, that’s true. Now, I mean, it’s even more so, we have more separate societies. Well, the police departments—the police department and police departments across the country felt that the best way to deal with this was to train—to arm themselves. And that’s what Detroit did, that’s what others did. We did training in prevention, but we didn’t do training in terms of officers understanding how they should talk or deal or treat people. In addition, we didn’t do a good job of the recruitment of people into the police department, black and white. And so, every police department in my estimation has to do a better job of ferreting out those individuals who might have some problems. It wasn’t just having a gun, it’s also being able to talk with people, to understand people, and everybody didn’t need to be locked up. Everybody didn’t need to be shot. And most police departments, they got tanks, they armed themselves better in case something horrible happened. We also had to think about this in terms of, you can’t arrest everybody, you can’t kill everyone, you have to look at this in terms of, how do we eliminate the potential for something like this happening again? And throughout the years I’ve seen the potential for that happening again, be it Rodney King, or other people that have been shot or involved with the police in any action. We as police people had to look at what can we do. We can’t arrest, at that time, a 1,900,000 people. We can’t beat up a 1,900,000 people. We have to look at, how do we as law-enforcement officers contain and make sure that we handle the situation better than we have in the past. And that’s what we started doing. And we went about serving and protecting, in my estimation, the wrong way. So it was—we had people who had been a part of this, who had been part of the racial climate, black and white, who had not adjusted to the reality of this changing world. That’s what happened with Detroit, in my estimation.
WW: Skipping now to present day—
WW: How do you feel about the state of the city today?
IM: I think that we are light-years ahead of then, but we don’t want to fool ourselves and say that things like that couldn’t happen. The police department’s done a great job, the political part of it has done a great job in terms of recruitment, in terms of identifying, but sometimes all it takes is one flashpoint to kick something off. We looked at the number of young men of color who have been killed across the country. And we have to understand that there’s that potential for anything kicking something off. And just because Detroit’s 81 percent African American doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. So whether it’s a black officer or a white officer, the potential’s always there. So we have to be, hopefully, one step ahead of handling those kinds of crises, and hope that it doesn’t get back to that point. Because we had, in 1943—we had riots before that, with ’43, we had ’67, and the potential is there. We had—when they killed the guy up on Fenkell and Livernois, by Bolton’s Bar. There’s always that potential. So every time there’s a potential of a flashpoint, every time, that might happen, you know. We hope that we’ve done a good job. I mean, I tried to do it when I was chief, I certainly tried to do it as a deputy mayor, and now I try to do it as a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, to continue to educate people, to—so many people don’t know the reality of what happened then, they don’t know the history of the city, they don’t know the history of the racial strife that has been in the city, and there’s some people who still have this anger and hatred in their hearts, whether black or white. And that’s frightening to me. You know, I mean, I talk to people who live outside the city, and some inside the city, who believe the best way to handle things is to lock people up, or to beat their asses.
WW: Are you optimistic for the city moving forward?
IM: Always, always, absolutely. I think that, in the last few years, we’ve been very, very proactive in terms of working towards a community. If we go to Dennis Archer, who was mayor, who tried, who had a different set of circumstances, economically. Mike Duggan has a different set of circumstances economically because there’s more. And there are people who appear to be—I’m talking about in the city—appear to be of the mindset that we don’t want these kinds of things to happen again. If we could continue to educate people, if we continue to change their mindset in terms of what is happening in the city, how can I make a difference? If we can continue to do that, we can have a profound impact on this city.
Because we were just in Italy two weeks ago, and I’m on the board of Catholic Charities USA—and people were asking, are these changes happening in Detroit? They say, We’re concerned because of what happened 50 years ago. So the world knows about Detroit. As deputy mayor, I spoke with countless visitors and they wanted to talk about how they could help. I said, “Spread the word about the change that we’re going through.” And they’re trying to do that. But there will always be the people, though, who will be downtrodden and speak slightingly of the city. But we’ve got to get our own act together in terms of thinking of the good things that we can do, and that’s one of the most important things that we can do. Speak—Emily Gail used to have this thing of “Say nice things about Detroit,” back in the eighties. Well, yeah, we want to say nice things about Detroit, but we want to do nice things. And there are a great number of people who are investing in the city. The job market is so much better. And that makes—if we get people to get jobs, get people to get education, which is at the forefront of everything we’re trying to do—education is so important, and we have a lot of young people who are uneducated, and so they have to have hope for the future.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to add today.
IM: Oh [laughs], you got me going.
I’ve lived in this city for, what, 64 years. I’ve lived through the good and the bad, and things that stand out for me are things that I hope we can educate people to. And that’s why I got into this field of education. As a law-enforcement officer, I tried to educate—I locked people up, but I tried to educate. Because it was more important for me to educate people, to get them to think about the future. During this process of living in the city and growing up, I watched a lack of men, African American men, take a role in education. When I say that, I mean, if we can get men of color to be at the forefront of education for themselves, for their families, in particular for young men, we could have a profound impact upon what’s happening in our society. That’s not just Detroit, but throughout the country. We always hear about the black fathers who are not there, but what I’m saying is take responsibility. Get those young people into some form of education. And what would even be better is if they became educators. We don’t want them to be educated in terms of the best way to do drugs and things like that, but become educators. Just think about this: in all the years I was in junior high, high school, grade school, I had three African American teachers. And 11 years I was in college, undergrad, masters, PhD, I had no African American teachers. But yet I still flash back to Mr. Hughes, Mr. Teasley, who were my seventh and eighth grade teachers, and the profound impact they had on my life. Think about how if we as a society, in particular blacks in society, talked to our young people about the profoundness of those men who could have that impact on your life. And so that’s where I’m going next, with this. I mean, it’s so important, at my age, at any age, to continue education, and that’s what I’m going to try and do.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
IM: Thank you, it’s my pleasure.