Jim Atkin, July 1st, 2016
WW: Hello, today is July 1st, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. We are in Dearborn, Michigan. This interview is of Jim Atkins. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
JA: Thank you. I’ll make one correction: it’s Atkin.
WW: Gotcha. Sorry about that.
JA: There’s been some funny stories about that. I was born here in Detroit. My parents had become naturalized citizens in about 1920s?
WW: Where were they from?
JA: Windsor, Canadians. My father worked for the Detroit Times newspaper, and my mother was a housewife. It was just a typical, at that time, white neighborhood. There was no integration, segregation.
WW: What neighborhood was it?
JA: Oh, I’m sorry, it was on Mansfield between Greenfield and Southfield, between Six and Puritan. I attended Cooley High School, graduated in 63. That was just a scene out of “Happy Days” and craziness. From there I went to Highland Park Junior College along with several other of my friends. We were making up some science courses and such. Was introduced to a fantastic art instructor who got me involved with the Society of Arts and Crafts, which is now CCS. During that time, I was given a draft notice and at the same time, my father was deathly ill. Not knowing what to do, riding home one night from the hospital with my brother, I said, “I’m just going to go and enlist.” And he said, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I’m just going to enlist in the marines.” He said, “Why the marines?” I said, “If you’re going to go, go.” He said, “Have you ever considered the Air National Guard?” Well, he had been a member. It didn’t even register.
WW: How much older was he than you?
JA: Ten years. He gave me some talks and rationale about family and such. Just so happens I was hanging out at the local drive-in, Big Boys, at Grand River and Greenfield where most of the cooley kids hung out. A friend of mine came up and we talked about the draft, and he said, “I’m going to go see what the Air Guard is going to do.” And I go, “Well, that’s great, I’ll go with you.” I had already called CCS; at that time, Arts and Crafts was not an accredited school. I quickly enrolled in Wayne State, but the lady that signed my draft card, Norma Baldwin, said, “Sorry, Jim, that doesn’t work.” I went out there and it was questions and answers. They take tests and interviews, and in one room, I hear people saying, “I do” in the next room. So this Lieutenant, who I became great friends with, I called him over and said, “What happens if I say I don’t?” He said, “Do you have your draft card with you?” I said, “Yeah.” He reads it and says, “Well, I’m going to call Norma Baldwin and she’s going to send a special bus for you and you’re going to be driven right down to Fort Wayne Military Induction Center.” So I said, “I understand, I get the picture.” I said, “I do.” Came home that night and around the dinner table explained to my family, “Oh, yeah, I went out and enlisted in the Air National Guard.” He freaked out. This was late August—
WW: Of what year?
JA: 65. The Michigan Air Guard had been activated for Korea, and since that time they had just, you know, you had done your duty. But now because of the Vietnam situation, they would utilize our services. Within two weeks, I drove out to Metro Airport—that was the start of my military induction. I was issued clothing and stuff and assigned to the supply squadron. It wasn’t until December 17 that I left for basic training and went through the normal course of, you know, stand up, sit down, left, right. Then I went to a technical school for supply. The mission of our base was we could go and set up an airport, a runway, any place in the country, any place in the world. All the inoculations from the bubonic plague to whatever. It was quite nice. Our planes were not fighter planes; they were RECON planes and they had extra cameras on them. My first Lieutenant that I was assigned happened to be an alumni of the fraternity I was in down on Wayne State University, so we had a very cordial relationship. I’d gone to a summer camp in Alpena and come back, and the discussion was, “What does the Air Guard really do?” I could issue out tools, guns, all the stuff, guys would fix the planes, the planes fly. They figured it took like a hundred people to support one aircraft. And that’s all we did. Then the riots came about. My wife at that time, prior to us getting married—
WW: Before we get to 67, couple more questions before that. Going into the 1960s in Detroit, did you sense any growing tension in the city?
JA: You know, that was the thing. Even when in Highland Park Junior College, they had the high school on one side, the college on the other. They said you always have to be careful on the high school side, get a little tough over there. I enjoyed it. The kids were all nice. I could never harmonize in the Johns like the guys were doing. There was so much music going on over there. And I did make some friends, and got along. I was really, if I want to say out of the norm on things, there was nothing there. Wayne State was a little different. There was a little more activity on campus, lot more activism. Some things occurred on campus after the riots, I’ll tell you that story as we progress. But, no, I was not aware of the undertone that was within Detroit. Getting called up—
WW: What were you doing for work between 65 and 67?
JA: The Airforce had a position for summer work and I was going out there everyday for my employment. Since I was going through a transition thing, school and that started for Wayne State. I was going to be a graphic designer. But this was pay, it was good pay, and I knew everybody there and within the Guard there are the Guard and then the Weekend Warriors. The Guard are the officers and stuff that work there twenty-four hours, I mean they’re there all the time. So with a very small handful of people, projects got done, orders were placed, shipments came in, planes got fueled, planes got fixed. When our duty weekends, which were two days a month, came about, it was sort of mass “Do that.” You collect everybody’s orders of who needs what. Stuff would come in and it would already be sorted prior to the previous drill we then issued. People would obtain classes. If there were any changes in the aircraft, help put parts in, parts renewed, maintenance schedules. My summer job was packing mobility bags. We had bags for winter and bags for summer. We would occasionally be given emergency drills. They would call us up and say, “Grab your stuff, we’re taking off, be here at such and such.” Well everybody would be there early and they’d decide what bags we were going to issue and issue those out and that type of thing. Sometimes they would take us right out to the runway, and we’d be taxied. The end of the exercise, turn around, bring us back, put everything away, and everybody’d go home. My wife was at Six and Livernois, that’s where her family lived and they’d lived for twenty-some years. My wife’s father was a sergeant with the Detroit Fire Department. They had a cottage over in Windsor, and they were over there. When Kathy calls she says, “Look, I’m seeing smoke.” So I packed up a rifle and went over there. Watched the news—
WW: Went over to where?
JA: Over to her house and sort of babysat with her until her folks came in. Her father, having been through the 43 riots, came in and sort of gave us a little bit of history. He sort of summarized what the fire department would be doing right now. At that time, the fire department had very few black people involved in it. He came in, “Why aren’t the doors locked?” And I said, “I want to be able to get out of this house quicker than I can get in, if something happens.” I said, “By the way, there’s several guns on the dining room table.” And I kept wondering, when are they going to call us? The army guard had been called up right away, and then we got the call and we went out to the base—the base, Metro Airport at the far corner. They started setting up a perimeter guard and I thought, who’s going to come out here? Well, surprisingly, somebody had tried to smash the gate. Our MPs went on full alert.
WW: And this was on Sunday? Or was it later?
JA: This is Monday.
JA: We got the call that we had been federalized and the unique thing about that is the Air Guard had not been federalized for a civil disturbance ever. We aren’t trained for that kind of stuff. Yes, most of the fellows in my unit all had our marksmanship medals and stuff, and we can take orders, we can march, we can do our job, but to be confrontive on the street situation. No, it was all new to us. The first night there, it was like eight to eight shifts. There was nothing for us to do because they said, “Be in your place and wait.” We had the radios on all night and reports of, you could hear tanks going down the streets, you could hear rounds being fired off, stories of police, god it’s a mad house down there! And then in the middle of the night, late in the morning, early morning, they said they’re sending buses for us. So that meant the new eight o’clock crew was going down. Which started to tick me off because I said, “I want to go downtown.” So because of my friendship with the officers and working full time, I was at a little higher level than most of the guys and they said, “Yeah, but you’re going to be the last guy on the bus.” I said, “No problem.” So we get on these DSR buses and start going down 94, and things are pretty quiet. We were issued rifles, bayonets, and we were given a lecture going down saying, “Watch the second floor windows for snipers. Don’t look at the top floor because people want to get out.” Then a guy said, “Here’s your ammunition, take five rounds and load.” Well, that changed the whole story. Up until then we were college kids, not doing anything, and now we’re in a position of somebody’s going to get hurt, somebody’s going to get killed, am I going to get killed? They deposited us at the First Precinct downtown Detroit. Got off the bus, and it was a little cloudy, and since I consider myself an artist, I see things as pictures. This looked like a medieval scene instead of cement towers, there were towers of sandbags with barbed wire on top. There were guys in different colored uniforms walking around, heavily armed, light armed. Police cars going out, police cars coming back in with bullet holes in them or carrying someone in the back. It made a real image, so I thought, what are they going to do with us? And they said, “Tonight, you’re going to be prison guards.” Okay. The jails were overcrowded and what they have done is lined up a dozen or so buses behind the first precinct, and they were parked just beyond arm’s reach apart from one another and they would put prisoners in these buses. Each bus had a county sheriff on it, and our job was just to constantly check in with the sheriff and keep walking around the perimeter all the time. Well, we thought that, you know, what can go wrong there? There were several types of people on the bus. There were ones that go, “What the hell did they do? How did they get picked up?” Other guys were very, very angry towards us, towards the police. And others were just totally frustrated and later in life, I wonder how many of these guys were actually mentally sound, that had gotten picked up. One incident, one prisoner smashed the window with his seat bench, was trying to cut his head off on the glass. While that was going on, people thought it’d be a good time to run off the bus. There were people on the bus that would whisper at us to go get the sheriff, come back, and they’d drag this guy off the bus and they hand over a gun. Somehow, weapons were getting onto the buses. They literally moved this guy around to different buses, and he was just trying to help people out. Well, these guys had been on the buses for over a day. It smelled like a urinal. Food was usually a bologna sandwich, because we ate the same thing they did. At night, you did walk between, you learned to walk between the buses with the rifle up in front of my face so if anybody went to grab my face they’d hit the bayonet first. The only thing that happened to any of our guys, somebody cut his finger trying to open up a coke can. It was before pop tops, said, “Do you have a can opener?” and guy says, “Use your bayonet!” and the kid did and cut his finger. We went home and I thought going home was interesting because now you’re starting to look at everything through different—your perspective changed, from being a very naïve art student to you’re somewhat of authority, you’re a target, and really what help can you give? So the next night, they had us as perimeter guards, and my station was on Monroe—well, Greektown Casino is there. But there used to be a mannequin manufactory up on the second floor. The first time somebody would come around, they’d get so spooked because they’d see all these figures up there. And my job was just to walk up and down the street periodically. Stationed there during the day and just make sure things were moving along all right. I stopped and went into one little place, a Greek restaurant for lunch, and the guy said, “No, it’s on us.” Little old lady came over and she said, “Don’t worry, there’s more guns inside the stores than you guys have.” I thought okay, everybody’s taking it seriously. The daytime was fine. Police car came around and they said, “Cover us, there’s a sniper in that building.” So we did that, I did that. Nothing came of it. Then it got to be curfew time. There were people driving their kids around to see the riots, and it’s getting dark. I would stop those people and say, “Get out of here! There’s no reason for you to be here! You can provoke, you can drive into something! Watch it on television!”
WW: Do you know if these people were primarily Detroiters?
AJ: Yes. I stopped one fellow that had a gun on his seat, and he was an attorney. We talked and let him through. Then they started releasing kids, and the deal was they could get by us holding up a white sheet of paper and that was their release permit.
WW: Who was releasing those kids?
AJ: The Detroit Police Department.
WW: From their holding cells?
AJ: A well-dressed black attorney came up and he said, “Those bayonets are so intimidating. That’s really causing fear.” And I said, “Okay, I’ll take mine off, cause it’s a lot easier to shoot somebody than to stab them.” “Well, that’s not what I meant!” I said, “I know, but I’ll go with you here.” And I thought, is it? Is there that much fear? Are people looking at us in that content and I’m still thinking about the guys that are still sitting on the bus that probably were still sitting there in filth and hungry, and of course the buses aren’t air-conditioned and it’s hot and it’s been hot. It was a very altering experience. When they had brought us up when Martin Luther King was assassinated, they no longer put the Air Guard on the streets, but they put them in power stations wherever there was gas maintained or an electrical power source. They were like little forts. So my job was to drive around all these different places. Just before the Chicago convention—
WW: Okay, well going back, moving away—
WW: How long were those people, on average, on the bus? Were they on there the whole week? Or were they coming and going?
AJ: Some were coming and going. Some of the fellas that I spoke to had been there for two days. That was just a long two days. I mean, there was black and white on the buses. One of the white fellows pointed out to me that he was in a wheelchair and he’d been shooting up the window. I thought, why? What did he do? What made him cross that line? Now our planes would come back and we’d see some of the photographs before they went to press and you could see where a gas station was set afire, and it blew up. It didn’t come down on the house on either side, it went to the second house and continued to burn out the block. The only Air Guard guy that actually shot—I don’t know if they got the guy or not—he was guarding fire trucks. He shot at somebody. I learned a great respect for firemen at that time, because it didn’t matter what the color was of the area; if there was a fire, they went to put to put out the fire. Getting picked on just didn’t seem fair. When they brought in the airborne troops, you could tell they were professional, well-trained soldiers, compared to our guys. Being the first perimeter, I was the last line of defense. A couple of these guys came by, and I said, “You know, I’m it.” And they said, “Yeah, we know. We’re just going to go out scouting.” And I go, “These guys got to be crazy.” But, they knew what they were doing, whereas we— and then after it was over, we started getting a lot more training.
Probably the most interesting visual was over by Cobo Hall during the night, and there’s a fire station across the street which is now defunct. There’s this alley and there’s this steam vent. From the alley, there’s a light that’s a back entrance to a bar, so the steam vent is blowing up this steam, and it’s a red fluorescent light so everything has this glow to it, and out trot four mounted officers dressed in black helmets, face masks, all their leather on dark horses. It just was like a Kodak moment. It was the most medieval—these guys are knights, they’re coming. They galloped off, but just that impression, and I thought, crap, I’m a good guy, and I was scared of them.
My wife was working at Channel 2, so they were picking her up in the morning and taking her to the station. So I knew she was safe. But it did affect our lives. It affected our children’s lives. After the kids graduated, my wife got a degree in criminal justice. She was a legal secretary, and she worked for Covenant House of Michigan. You see the kids come in, and they look like killers, but they’ll say, “Good morning, Miss Kathy.” Whole different perception. My son—one of his careers was [32:58??] and he worked with people that were chemically dependent, and he said, “You’ll find that there are so many people on the streets that are invisible.” He said, “If you say hello to somebody, it’ll change the whole dynamics of something.” And I found that worked out. I was working at a job and I would see this black lady every morning, and I’d say, “Hi.” Finally one day, she said, “It sure is nice to see a man with a broom in his hands.” And suddenly that relationship developed. My daughter now works for COTS [Coalition on Temporary Shelter]. She’s helping people. My son has a dual career in neuroscience—which he’s helping Alzheimer’s patients—but he also taught in southwest Detroit, theatre. He learned all about the gangs and stuff. I was down at the Detroit riverfront. We were building water barrels, and I went down there, and by the time I left, there were people that I didn’t know shaking hands, giving hugs, and this one lady said, “Well, you take care of yourself, baby!” and I thought, wow. What a great feeling. It’s just that whole underlining situation at that time that either people were just sticking their heads in the ground and not knowing about it, or not knowing about it, or refusing to care about it. But I had a little bit of sympathy for the people that I encountered during the riots. Some shouldn’t have been there; some should. You shoot up a police car, yeah, you should be. But if you’re out after curfew and just running around…. In one area, I was out on the street and I had a truck with four other guys, and a group of black kids were walking down the street and I thought, here’s a perfect situation. You can be confrontive or—they weren’t doing anything. Let’s just pack up and go. We’re done here, we don’t have to say anything to those kids and just let them go about their business. They could’ve been an angry mob, or they could’ve been kids going over to some other kid’s house. We could’ve caused some issues. All we had to do was point a gun at them and it would’ve been a problem. Could’ve caused a problem. I feel good about what we did. I was somewhat honored that a rare group like us got involved. I have worked with people that were in the Ohio Guard and Indiana Guard and we’d often sit around over lunch and just tell stories. Some were more violent than mine. Learning that I know now, I still would’ve done everything I did because I did it, I think, in a professional and human way. I wasn’t a hard ass on the streets. But you could’ve been. You could’ve mirrored the image of some of those people coming in.
But my in-laws’ house was fine. Everybody came out safe. The Air Guard went in for Civil Disobedience training, which amounted to getting tear-gassed, to see what that’s like and formation. We didn’t use any of it, which was fine with me. It was a lot safer. It was funny though, I’d laugh about it with the Army Guard guys. Air Force trucks are meant to be seen; they aren’t stealth in any way. They have running yellow lights all over them, and of course the Army guys, they just have these little lights. We’d be going down the street, people would come out and follow us for a while, and “Buzz off!” but it was silly. I had never loaded a .45 in my life. Some car came out on the street without his lights on and I go, “Oh, crap.” And I’m in charge of these guys, so I said, “Load, and just show them that you’re there.” And they followed us for about another block and split off, and I thought, phew! Then I had to figure out how to unload this .45. I was afraid that it was going to blow a hole in the floor. There were funny times, there were good times. Since I had been a regular, I’d go into these places and, “Who’s in charge here?” “Well, Major Naggs.” “Get him out, I want to see him! Tell him Atkins is here.” So these guys didn’t know who I was. “Oh, hi, Jim. What’s going on?” “Well, this and this and this.” “Okay.” It was just interesting, the dynamics.
WW: What various roles besides guarding downtown, working in the first precinct, did the Air National Guard play? Because you said they also guarded fire trucks?
JA: Yes, they did go out with the firetrucks.
WW: Was there anything else they did?
JA: No, basically it was just—yeah, intersections and things like that, but no incidents that should’ve brought them into harm’s way.
WW: Okay. Couple wrap-up questions. You said activism really ramped up afterwards on Wayne State’s campus after 67.
JA: Well, it did with me. Prior to the Chicago convention, I had a psychology professor by the name of Barbara [Plysco?]. Barbara brought in a group of activists that were practicing to go to Chicago to disrupt. Barbara was much more radicalized than we had imagined at the time. So we’re having class and all of a sudden kids come in with two-by-fours and all this kind of stuff. I am less under control because I’m sitting at the edge and I can get out of the way from the group. But they tied her up, they’re setting the waste paper basket on fire, room’s full of smoke. They’re professing their slogans and all of this kind of stuff. One black guy got up in the far corner of the room and he smashed a two by four on his desk—no, I take that back, it was a Jewish fella. They said all sorts of things to him, and immediately a black guy stood up and I stood up right after him. I bolted down the hall, because I knew there was a secretary desk, and I said, “Get the police over here.” I went back in, grabbed a few other Greek fraternity guys that I knew from the hallway, walked in the door, picked up a chair, and was about to throw it, and the teacher’s saying, “Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop!” And she’s saying, “This was a test,” and she said, “You’re the only class that reacted. We had them saying a pledge to a swastika on the wall.” She said, “What caused you guys to react that way?” The black fella stood up and he said, “The minute they talked about the Jew, I knew I was going to be next.” They said, “What made you get up?” I said, “I was in the riots and I saw too many black people that were misjudged and I knew that something was going to happen.” And I said, “The thing that scares me is I’m an art student. I carry knives all over me.” And I said, “There’s no reason why—the guy next to me, I couldn’t’ve stabbed him and got away with it.” By now, other professors are there, the police are there and I went to the bar with those guys that night and we talked for a couple of hours along with Barbara. Probably two weeks later, she was arrested at Metro Airport trying to board a plane with like a .25 automatic. She had sort of gone over the edge. There are times when now, I will stand up. I’ve been robbed in Detroit, I’ve been robbed at gunpoint in Detroit. But there are times that you judge the person and sometimes you’ve got to support people that you think you wouldn’t support, but you do. My family knows that. My son went to UD High School and in a play, the girl from Mercy was black and he had to slap her around. After the play, here come guys that are bigger than football players, and I go, oh, they’re going to say something to Graham. And they’re high-fiving, and saying, you know, good job. Somebody in the crowd said, “Yeah, he’s cool. Graham’s color blind.” And that made a big impression on me. And that’s the way my wife is, that’s the way my daughter is now.
WW: How long did you continue with the National Guard?
JA: I was out in 70 and I was due to become an officer. I had just gotten engaged, taken all but one test, and they go, “You know, you can’t just be an officer for one year; you have to reenlist for another six.” I came home and told my wife-to-be, and she says, “Holy crap.” I got out of it. I wasn’t well-thought of, at the time, because people had pulled strings for me, but no, six years was enough.
WW: How long did you continue to live in the city of Detroit? And then what prompted your move out?
JA: Actually, it was my father retiring that moved out, still lived in Detroit. It was into the 70s, early 70s. They bought a house down in Florida, so they needed a place to stay for eight months, so they found a little place on Cherry Hill and Inkster. When they moved there, Kathy and I just took over the payments. And then when we looked for a house, we looked all over. This was the last place we looked at. Course, we had a little pressure because number two daughter was coming along, and we had one child already.
WW: How do you see the city of Detroit today?
JA: Much better. There’s a place called, I think it’s Tangent Studios down on the riverfront. It’s an area that I would not have ever gone into. We’ve gone down for events, my daughter will run down and people that live there, if they’ve had a bad day, she’ll cook them a meal, run down. It’s an art gallery, performance piece. The activities on the riverfront are great. The conservation department put up a building along the riverfront that allows people to see what the woods are like, what it’s like to row a boat, light a campfire, some stuffed deer. It’s a thing that some of these intercity kids will never get a chance to be out in a park someplace, but at least it tells us. Belle Isle, such a great place. We went over to the aquarium, we took another day and went to the conservatory, and then another day we took in the Dossin museum. It’s a diversified crowd on the beach. Not just saying black and white. Here, in Dearborn, we’re noted for Arabs. Everybody mixes around. We have a vacant lot two blocks down—we don’t have it, but there is one. Tomorrow, there’ll be all sort of kids—black, white, Arabic—they’re playing baseball. It’s like it was when I was growing up. There’ll be kids dribbling basketballs down the street, or a bunch of kids running track. We get that from DC and Dearborn High. Halloween, around here—I’m a big Halloween person. Our high number’s been over 800.
JA: I’ve had guys that look like gangster rappers come up to me and say, “Thank you, you’ve taught my kids some stuff.” And then I usher them up, “You’ve got to get candy, too.” It is so nice. You have all these families, they gather and they hang out on the front walk and they’re taking pictures and people are holding their candy bags while people are doing stuff, and it’s such a real neighborhood. One of my displays ended up at Henry Ford Museum—Henry Ford Estate. They used it over there. So we do put a lot of time into it, and the people seem to appreciate it. There are people that say, “Where are all these black kids coming from?” My wife says, “They’re coming from neighborhoods where it’s not safe to walk at night.” We’re happy to host them here. That’s what we’ve become after all this. It did change things for me, my outlook. Am I still cautious of going certain places in Detroit? Sure. It’s more common sense. There’s a lot of places I wouldn’t go at night.
WW: Well, thank you very much for sitting down with us today. I greatly appreciate it.
JA: I’m sorry for talking your ear off.
WW: Oh, not to worry.