Karl Mantyla, September 9th, 2016
William Winkle: Hello, today is September 9, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. I am sitting down with Mr. Karl Mantyla. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
Karl Mantyla: You’re welcome. It’s a pleasure.
WW: Can you start by telling me when and where were you born?
KM: I was born in old Grace Hospital in Detroit, June 18, 1938. I’ve been either, for the most part, close to Detroit or a resident of Detroit for many of the years following that time.
WW: Growing up in the city, what neighborhood did you live in?
KM: I lived in several. I lived in the Dexter-Davidson area on Clement Street. The house is no longer there; it's a vacant lot. I lived on Longfellow Street, again in the same area. I lived on Mettetal Street. I went to grade school there. That was near Plymouth Road and Greenfield on the northwest side. Far north side. I lived on Brentwood for close to seven years. I also had a house for a period of time on Maryland Street in the Warren and Alter Road area. Then I associated Detroit with members of my family for a good long time.
WW: Growing up, the neighborhoods you lived in, were they integrated neighborhoods?
KM: They were not. They were primarily white neighborhoods. My first family consisted of myself, my wife then, and four children. The children were raised with white friends for the most part. Later on the neighborhood began changing to Chaldean and then to African-American.
WW: Growing up in the city, what schools did you go to?
KM: I went to the elementary school that serves the Clement Street area – the grade school, I should say; the elementary school that served the Plymouth Road-Greenfield area near Mettetal Street. Other than that, I was in school in later grades in Waterford Township and graduated eventually from Waterford High School. Attended several primarily all white schools: Waterford, from which I graduated in 1956; Sturgis High School; Petoskey High School; and Royal Oak High School for a short period of time.
WW: Moving around a little bit.
KM: I did, yes. There was a divorce between my mother and father and my mother moved frequently in search of better and better jobs. I moved with her.
WW: After you graduated high school, did you stay in the area?
KM: I stayed, generally speaking, in the area with the exception of when I was employed by the Detroit Times. The newspaper went out of business in 1960 and then I left Detroit for a couple of years to work as a bureau chief for the Akron Beacon Journal in Akron, Ohio, then after that returned to Detroit for seven-and-a half years. I was working at the Associated Press as a newsman and journalist and editor. From Associated Press I went to the United Auto Workers Union in their publications department, public relations department, and their local license department. I worked there for over 30 years until I retired in 1998.
WW: In the 1950s and early Sixties, did you notice any growing tension in the city?
KM: I did not witness any personally but I certainly heard of a good amount of tension and heard of it, including from members of my own family. We moved from one part of the city to a more suburban part of the city and eventually moved out of town to the suburbs. Actually, I think there were a total of six or seven of my relatives who eventually moved away from the city.
WW: Do you know why they did?
KM: I think they were primarily part of the “white flight” that left the city. Unfortunately, when I chose to come back to the city and purchase a home on Maryland Street in the Warren and Alter Road area, that house had one buyer after me and then it was bulldozed into the basement. [Berg strippers ?] went in first. The neighborhood had changed there. They changed from working class home ownership primarily neighborhood, to one of rentals. A lot of people left and used their properties as rentals. We began noticing fewer and fewer residents who were the original residents and bought and paid for their own homes and eventually I joined that flight myself.
WW: What year did you leave the city?
KM: I have a little difficulty remembering exactly when that was.
WW: Okay, not to worry. When you came back to work for the Associated Press, what was your job with the Associated Press?
KM: I was a newsman journalist, often called “general assignment.” Also was an editor, a real editor, edited the copy that was furnished to broadcast stations. I worked there from 1962 until late-1969.
WW: Going into the summer of ’67, had you seen any signs that something was coming?
KM: Yes, I had. The 1967 riot was actually one of three riots that occurred in the city. The first one was a mini-riot. It was in 1966 on Kercheval on the lower east side. The big one, as it was called, the one in which so many people were killed, was in 1967. There was a riot the summer following that, the World Series year, when the Detroit Tigers faced the St. Louis Cardinals. You may remember some of the names of the players that were associated with the World Series champion Tigers: Mickey Lolich was a pitcher; Denny McLane was a pitcher; there were others as well – all well known names from that period. There was a riot at the same time as the series was going on in the summer of 1968. In the 1966 mini-riot on Kercheval, I was at one point surrounded by a mob. But, the mob was primarily black. I was there as a newsman asking questions about their motivations. At that time I finally had to talk my way out of the group and rejoin the police officers. In other words, join again for safety sake. Because the mob started — members gathered to see what was going on. They began jive talking me. It wasn’t making any sense. My questions wasn’t getting any answers that I sought. At that point, I realized I was in a precarious situation. I talked my way out of it.
WW: Going into the following summer, were you anticipating another event?
KM: I was not surprised when one occurred. The precipitating event was supposedly they arrested several men at a blind pig. It quickly spread to the streets and it lasted through contrasting administrations with each, as widely surmised, with each intending to embarrass the other one into showing that they could not control the situation at hand. The governor at the time was a Republican, George Romney. It was widely opinionated that Mr. Romney sought to hold back on the state police, and eventually the National Guard, in order to embarrass a politically active Democratic mayor of Detroit, Jerome Cavanagh. It was similarly suspected of the president at the time, Lyndon Johnson, he was to show that Romney and the National Guard and the state police could not control the situation. In other words, the ’67 riot grew beyond the abilities of these two law enforcement branches to control it. It was only when the Third Army was ordered in by Lyndon Johnson – the divisions of that were the 101st Division and the 82nd Airborne Division — that the city was essentially buttoned up and controlled. The National Guard was pretty wild, I thought anyway. I witnessed National Guardsmen with .50 caliber heavy weaponry — .50 caliber machine guns — mounted on trucks that were used to shoot out streetlights. They shot out streetlights in order to conceal themselves in the darkness. They were afraid of being subjected to lighting from outside where “snipers” could take advantage of them, could attack then. There are few reporters living today – if any, besides myself – who covered the riots in general in 1967. And there are no reporters, other than myself, who covered the Algiers Motel incident.
There were three reporters that covered the Algiers Motel: there was myself, there was Joe Strickland from the Detroit News, and Lev Newman from the Detroit Free Press. Strickland died a couple of years afterwards, after he’d gone to work for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Lev Newman eventually moved to California. He taught journalism there for a while and then guest-lectured at some of his journalism classes at Wayne State University. He died in the 1970s or 1980s in California. So, I’m the survivor; I’m the last one. The only one.
WW: Backtracking a little bit, how did you first hear what was going on on Twelfth Street?
KM: Like most newsgathering organizations, we had connections with the police through police reporters. I don’t know exactly whether the A.P. learned of it from police reporters from the News and the Free Press or otherwise. But they found out very quickly that crowds were gathering and beginning to loot.
WW: What was your first assignment that week? After you found out what was going on, were you assigned to go out to figure out what was going on?
KM: I was assigned to the Algiers Motel case. I was assigned from time to time to cover the riot in general. Covering the riot in general is how I saw the National Guard and their convoys shooting out streetlights. I was very surprised because .50 caliber ammunition could go through two to two-and-half, maybe even three houses without stopping. There were a total of more than 40 people who were killed during the riots, many of them innocent. The Free Press I believe did a story reporting on each death long after the riot had subsided.
WW: Going into the Algiers Motel incident, how did you first hear about it?
KM: I don’t recall exactly but it was through the other news media, the News and the Free Press. I’m virtually certain.
WW: Did you go down to the Algiers Motel?
KM: I visited the motel. There was nothing happening except for a lot of policemen who were watching the property at that time. Most of what I did later on that day, within the next 24 hours, on the Algiers Motel was based on interviews. The primary interviewee was the father of one of the victims.
WW: What other work did you do on that case?
KM: I reported it for the Associated Press. I also cooperated with Lev Newman, who had begun an association with John Hersey in the book that I believe I brought along and that I recommend that you read [The Algiers Motel Incident]. Whatever information Lev didn’t have I furnished him for use by Hersey. I had no interest at the time in writing my own book on it, or doing my own summary of it. So I cooperated with Lev. One of the things I wanted to show you is – I don’t know if you have a copy of this or not. There was a play written ironically with the title Spirit of Detroit, of all things. That was presented several years ago at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History. There was a panel discussion following that play. I was on that panel; I was the sole member of that panel who had actually been at the Algiers Motel and witnessed the events that not too long before had unfolded there. Also later on I covered the trials of three of the policemen. The three policemen who were there: Robert Bailey, David Senak, and Ronald August, who were accused of killing the three youngsters. The Algiers Motel, even though it accounted for fewer numerically victims then the riot itself, three victims out of a total of more than 40, it became a focal point for a lot of the coverage on the riot. It certainly was the focal point for John Hersey’s book, part of The Algiers Motel Incident book. He was best noted for his international bestseller called Hiroshima about the atomic bomb attack on Japan that ended World War II.
WW: Are there any other stories you’d like to share from reporting on the riot that week?
KM: Just that it was very difficult, for example, for Aubrey Pollard Sr. to gather information on his son. It was difficult as I understood it at the time for the relatives of the other victims — Carl Cooper especially, for example, to obtain information. They apparently were never told why their children had been shot and killed. There was never any evidence to support the theory that gunshots had come from the Algiers Motel and that is why the Detroit Police, the State Police, and the National Guard showed up there in force looking for signs of someone who was firing at law enforcement from there. No gun was ever produced at the trials. The first proceedings were in Detroit in Recorder’s Court and the later proceedings against the three officers were moved to Mason, Michigan, far, far remote from the city and the politically charged atmosphere at the time.
WW: Did you cover the mock trial that was done?
KM: No, I did not.
WW: How do you refer to what happened? Do you refer to it as a riot or a rebellion? How do you see the events?
KM: I’m still self-questioning about how it should be described. It certainly was an uprising. It was a riot in the sense that there was looting going on. It seemed to be more a matter of crimes against property than crimes against humanity. One of the phrases that we’re familiar with from recent times is “Black Lives Matter.” People have primarily with the use of video phones have documented attacks against blacks. Practically all of the victims of the 1967 riot were black. But at that time there was no watch word, no phrase such as “Black Lives Matter.” It was sort of taken for granted that the officers would be white and the victims black. There had been some changes inaugurated under Jerry Cavanagh, the mayor, and one of the primary reasons for bringing Ray Girardin as police commissioner was to smooth out the police force and make it less an opponent of the community and more a protector of the community. Unfortunately, due to the riots, disturbances, uprisings, whatever you wish to call them, it never took hold. It’s only in recent years that community policing has become a watch word of the law enforcement agencies.
WW: Did you see the city any differently after ’67?
KM: I saw it as a less inclusive place for white people, less inclusive place for others. I think I fully understood why people left. I tried myself with the property on Maryland long after I was divorced to re-establish roots in Detroit. Ended up having to sell the house at a loss and for lack of a better term, “get out of Dodge.”
WW: What year was that?
KM: I forgot the year.
WW: Are you optimistic for the city moving forward?
KM: I think that there’s more hope generated now in Detroit's reviva than there has been at any time since the riots and the flight from Detroit and the loss of jobs in Detroit. There was a lot of employment, primarily blue-collar people and single family business owners moving from Detroit to, for lack of a better word, “greener pastures.” What they presume to be greener pastures. I saw it with members of my own family. There’s six or seven properties that have been occupied by members of my family, including myself, that yielded to flight to the suburbs.
WW: Do you think the events of ’67 still hang over the city and the metro area?
KM: I think to some extent it does, yes. There has not been an overall overcoming of that feeling. There has been more of a whittling away at some vestiges of racism. I’m reminded of one family in particular – two families actually – that stayed in the East English Village area of Detroit who are pleased that their neighbors are of a different color, maintain their houses, maintain their lawns, and maintain quality looking environments for themselves. I think it’s a struggle for a great many other people.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to add today?
KM: I don’t think so.
WW: Fine. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I greatly appreciate it.
KM: Thank you, William.