Roman Gribbs, June 24, 2015
Cavanagh, Jerry (Jerome)
Detroit “Little” City Halls
Murphy, Patrick V.
S.T.R.E.S.S. [Stop the Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets ]
Young, Coleman A.
NL: Today is June 24, 2015. This is the interview of Roman Gribbs by Noah Levinson and Lily Wilson. We are also accompanied by Jakub Szlaga and Paula Rewald-Gribbs, and we are at Mr. Gribbs’s residence in Northville, Michigan. Mr. Mayor, can I call you that?
RG: By all means, yeah. That’s a very nice title.
NL: Could you start by telling me where and when you were born?
RG: Born in Detroit, December 29, 1925.
NL: Where were you living when you were growing up?
RG: Well, mostly on a farm about sixty miles north of Detroit. It’s in the Thumb area of Capac, in between Emmett and Capac about three miles from Emmett, which was a small town. Capac, a little larger, still small, but they had a high school. Emmett doesn’t so undergrad—grade school—I went to a one-room schoolhouse, grades one to eight with one teacher. I graduated eighth grade, there were three of us. Some of the classes were just one or two. Then when I became high school age, I went to Capac High School and graduated from there in 1944. I was a good student, I was number two. Number one was all A’s—I didn’t quite make it.
NL: And at what point did you move to the city of Detroit?
RG: Excuse me, the farm, yeah, it was a one hundred acre farm.
NL: When did you move to the city?
RG: Well, I went to the service first, because my parents—my dad—always worked at Ford, because when we bought the farm it was only one hundred acres and we did make some money but not enough money to pay for a living. So my dad, who had been employed at Ford Motor for many years, decided to keep working and he’d work during the weeks and then weekends he came to the farm. Afterwards, when there were only two of us and my brother had decided that he wanted to become a priest so he went to the seminary, it was left just to me, with just the two boys and the farming, and I decided I didn’t want to be a farmer after milking cows every morning, every night, Christmas morning, night, New Year’s Eve—gotta milk the cows.
So I decided, that’s not for me and the folks, they sold the farm. I went into the service in 1946. They sold the farm and built a home here in Detroit, and when I left the service, came back to them in Detroit.
NL: Where were you living in 1967? Specifically, what part of the city?
RG: I was in northwest Detroit, on Indiana Street. Yeah, I married, my top daughter next to us here was about eight-years-old?
PG: For the--for the--?
PG: No, I was twelve. We were in Rosedale Park by then.
RG: By that time? Oh, that’s right. It was Rosedale Park.
PG: North Rosedale.
RG: A different street in Rosedale Park, not Indiana. Edinborough Street.
NL: And what were you doing in 1967?
RG: I was a traffic court referee. It was a municipal judge for the city of Detroit. We had three judges of the traffic division and they had six referees would rule on municipal ordinances. So if you got a ticket, or a violation of some sort, a city ordinance violation, you’d come to the referees. By that time the city was about a million and a half—well, a little less than that—but it was just normal business activities of city violations ruled on by the referees.
NL: What do you remember about the city of Detroit in the early and mid-1960s? How would you describe the city?
RG: How much time you got?
NL: [laughter] As long as you—
RG: [Speaking at the same time] What do you mean? What I remember? What again now?
NL: Just about the city: what it looked like, what it felt like living there? The people?
RG: Oh, it was a huge municipality in my view at that time. We were then the fifth largest city in the United States. So there was anything you can think of—except the popular name was the Motor City because the auto industry began here and grew here more so than any other major city, and so we got to be the Motor City. And it was just a thriving, wonderful, all kinds of activities: baseball teams, football teams, you know, all the athletic sports, and all kinds of activities you could talk about at the end of this. There’s a river, there’s all kinds of tourist activities, and so it was just a big, wonderful municipality.
NL: Do you remember where you were when you first heard about the violence and the unrest in late July, 1967?
RG: Yeah, I woke up in the morning and I was in the—now correct me, I think it was Sunday night when the—okay, my memory’s right, then it did start Sunday night. Because the police were making a normal raid—they thought it was normal, and it was normal—as to a gambling facility that somebody had on the second level. It was so huge, I mean the participants—instead of being, a little after two o’clock [a.m.] when they raided the place as they were accustomed to do with maybe two paddy wagons because they thought there might be twenty or forty people—I guess there was over a hundred: it was just a massive, big gambling facility. When the police made their arrests—I just remember reading about this, that they didn’t have the capacity to take them promptly to the jail for facilitating because they had maybe two paddy wagons and they probably needed four or five.
So they were waiting outside and guiding them and the dishevel around the outside and somebody started throwing rocks and breaking windows and there were so many of the people that were around that area—because it was known, obviously, as a gambling facility—that they started apparently breaking windows.
Anyway, Monday morning I heard on the radio that there was turmoil in that area, in that vicinity, and I think I went downtown to work normally to traffic court where I was working, but I’m not sure. But at any rate, yeah, I did go downtown. I waited until about noon and then things were getting tough so we closed down the operation and I was told to go home and wait to see if they could use me in a judicial capacity, as things developed, because there were a lot of people in turmoil going on. So you listen to the radio. I even was asked just to stay there to be available, so I stayed there for the next several days during all the time as the riot began and it continued for several days—whether it was three days or five or seven days depending upon where they put a stop into it. But you know after a couple of days then the governor was called and of course the National Guard came in, and then I was at home, at least that afternoon. I stayed there for instructions.
NL: Who was it that asked you to wait and sort of be on call?
RG: The traffic court referees. I was a referee. The traffic judges were the ones that directed us what to do.
NL: Okay, and did they end up calling on you that week?
RG: No, because I was not a judge, a referee, and they were using judges. There were many judges and they closed the courts by that time and they were simply arraigning. They had hundreds and hundreds under arrest, and they had problems of housing the arrestees, and the judges were then asked to participate in setting bonds for those that were entitled to bonds. So they had to have hearings, and had to have the place, and as a matter of fact, because the jail became overcrowded they opened up facilities on Belle Isle for the reason that they didn’t have the buildings to hold them, even if they took them to Oakland County—there was just so many people. So they were taken to Belle Isle because the access at the bridge and that was one way of containing the people until there was some facility, some basis—a courtroom for a hearing, and a determination by a judge as to whether he should be released or post bond.
NL: Do you remember for how long after those events was your court dealing with all of the civil infractions that came out of that week?
RG: Oh—weeks, weeks. In fact, trials—because several were charged with murders, there were—what was it, forty-two?
RG: Forty-three, I knew it was forty-something that were killed. That took years before the trials were completed, there were all sorts of lawsuits as a result of that. So there’s no time limit other than saying it was many years for all of them to be done, but after the riots, assembling and arranging and determining who should be released or a short trial—is it going to be an hour, is it going to be three days? The numbers were so high that they—I did not participate, because again, as a referee we didn’t have the judicial capacity as a Recorder’s Court judge or a Circuit Court judge, by statute and by law. They had final authority in a lot of legal decisions and many of them were around, of course, and they didn’t need me and at that time I didn’t have the capacity as a judge.
NL: Do any specific courts or appeals, et cetera, stand out in your memory related to those events?
RG: Not really, there was so many, I read up on all of them. I remember there was a church where some people that were being hunted down started to hide in the church and there were shootings when the police went to arrest them and there were some deaths—anyway, that was one of the famous places. Now it’s a few years ago so I don’t recall specifics because I wasn’t a participant in those proceedings directly.
NL: I see. What are your first memories of being in the city immediately after the violence had subsided? The first time you were going around the city, or going back to work, what are your memories of what things looked like?
RG: The devastation was really amazing—just almost an unrealistic amount of destruction and violence. What do we have—buildings, fires, and stores broken into, and merchandise cleaned out in some stores. There was about $50 million dollars’ worth of property damage—fifty million dollars—and I don’t know how many blocks were covered, but others would tell you that but there’s got to be at least twelve, sixteen or eighteen blocks tore down--and just destroyed and it was very, very sad and unfortunate. I was just an observer like all other citizens because I didn’t have a direct authority to participate other than go back to work within about ten days when things became normal again. But, as you may recall, the National Guard had to come in here to quiet down the rioting and the violence, the destructions and the fires and the thievery—you name it—it just was wild.
NL: Do you think that was necessary, to call in the National Guard for that—
RG: As far as I’m concerned, yes. I know that the mayor, first of all, called—Jerry Cavanaugh was the mayor. He was a classmate of mine as it turns out. He was in night class at the University of Detroit, I was in day classes, but were the same graduating class. So I knew him, Jerry, and I knew that he been calling in the governor for help. The state police came in. That was inadequate, so then he and the governor decided to call in the National Guard. So the National Guard and the semi-tanks or trucks with all their uniforms came in, that quieted down the riots when they were traveling up and down the roads and it stopped the violence. The Detroit police, the state police, and any other additional police—cities that were sending over policemen to help the city were inadequate—they couldn’t do it, they couldn’t quiet the violence. So the governor and the mayor, at the governor’s request, brought in the National Guard and they quieted that.
Let me give you an interesting note, later years—when I went to the service I skied a little bit there because there was a hill nearby. So I later went to college, I enjoyed skiing. And about twenty years later I was skiing out West one of the first or second times, and I was lining in the chair and started chatting with a fella and he was a colonel and I said “You’re from Detroit?” and he said, “Yeah, I was there and I was in charge of the riots.” I said, “What?” and he was the colonel that was sent here and he was in command. He was telling me he was at the Book Cadillac Hotel and he took over about half of the hotel for the armed services that were coming in. And we chatted and I think we had dinner that night. It was just a shared coincidence, odd things that happened in the world.
NL: Yeah, small world.
RG: I may have been at Vail or someplace in Colorado when we were skiing at that time. Interesting.
NL: What were your thoughts on the race relations between the citizens and the government or the police at this time?
RG: Well, it was obviously inadequate because of the riots. I mean, it wasn’t just the beginnings of a handful or a dozen, or gamblers, but when you get to the level of the participants that are that large—of wrecking houses and starting fires and the looting, avoiding the police, and shooting police and with weapons, and various homicides, and it’s so vast—it’s a community problem, obviously, that has so much discontent to such a level that they do the violent things, and I think under the normal circumstances that those things don’t happen. There’s always some reason that gives them the momentary rationale to become violent and not uphold the law. It was a disappointment. It meant that the city has to review what they were doing and in some manner or fashion develop the community with the kind of responses that they were seeking. And among other things, I was looking at all those things, of course, when I became mayor and I had the responsibility then to improve the city and improve conditions for the people.
For example, when I became mayor and I took a hard look at the number of leadership that were black, and in the police department they had about eight to nine-percent of the police were black. Now that’s four thousand cops at that time, in round numbers, and so one of the first things I did is to hire a personnel person—that I took from one of the, maybe General Motors, and he was a talented personnel, really—to train the police. With that large number of police, every year you have to train what, three hundred, four hundred new police officers. I said to him, “Improve the academy, and I want at least fifty-percent of each that you hire to be black, but I want them competent black.” And he did and he more than doubled the black representation, we had a little over twenty-percent of the total policemen were black in that four-year period based upon that director. All that means is that the Negro community, the black community, sees people in authority that they recognize and will listen to, even if they’re inclined to be anti-white or anti-black or whatever, but it’s the mix that was warranted.
At that time, when I took office, about 45 percent of the people were black. And after the riots, many people were leaving—not the blacks—but there were white people that could manage to leave, that were apprehensive about their safety and kids, particularly if they had kids. Schools, schools were a problem then—they’ve been a problem since—so there were many reasons for moving.
Really, the very first thing I did when I took office as mayor was to appoint the deputy mayor. There wasn’t a position but I appointed it, made him deputy mayor and I made him a black man. He was a black man: Walter Greene. He was in charge of the State of Michigan [Civil Service Commission] —it wasn’t activities, I forget. He was an agency of human relations working for the State of Michigan. He was an outstanding guy. His wife was a principal at one of the schools in Detroit, so he lived here. I had heard him talking before I became mayor, I was sheriff, and I heard him talking and became familiar with his abilities. So I said, “I need someone like you, would you be deputy mayor? I’ll give you full authority if I’m out of town, you’re the mayor and you’re running it.” That was helping to the integration that should exist. So anyway, that’s one of the many things that I tried to do to bring the black community into the administrative phase of running the city. At that time, we had almost 25,000 employees. Now think of that: 25,000, 4,000 police officers and by the time I was done, I raised the police department to 7,000, because crime was the number one issue even before the riots. And crime was an issue, of course, after the riots, so what we needed was trained law enforcement people.
And so we got the funding and, in fact, I was in Washington a number of times and we got several grants dealing with law enforcement, and I was able to hire quickly within a couple of years, an additional 2,000 policemen and women. That helped stabilize the city and as a matter of official record, crime went down every year—somewhat—as a result of increased police officers and better law enforcement, understanding law enforcement. Now most cities were proud to have instead of an increase, that the increase was reduced. My four years, it was not just a reduction in the increase, it was an absolute reduction, and we balanced a budget, too. Those are matters that maybe you’re not interested in, but I had an accounting background among other things and it’s like anybody else: I don’t spend the money unless we have it.
As a matter of fact, I should tell you this little episode: within three months, my budget director and my auditor did an analysis and Jerry Cavanaugh left me with about a thirty million dollar deficit. To balance the budget, we had to lay off [some] of those existing 25,000 employees. So after an analysis and after about four months, each department head was told what they had to do to balance the budget and eliminate the deficit and they have to, by union rules, give them at least a month’s notice, so they sent out notices of layoffs in about a month. So I’m in office for about six months, page one of the newspapers: “First layoff since the Depression.” Now you know the Depression is ‘30s and the first layoffs—the Depression—that’s a terrible way to have a new mayor but that’s what I did and it worked. It worked out fine, because we balanced the budget that year, we did after that, and that’s the way it should be run. Anyway, that’s part of the job.
NL: Understandable. I wanted to rewind a little bit, but continuing to talk more about your professional political career, starting in the late ‘60s. Can you tell me first about your role as the Wayne County Sheriff?
RG: Oh, well, I was a traffic court referee and I did that for about a year and then I went into private practice. The sheriff of Wayne County got into trouble and he quit. He was charged with payola. He was, among other things, if you gave him a hundred dollars, he’d give you a badge as honorary sheriff. Well, people were using that, “I’m an honorary sheriff,” and so forth, among other things. Buback was his name, and he was a good guy, but he made some mistakes and he was charged, but he got—he resigned because he had a pension from the City of Detroit. And the Appointing Authority, appointed me as sheriff and then I was up for election and that was in early ‘68. Then in the fall I was running and I was elected sheriff of Wayne County. So I was sheriff at the time of ‘68, and I did that until—Jerry Cavanaugh was gonna run for another term, and he decided late not to run and [there were] other friends of mine, like councilmen, that I thought would be competent to run.
I was politically active of course and I wanted to run—and they decided not to—so finally somebody pointed at me. I said, “Well,” and let out some feelers, so to speak, and tested the waters and they looked good, so I decided to run. Had no idea before that to run for mayor, that there would be an opening, didn’t ever want to be. But having been sheriff, having seen what had happened, I figured maybe I could do it, and I was elected. And it’s interesting, that for the first time, one of the two nominees was black! So that brought up the racial matter again and consciously, if you will. And he was a good guy, he was the county auditor. He went on to state office even though I defeated him, but not by much, it was a close election! But it was a good election, and I really enjoyed the four years as mayor.
NL: Can you tell me more about the campaign that year with you and Richard Austin and what the mayoral campaign was like and what your platform was?
RG: Well, my platform was: I am sheriff. I’m experienced in law and crime so I hope to solve the criminal problem, number one. And then the economic problem, I said I’m going to balance the budget, okay. And I did balance the budget, it did a number of years but not all of them. My responding to all the questions, I’m going to bring in everybody and representation for the black community. And I did. It was the standard primary, Noah: “Are the lights working? Are the streets clean? Are the parks clean?” Well, you have 25,000 employees, the Department of Parks and Recreation probably had 1,200 employees. You know they had a lot of parks in the city and at that time we had between million three and million two people, we had a million five up until the riot and then it went downhill because a lot of people were moving. But there was still about a million two and a half or three when I took office and I hopefully stabilized the city sufficiently that people would be more inclined to stay here, and that’s the way it worked out for me. I think that we had a good four years.
NL: Do you remember were there specific measures taken in the campaign to attract black voters since their other choice was the first black candidate that they had seen for mayor before?
RG: I don’t understand your question.
LW: How did you appeal to black voters?
RG: Same as the white—you know, I treated them equal. The only difference is the skin in my view and that means nothing. Such as one of the greatest guys in communicating to everybody was Walter Greene, he was the Deputy Mayor. When he would go out to speak at churches—as Mayor, I had four invitations every night for the whole four years: because all of the churches, the organizations, there’s the Eastside, there’s the Northside, there’s the Southside, and the Westside. When you have 1,300,000 people, that’s a lot of churches and you can only go to so many. The saying kind of got: “Well, if Greene is here, Gribbs ain’t coming!” [Laughter] So I was able to send him to speak to the communities on behalf of the City and it was great to have him. When I announced I was leaving office, he then took a job with a Detroit bank, went to—was an official with one of them.
NL: Did you consider running for another term as mayor in ‘74.
RG: Another term?
NL: Another term as mayor, yes.
RG: Yeah, I considered it. But at that time, I had five kids and that’s a long time to be away from the family and the kids. So I had to develop a system, and I said to my secretary and others “I’m going to be home at least two days and I’ll try to make it three nights, at least, to be home for dinner in a week.” I’ll never forget the first July week when we had the fireworks and other events, there was always something going on. Every night I was out, dinnertime, doing something or another and I said I’m never going to do that again, because you gotta have time with kids, because you want to and you should be home.
That was one of the reasons. And I thought I had made a lot of changes and hopefully established, with personnel we had, I had some great people that worked with me and for me—my auditor, Bob Roselle, he went on to be the Executive Vice President for Campbell Ewald, and my attorney went on to work for Chrysler and he became an official within Chrysler’s in an executive position. My police department—because crime was the number one issue—I made a national search for a police chief. We called it Chief of Police then, and so I hired a fellow named [Patrick V.] Murphy. He had been president of the national Police Foundation. He became a cop in New York City, then went to Rochester, New York, and was Deputy Chief or something, and then he became the head of the Police Foundation. I had a search committee, they had heard that he was unhappy about doing the organizational work and wanted to get back into police work. So I interviewed him, boom, he took the job. He came over here in Detroit and he did such a good job that the mayor of New York, [John] Lindsay, called me a year after he’s here. He said, “I gotta have a new police chief. Do you mind if I talk to Murphy?” I said, “Come on—he’s good.” He said, “He is good.” I said, ‘No, go head, talk to him,” and so Murphy took it. I tell you why, because he had a department of five or six thousand police officers here and New York is 25,000 cops. And because he was initially a patrolman there, started his career there, he ended up with a full retirement. If he only worked a day as a police chief in New York, he gets full retirement. So all those benefits! Besides, it was his city, so he went back home as Chief of Police. So I lost him and promoted the assistant chief at that time.
NL: What was it that made him such an effective leader of the police, do you think?
RG: Well, he said “You want to be a command officer? Get a degree. Up to lieutenant, we’ll promote, but beyond lieutenant, I want you to get a college degree of some sort or at least a couple of years of police training, academic training.” That was just one of the things, and the integrity and the training—he’s the one that helped me pick out the personnel director that hired the cops. He was just inspirational, he was very sharp. He worked for Lindsay for I think three or four years, long time in New York, yeah.
NL: So before that there were no educational requirements in the police?
RG: No. As a matter of fact, the police chief was, I think, just a street cop. Well, a lot of them would take college classes sometimes on their own, but it was not required. Just as long as you’re a high school grad, you could become a policeman.
NL: Could you talk about the S.T.R.E.S.S. [Stop the Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets] units in the police department?
RG: Oh yeah, have you read up on that?
NL: A little bit.
RG: Well, S.T.R.E.S.S. unit was simply a law enforcement technique that went bad. Went bad in that it was not properly supervised and before I became aware of it, they had a couple of misfortunate and too-aggressive events that they became notorious and I had to change it officially. What S.T.R.E.S.S. was is a group of eight to ten policemen who would go into a high-crime area—not as cops, but just walk the streets in regular clothes—and became familiar with the business people and the community there, and get their confidence so they would help point out the criminality that would come into that high-crime and high-stress crime community. And as a result, they would learn within a couple of weeks—cause it doesn’t take long if you’re walking there every day and talking to the neighbors and the store owners and so forth—as to where the bad men were and they would circle on some of it and once they were identified, they would make the arrest. Well, there was such violence that the groups, they would resist and there were shootings in the effort to arrest. And that’s what the S.T.R.E.S.S.—I forget, what were the words for that?
NL & LW: Stop the robberies, enjoy safe streets.
RG: One in particular, but there were several of the police were very aggressive. Now, we’re talking at a time when we’ve had shootings that almost start riots in other cities where policemen killed a black man, several of them in the last six months as we’re talking. Ferguson and what other place?
RG: Baltimore, yeah, talk about Baltimore. So it’s that kind of event that arouse the people and it was getting the very rabid, agitating kind of community leaders that were not the best for anybody – anyway, were agitating and S.T.R.E.S.S. was then becoming a basis for the election when I decided not to run for mayor. I announced right after Christmas a year before my term was ended, so it was known that I was not gonna run again. And I did it primarily to give my good people an opportunity to find another job, really. I asked them to stay, but I said to my department heads, I said, “Hey, find yourself a job, because I don’t want to surprise you in the middle of the summer and say ‘I’m not gonna run’ late.” There was no reason to wait because I had made up my mind. We had started enough things, I thought the city was financially sound, and was improving. So I made the announcement and that became an issue during the campaign. So, Coleman Young said, “Oh, I’m going to ban them” and he did. But no big deal—it was just a police group of eight or ten cops that were put into another responsibility. It was just mismanaged.
NL: What made it so difficult to manage that group or to keep things organized regarding their work?
RG: Say again, what made it?
NL: You said a couple times that the idea behind S.T.R.E.S.S. is sound, but that they were mismanaged. What aspect of that was mismanaged?
RG: Well, you don’t put an aggressive cat in that job, because it’s too sensitive. You know you’re gonna have a shoot ‘em out, because you’re going after the shooters. You’re going after the guys with guns, you know, or gamblers or sophisticated crooks is what you’re going after, not going to the guy that steals a book from the bookstore. You’re going after the organized crime and you’re going after those that are non-organized but violent and use guns. So, you have to have the right personnel, not only in charge, but doing that kind of work. And they had a couple of guys that were quick with a trigger—cops. Like most recently, I don’t know each one but, we’ve all read about Ferguson: that they claimed the shooting was inappropriate—shot in the back—it’s inappropriate, obviously, if that’s the case. But there were others, you know, the cops were justified in shooting, and that’s always a serious question when there’s a death involved, “Did you have to pull the trigger?” That’s always a delicate matter, and you don’t have time to discuss it before you pull the trigger, that’s the problem. Bang, bang, something’s happening. Either he’s going to shoot me or I’m going to shoot him, I guess. Then those circumstances arise.
LW: When you left office, did you feel that—you mentioned you had balanced the budget and the police force was becoming more integrated. You felt that there was a good chance that Detroit would come back from ’67.
RG: Oh, I thought so, very positively. I even started a lot of programs one was called Little City Halls. It wasn’t my idea, they did that in Boston. I went up and I heard about that in Boston. At mayor’s meetings, I talked to the mayor of Boston—White, Mayor White. What you do is open a store, and here again you gotta remember it’s a 1,300,000 people. So you got a neighborhood, well let’s say the south side, and we opened a store and had a policeman and other city representatives there, so that they’re there, not 24 hours, but at least eight hours a day five days a week, where people can go there and get their license renewed or “How do I get the roof fixed?” or “How do I get a job?” So the people could tell you from a police point of view and from the other kinds of services this city would have, it only takes one or two people to run a directive to help people do what they have to do with the city. “Oh, I think I want to improve the house, what do I do? Do I need a license?” “Oh yeah, you gotta get permission if you’re gonna tear the wall off,” and so forth. “Just file the application and make sure it’s the right people” and that kind of thing and if a light isn’t working, file a complaint here instead of going downtown.
There’s nothing worse than—I remember working with traffic court, we had three sessions and they did a good job. When you get a ticket, they’ll tell you go to court at eight o’clock or at ten o’clock or at one o’clock, and as a referee we would have maybe ten cases at 8:00 and we’d be done with them within two hours. Then we’d get the next bunch, and what you do is provide efficiency so you don’t go there at eight o’clock and wait 'til twelve o’clock, three hours to talk about a five dollar fine I don’t want to pay, you know.
That was a real education for me in justice because, you see, as a traffic court referee, you see the world right in front of you. Here comes a little old lady walking and soon she’s sitting in there and she’s one of about ten people and the court officer. We wore a robe, and we’d open court, and then I’d make an announcement as to the standards, and what we look at and then the clerk would call the case and this lady would come up and she says,
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Tell me what happened” and “You’re charged with doing this—” say—not speeding—maybe a traffic light.
And I said, “Do you have a bad record?” I had the records. “Do you have a bad record?”
“Oh, I haven’t had a ticket for 20 years.”
“Case dismissed. Good-bye!”
That’s the way it should happen. You forgive them for that one violation and that’s what justice is about. On the other hand, come over here and this woman is selling whatever merchandise and parking all over improperly in downtown Detroit and other places, and well here she’s got twenty-two tickets in three months and bingo, that would add up to, well, let’s see about one-hundred seventy dollars for these tickets and boom, “One hundred seventy dollars, thank you.” If she doesn’t like what I said then she’d go right up to traffic court and talk to the judge. That’s the way the system worked and it was a good, efficient system. Anyway, you try to provide that kind of service for other municipal operations that are necessary.
LW: So after you left office, you had a sense that you had done some good work you had gotten the city to a place that was stable, or hopeful, and I’m wondering what happened after that, from your prospective. How did you see this as now, not mayor, but how did you see the city develop or digress?
RG: All forty years? [laughter]
LW: [Laughter] No, during the next mayorship…
NL: We could start during Mayor Young’s tenure, maybe.
RG: Well, I think Mayor Young was close—he could have been a—people think he was an outstanding judge. I don’t think he was outstanding. I think he had a good term and a half, roughly two. I was watching him closely, and I think he just stayed too long. I think he was efficient, and in my opinion the facts of the first two terms, term and a half, were good. After that, things began to happen.
One of the worst things he did, though, is essentially say to [the] community, but also outside of Detroit, “This is my city and I’m gonna run it my way.” Okay, now what does that mean? Well I talked to other mayors and people that I dealt with and they would say, “Well, we tried to get a cooperative effort in so many things” that cities deal with each other—traffic, lights, regional facilities, water, sewers—and they’d say that “It’s okay when he deals with his people that way, but we don’t like it when he’s trying to tell me what to do.” I’m talking about the other mayors, so the cooperation was lacking and his aggressiveness went further than it should have gone, is my criticism of his.
There are plusses and minuses. Historians have said, “For example,” historians, “I [Coleman Young] started—the Ren Cen [Renaissance Center] was started by me in 1972. Henry Ford and I were talking about—well first of all, they started—the Chamber of Commerce—oh, think of his name [unintelligible]—said “Let’s have a group like they had in Pennsylvania. They had a Committee of [One] Hundred that helped Pittsburgh, and let me get the group together and we’ll need your cooperation” when I was mayor, I said “Oh, that’s terrific!” So he established Detroit Renaissance and the Renaissance was all the executives of the major industries here, and he added up about thirty, we ended up with about thirty-three, starting with only the executive of each organization—which meant for Ford, Henry Ford II had to be there to vote, and General Motors, it had to be Fisher, or whoever it was, Murphy was then the Chief Executive of General Motors and Chrysler was Townsend, and then the banks and then the utilities. So a committee of thirty-three and Max Fisher was the chairman. It was that committee that established the fact that we needed something new downtown Detroit. So they hired [John] Portman—is it Portman?—to establish the Ren Cen, a plan for the whole downtown area. And the announcement was made in September, 1971. Where’s the plaque? I don’t know where the plaque—anyway.
PG: Where is the plaque? Is it in your room?
RG: Maybe, I don’t know. No, it’s not there, not where it’s opened up.
RG: But anyway, we announced, and it’s covered by TIME Magazine with pictures of me and Henry Ford sitting down making the announcement. What he announced was, “We’re starting a $350,000,000 project: we’re gonna have a central hotel, four offices, another wing over here with two to four buildings, another wing over here with two to four buildings, all right in front of, right across the water and on Jefferson Avenue.” And it’s there now. When I left office, the steel was still going up—cause you had to condemn the land and all of that—but that project came about under my administration, and they suddenly started to give credit to Coleman Young because three years after he took office, they dedicated the building—it took them that long to build it. Anyway, all he did there was watch the brick go up.
Anyway, the good historians are giving me credit. It’s an attitude and an atmosphere that permeated the city, and the community. And the executives in the community had confidence in my administration to then announce and to build and to give money. And the announcement was that Ford, as seed money, was giving six thousand, Chrysler five, GM five, and the banks, three each. So there was about thirty million dollars. Did I say thousands? Millions—six million—so thirty million dollars’ worth of seed money to get it started and the rest was mortgage money. It took, I think by the time they were done building the hotel and the first four buildings, I think it was supposed to be about $300 million, and it went up to about $370 [million] by the time they were done for the first four, and the rest is history.
All you guys, pardon me, and madam—look at the buildings that are there. But I helped start it, it was my great joy. I had good leadership and department heads that could deal with their department heads that could deal with General Motors executives and the lesser ones and so forth and build confidence in the community that the city is worth rebuilding, it just needed rebuilding—let’s start with downtown. So we started with downtown, and we had a great start and it went well for a while and then it started to go downhill.
LW: When you say it went downhill, from your perspective, how did you see that happen?
RG: How’d I see it happen?
LW: Yeah, how did you see that, when it went downhill, so to speak, how did you see—what were the signs to you that was going on?
RG: I really don’t know except to—to answer the question—except to say that it really broke my heart. I think the attitude of Coleman as “My city,” which means “Hey, it’s going to be all black.” It’s not going to be that. I mean, what do people think? If Coleman says, “My way!” or use swear words, “You hit the road,”—you know. And he was very open about the cuss words and his command, and so forth. And then Dennis Archer came in and it was different, it was better. But during that time it went downhill, and that’s why I said his first two years [terms], when he had two more years [terms], it was a long time for that kind of attitude to stay in the community. What you needed is a community, “Oh! He’s a nice guy.” “Oh! That city has promise, they’re building downtown,” and “Oh, I think I’ll go to Detroit.” But if you have the other attitude and you’re gonna start a business or put a branch in Michigan, oh, instead of Detroit they’ll go to Flint or they’ll go to Westland, or whatever—Dearborn, lot of good towns.
That went downhill for a lot of reasons: that’s one of the reasons, and if that situation arises people leave and leave and leave, and that’s what happened—when people leave and leave. Now, one of the things that I should mention that I’ve always had a problem with is that the mayor has nothing to say about the education.
RG: The educational system traditionally has been a—not only here but throughout the United States—primarily a separate entity with a separate board and a separate command and administrative people. When I was mayor, I spoke to the school board at the beginning of the first year and I spoke to them in the last year when I was leaving office, and they were very courteous and everything, but they said “Nice to see ya” and essentially they said, “Goodbye.” I said “Thanks for listening to me.” But essentially, as you know and history has shown that over and over there are different leadership in the school system. Now, if you’re gonna have kids and you want to move someplace, what you have to have is safety so the kids can play, you have to have that and you have to have a good school system, not just a system, but a good one. And Detroit was having trouble back then forty-two years ago when I was mayor, it was not a good system. And I spoke to them directly and they hired the superintendents—two years later, boom, they hire another superintendent, three years later, another one—money and all that. I’ve been always close to education, I lectured at the university—I taught for three years at the University of Detroit—and I’ve been close to education.
At any rate, some cities, some major cities—I think Chicago, San Francisco, and some others since I’ve been in office—the city has given the mayor the authority to appoint the superintendent of education. [inaudible] But that’s just a thought of mine, that if an educational system is not working, the citizens should appoint the mayor and put him in charge. If you’ve got one man, it’s different because either you’ll get someone good or else you get him out of there. But if you have a committee and you change the committee, they have someone then years later you got a different committee—oh, they’ll appoint him. I don’t know if you have experience working with committees, but you know if you have more than three people—you have three people, you have three opinions, you know. If you have ten people, you have ten opinions. And you compromise. It’s always a second, or third, or fourth compromise to get somebody appointed. But that’s my view. Like I appointed an outstanding Chief of Police and they worked—both of them were outstanding. And if they wouldn’t do it, they were gone. I hired one fella that I didn’t—I made a mistake by taking not enough time to interviewing him— and I hired him. Two weeks later I fired him. I just made a mistake, but you can do that and if you find something that’s not doing right, you’re in charge. And it’s a massive responsibility, but if you do it right and he or she does the job—
Now, for example, Ridgeway, sure [directed to daughter, Paula]
PG: What? Bill, June?
RG: Pardon me?
RG: Yeah, June Ridgeway. June Ridgeway was a neighbor of ours and she helped me in my campaign. I said, “Hey, why don’t I give you something to do?” and I made her secretary to the auditors. No, not auditors. The secretary to—
PG: Tax assessors?
RG: Yeah, that’s right, yeah, the taxing department and she then became an expert by going to classes and within a year she was a Class Four Assessor. That’s the word, assessor. So she would go then and look at a plant and establish its value, and we would tax according to the value that she set, that the assessor set. And she was such an outstanding person that later on I put her in charge of other work, and she ran Cobo Hall under Coleman Young. She, uh, well whatever. And its good people like that I was able to find, and when you see them you recognize it. I really recognized it in her so I moved her up the ladder as quickly as I was able to. She became one of the assessors and—because she was trained for it and she was doing her job.
NL: Back tracking a little bit, you mentioned before your interactions with Jerry Cavanaugh, that you guys were classmates together.
NL: Could you tell me your thoughts about his tenure as mayor of the city?
RG: Oh, I thought it was pretty good. He, in fact, was so effective that they were thinking that he’s going to go up the ladder and maybe run for senator or something. And he did try to run later on, but the riots broke his heart because that was a devastating factor in his administration. In his election, they attributed the black community to electing him because he was treating the black community—now that’s eight years before I went into office, he had eight years, two four-year terms—and because he was a thirty-three-year-old kid, but when he campaigned, he campaigned among the black community. And they liked him and he was well received by the black leadership. And he was elected mayor. And he was easily elected a second time he was doing work and he was getting acclaim nationally.
I got some acclaim nationally because I ended up being the president of National League of Cities, which is another chapter we could talk about: going to Lansing, going to Washington, and getting their support and their money—particularly when they needed it—both the State of Michigan and the Feds at that time. I remember Nixon was the president. I remember that Martha Griffiths was a congresswoman, she was effective in the House. And I knew Martha, she would listen and she was effective, she was a no-nonsense legislator. I got her, others too, and Ford was the leader of the House at that time, Gerald Ford.
I remember going there and telling them, “The Feds need to give money to the cities because the cities have the responsibility to take care of the poor, and it’s a disproportionate responsibility.” So, the city of Lansing has some poor but nowhere near the number of poor that the city of Detroit has or the city of New York, or San Francisco had. As a matter of fact, at the second meeting of the National League of Cities, there were two organizations: U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities. And the National League of Cities is the bigger one in terms of participants because they had department heads and not just the mayors, where the others, just the mayors. So anyway, I was active and I said to the mayors, “Let’s have a meeting. Why don’t you come to Detroit? If eight of you guys come to Detroit, eight of us went to New York and went to Chicago, went to San Francisco at one time and say, ‘We need these monies! It’s a federal—because we’re assuming a responsibility that’s broader than the cities, the cities should not have the financial burden.’”
And sure as hell, we got aid. We got aid from the Feds, about a year later. But the first meeting was held in Detroit and Mayor Lindsay here—the mayor of Chicago, he wasn’t one of the group, he was sort of an independent—but San Francisco was Alioto, and Los Angeles, I forget. Anyway, I gave each one five minutes, so there was eight of us, maybe ten of us—and, man, all the press and the TV—and we got that notification when we went to Frisco, and we told the people and the legislators in Congress about that. So federal aid—we finally got legislation passed by talking to Gerald Ford and talking to Martha Griffiths and talking to the community, by meetings with mayors and anyway, I became an officer and the fourth year in office I was President of National League of Cities. I enjoyed that very much, it’s a big operation.
I remember being there for the signing of the legislation and being the personal guest of Nixon and it was an exciting time. I really enjoyed being mayor, I’ll tell you, I wish I had stayed for a second term for many reasons, but for many reasons I didn’t want to stay, too. I had established a number of programs like the Little City Halls, and the police—crime went down. It was a safer community and people were starting to stay, and I was trying to get the education help to the extent that I could. But we had a good four years and it was okay for about six years, and then it started to go—more people started to move. When you have that sort of attitude, as they said, “If you don’t have safety, don’t have a school system, I’m living someplace else!” Same rent, same health costs—
NL: Could you tell me about meeting with Richard Nixon when he was president? You said you met with Richard Nixon?
NL: What was that like?
RG: Oh, it was very exciting! It was exciting, press and all that. Washington—everything is news, cameras, and all that. No, it was very pleasant, and I was sort of surprised that he finally came—when we started this effort and we got things going in the House, cause Jerry Ford was there and Martha Griffiths, and then I spoke to Senator—Hart was then the senator, and, um, what’s the guy that—
PG: Reigle? Reigle? Were you looking for the other senator?
RG: Yeah, the other senator.
PG: Wasn’t it Reigle?
RG: No, it may have been Reigle at the time, I forget, it’s only forty-two years ago, forty-five years ago. Anyway, we got it going there and finally we had to get—cause the president was in sort of a “wait and see” [indecipherable] from his staff—we finally got him aboard, and so it was a pleasure. I was invited to—because I was an officer with the National League of Cities—I was invited to the meetings that the president would have in his cabinet room. And he appointed the—who was the vice president and then resigned?
NL: Um, Agnew?
RG: Yeah, Agnew. He appointed Agnew. In the first meeting we had in the cabinet room, he said “I want you mayors to stay in touch and I’m going to ask Vice President Agnew to be available to you people all the time.” So he was our entry into the president’s operations. And he was easy to work with except he disappeared in short order when he resigned. Once a year we were invited to meet with the president in the cabinet room and I was there starting with the first year, each time, and then the last year I was president of the National [League of Cities], so I was sitting right next to him in the cabinet room. Down there it was ex-Governor Romney, who was then head of HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] and I was next to the president and he’s at the end of the table—sort of a strange relationship [laughter], I thought.
But anyway, it was exciting, it was a great four years really. When you think back as to the responsibility and if you do your best and it works out, then there’s great satisfaction. I was satisfied in the fact that we turned the city around for a while, anyway, didn’t turn it around for twenty-five years but turned it around for at least ten years, and it was a good place to come to live and to be a citizen. Then things started to go down when good people, good people started to move out, people that had initiatives either with businesses or getting houses fixed and all of that. But if you get just the lazy ones or the ones that don’t do anything, then the good ones move out and that’s what happened to Detroit, unfortunately. Where is it now? Now it’s about 700,000 people [indecipherable] of a million three, in less than forty years, really—
NL: It’s about half.
RG: —they’ve been going for about thirty years. And the employees: I had 25,000 employees now they have what, 7,000? No maybe ten, it’s about maybe 10,000 now because fewer people are needed.
NL: Well, I guess, following up on that note, in your experience as mayor and your decades living in Southeast Michigan since then, what would be sort of your advice to Duggan and to other city leaders to help, either to turn Detroit around or help keep it moving forward in the direction that some things seem to start to be moving in?
RG: I didn’t hear the last part—be what?
NL: What would your advice or ideas be to Duggan, the current mayor, and the leadership of the city to help keep things moving forward—
RG: [Speaking at same time] Oh, the city, it’s like running any business that has 10,000 employees—period. You start with that premise and it’s a business. Well, the business of running a city, but if you just kind of analogize with a corporation or whatever you want it to be, and you have that many people as employees, you have to run them, manage them—like department heads—and that was my good fortune. I had the good fortune to find people, that had competence, that were willing to work with me. And that makes a difference, because sometimes you have competent people and they don’t want to move. But I got, as I say, some of the people, all the ones that were my appointees—and they all knew that if they’re working at my pleasure and only to the extent, [indecipherable] “you run the city!” For example, the Chief of Police, I said “Hey, I’ve got law enforcement background, I was assistant prosecuting attorney for ten years, then I was a city judge and I was sheriff,” I said, “But you’re running the police department and I want you to keep me advised as to any serious problems or major efforts. But by and large, you hire and you fire and you’re in charge of that but do it right and that’s all I want.” And they all did. When you have people—whether it’s running 1,200 at parks and recreation or eight people with the planning department—you know the city planning department has eight or ten people—it’s same responsibility: do the job and do it efficiently. And it works.
But you gotta have the people and I was lucky enough to have the people that made the city turn around. Jerry Tannian, for example, Jerry Tannian was one of the people in my office—I had an office of about six assistants sitting at my right hand, and Jerry was my coordinator for my law enforcement [and] fire department. He was a former FBI agent and I hired him when I became mayor because I knew of him and his work. As a matter of fact, it was Jerry Tannian—when the police chief left toward the end of my last year around September—I appointed Jerry Tannian Chief of Police because he was familiar with it and it was only about four months left. And I made him Chief of Police and he was so good that Coleman Young kept him more than three years longer than many of the—police chiefs last about from one to two years, generally, sometimes three, and Tannian with Coleman. Then as Jerry says, the FBI was checking into some of Coleman’s activities and Jerry didn’t tell Coleman Young. And Coleman Young got wind from somebody that the FBI was checking out whatever the activities were and he called Jerry in and said “Why didn’t you tell me?” He said, “Hey, I was in confidence. They told me in confidence, I couldn’t do it.” So he fired him. But that’s the way it goes. Jerry is an outstanding guy. He’s been practicing law. I still visit with my colleagues from time to time, and it’s a pleasure to continue to visit with them all after the years where they do other things.
NL: Alright, just one last question for you today. Bringing it back to the focus of this project is July, 1967. Many people categorize those events as “riots”. Would you use that word?
RG: Yes I would, yes I would. Yeah, what other words do they have?
NL: Some people have called it a rebellion or an uprising or a civil disturbance.
RG: Whatever description says it all. How can you say a rebellion when you have forty-three murders, fifty million [of] damages, fires—blocks and blocks of fires—that’s not a rebellion, that’s a riot. Anyway, that’s my view.
NL: Alright, well thank you for sharing that with us and thank you for sharing all your memories today.
RG: Pleasure, take that off. [Speaking to Paula Rewald-Gribbs] Is there any things you want to mention?
PG: Hmm, the only thing is—actually I was going to ask you a question, but I don’t know—it’s up to you, whatever, whenever.
RG: Why don’t you turn that off.
PG: No, no, no, no. You know what, I was curious because when you went and were working with Nixon, how was Detroit chosen for that Chinese ping-pong diplomacy for this term? The Chinese system changed, it has nothing to do with them and the reality of ‘67, so it was just from my own point of view. Why did Detroit get chosen as the first place the Chinese would come?
RG: The Chinese to come? I had nothing to do with that except that at that time, I don’t know who was in charge—
PG: It was the ping-pong championships.
RG: National ping-pong contest. Somebody in that contest, in that fighting, thought that it would be great for the city. I said “Oh, by all means!”
PG: Yeah, but this was considered part of a larger move by the Nixon a demonstration to normalize relations.
RG: Yeah, relations were terrible—
PG: So I’m sure that wherever they were going to go, the first appearance that they would make was very strategic, and I was just wondering—
RG:I think it’s a compliment.
PG: Do you remember did it have anything to do with the federation working on the National League of Cities?
RG: Maybe, all I can say is maybe. I think the city was on an upbeat—
PG: You had a relationship so that he knew about you and he knew about the city?
RG: Could be, all I can say is that I became aware of it. I said “Open up all arms!” You know, of course, because this is a breakthrough—I had forgotten it—for the first time when Nixon made contact with the Chinese and had a national relationship. And so when they came I said, “Let’s have a festival. Let’s have a dinner for them at the mansion.” I didn’t live at the mansion, but I used it for events like that. So we had a dinner, and I invited all of the officials of the ping-pong contest—they had it at Cobo Hall—and then they had the event at it. And you were about twelve years old.
PG: Yeah, a little bit older maybe by then, no I remember.
RG: Yeah, maybe [laughter]. That’s right, that’s right. And, it was great.
PG: It all started here.
RG: This is why being the mayor of a city, when it’s the fifth largest, was a wonderful experience. It’s all the people that—just think of that—that somebody from China was here in Detroit for the reason that Detroit still stands out and it’s the place to go and to make a ping-pong visit--first visit in the United States! In Detroit? Wow, that’s terrific! And that’s what leadership and good governance is all about “Hey, they’re friendly people, this is the place to be! They’re not antagonistic. They did have a little problem they called a riot but way past. It’s over, it’s now four years of stability and safety—and that literally means safety.” I forgot about that, I’m up in years. I’m no longer forty-years-old.
PG: One other question, really fast was—‘cause I don’t know if you covered this, or I think you might have just skimmed over it—at the time that you were running the campaign against Austin, did people talk about, did you talk about with Austin—were there debates? Did you deal with the issue of the riot during the campaign? Was it a big topic?
RG: Oh sure, oh sure. We answered any—it was an open question usually, the two of us before a panel of questioners or a group. We had, as a matter of fact, we had seven public debates for at least an hour each, each channel, we had three. And Channel 62, I think had three more by themselves, there were six or seven altogether. So we’d ask “Any questions?” I said, “We gotta heal any problems we had that caused the riots, and that’s illegality and that’s crime.” And so crime was and is still the number one issue, and then we have to keep the school system—improve that—and just answer the questions as they were posed. But it was always out in the open, particularly since you had a black man, for the first time, one of the two nominees for the final election.
There were about ten people, including remember Mary Beck—was from the city council—she was running and the former—Ed Carrey, Ed—another councilman, was running. Anyway, and me was the sheriff of Wayne county, he [Austin] was the auditor of Wayne county, and the two of us were the two that got the top votes. And I forget what the primary was but in the final vote, I barely won. The margin of winning was about 7,420, something like that, out of 400,000-plus votes. So it’s a teeny margin, it’s less than one percent, but it’s a winner. And it was that close because I like to think it’s two good men and I happened to get an edge on him, that’s all. Looking at the changes in the city, I knew we were going to have a black mayor after a short period of time because the majority of the people as the people are moving out, eighty percent were white and ten percent were black moving out—because they wanted to move out, whatever reason they had to move out. And by the time I left, I don’t know what it was particularly, but it probably fifty-five percent black by that time, in the four years, percentagewise in terms of the number of whites and blacks.
Anyway, good question, I’d forgotten about that. That was a wonderful event when the Chinese—we got national news! Now that was a big plus for the city that nationally they know that the first Chinese ever to come over here came to Detroit. And it’s like, “Oh yeah, did you build that building?” “No, it was during my administration.” [Laughter] Detroit Renaissance. Anyway, that’s it. Anything else?
NL: I don’t think so, thank you so much for sharing your stories with us today.
RG: It’s been a pleasure! As you can see, I like to talk.
NL: And that’s good, we like to listen.
RG: It’s a pleasure.
Cavanagh, Jerry (Jerome)
Murphy, Patrick V.
Young, Coleman A.