John Kastner, June 25th, 2015
***NOTE: This interview contains profanity/explicit language.
Lily Wilson. Today is Thursday, June 25, 2015. This is the interview of John Kastner. I am Lily Wilson and we are recording this interview for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit Historical Museum’s Detroit 1967 Oral History Project by phone with John Kastner in Trinity, Florida. Okay John, you can start by reading to us or letting us know where and when you were born.
John Kastner: It’s about three short paragraphs, just a dissertation, on what went on, okay? Then we’ll have some questions and answers.
LW: Okay, go ahead.
JK: On Sunday morning, in the summer of 1967, my wife and I had driven our daughters Doreen and Cheryl to a summer girl scout camp called Camp Metamora. It’s about 30 miles north of Detroit. At the camp we met two of our neighbors who had likewise had driven their daughter up to the camp. The four of us decided to stop at a bar on the way home and have a beer. While at the bar I noticed a TV was on. It was showing pictures like a city burning. I asked the bartender, while pointing at the TV, what was going on. He stated that the city of Detroit was burning. He further stated that the blacks were rioting. I then took a close look and confirmed to myself it was Detroit. Returning home and pulling up on my driveway, I could hear my telephone ringing off the hook. I raced into the house and answered the phone. My boss was on the line and told me to get into work immediately – that the blacks were rioting. I quickly dressed for work, put my shotgun in the trunk of my car and drove to police headquarters. I was then put on active duty. While I’m standby in the station room, I watched two civilians walk into the room. One was General Throckmorton. He spoke to the commissioner, who then walked to a map of the city and the general asked him to point out the trouble spots. The commissioner, with a pointer in his hand, placed it over the map and shakily said, “All over the city.” Throckmorton walked over to a telephone and dialed several numbers and then said, “Throckmorton here, send in the 82nd Airborne Division.” He then hung up the phone. Approximately four hours later the 82nd Division arrived by truck from Selfridge Air Force Base. During the time that they arrived prisoners in the county jail, which was across the street from police headquarters, was rioting. At that time the 82nd Airborne troops armed with rifles with bayonets attached entered the county jail and within five minutes there was complete silence. The 82nd Division along with Michigan State Police and the Detroit Police patrolled the city and within 48 hours, things were back to normal. Through this time there were hundreds of black males arrested for rioting and with no room to put them, the city placed a large number of buses on Belle Isle. All prisoners from that day on were transferred to those buses. Handcuffed to their seats, they were fed three bologna sandwiches a day for the duration of the riot. That’s it.
LW: Okay John, thank you. I’ve got some follow-up questions for you. In what city were you born and what was your birth date?
JK: I was born on August 2, 1928 in the city of Detroit.
LW: What neighborhood were you living in during the summer of 1967.
JK: Where was I living in ’67 – neighborhood. I was living at that time out by Rouge Park, just this side of Telegraph.
LW: What was the street name?
JK: Yeah. T-I-R-E-M-A-N.
LW: I know where that is, thank you. What was your job title? What was your specific job in Detroit during 1967.
JK: At that time I was working at police headquarters with the (?) squad and at the time of the riots I was assigned to the commission’s office as a security.
LW: What was your rank at the time?
JK: I was a detective.
LW: So, what specific things were you doing during those days in July when this disturbance was happening and all this violence was happening? What was your daily routine during those days?
JK: Like I say, I was assigned to the commissioner’s office, my job was actually his security in his office and that area. Like I say, General Throckmorton arrived there. He came in with his aide. He was also assigned there. So he was there all the time. So I’d say there was like five people in that office who fought the riots and I was one of them at the commissioner’s office.
LW: Did you ever feel that the office was in any danger?
JK: Not that the office was in danger, just that security for the commissioner himself. In other words, we were like his bodyguards, so to speak. Nobody would come in the office there and create a commotion or anything. Just keep things going straight.
LW: I understand. Can you spell the commissioner’s last name for me?
JK: I’m quite sure it’s spelled G-I-R-A-R-D-I-N.
LW: During that time, during July 24 and then forward for the rest of that week in 1967, what was the worst thing that you saw, or what was the worst time for you during that time.
JK: I was really confined to that office, so to speak. I don’t think I heard of anything outside of the fact we had rounded up all the black – we had a curfew, meaning 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. was the curfew in the city. Anybody on the streets at that time would be arrested. Everybody we arrested we transferred to Belle Isle and placed them on city buses. They were handcuffed to the seats on the buses.
LW: You actually saw this activity happening.
JK: I transferred a lot of prisoners out there.
LW: So you were working mainly with the commissioner in protecting his office, but another part of your job was to actually do the work of helping to transfer these prisoners.
JK: Well, my job was to secure the commissioner’s office and to make sure no harm came to him or anybody in that area.
LW: So later on where there had been all these arrests made, you helped to transfer prisoners?
LW: Okay, got it. What was that experience like for you looking back? What types of interactions did you have with the people who had been arrested, if any?
JK: The only thing that comes to mind is the fact that I was one of the few people that transferred prisoners to Belle Isle and put them on these buses. I don’t think anybody knew about that, that we actually filled these buses up with all black prisoners, handcuffed them to their seats and that’s where they sat for the duration of the riot. They were fed three bologna sandwiches a day.
LW: That’s an interesting detail. We didn’t know that.
JK: Not many people knew it.
LW: Why do you think nobody knew what was going on in terms of the transfer of prisoners?
JK: Are you familiar with Belle Isle -- the Belle Isle Bridge? The whole Belle Isle Bridge was secured by police, so nobody could get on the island. We used that, like I say, to park a number of city buses on the island and that’s where we took all the black prisoners and secured them on the island so they wouldn’t be involved anymore in the riots.
LW: Right, now were there any white prisoners?
JK: You know, I don’t recall seeing one. There may have been, but to my knowledge I don’t remember seeing any, especially on any of them buses. I’m sure there was white people locked up. They weren’t put on them buses out on Belle Isle as far as my knowledge. I’d remember it.
LW: Okay, thank you. The way that this incident in July of ’67 is sort of been pitched throughout history is that this was a race riot. Black people, especially young black men, were angry at the police. Is that the way that you sort of see this, that you experienced that? Or did your perspective give you another angle on that?
JK: I can understand their feelings, you have to understand that they started this riot. To my knowledge, I didn’t see any white people involved in the riot, outside of the police. It wasn’t a black and white confrontation, a black and police conversation is what it was. We had black officers too, you know.
LW: Absolutely. Now, this anger toward the police, I’m curious, did any of the people that were being transferred to Belle Isle by yourself and your colleagues, did they say anything to you while they were being transferred, hear them say anything, did they get angry with you? Did you sense any tension beyond what would be normal.
JK: The ones that I came into contact with were pretty well subdued. They didn’t say much. They knew they were under arrest. Of course, they didn’t know where they were going when we took them to Belle Isle and put them on a bus. They knew when we got there.
LW: What was the atmosphere like after all this violence ended and things were calm? What was the attitude of the prisoners once they left? Tell me about this process of letting them go. How did that work?
JK: Well, what had happened was after we placed them on the buses and secured the buses in that area, it was about four days they sat there on the buses. There was a black judge – I can’t recall his name – he was the only black judge in Recorder’s Court at the time. You might know or you can check and find out who it was. He ordered all those black prisoners into his courtroom to have a hearing, which we had to do and then he released them all.
LW: Do you think that it was the best course of action to have a single black judge handle work with these particular cases rather than having them sent to multiple –?
JK: Well, apparently whoever was the chief judge in Recorder’s Court at the time thought it was a wise decision and I thought it was a wise decision. I think it made the prisoners probably feel more comfortable when they were brought before a black judge. Of course, he released them all and turned them back on the streets. That was not for us to decide or say. The police department – we just did our job.
LW: I’m curious, did you sense any tension among either between yourself or other police officers – whether they be black or white – or between the black and white police officers in the department. Was there any sort of resistance to integrating the police force in the 1960s?
JK: I didn’t quite understand that question.
LW: Was there any resistance within the police force among yourself and your colleagues to the integration of the police force – getting more black officers.
JK: Well, at that time there weren’t that many black officers on the department. There wasn’t that many and the ones that were on were good officers. I had good friends that were black officers.
LW: So you yourself had no problem
JK: No. Color wasn’t the problem. It was the people creating the problem, black or white.
LW: So, did you ever hear from your fellow officers, not yourself, of course, who were white, was there any disgruntlement about more black officers being hired after the riots?
JK: I know there was more black officers. The ones that were on the job at the time, they thought the same way we did. Whoever was creating the problems, they had one place to go, and that was to jail Get them off the street. If you were a black officer, you were white enough to be like that.
LW: What about after things had calmed down and into August of 1967, what was sort of your biggest challenge as a police officer, as a detective, at that time? How did your job change as a result of this incident?
JK: Well, we weren’t too happy about the black judge releasing them all like he did. We weren’t too happy about it. Outside of that, as a police officer you have a job to do and you just do it. You know, you take the good with the bad. I’m sure there were a lot of officers that weren’t too happy about it. Nothing you could do about it. You could quit the job if you wanted to, that’s about all you could do. But no, I think everything started to go along smoothly. Nobody got bent out of shape about it.
LW: What was the date that you entered the police force?
JK: I entered the police force – I joined January of 1951.
LW: So you had quite a bit of experience by the time 1967 rolled around.
JK: Yeah, right – almost 16 years.
LW: You mentioned that after July of 1967 things began to be run more smoothly. How long were you working as a police officer after ‘67?
JK: I didn’t quite get that one.
LW: When did you retire from the police force?
JK: When did I retire from the police? October 1978.
LW: How did you see the city change between 1967 and 1978?
JK: It turned almost completely all black. But, you know, I’ll give you a little story. Coleman Young was the mayor of the city of Detroit. Do you remember that name?
JK: He was the first black mayor of the city of Detroit. The statement he made when he went into office was “I’m going to run Whitey to Eight Mile Road.” In other words, Eight Mile Road is the city limits. The exact words he says “I’m going to run Whitey to Eight Mile Road.” That was on TV and everything else. When they first selected the mayor, that was about the first thing that came out of his mouth. He succeeded. That was “white flight.” It was a bad thing to say, you know.
LW: Now after 1967, Roman Gribbs became mayor. I’m wondering, do you think you noticed the biggest shift taking place between the end of Gribbs’ mayorship and then Coleman Young taking office? Aside from Coleman Young saying that, what do you think sort of calmed things down after the riots and what do you think sort of instigated the trouble afterwards?
JK: Well, the statement he made that he was going to run Whitey to Eight Mile Road, a lot of white people got the hell out of the city. They were thinking there is no place for us and just got the hell out. In fact, most of the police officers we had to live in the city limits. Most of us moved out – Do you know where Rouge Park is?
JK: We moved to just out, just west of Rouge Park in an area with the nickname “Copper Canyon.” Because all the policemen, that’s where we lived. It was called “Copper Canyon.” We had to say within the city limits of Detroit to belong in the department.
LW: So, you found a way to make that work while being away from the city.
JK: Like I said, that area that I lived in was all policemen. It was the safest place in the world.
LW: I can imagine. So that’s what you did. And then when did you move Florida?
JK: I retired in ’78 and moved to Florida in ’78.
LW: When did you move to Rouge Park -- to Copper Canyon?
JK: That was way before the riots. In fact I worked at the 13th Precinct, which was at Woodward and Hancock. Do you know where that is? Woodward Station? That’s where I worked when I moved out to Rouge Park.
LW: So you were one of the first police officers to sort of settle in that Rouge Park area – on Tireman you lived, you said.
JK: I wouldn’t say that. I was in no big hurry to get out there. At the time I was living in an apartment down on Twelfth Street. We rented a mile home. We bought a home as far out west as we could get – well like I said, out in Copper Canyon.
LW: Right. So you lived on Twelfth Street then. What crossroad?
JK: What crossroad? I’m having a senior moment now. Twelfth Street and – it was a real busy street. I can still remember the address 12255. Davidson! Right off of Davidson.
LW: Davidson. Got it. You lived there until you moved to Rouge Park.
JK: Yeah, then I moved out to Tireman, out by Rouge Park.
LW: Initially, I assume you were like a rookie police officer in the early Fifties you lived on Twelfth Street, which ended up being the center of riot activity in ‘67.
JK: True, but like I say at the time it was just the wife and I. We were both working. We had our first born child on Twelfth Street. We moved off there in three months. We bought a home, like I say, out by Rouge Park.
LW: What was Twelfth Street like in the Fifties?
JK: It wasn’t that bad. I remember there was a little beer and wine store across the street from me. It was mixed, black and white. It was all white people living in the apartment building I was living in – blacks walking by or whatever. No big problems.
LW: So what do you think, since you were living in the heart of the city, and you were a police officer and had a lot of on the ground perspective, what do you think instigated the violent activity that happened in July ’67?
JK: Well, I’ll tell you what happened. There was a bar down on Twelfth Street and Livernois area, between Twelfth Street and Livernois. It was an all black bar; blacks attended there. This particular night, the night the riot started, a large group of these blacks congregated outside of this bar. They got kind of unruly. This was about 2:30 in the morning when the bar closed. So they dispatched two police officers in a patrol car to break it up, to get them out of there. The owners of the bar made the call. Well, the officers when got there the unruly crowd got really unruly. The police officers were in the car and they start shaking the car. There must have been 20, 30 people doing it. The officers somehow got out of that car and ran. They tipped that police car right over and set it afire. That was the start of the riots.
LW: So before that night, on July 24 [July 23] –well, the early morning hours of July 24 --what do you think – was there tension in the city? What was going on?
JK: The blacks all lived in a certain neighborhood. Most of them lived east of Woodward Avenue. They were down on Brush Street, St. Antoine, of course Hastings Street was a heavy black community. But they were all in that one area. So they were pretty well contained in that one area. Just west of Woodward Avenue, was Second Street and Third Street. That was all white Southerners, people who came up from the south during the war to work in the factories. That group didn’t get along too good: the blacks and then whites in that area, if you know what I mean. Of course, the blacks stayed on their side of Woodward Avenue and the whites stayed with the Southerners – Southern workers, I should say – stayed on their side of Woodward Avenue. No real problems.
LW: So it was very segregated, would you say?
JK: Yeah, very segregated. In fact, I worked at the Woodward Police Station, the 13th Precinct, which was right on the corner of Woodward and Hancock. So that sat right in between the two, the Southerners and the black people.
LW: And then white people were living in other neighborhoods.
JK: Yes, both east and west. You get four or five blocks east of Woodward and four or five blocks west of Woodward, it was all white.
LW: But it’s interesting that the Twelfth Street area where you lived with your wife and your young child in the early Fifties, it’s interesting that that was mixed black and white, even though certain buildings were lived in by white tenants and certain buildings were lived in by black tenants, right?
JK: A good possibility, yeah.
LW: So, I wonder what that was like living in an integrated neighborhood in a very segregated city.
JK: Well, from where I was sitting, as the blacks moved in, the whites moved out. Sooner or later, it was either all black or all white. Like I said, blacks moved into certain of these rundown neighborhoods where whites were still living. Whites slowly moved out, farther out west or farther out east.
LW: Is there anything else that you can remember about July 1967 that you would like to share with us?
JK: Did I read my presentation to you?
LW: You did at the beginning of the recording. We got that on the record, you did read that. I’m wondering is there anything else that you’d like to share with us.
JK: No, I just put about everything that I thought in that little presentation I gave you.
LW: Okay, I have one final question for you, if you don’t mind. We talked a little bit about the integration of the police force, how it was mainly white officers throughout the Fifties and Sixties. You were working as a police officer. I wonder, did you feel that there were any discriminating practices against black people when you were a police officer.
JK: People on the job, you mean?
LW: Yeah, maybe not yourself. Did you feel there were discriminating practices against black people?
JK: The only I can say is that I was at the 13th Precinct, like I say on Woodward Avenue, between East and West Detroit. We had one black crew. There were three black officers and they were assigned to one vehicle. Of course, only two were on and one would be off or whatever. So we had one what we call black crew and they were east of Woodward in the black area. We got along good with them. I can still remember one incident which is kind of interesting. We had a room we played cards in right before roll call. Before we went on duty we’d sit there and play cards before 8:00 or whatever time we were going on duty. This one particular time we had a new black police officer, a young black officer -- just a young kid, 21, 22 years old. He came on the job and we had previous to him one black crew, three other black officers; they were older guys. I remember this one particular day when this officer came on the job. A bunch of us whites would play cards before roll call. We were playing cards and this young black officer came over and was watching us. One of the older black officers – his name was Donny Lucas – he was about six foot five and weighed about 350 pounds. He walked over there to the table where this young black officer was watching. He grabbed him by his collar and says, “Come on, nigger, you get your ass on over here with us. Don’t be bothering white officers.” That’s how it was. That’s how segregated we were. Those were the exact words he used.
LW: Even though there were an increasing number of black officers throughout the Sixties and after the riots, there was segregation within the police force.
JK: That went on for quite a while. I remember seeing the same black officer out at a grocery store way out on the west side where I lived. I happen to run into him one day. He seen me and came walking up to me with a big smile on his face. “Hey Kast, I bet you never thought you’d see me out here.” This is the same black officer that yanked that other one away from us. I got along with him. There were no problems. They knew their place. This one young officer he thought he was something special, I guess. He went and straightened him out in a hurry. So that’s how things were then.
LW: Did that change at all after 1967?
JK: Oh yeah, it changed. Like I said, prior to ’67, all black officers we had assigned to the 13th Precinct or the 7th Precinct, which is right down central part of the city, all black areas. But after that they started showing up in white areas. In fact, I got a little story I can tell you. The situation was we had a barricaded gunman one time. He was a white man. He had a rifle and was barricaded in a house. We was over there trying to get him out of there. One black officer over there he was assigned to this precinct. I knew him real well. Anyways, gunfire started, the guy barricaded started shooting through the window of this house, this picture window. A lot of fire broke out. Everybody started shooting. It was like a shooting gallery. One of the police officers got killed. Of course, we all had to turn our firearms into the scientific lab. They wanted to find out who shot and killed the police officer because it was a .38 caliber bullet, it wasn’t the caliber of weapon the barricaded man had. So we went through and the sergeant I was talking to, a friend of mine over at homicide, on the phone from the scene of this shooting. I had this black officer kept tugging on my arm. He was the only black officer at the scene. I said “Get the hell away from me. I’m busy. Get the hell away from me.” What happened was it was his gun that killed the white police officer. In other words, it was by accident.
LW: Of course. So what happened?
JK: I never seen him after that. I never seen him. Like I said, we all had to turn our guns in to homicide and they examined the guns to see which gun killed the officer. Of course, it turned out to be the black officer’s gun. I’ve never seen him from that day on, whether they took him inside and said, “You better resign from the department and get out of here in a hurry,” whatever. Word got out that you killed a white officer, it was going to be tough for you. I never seen that officer again. I don’t know what happened to him.
LK: What date was that?
JK: What date you said? God, I don’t know.
LK: The year?
JK: Well, let me see. I was a sergeant at the time. I got promoted to sergeant -- I was a uniform sergeant at the time, promoted in 1968 to uniform. Sometime around ‘68, ‘69.
LK: Interesting. Do you think he would had to resign if he was white?
JK: If he’d been right?
JK: Shoot that one to me again.
LK: Do you think that officer that accidentally killed the other officer, do you think he would still had to resign if he had been a white officer?
JK: I don’t know if he resigned or what, ma’am. I just never seen him after that date. I know that he was scared to death. He just kept grabbing my arm. He was the one who shot him. He was just scared to death, all white officers at the scene. At the time, we didn’t know if the other officer was dead. He was found out in about 15 minutes when we got information back from Receiving Hospital he was deceased. But again, I never seen that officer after that day. We all turned our guns in. We had to turn our guns in. They wanted to determine who killed the officer through ballistics. When they found out who it was – like I said, I never seen that officer after that day. Now whether he was taken aside and said “For the better of everybody, it’s best you resign and get the hell out of here.” I think that’s what happened. I don’t know, but if that’s what happened. All these white officers would have gone bananas thinking this black officer killed a white officer even though it was an accident Not many know about that, either.
LW: Do you remember that black officer’s name?
JK: What the hell was his name? Can’t think of it. He was a nice guy. Like I said, he came up to me and pulled me by the arm. He was pulling on my arm, you know, letting me know he was the one that shot him. He was scared to death. He was a nice young fellow, real nice guy.
LW: Do you remember the officer’s name that was shot and killed that day?
JK: Oh my god. I can see a picture of him. No, offhand, I’m sorry but I can’t. I can still picture the guy, still picture him. I can’t think of his name. He worked at the same precinct.
LW: Well John, thank you so much for talking with us. Is there anything else you would like to say on the record?
JK: Not really. I can’t think of anything.
LW: We really appreciate it and thank you for your time.
JK: No problem.