Interview with Roger Wilkins
QUESTION 2
INTERVIEWER:

Will you tell me the story of, you're moving to Detroit and you've gotten a call, you've been woken up? I'm sorry, stop the cameras.



ROGER WILKINS:

The Attorney General called a meeting about 6 o'clock in the morning and we met over there and then he said the President wants to see us. So we went over to the Cabinet room and he had the Deputy Treasurer, the Attorney General, he had Robert McNamara who was then, Secretary of Defense. And he had been on the phone with Governor Romney in Detroit. Governor Romney wanted troops. The President didn't want to send troops in. Ah,, and the issue was in part about the '68 election. Ah, Romney did not want to go into the '68 campaign having declared that he couldn't take care of the State of Michigan. Ah, Johnson, under law, couldn't send in the troops until a declaration that the situation was out of control. And of course Johnson was insisting. Ah, finally they reached a compromise and Johnson decided that a number of us, the Deputy Attorney General, Cyrus Vance, the former Deputy had, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, John Doar, and I would go to Detroit and he started telling us and occasionally he would be on the phone to Fort Bragg, to the General in charge of the Second Airborne and one thing he kept saying, "I don't want bullets in those guns. I don't want our troops to have bullets in those guns." And he went on and on and he just got himself all worked up. Ah, and he said, "I don't want anybody to say that my troops shot a pregnant ni-." And he looked at me and his face went red and then he finished his sentence without finishing that word. Ah,, and as he then sent us out to go and pack and then go over to Andrews Air Force Base** to get a plane. He called me over and he took me into his office and he wanted to apologize and he didn't quite know how and he walked me over to the french windows that lead out to the Rose Garden and he looked at me and he looked down at the floor and there you saw pock marks on the floor. And they were pock marks made by Eisenhower's golf shoes, and he said, "Look what that son of a bitch did to my floor." And then he patted me on the back and said, "Have a nice trip."

INTERVIEWER:

Can we stop the camera please?



ROGER WILKINS:

The, Detroit was probably the scariest place I went to during my years in the government. Ah, there was a curfew, and you'd hear shooting occasionally as you went around at night. A lot of the, but it was eerily dark because a lot of the street lights had been shot out. You were safest on the east side of town where the federal troops were. Ah, they were disciplined troops. They were not afraid. Ah, but when you got on the west side of town which was patrolled by Detroit Police, by the National, the Michigan National Guard and by the State Police, you were in trouble. I never really felt that I was in trouble from any Black rioters or threatened. But I remember one night driving out Grand River, a major artery in Detroit, and being passed by a convoy of State Troopers. The State Troopers were the scariest people because they were from out in the state, most of them had had very little contact with Black people, very little contact with Detroit. They were from little places like Grayling and Zeeland and here, all of a sudden, they were in big Detroit and there were all these Black people that they were afraid of. And frightened people with guns are terrifying. And as we were driving along there was this convoy of several State Trooper cars and I was alone with one of the people who worked with me, who is also Black. And the State Troopers called out and said "Get off the streets! Get off the streets!" Well, we were federal officials and we were permitted to be on the streets and their convoy circled around and, and followed us and pulled us over at the corner of Joy Road and Grand River. And they surrounded us. Well, usually you had your, your credentials, your Justice Department credentials in your pocket, but you knew that if you came out of a car surrounded by State Troopers with your hand in your pocket, you're going to be dead. So instead of reaching for my credentials, I got out of the car with my hands up screaming "Justice Department! Justice Department!" As I looked around there were State Troopers either kneeling or standing, all of them pointing guns at my colleague and me. And they were shivering and I was shivering. There was another car right--

INTERVIEWER:

Can we stop for a second, we're out of--



ROGER WILKINS:

One of my jobs in Detroit was to go out--

ROGER WILKINS:

One of my jobs in Detroit was to go out at night to find out what the level of violence really was because there was no accurate reporting that we could rely on. And one night a Black co-worker and I were driving up Grand River which is a major artery in Detroit, and it was dark because a lot of the lights had been shot out, and the streets were empty because there was a curfew but we were permitted to be on the streets because we were federal employees. As we went up the street, a convoy of state troopers came down Grand River in the opposite direction. They screamed at us, "Get off the street! Get off the street! Snipers! Snipers!" And we continued up and we we're about to turn left onto Joy Road when all of a sudden we realized that this convoy of state police cars had made a U-turn and were pulling us over. Normally, when somebody does something like that you reach into your pocket and you pull out your Justice Department credentials. But they were screaming, "Get out of the car!" and I was screaming, "Justice Department!" and I knew if I stuck my hand in my pocket to get out my credentials, I'd be a dead man. So I came out of the car with my hands up and what I see is we are surrounded by a circle of state troopers with either long guns or pistols all pointed at us. They were shaking, I was shaking. They'd also pulled over another car that had a man, a woman, and some kids in the back. These people were all Black and they were telling them to get out of the car. And all of a sudden you could hear cloth tearing, people, they were being, pulling them by their clothing. Meanwhile I was still screaming "Department of Justice!" and somebody was smart enough to reach in, take out my credentials, and all of a sudden they said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, stop, hold it, hold it, hold it." And so they stopped manhandling this other person. I then explained what we were there for, the other person explained that he was an essential worker at the GM plant and that he had permission to be on the street. So they admonished us to be careful and they drove off. I got back in the car shaking because I really thought when I got out of that car I said to myself, "35 and dead at the corner of Joy Road and, ah, Grand River**." I was shaking and this old White Buick that these other people were in kind of limped off down the street, spewing smoke and I heard them yell after the cops, "Motherfucker!" Then I laughed and everything was all right.

INTERVIEWER:

Great, stop camera.



ROGER WILKINS:

They pulled us over, they were screaming, "Get out of the car! Get out of the car!" And normally I would go into my pocket and pull out my credentials but I knew if I did that, I'd be a dead man. So I came out of the car with my hands up screaming, "Department of Justice! Department of Justice!" And what I saw around me was a circle of White state troopers either with long guns or pistols all aimed at me. And what I thought at that moment was, "I'm 35 and I'll be dead right here at Joy Road and Grand River." Well I kept on screaming, "Department of Justice! Department of Justice!" and I realized that they'd also stopped another car that had a woman, a man and two kids in it. And they were screaming at them but they were also pulling them out of the car and you could hear their, their clothing ripping and we kept screaming, "Department of Justice!" and finally somebody heard us and pulled my credentials out and looked. And he said, "Oh, Department of Justice." And then everybody relaxed, they start--stopped pulling these people out. Then they let us go. The man said that he was an essential worker at GM plant and therefore had the right to be on the street and was coming home from work. And so he was let go, we were let go. They admonished us to be careful and they drove off. And the guy, the worker drove off in his old White Buick, spewing smoke and he screamed out after the troopers, "Motherfuckers!" And it was the first time I relaxed.