Interviewer: Sheila Bernard
Production Team: C
Interview Date: June 5, 1989
Camera Rolls: 2134-2135
Sound Rolls: 263-264
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Arthur Johnson, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on June 5, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
So if you could just tell me how Detroit was similar or different to other northern cities in the late 50s, early 60s--
I think in the, ah, 50s and the early 60s the city of Detroit was very much a racist city, and its practices and policies, ah, reflected pretty much the, ah, pattern of race relations throughout the north. And it's important to emphasize in that connection that, ah, ah, this was racism in the raw and, and it was, ah, only different in, in certain, ah, aspects, certain character--
I have to stop you for a second. Um, I think if you communicate more--
And if you could just tell us again what Detroit was like--
Well, Detroit in the 50s and, and the early 60s was, ah, very much a racist city, and this was a problem which characterized every aspect of community life - housing segregation was rampant, ah, job discrimination was, ah, rampant, ah, a, a Black person was not able to, ah, ah, be hired as a, as a cab driver, Checker cab driver, nor would a cab, ah, Checker cab pick a Black person up downtown Detroit unless they felt like it, in spite of the law. Ah, ah, discrimination in public eating and drinking establishments was, ah, was, was common. Ah, so this was a, a very racist city and I think its, ah, ways and, and practices, ah, in, in that period, ah, reflected pretty much the, ah, the character of the racial problem throughout the North.
And was, was progress being made by 1961?
Well, ah, I think we began to, to, to see some, some, some progress. Ah, ah, for one thing the NAACP, ah, conducted, I think, the nation's first real, real sit-in's, ah, in the city of Detroit in public eating and drinking establishments, ah, ah, and so we, we began to break that, that pattern. Ah, in 1954, in December of `54, ah, one of the major hotels in Detroit, for the first time, permitted Blacks to use their banquet facilities. Ah, ah, and then coming up to, to the election that I think that really had a significant impact from a race relations standpoint was when, ah, the young Jerry Cavanagh, 33 years old, ah, defeated, ah, the incumbent mayor, Louis Miriani, and it was, and tha- and that defeat was brought about, ah, primarily because Blacks had been so aroused, ah, and angered by, ah, Miriani's, ah, police crackdown, which was, ah, really directed against the Black community, that, ah, that Blacks, ah, really were able to mobilize enough votes and with enough White votes to defeat Miriani.
Stop. I'm sorry I interrupted, that was a good answer, that was very clear. Do you have any, any cool stories that you could tell me to--
So what was the policy?
The police policy in the, ah, ah, Miriani ordered police crackdown, was to arrest citizens--
So what was the policy?
The, ah, policy, ah, police policy, that had been ordered by Mayor Miriani, ah, was to, ah, arrest, ah, suspicious people in suspicious and unreasonable places. Everybody in town interpreted that policy to be directed against Black Detroiters, and the policy clearly acted that out because they began to stop, arrest Black people at will.
And what happened to you?
Ah, I, ah, was victimized by the same kind of arrest, ah, in front of my home, ah, just having walked out of my house and was attempting to get in my automobile when I was--
Can you, could you just tell, without, just tell me in sort of just, just tell me what happened and tell--
OK, so if you could just tell me what happened.
OK, I was arrested in front of my house, ah, when I was about to get in my automobile, but before I could get in police officers drove by, stopped, jumped out, asked me why I was, ah, there, and I said, "Well, what do you mean?" and they proceeded then to, ah, search me on, on the, on the scene, ah, and I, ah, I, I told them at the time that I would go to the police precinct and complain about that. That was a typical example of what the, ah, this arresting of suspicious people in suspicious places. I, and I didn't understand really why, ah, either label should apply to me. I was, I was at, in front of my home getting in my automobile, wi- absolutely with nothing else, ah, in sight that would, ah, cause anyone to be suspicious of anything.
And how did that relate to, ah, Cavanagh's election?
The Black community, ah, reacted against this, ah, police crackdown, ah, with considerable anger and dismay, and that anger was finally organized and directed to a political campaign to unseat Miriani, and Jerry Cavanagh at 33 years old presented himself, and he came at the right time and he was the right man, and he won the election.
That was a very nice answer.
So, so what's good?
Detroit in 1967 had it's bright spots, at least promising. Ah, for one thing, the new mayor had, ah, drastically, ah, ah, reformed the leadership of the police department. More Blacks were coming into the department, the policy at that time was more respectful of the Black community, there were no remnants, remaining remnants of the, ah, so called police, ah, crackdown. Ah, the city, the city's economic health was considerably better than it is today and th- and I- and, ah, and the, ah, employment rate among Blacks was better than it is at, at, even at this moment. The, ah, ah, housing was, was fairly plentiful although there was discrimination and segregation, ah, you know, throughout the city. Still, ah, ah, Blacks could find, ah, housing, and in many cases, ah, they found it possible to find an apartment, but it was more difficult to find "the" apartment one wanted at that time. Ah, so that, ah, Detroit, ah, ah, looked like, ah, a rather typical American city, ah, struggling with the race problem as all other cities, ah, and, and, and it was kind of on its way, I think, to becoming a better city. Now it had much to, to correct however. Ah, discrimination was, was still rampant.
I'm going to stop for a second. I'm sorry, I just need you to, because of the structure that --be a little more succinct.
So what about--
I think Detroit in 1967 had a number of bright spots. It had a strong Black middle class, it had a fairly stable, ah, ah, employment rate. It, ah, was even regarded as a great American city, ah, but it had problems of racism which, ah, were very serious and which could be seen in the, um, ah, housing market, which could be seen still in rampant discrimination in employment, ah, which could be seen in the school system which, ah, still did not have large numbers of, of, of Blacks in administrative positions. Ah, when I came to the position of Assistant Superintendent in 1966, ah, one of the daily newspapers in Detroit, in fact it was the Detroit Free Press, carried a headline, "Negro Appointed to High School Post." I, I think that's a significant marker of what, ah, where Blacks and Whites were in the city of Detroit in--
OK, stop. So now I want to move ahead to July 23rd--
--if you could tell me about going out on peace patrol on 12th Street.
The, ah, Black administrative assistant in the police department, Hubert Locke, ah, called me at about 6:30 in the morning. I think he, he called several, ah, people in the community, ah, who were regarded as, as, as Black leaders, I suppose, ah, to come to Grace Episcopal Church. Ah, he said we were in trouble, there was a situation developing on 12th Street that seemed to be getting out of hand, and so when we got to the church, ah, he explained what they had seen, what they knew, ah, in the police department, and, ah, asked if we would, ah, assist the police effort by going in teams, ah, throughout the area and asking people to leave the streets and return to their homes. Ah, I was paired with, ah, the then young Congressman John Conyers, and, ah, ah, Hubert Locke passed out bull horns, so John took the bull horn and I drove my car. Ah, we left Virginia Park and 12th Street and had gotten to Hazelwood, which is about six, seven blocks north, when the crowd was so large and the violence, open violence taking place right in the street in terms of, ah, trash cans being picked up and thrown against the shop windows and people just walking in and taking things and, ah, the, ah, and fires were already, ah, had, ah, were burning in different places. Ah, The crowd, the whole scene was such that I could not drive my car further. John Conyers finally got out of the car, got on the hood of it, and attempted to speak to the people about leaving the street, and ah, returning to their homes. Well finally I got of my car, I whispered to John's ear, "I would like to get my car out of here if I can".** Ah, finally I got out of my car and got on the hood of the car with John and there is a picture, at least new- one news photo I've seen--
OK, I need to stop you, and we can pick it up from John getting out of the car because you said return to the streets, he was --return to their homes.
OK, if you could tell me again about going home and then getting a call.
Um, by Sunday afternoon when I returned to my home, ah, Judge Damian Keith, ah, called me and said, ah, "Arthur, the, ah, people who are really, ah, responsible for all the decisions that are being made as to how we, ah, treat this situation are Whites, and I think that there ought to be some Blacks present who could in some way, ah, offer some assistance and at least be consulted." And he suggested that we go to the police department. And I said, "I think that's a good idea." And so the two of us went. And we were welcomed by the, ah, the, ah, Commissioner of Police, Ray Girardin and the Mayor, Cavanagh; and the, ah, Governor, George Romney. And from that point on we stayed in close touch with them, ah, right up to the point of, ah, being asked our, our, ah, views as to whether we felt the situation was such that federal troops should be called in.
OK, stop for a second. I want to keep going with that. Can you talk about that in the--
--so think if you could just give a sense of the growing--
I think by the second day of the riot there was a great desperation among all the people in town who had any sanity left about this--
I'm sorry to stop you It was the first day still so if you could just start with the sense of fear and don't put a date to it--
OK. The growing sense of, of, of concern in the community was that the situation was out of hand, that no one knew where it was going, when it would end, or even how to end it**. And I think the great fear among many Blacks was that to, to, call on federal troops, ah, to put and end to this would carry with it the high risk of considerable bloodshed. And I think there were some people who were concerned about this. Though I felt, and I know that Judge Keith felt that, that had to be done if this was to be stopped.
So could you tell me about that, about the decision to bring in troops?
The, the governor, and the mayor and the chief of police, ah, had been in touch with the White House--President Johnson--and in fact the President had sent out, ah, his emissary, ah, Secretary Vance to examine the situation and try to determine for himself what ought to be done. But as we all looked at it, and certainly Judge Keith and I joined in reaching the decision that federal troops should be called in. Governor Romney--to his credit--although we had no official position or responsibility there asked what was our judgement before he finally decided to make that call to the White House.
Ah, because, ah, Black leadership had not given Whites in the, ah, leadership of this community a clear signal of pending trouble, perhaps had not, ah, warned them of the great danger of, ah, such an experience, they, a number of them began to feel that they'd been talking to the wrong leadership in the Black community. Ah, that was a, a, a comment on the record of this whole experience I think that is significant, and I think it's, ah, regrettable. The Black community leadership ah, was grossly offended by this because they did not accept the responsibility of, of, of, of, ah, with certainty telling anyone, ah, how the Black community would react on a given day under the weight of the racial repression that existed in this city. Ah, and when it did happen, ah, I think, ah, Black leadership, in many cases, was as surprised at the form it took as anyone else, and they were entitled to be surprised, I think. Ah, the, the, the, the ultimate, ah, ah, challenge, ah, here I think in, in how this, ah, whole process and, and how this experience was viewed by Whites and Blacks, ah, came at the point at which it, within the organization of New Detroit there was, ah, a, a, a, a challenge to the Board of New Detroit to support a hundred thousand dollar grant to a new Black organization. Ah, a number of us Blacks, and as well as some Whites in the Board of New Detroit, felt that that was, ah, virtually an insult to the established Black, ah, leadership and to the established Black organizations. And so they, ah, very strongly opposed that. This is, I think, the first critical very serious issue that developed within the, this new organization called New Detroit.
OK, uh stop for a second.
So what happened on 12th Street?
Well, as I sat in my car, ah, looking at that scene and listening to that scene, ah, terribly aware that John Conyers is desperately trying to get the attention of people to persuade them to return to their homes, ah, I had many thoughts--one that I, I, there, there's a, there's a terrible distance and some difference between me and the people who are, who are doing this. Um, I was seeing something I had never seen before, and that was, ah, citizens, ah, in all other respects normal looking citizens, ah, who, and young people in particular, who pick up trash cans on the street, break, ah, windows of a modest little shop, climb in the window and take whatever they want, cross the street, and nobody's in a position to do anything about it. Ah, there was some laughter at some of this, there was anger being expressed, there was, um, the sound of, of, of sirens, there were, this--
But how did you feel?
I f- I felt, I felt terribly afraid in this. I was, I was, I was quite frightened, and I had never been so frightened in all of my life because I'd never been in a scene like this and, ah, as I've said before, I felt that, ah, sitting there in my car I was witnessing a freight train coming, ah, ah, at me, and that I was on the track and, and, and, and couldn't move off. Uh--
OK, could you just tell us that one more time without saying, "as I said before," because we won't have heard it before. How did you feel sitting in that car?
Ah, but I felt like a, a f- a freight train was coming and, and, and that I was, ah, almost stuck on the track.
And what do you say to somebody who says this was a rebellion and it shouldn't have been stopped and they shouldn't have brought law and order in, they should have let it happen?
Oh, I think that, ah, it's nonsense. Ah, the fact of the matter is, ah, the s- the situation that had developed--highly explosive, very dangerous, and also very damaging at that point--was one that no one could control. It was out of control. Now nobody in his, her good mind, would want to say, "Don't stop this." So, you know, that isn't, that's not a, that's not a, that's not an acceptable alternative. I mean you don't have an acceptable alternative, at some point it has to be ended.
Cut. Anything else? Is there anything we haven't asked--