Eyes on the Prize One Interviews
Washington University Digital Gateway Texts
Interview with George Romney

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Interviewer: Sheila C. Bernard
Production Team: X
Interview Date: October 31, 1988

Camera Rolls: 2053-2055
Sound Rolls: 224-225

Editorial Notes:

Interview with , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 31, 1988, for . 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


INTERVIEWER: You told me that you had marched in Detroit in 1963 with Dr. King. Can you tell me about that march and about your involvement?
GEORGE ROMNEY: W--well he wasn't actually here but they had a march in his honor.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, I'm sorry.
GEORGE ROMNEY: And I marched in that and then I marched in, uh, Gross Point.
GEORGE ROMNEY: A place where they had, uh, restricted housing.


INTERVIEWER: Will you tell me about the, um, I need to ask you, I'm sorry, to incorporate my answers a little bit into your question. Nobody's hearing me or seeing me.
INTERVIEWER: So you need to answer in full, in full sentences. Um, will you tell me about 1963 and the march and what was happening in Michigan in terms of civil rights?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well I had taken the lead in, uh, bringing about Civil Rights provisions in our new State constitution. We had a Constitution Convention in, uh, 1960-61. And, uh, for the first time we wrote right into our State constitution complete Civil Rights provisions, including the establishment of a Civil Rights Commission. So I was very much interested in, uh, doing what I could to further Civil Rights and when they had the marches here in Detroit I participated in them, uh, to evidence my support.
INTERVIEWER: This was the biggest march, civil rights march Detroit had even seen.
GEORGE ROMNEY: That's correct, that's correct.
INTERVIEWER: Can you, can you describe it for me?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well there were thousands in it and we marched, uh, actually it took place twice, uh, we marched up Woodward and then we marched out onto Gross Point, the place where there was restricted housing.


INTERVIEWER: In 1967 Watts had erupted, Newark had just burned, um, did you think a riot would happen in Detroit?
GEORGE ROMNEY: No, I think it was quite a surprise to everyone--
INTERVIEWER: I'm sorry, can you hold for a sec. I'm sorry, I need to ask you, when I, when I ask a qu--
INTERVIEWER: Did you think a riot would happen in Detroit?
GEORGE ROMNEY: No, I didn't and most other people didn't. Ah, as a matter of fact it was quite a surprise to people in Detroit because Detroit had been treated very favorably, uh, by the Johnson administration, had been given a lot of, uh, special help in meeting urban problems. So it was a surprise.


INTERVIEWER: When did you first hear about the rioting?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well they called me Sunday morning, uh, the Sunday morning it started, to tell me that, uh, there was a riot. Ah, my uh, counsel had called me, he's now Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals here in Michigan, and he said that, uh, the mayor and the other city officials thought they were going to be able to handle it, uh, so unless I was called back, well I didn't need to be concerned about it.


INTERVIEWER: And when did it become something...?
GEORGE ROMNEY: About the middle of the afternoon they called back to indicate that it was out of control, that the city officials felt they needed state help. And that's the first time I knew that the situation was as serious as it was.


INTERVIEWER: That night, on Sunday night you toured the city by helicopter. Can you describe to me what you saw and what was going through your mind?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well there were fires all over a good part of city, particularly along Grant Boulevard and 12th Street and it looked like a battlefield. I mean it was a, a very, uh, ominous sight. It was I've never seen anything quite like that before.
INTERVIEWER: Um, I'm going to ask you that again and can you give me, a more, can you paint a picture of, I'm sorry, more description of what--


INTERVIEWER: Sunday night?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Yes, well I flew over, there were about three square miles that had huge fires, dozens of them. They weren't small fires, they were huge fires. And it was a terrifying sight because it was obvious that there was a terrible disaster taking place. So it was very distressing to see the scope of it and the, uh, the, the destructiveness of it.


INTERVIEWER: When was it decided that federal troops were needed and why?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Ah, it was decided, uh, the s--second night that we needed sec--uh, federal troops. As a matter of fact, uh, I, wait a minute now, let me back up. Was it the second night or the first night?
INTERVIEWER: It was Sunday night.
GEORGE ROMNEY: Alright. Let's start over.
GEORGE ROMNEY: I don't recall the circumstances.
INTERVIEWER: When and how was it decided that federal troops were needed.
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well it was decided, uh, early Monday morning, uh, after midnight when it was clear that the riot was increasing in magnitude, it wasn't being reduced. And furthermore, it was clear that the, uh, National Guard plus the state police plus the local police would probably not be able to handle it. It wasn't certain that they couldn't handle it, but after all we had a group of uh, people out there trying to deal with it who were, who were not trained to deal with riots. The National Guard had arrived late anyway because the National Guard had been on encampment up in northern Michigan, so they had to be brought all the way down. Of course the situation grew worse as they were being transported down to the riot area. Ah, so it was in the early morning of, uh, Monday that we decided that we needed federal assistance, might need federal assistance.


INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me about the series of phone conversations you had with Mayor Cavanagh?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well, the first conversation was one that, uh, Cavanagh and I had with uh, Vice-President Humphrey. And Vice-President Humphrey indicated that, uh, we ought to call, uh, Attorney General Clark, that he was responsible for making such decisions. So we called Attorney General Clark and he indicated that we would get federal assistance, that the troops would be made available. Then he called us back several hours later to indicate that uh, he'd have to have a written statement indicating that the riot was completely beyond our ability to control. Well the difficulty of that was that it would have nullified all of the insurance policies over the whole area, so, and furthermore, we didn't know with certainty that we couldn't control it, uh, we didn't, uh, we thought we might not be able to. Ah, so, uh, I indicated that to him.[1] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 202-47. And then it took some time to work out, uh, a written request that was agreeable to him that wouldn't nullify all the insurance contracts in the area. And several hours later we were able to get, uh, an indication that they would give us federal assistance.


INTERVIEWER: Was William Ramsey Clark on the President Johnson
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well I, I'm sure that the President was involved in the process, but, uh, whether he was playing politics with it I, I don't know with certainty. I do know that in the case of the Newark riot that the President himself called up the ther--the then Democratic, uh, Governor of New Jersey and offered the troops. Ah, Hughes who was then Governor of New Jersey indicated he didn't need them, but in my case they were not prepared to send them in unless they had a written request.


INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me, in terms of that, this, this dialogue with the President, you weren't just another governor asking for federal assistance?
GEORGE ROMNEY: What it happened at that point, well at that, at that point I was, uh, very much in the national limelight because I was ahead in the polls, I was ahead of Johnson in the polls at that time, so sure I'm--


INTERVIEWER: What was the additional political part of this conversation ?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well I was the leading, uh, contender for the presidency at that point, uh, the polls indicated I was ahead of Johnson and everyone else, uh, so, uh, that, that obviously was a factor in the situation.


INTERVIEWER: Um, the troops finally arrived but they're kept on the outskirts of the city and you told me about touring the city with Cyrus Vance late in the afternoon and were critical of that choice of time because Vance decided that things were calm. Can you tell me that story again about going out with Vance?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well Vance and, uh, General Throckmorton arrived about noon and, uh, late in the afternoon about, uh, in, in the evening actually, uh, Throckmorton and Vance decided to tour the city, uh, Cavanagh and I had been urging him to get the federal troops on the street, but before doing that he wanted to got--to go out and take another look. And they unfortunately went out at about mealtime, uh, so probably some of the rioters were getting something to eat because things had quieted down some so, uh, Vance and Throckmorton decided at that point not to commit the federal troops, uh, so it was several hours later before they were committed.


INTERVIEWER: Do you think if the troops had been committed earlier while the riot was going on?
GEORGE ROMNEY: I think the riot could have been stopped a day earlier if the troops had been put right on the street. Ah, they were here, they were experienced, they had training to deal with such, uh, conditions, and consequently in my opinion, if they'd have been put on the street, uh, immediately, uh, the riot would have ended a day earlier.
INTERVIEWER: Can I ask you again just to make sure I have it ?
GEORGE ROMNEY: That's right we were told by Vice-President Humphrey that we should talk to Attorney General Clark, that he was the one who was to be contacted in such situations. So that's what we did. And uh, he comit--committed at that point orally, uh, the availability of fe--federal troops. But then called back later, in the morning to indicate he had to have a written request and he had to have a written request indicating that the situation was beyond the ability of our, uh, state and local, uh, people to control. And that I couldn't give because, uh, it would have nullified all of the insurance policies in the area, plus the fact that, uh, it wasn't certain that we couldn't control it, but we, we felt that we ought to be sure that we would be able to control it by having federal assistance.


INTERVIEWER: So its...so the troops had been postponed still ?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Yes it began to pick up after the dinner hour. And, uh, General Throckmorton and I were cov--uh calling, covering the figures to indicate the intensity of what was occurring. And as it continued to mount, I became terribly distressed and concerned and asked to see Vance again, and, uh, confronted Vance with the necessity of getting those troops out on the street. Well at that point he asked me to give the same sort of written statement that Clark had asked me to give him that I was unable to give. So I had to tell Vance, "Look I've been through that, there's no point in going through that again, we need those federal troops out on the streets. If you want to blame me, blame me but let's get the federal troops out on the streets." Now he didn't order them at that point. I'm sure he had to confer with Washington, I think with the White House, I don't know that it was the White House, but it was only t--two or three hours later that he ultimately, uh, indicated that, uh, the troops were out on the streets. And then President Johnson went on the air, uh, uh, and announced that they were going to commit the federal troops.


INTERVIEWER: When President Johnson did that he also made a very big point of mentioning your name several times ?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well I knew that he was, uh, t--taking political advantage of the situation. I knew that we were doing everything we could--


GEORGE ROMNEY: Well I, I felt that President Johnson was taking advantage of the situation politically. And, uh, I knew that he must have known that, uh, the local police and the state police and the national guard, they're not trained to deal with riots of that intensity, and that he had troops here who could deal with it because they were trained to deal with it. So I was convinced that, uh, he was undertaking to, uh, shift the blame from any blame from himself to me.


INTERVIEWER: Was there a sense ?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well I don't know there was that as much as it was that they didn't have the experience that the, that the fed--the, the National Guard and the local police to deal with such a situation.


INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me the, um, you have said, you told me on the ?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well two things contributed greatly to the De--Detroit riot. One was, uh, urban renewal and the other was the freeway program, because those two programs bulldozed many poor people out of their homes an--and with the suburban wall that was built around most of our central cities by the suburbs to keep poor and minority citizens out of the suburbs, uh, the, the people had to con--congregate in an area along 12th Street, and that became over-congested, it was too heavily populated. And consequently when the incident occurred, there was just an explosion. It was hot, it was in the summertime, and, uh, I'm of the opinion at least that that over-concentration of people as a result of those two federal programs played a big part in the intensity of the riot.


INTERVIEWER: What about the good intentions ?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well, uh, many of those programs had unforeseen, uh, s--side effects and that's what happened here in my opinion. Now when I was in the federal government, I stopped the urban renewal program because I became convinced that in the case of most, uh, big cities it was bad rather than good--


INTERVIEWER: As someone involved in major civil rights legislation in the state, what was your sense in July 1967 of, what the cost of the rioting was gonna be, both in terms of the community in of itself--the Black community--and also in terms of the White backlash?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well, uh, it was gonna be a heavy cost, and we were deeply concerned about that.
INTERVIEWER: I mean, I'm sorry, there was gonna be heavy cost to the rioting. I just need a fuller sentence.
GEORGE ROMNEY: Oh. Okay. Start over.
GEORGE ROMNEY: You want me to--
INTERVIEWER: What do you think the cost of the rioting would be?
GEORGE ROMNEY: I thought the cost of the rioting would be, uh, intensified, uh, racial difficulties in the area. And that's why we undertook to organize New Detroit. We felt it was necessary to establish communication, better communication in the community. And also we were concerned about the impact on the housing and jobs and things of that character and the flight to the suburbs. Ah, so the cre--creation of a ma--means by which there could be a more effective contact between White and Blacks, and particularly leader--at the leadership level, was considered very necessary.


INTERVIEWER: As, as the week went on, did you think the time of the rioting was going to accomplish anything positive? Did it seem all negative?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well, the only thing positive it did was to create this mechanism for communication between Black leaders and White leaders. But as far the effective, the physical destruction and so on, it was bad. Ah, after all, the people who rioted destroyed facilities that they needed for housing, and for shopping, and so on. So, I think one reason we haven't had, uh, urban riots since then is because they were counter-productive. Ah, the people who engaged in the rioting suffered greatly from the results of the rioting.


INTERVIEWER: You, um, you testified before the Kerner Commission, and, um, and eventually they came out with their finding that there were, that our country was splitting into two societies. Can you talk about your involvement with the Commission, and about whether you agreed with their findings?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well, I testified and presented the facts with respect to what had happened in Detroit. Ah, and basically I was in agreement with their findings. Yes, I was concerned that, uh, we were dividing. And I don't think we have solve the problem yet completely. I think we still have a major problem in our central cities, our bigger metropolitan areas. Ah, after all, as long as you have a, a multiplicity of governmental units in these metropolitan areas, uh, you're, you're gonna have problems because, uh, you can't deal with the problem of housing and, uh, other problems, that need to be dealt with with all these separate governmental units in the, uh, big central cities.


INTERVIEWER: There's a lot of criticism within the Black community about the show of force, and at the time it was mostly a White show of force. Can you explain what a governor's response is when something like this happens? What's the, what's the concern, what's the first thing you have to do?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well, when a governor's confronted with something like that riot, uh, the first thing he has to do is to assess the situation and then take action. And the only means he has of dealing with the situation is to make use of the state police and to make use of the National Guard. And consequently that's what I did.


INTERVIEWER: The, um, the Kerner Commission came up quite critical of the Guard, because they were so untrained for a riot situation, because they were so young and so rural and so White. Was there any, d--did you have any trepidation about sending the Guard in at the time, or was there a choice?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well the Guard helped, after all, even after the Federal tr--troops came in. They put the Federal troops in the areas, that we--were the easiest to handle. The National Guard still were kept in the areas where the intense riot was taking place. So it was the National Guard that ultimately had to control the worst parts of the riot.


INTERVIEWER: And you, and, and you can ?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well I, again, that's difficult to say, obviously the, uh, cost of the riot was much more than anyone would, would liked to have seen. But, uh, you had to deal with the resources you had. And as I say, uh, the Federal troops, even after they came in, they relieved the National Guard to some extent, but the National Guard, was s--still required to deal with the most difficult parts of the riot.


INTERVIEWER: During the week, were you at the police situation, is that right?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Oh sure, I stayed right there day and night.


INTERVIEWER: So what can you tell me, can you describe what was going on?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well, uh, the Deputy Police Commissioner, Nichols, John Nichols whose still here in the area, was the one who was most fully informed as to what was happening because they were reporting into him from the field, as to what was taking place, and, and I was following that closely, and consulting, as there was need to consult, but of course as soon as Vance put the Federal troops on the street, then the responsibility for dealing with the situation was his and Throckmorton, not mine. You see, when I came in as Governor, I took over from the Mayor, but when Vance and Throckmorton came in, they took over for me. And so they were the ones in command at that point, but I continued to stay there until the whole thing was resolved.


INTERVIEWER: Okay. Can you, I, I know I've asked you this again but I need to, to ask, um, Detroit was really a city that people, they had put down a near riot the year before. And it was a city that people really thought was going to be immune from the long hot summers that were hitting so many other cities in the country. Can you talk about that? What was, what was going right in Detroit, and, and right, what the sense was when it turned out that Detroit was actually hit with the worst riot of all?
GEORGE ROMNEY: Detroit was receiving special treatment really, from the, uh, Johnson Administration. Cavanagh was a very popular mayor, and he was very popular with the federal official as well as in the community here. And consequently, uh, when the Great Society program was started, Detroit was given really special treatment, and they giv--given larger support than other cities were given, given. So it was rather surprising to people when this occurred. Also, uh, the city had dealt previously with a s--smaller incident that had occurred earlier in the year. And I think that's why they were over confident in dealing with this, and why they didn't bring the State in earlier than they did. Ah, if the State had been brought in earlier, of course, we would have the National Guard and the State Police dealing with the situation earlier. But they felt that they could handle it, and that was a mistake as you look back because they couldn't handle it. And it wasn't until the middle of the afternoon, that we were asked to give State assistance.


INTERVIEWER: Okay. Um, the Republican Coordinating Committee, issued a statement about the President being unable to control what was happening in the country, and, and talked about finding factories that were making Molotov Cocktails and things like that. Did you at the time in Detroit think that there was some organization to some of the violence that was happening, was there?
GEORGE ROMNEY: There was no way, there was no way of knowing whether there was some outside influence in the riot in Detroit. Ah, one of the disturbing things was that men like John Conyers and others, who were res--respected Black leaders in Detroit, tried to go out and persuade the people to stop the rioting. They'd been able to do that earlier, when there was, uh, an earlier incident in Detroit, uh, but this time they had no influence whatsoever. So whether there was some outside influence involved, I never really knew.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, Is there--


INTERVIEWER: Okay. So if you could just tell me again, why, why was it so important that the Federal troops come in, and come in sooner, and, and what was the hold-up in Washington?
GEORGE ROMNEY: It was important for the Federal troops to come in earlier, because we didn't have any assurance that we could handle the situation. And furthermore, they were experienced in handling riots, and problems of the character we were dealing with. And, uh, they didn't come in earlier, in my opinion, because they adopted a process in relationship to Detroit that they hadn't, uh, followed in connection with other riots. As a matter of fact, in the case of the Newark Riot. The President himself called Governor Hughes and offered the Federal troops. Ah, but in my, in my case, even, even though the Attorney General had promised that we would get them, then they went through this long process of, uh, wanting a written statement in a certain form. And then even after Vance got in, they didn't put the troops on the streets. And, and then, in, at night, when it was clear that the, the situation was getting worse again, they went through, he went through the same process that I'd been through in the morning. So it was clear that they were treating the situation d--differently than they had treated the, uh, Newark situation. It's also interesting that a year or so after the Detroit Riot they established a process that should be followed, and the process was that if a governor requested Federal troops he'd get them.


INTERVIEWER: Randy Clark says, of course, that none of this happened, that it was just routine, that, that--
GEORGE ROMNEY: Well, if Randy Clark says that, he's d--he's, uh, prevaricating.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, I think we got it. We can cut.