Who Killed Burton Gordin?
Four decades later, the civil rights leader’s murder remains unsolved. … Does anyone remember?
The early-morning fog had lifted, revealing one of those gray, damp March days in Michigan where the chill penetrates wool and cotton and is ultimately absorbed by bone. Cars, with their defroster fans blasting into the windshields and faces of their drivers, were spilling onto Lafayette, Beaubien, St. Antoine and Randolph from an array of parking lots and garages. It was quitting time in Downtown Detroit.
On this particular Friday afternoon, Burton Gordin chose to leave his Cadillac Square office at about 4:30 p.m., earlier than usual. While colleagues, among them Thomas Peloso Jr. and Andronike Tsagaris, would often join him for the six-block walk to the one-level parking structure at East Lafayette and Beaubien that sheltered their vehicles, on this day, March 20, 1970, he walked alone.
And something was about to go terribly wrong.
Between the time he reached his metallic green 1967 Ford Galaxie 500 XL coupe, estimated at 4:45 p.m., and about 6:15 p.m., when Tsagaris discovered his sprawled body in a pool of blood next to his car, Burton Gordin, 50, the first executive director of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, the state’s highest-ranking civil rights professional and a member of Gov. William Milliken’s cabinet, was murdered.
Forty-three years later, the murder remains unsolved. The case is cold.
Protecting Civil Rights
Michigan voters went to the polls on April 1, 1963 — 50 years ago this week — and ratified their new constitution. Its language protecting the civil rights of its residents was among the strongest in America: “No person shall be denied equal protection of the laws; nor shall any person be denied the enjoyment of his civil or political rights or be discriminated against in the exercise thereof because of religion, race, color or national origin.” It remains the only state constitution that includes a nonpartisan Civil Rights Commission of appointed laypeople to investigate alleged acts of discrimination.
The Civil Rights Commission convened in January of 1964 under the co-chairmanship of Damon Keith and John Feikens. On April 1, Gordin arrived as its top professional, leaving his native Philadelphia and his position as head of its Commission on Human Relations. Via executive order signed in 1965 by then Lt. Gov. Milliken, the Department of Civil Rights was formed, with Gordin as executive director, to hire staff and develop procedures to handle the commission’s growing workload.
Murder Is Big News Then
While the memory of Gordin’s service to the state and his role in its civil rights progression has faded with time, such was not the case in 1970.
As Detroit police officers and detectives secured and analyzed the murder scene, department public relations officers received their own all-points bulletin. As reported in the March 21, 1970, edition of the Detroit Free Press, “the entire police public information staff was called into headquarters to handle the crush of telephone calls coming from all over the country to inquire about the slaying.”
Gordin’s murder was big news. “Civil Rights Chief Slain In Garage” shouted the March 21 front-page Detroit News headline. “Civil Rights Chief Slain Downtown” read the same-day front-page Detroit Free Press headline. “No Motive Is Found In Detroit Slaying” read the headline in the March 22, 1970, edition of the New York Times.
A front-page story in the March 21, 1970, edition of the Lansing Journal included a United Press International sidebar story that was picked up by newspapers around the country. Under the headline “Gordin Dies With Hopes Alive,” its first paragraph read: “Burton I. Gordin spent his life fighting for the underprivileged. He died brutally at a time when he saw faint signs of hope in the distance and considerable racial polarization much closer.”
Milliken, now governor, was shocked by the death. He issued a statement saying: “The tragic death of Burton Gordin stills a major voice in the civil rights struggle. He served a great cause with great dedication. His death is a profound loss to that cause and to the public whom he so well served.”
The Michigan House of Representatives passed a resolution adopted shortly after Gordin’s death “… Today, the State of Michigan stands shocked and deeply saddened at the senseless and tragic brutality of this slaying of one who had devoted his life to the active battle for minority rights … His forceful and continued efforts led Michigan to the forefront of state attempts to combat prejudice and minority group oppression and gained for him an international reputation in civil rights … Resolved, by the House of Representatives, that the highest tribute be extended, in memoriam, to Michigan Civil Rights Commission Director Burton I. Gordin, a dominant and effective leader of the struggle for human dignity for all peoples.”
Case Goes Cold
As Detroit police continued their investigation, they developed and accepted a theory that Gordin had been the victim of a robbery gone wrong. When they arrived on the scene, the Ford’s 390-cubic-inch V-8 engine was purring, and the massive driver-side door of the 2-ton vehicle was ajar. He was shot in the chest at point-blank range by, according to published reports, at least one and as many as three bullets. Published reports said Gordin’s fedora was found under the car’s chassis and that “a pool of coagulated blood, a blood-stained man’s handkerchief and a plastic glove were found near the car.” Police reported that no blood stains were found in the car.
Police speculated the robbery was botched because Gordin still possessed his wallet and its contents, and none of his personal or professional effects was missing. With no witnesses, no suspects and, despite reward money offered by the Detroit News and the Michigan Legislature, no new leads came in, and interest waned in the case. It morphed from white-hot to lukewarm to cold.
At deadline for this story, it could not be confirmed with the Detroit Police Department if the files relating to Gordin’s case still exist and are accessible. Also unanswered at deadline are the number of Detroit’s unsolved murder cases, the number of staff assigned to investigate these cases, and whether any federal agencies were involved in assisting Detroit police in their probe.
It appeared few believed the robbery-gone-bad theory. Jim Watts, the Michigan NAACP president, proclaimed Gordin’s murder a “political assassination.” Prior to Gordin’s March 23, 1970, funeral at Temple Beth El on Woodward and Gladstone, Rabbi Richard Hertz scribbled on an envelope some basic information about Gordin’s family (“wife Paula, son — Eric 10”) and noted he was “assassinated in a garage on way home from work.” The envelope is contained in Temple Beth El’s Leo M. Franklin Archives.
The Civil Rights Commission’s own history, compiled on its 40th anniversary in 2004, states that “Gordin was murdered in 1970 by an unknown gunman in what some believe was an assassination because of his civil rights activity.”
Bruce Miller, now 85 and still in Metro Detroit, was Gordin’s close friend, neighbor on Detroit’s Chateaufort Place and the attorney responsible for the legal affairs of his estate. To this day, he believes Gordin was assassinated and claims to know who did it. But more on that in a moment.
Temple Beth El Funeral
Gordin’s funeral filled Temple Beth El. At the request of the family, Hertz didn’t deliver a eulogy. But according to information from Temple Beth El’s archives, he shared the following with the several hundred in attendance:
“There will be no traditional eulogy for Burton Gordin because he didn’t want one. There will be no recitation of the shock and grief we have felt, the biographical facts we have read or the public life we all knew well.
“Burt Gordin was not very much interested in talk for its own sake. He was concerned with the realities of human existence. His work and his life were dedicated to moving our society beyond words. His energy was given to the practical business of giving life and substance to the words ‘human dignity.’
“Most of us here knew Burt Gordin for only a few years since he came to this city in 1964. The scope of the interests and responsibilities of those who are here today testifies to the impact on our lives of his singular dedication.
“He was wise enough to know what had to be done and strong enough to do it, and gentle enough to understand every man’s weakness. These were the qualities that earned him respect and admiration professionally, and the affection that ran deep in his personal relationships.
“There is no more to be said except that Burt Gordin’s community will miss him sorely, and his friends will mourn him long after others have taken up his work as he would want it taken up and pursued relentlessly.”
Following the funeral, Gordin’s remains were transported by Ira Kaufman Chapel in Southfield to Philadelphia, where he was interred on March 24, 1970, in Roosevelt Memorial Park.
While Gordin took his work very seriously, Miller remembers his friend as a very nice guy who used to toss the football with Miller’s son, Powell, on their front lawns. Gordin liked to exercise, especially on his stationary bicycle. Gordin’s son, Eric, was the “big brother” to Miller’s kids.
During this era, Miller’s own activism with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stimulated the creation of a Detroit police review board. The police didn’t like it, and “it was scary stuff,” Miller said. But Miller said he never discussed his activities with Gordin … “I didn’t want to mix business and friendship.”
Scholarship In His Name
Friends and associates of Gordin returned to Temple Beth El on March 20, 1972, marking the second anniversary of his death with the creation of the Burton I. Gordin Memorial Scholarship Fund. It was to assist young Wayne State University students seeking careers in human relations.
Those on the scholarship fund committee comprised a who’s who of community leaders, including William Gossett, Avern Cohn, Julian Cook Jr., Douglas Fraser, Philip Hart, Arthur Johnson, Sander and Carl Levin, Mel Ravitz, Horace Sheffield, Stanley Winkelman and state Sen. Coleman Young.
Miller, who said he identified Gordin’s body at the morgue in the aftermath of the killing, has never accepted the Detroit Police Department’s panicky-robber finding.
“It was our view, and the family’s view, that he was assassinated,” Miller said last month. “He was not just murdered; it was political. He was not robbed; no money was taken. We not only thought he was assassinated, but we had picked out somebody. We think someone on his staff murdered him. We gave this information to the police.”
Miller recalls a particularly painful moment right after the funeral.
“This guy [the one they suspected of the murder] came to the shivah house [house of mourning]; can you imagine how awkward it was for those of us who had the information?” Miller asked. “Nothing in his demeanor was a tipoff.
“There was an ideological dispute with this person on the staff — there were different currents in the civil rights movement at the time, sharp controversies about whether you were an integrationist or a nouveau segregationist,” he added.
This staff person, Miller believes, was part of the movement away from the commission’s traditional mission and toward a black nationalist agenda.
Remembering that period is Dr. Robert Newby, who retired in 2006 after 23 years as a sociology professor at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant. Prior to that, he taught at Wayne State for 14 years. From 1966-1970, Newby worked on the staff of the civil rights department, a couple of levels below Gordin on the still-modest organizational chart.
“Everything revolved around desegregation and integration [at the department] until 1966-1967,” Newby said last week. “It was 1966 when Stokely Carmichael gave the movement a new slogan: Black Power. The movement had been toward integration; there was a turning point in that period.
“Shortly after that, the rebellion in Detroit took place [July 1967]. In a sense, the commission was betwixt and between. The mission was still desegregation of housing and schools, but it also had to be advocates for young people in the schools,” he added. “The commission was attempting to fill both roles; protecting the rights of people for self-determination and also enforcing integration and desegregation.”
Newby said that Gordin and his deputy, Walter Green, were very committed to integration and that the mission of the commission had remained unchanged. After the 1967 Detroit “rebellion,” he said that while the commission didn’t endorse “Black Power,” it had to accommodate it.
“Those of us who were younger wanted the commission to move faster,” he said, and found it to be “tepid” in light of the explosiveness going on in the world.
Newby was representing the commission’s Department of Civil Rights at an out-of-town conference when he learned of Gordin’s death. He said that police thought it was a botched robbery, “but the suspicion was it was something else.”
He said he did hear that some department staff members had been questioned heavily by the police. While not wanting to speculate, he said if Gordin’s death was caused by a staff member, “it would not have been a civil rights issue.” He recalled there were some department employees who were unhappy because they felt they should have been promoted or weren’t getting the salary they wanted.
“I think the person they were questioning heavily had filed a few grievances and had some serious disagreements about position and pay,” he recalled.
Despite the cross-currents within the department, Newby said Gordin was well regarded and respected.
“There were no gripes about his competence and commitment,” he said. “The fact that he was the leader of this very progressive agency speaks volumes about his place in history. Those of us who were younger wanted the commission to move faster, but he was an excellent director.”
Michigan Chronicle View
The editorial following Gordin’s death in the Detroit-based and black-owned Michigan Chronicle captured the turbulence of the civil rights movement’s philosophical tug of war and Gordin’s attempts to navigate it:
“Burton I. Gordin, as executive director of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission from its inception in 1964, was both conciliator and contender for the equal rights of mankind. Angry militants in the battle for civil rights progress declared him too conciliatory. Antagonists in the battle found him too contentious.
“That speaks more eloquently than any rhetoric that comes to mind for his unswerving determination to conduct himself with both compassion and dignity in a most sensitive post in these times of strife, turmoil and terror.”
A Son Remembers
For Eric Gordin, it’s about justice for his father, acknowledgement of his early involvement in the civil rights movement and remembrance of his role in shaping and leading the state’s first civil rights agency.
He recalled last month the growing fear seared into his 11-year-old mind as he waited for his father to come home from work as afternoon turned into evening.
“I absolutely felt something was wrong that he had not come home,” said Gordin, now 54 and still residing in Metro Detroit. “I remember that as time was passing, the anxiety level was rising. I didn’t have a sense that his work was dangerous; I knew his work in the civil rights movement pre-dated its popularity ,and he said the FBI had a dossier on him because of his activities. He had strong ideological convictions that motivated him regarding social justice, but I did not associate it with physical danger.”
While not privy to all of the details, Gordin feels his father’s death was never thoroughly investigated. The robbery-gone-bad theory didn’t make sense then and still doesn’t now.
“Justice was not done, due diligence was not performed, and it was quickly and easily dismissed,” he said.
Gordin said he doesn’t recollect hearing about a potential suspect in his father’s murder being a member of the department staff. Rather, he recalled that some suspicions were focused on a dispute between his father and Flint Police Chief James Rutherford.
Rutherford had just complained to then-Attorney General John N. Mitchell that one of Burton Gordin’s employees was involved with violent Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) activities. Earlier that fateful Friday, Gordin had publicly criticized Rutherford and the Flint police for their allegation.
The mood was celebratory, the audience diverse and the panelists engaging. Launching an informational tour of 50 Michigan cities on March 13, 2013, in Detroit to commemorate its 50th anniversary year, the Civil Rights Commission and the Department of Civil Rights were celebrating their past while reminding listeners that there is still much work to be done to attain equal rights for all of the state’s residents.
Dr. Daniel Krichbaum has been executive director of the commission and its civil rights department since July of 2010, with a resume steeped in experience working with multicultural, multiracial and multireligious groups. His position prior to being hired by the Civil Rights Commission (the state constitution reserves this role for the commission) was chief operating officer for Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
“Fifty years ago, Michigan set a new standard for civil rights protections, becoming the first state to create a Civil Rights Commission in its constitution,” Krichbaum said. “The commission and the department work each day to live up to that legacy and ensure that every person can live, work and play free from discrimination.”
While Krichbaum and his staff continue to identify opportunities to commemorate the anniversary, special recognition for Gordin had not been part of the initial plan. Many staff members had not heard of him.
“Those executive directors of the Department of Civil Rights who have followed Burton Gordin will always marvel at his courage and express gratitude for his leadership,” Krichbaum said last week.
While the person who murdered Burton Gordin may never be identified, for both Eric Gordin and Miller, the veteran civil rights and labor attorney, it is also about remembrance.
“My dad was more than a footnote in the history of the Civil Rights Commission,” Eric Gordin said.
“Burt was a terrific guy; all business, conscientious, smart and bright,” Miller said. “People should get their time in history. Burt has earned his time in history.”
By Arthur M. Horwitz, Publisher/Executive EditorArthur M. Horwitz was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to a four-year term on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in January.