It was about 1 a.m. on the third day of the riot when Detroit Mayor Jerome P. Cavanagh returned to his office on the 11th floor of the City County Building.
I was chief of the Detroit News City-County Bureau, and I saw him come in from my office about 20 yards down the hall. I walked over to his office. The door was open and he waved me in. He went to a back room, mixed two drinks and handed one to me.
It was not what Cavanagh said early that morning that was important. What was noteworthy was the pain on his face.
This man was in agony. His face reflected a mixture of anger, bewilderment, unfairness, confusion and helplessness. He was justified in his feelings.
After all, for six years, since he was elected mayor at the age of 33 in 1961, he received national accolades for his progressive policies. All predicted a bright political future. Frequently, he was compared to JFK, whose photo hung on a wall in Cavanagh’s office. Detroit reveled in the fame of its young leader.
He served, simultaneously, as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities, the first time a mayor held the top job of the two organizations at the same time.
Cavanagh had responded to the frustrations of the black community with liberal policies. He worked diligently to integrate the almost totally white police department.
It was evident that morning that the mayor was having troubling grasping what had happened under his watch. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. But it was like that.
While he may not have had an answer to the question of “why” it happened, he knew the city — and he — had failed.
As he said: “Today we stand amidst the ashes of our hopes. We hoped against hope that what we had been doing was enough to prevent a riot. It was not enough.”
As cities burned throughout the country, Detroit was expected to be an exception. Then, without warning, the city exploded following a raid of a blind pig at 12th and Clairmount Sunday, July 23, 1967. Cavanagh’s hopes for the city were dashed, and his political career was, like the city, in ashes.
Not only did Detroit burn, but the five-day riot was the worst in the country’s history: 43 dead, almost 1,200 injured, 7,200 arrested, 500 stores looted and 412 buildings destroyed. Damage was estimated at between $40-$45 million ($292-$328 million in today’s dollars).
What might have been the mayor’s most candid comments about the riot came in an interview conducted with Cavanagh by officials of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library Oral History Collection on March 22, 1979, about seven months before Cavanagh died of an apparent heart attack at age 51.
In the 73-page transcript, Cavanagh admits he did not immediately realize the extent of the riot, stating Sunday afternoon publicly, “I think this thing is under control.” Gov. George Romney did not have “any realization of how vast this thing was either,” the mayor said.
The mayor became more concerned after reporters warned him about the riot’s ferociousness, telling his police commissioner, Ray Girardin, “Everything we have, we have to throw in out there.
“But,” he said, “by that point, it was too late. Mobilizing a police department on a hot Sunday morning is almost like Pearl Harbor Day.”
He and Romney agreed to call up the National Guard, but by the time the Guard arrived Sunday night, “the thing was a mess … it was very bad.”
With the riot spreading, Cavanagh suggested asking for federal troops, and he called Vice President Hubert Humphrey at about midnight.
Ramsey Clark, U.S. attorney general, told Romney, “You will have to certify that there’s an insurrection and you can’t handle it.”
Romney, a Republican, was running for president, and he wanted to consider how that would affect him politically. Cavanagh said he told Romney, “I don’t give a damn what has to be certified. Let’s get those federal troops in. Don’t play games.”
After continued haggling, appropriate language was developed; Cavanagh signed off sometime around 8 a.m. Monday morning.
The troops from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions arrived that day in Mount Clemens, along with Cyrus Vance, deputy secretary of defense, and General John Lathrop Throckmorton.
Cavanagh, Romney, Vance and Throckmorton toured the riot area in the afternoon. It was quiet and all believed that “… this looks pretty calm.”
At a press conference, Romney announced that the troops would not be ordered to Detroit from Mount Clemens. Cavanagh disagreed, fearing renewed violence when darkness fell, and that is what happened.
Romney back-peddled the next day, Cavanagh said, and “blamed me for sandbagging him. He accused me of planting this stuff [critical news stories about Romney.]”
The mayor said he believed there was genuine concern about sending in federal troops for “this kind of domestic outbreak.” But, he added, “I’m not so naïve as to assume that politics didn’t play a part,” but politics was not the “paramount consideration.”
Cavanagh also described the National Guard as “highly disorganized and not very well trained.”
Cavanagh said there was some “indirect” criticism aimed at him for “not shooting” looters, stating, “There would have been a veritable blood bath … had we gone charging in firing into mobs of people.”
Besides the riot, Cavanagh suffered other political setbacks, including a high-profile messy divorce, and then he split the Democratic Party by challenging former Gov. G. Mennen Williams in a failed run for the U.S. Senate in 1966. It was all too much and he decided in 1969 to forego a run for a third term.
Of all his political problems, the riot was the most grievous wound. The interview with the Johnson Library provides insights into the handling of the riot and its politics. It does not capture the toll it took on Cavanagh personally.
Berl Falbaum of West Bloomfield is a veteran journalist and author.