2018: James Del Rio, Former Legislator, Judge, Activist, Dies

March 30, 2022 all-day
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James Del Rio, who was abandoned as a new-born infant and found in a trash can, who marched in Detroit next to Martin Luther King Jr., who served in the Michigan House and as a Detroit Recorders Judge until he was removed by the Supreme Court, has died. He was 94 and living in California.

Mr. De Rio actually died on March 30, but his death was only announced Thursday.

He was one of the most colorful and controversial politicians in Michigan in the 1960s and 1970s, and was unapologetic about how he lived and worked in his life.

Possibly the best description of Mr. Del Rio came from the man himself, printed on a blog he maintained.

“I have,” he wrote, “always lived iconoclastically, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights or days sleep, having slept no more than four hours a night for more than 25 years. Worked too hard and too long, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed my way, made love constantly with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.”

He also said, “I have lived as a Jew, a black man, a white man and finally a human being.”

Mr. Del Rio was born in January 1924 in Detroit. He never knew his parents as he was abandoned and discovered by a man in a garbage can. Taken to Detroit’s Harper hospital, he was estimated to be about two hours old when found, and given the name William Harper Doe for birth records.

More than a year later he was adopted by James and Mary Cohen – Mr. Cohen was Jewish and Ms. Cohen was black — and given the name James Cohen Jr.

His name was changed to Del Rio when he and his family moved to Dearborn.

Early in his political career he generated some controversy when he was accused of for a while saying he was Hispanic.

Mr. Del Rio went into real estate in 1953, becoming a successful sales agent. He would say later that he sold $2 million worth of properties in his first year alone. Given property values in the early 1950s, $2 million in sales would represent many dozens of properties sold.

He became part of the contentious civil rights movement in Detroit, and played a role in the effort to bring Mr. King to the city. In a now iconic photograph of Mr. King marching down Woodward Avenue in June 1963, Mr. Del Rio can be seen slipping in to Mr. King’s right side. In the same photo, UAW President Walter Reuther is seen at the right, the Rev. C. L. Franklin – another leading Detroit rights activist and father of the legendary Aretha Franklin – is also in the first row and just behind in the second row is then Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh. At the Cobo Hall rally after the March, Mr. King first delivered his historic “I Have A Dream” speech.

Mr. Del Rio won election to the Michigan House in a special election in 1965. While in the House he served on the Judiciary Committee and was very involved in moving civil rights legislation. He had good relations with then-Governor George Romney who was also very passionate about civil rights.

Dennis Cawthorne, who served with Mr. Del Rio in the House, said he was very bright and articulate but could also be very caustic and intimidating.

However, possibly the incident most remember about Mr. Del Rio in the Legislature is that a pistol he was carrying fell out of his jacket and onto the House floor. “It caused a great sensation at the time and added to his reputation as mercurial,” Mr. Cawthorne said.

During the 1967 unrest in Detroit, Mr. Del Rio was arrested, with police claiming he attempted to interfere in the arrest of a suspected looter.

Mr. Del Rio was elected as a Detroit Recorders Judge in 1972. A gun figured in the incident most noted in his judicial career. During a case an attorney pulled out a pistol and put it to his head. Mr. Del Rio then said the attorney, Gerald Dent, who was well-known in the legal community, pointed the gun at him and then at the witness testifying. Mr. Dent was shot dead by police officers in the court. It later came out that Mr. Dent had attempted suicide the day before.

In 1977, Mr. Del Rio was removed from the bench by the Supreme Court for inappropriate behavior, which included boasting about his sexual prowess, calling various people and institutions racist and being rude.

The great Detroit author Elmore Leonard never actually acknowledged that Mr. Del Rio’s case was the genesis of a leading character in his novel “City Primeval,” but the opening scenes read much like the findings against Mr. Del Rio.

Mr. Del Rio remained active in the area and in the 1990s returned to his real estate roots to help set up a mortgage company.

In 2000, he mounted a bid to return to the House, but finished third in the Democratic primary for the old 4th House District.

He had been living in southern California but returned to Detroit for visits periodically. He remained politically interested and was always good for a comment. He called President Donald Trump a “jive turkey” in one of his most recent comments.

MIRS News Service, April 12, 2018.

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