Episode about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit in the late 60s/early 70s, in conversation with Herb Boyd, author of Black Detroit and former member of the group, and Dan Georgakas, author of Detroit I Do Mind Dying.
This podcast episode is brought to you by our patreon supporters. You too can support this podcast and get exclusive access to bonus content at patreon.com/workingclasshistory
Content note: this episode contains two brief mentions of sexual violence
- Bonus audio with Herb about Detroit’s black history available exclusively for our patreon supporters here
- This is a short history of the League
– Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin is the definitive book on the league
– Black Detroit, by Herb Boyd is available here
– This is an archive of content about the League
– Finally Got the News – a documentary made at the time about the group
– Learn more Black history in our Black history book collection here
– Facing Reality – archive by and about them here
– James Boggs – this is a great text by Boggs about his experiences
– Grace Lee Boggs – archive by and about her here
– Martin Glaberman – archive by and about him here
– The 1967 Detroit rebellion
– Bristol Radical History Group – here is the video of the talk with General Baker
– Edited by Abbey Little
– Music used under fair use is Please Mr. Foreman by Joe Lee Carter. Buy it online here
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NB: This transcript has been slightly edited in order to make minor corrections and clarifications and to match our style guide.
50 years ago in 1968, Detroit was the centre of the US auto industry. With the background of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and a global wave of rebellion sweeping from Paris to Prague to Tokyo, African American auto workers in the city began to organize themselves to fight against discrimination and eventually radically transform society, setting up the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. This is Working Class History.
First up this episode, we hear from Dan Georgakas, a former Detroit resident and co-author of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, an excellent history of the group.
The League is obviously part of the upsurge of the 1960s. So a lot of the social and political problems that people are familiar with, but the Black experience in America applied to Detroit in aces. Couple of differences. First is Detroit was a proletarian city. People don’t use that word anymore, but in fact, most people in Detroit were auto workers or worked in something connected to the automobile industry so that it wasn’t like New York or even Chicago, and they had a history of a very militant union. After the war, when they had a vote as to who would be the leadership, it was, “You’re going to vote for the socialists or the communists?” I mean, that was the attitude. Doesn’t meant the members were communists and socialists. The boss is the enemy. So who’s going to help us knock off the enemy or hold them down, improve conditions, etc. etc.?
So that’s the atmosphere. When I grew up, when I get up in the morning, certain hour people, you see getting their lunch buckets down, they’re going down to the bus stop. They took the bus to the factory, because it was quicker, cheaper than driving your car, but they had a car. The Black workers were in a strange situation. In one way, they’re exactly like the white workers, that if you were working in a plant, you got fairly good wages. You got all the benefits the others got, and you could think of buying a house, and people did. Sometimes they had a cottage. Sometimes there was a couple of places upstate New York for vacations where you go for a week or so in the same way the whites had. So there was that parallel. Then of course, there were some very, very poor Black people who worked in that situation. Of course, there were the problems of segregation in terms of housing for the most part and other services. So it was one commonality in one difference.
Herb Boyd, author of Black Detroit, was a member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, was an auto worker in the city and later a student then teacher at the local Wayne State University.
So you move into the 1940s. Now you have this year, the whole World War II is breaking out. That’s when I arrived on the scene in 1943. I’m in Detroit, I’m four years old, and, and I’ve only been in the city a couple of months. Suddenly, boom, the city explodes. You see a massive race riot. At that time, it was considered one of the largest race riots in the city, in the country’s history. My mother was all out in the middle of it. In fact, she was out in the street when she saw a Black man running out of pawn shop with an arm full of clothes, and they called out for him to halt.
He didn’t stop, he kept running and they mowed him down. They literally cut his body in half with bullets. So my mother upon seeing that she said, “I think I’ve seen enough.” She came back in the house and did not go back out anymore. But then you look at all the results of that and some of the things that stimulated, it was a lie of rumour that some white soldiers just had thrown a Black baby into the Detroit River off Belle Isle Bridge. None of that was true. But when you have like the simmering discord, all you need is just one little old thing to fuse it. Boom, it sparks. Boom, everything explodes. That’s essentially what happened. We saw it happening across the country in the 1940s, Newark, Harlem, all had similar kind of outbreaks.
So then you move into the whole arsenal of democracy, again, the Black workers know at the point of production. We can see then as the growing union movement, and some of the tension even in the union movement for the rank and file, the lack of promotions and leadership roles for the African American worker, and that creates some tension there. But after a while, you have individuals there who are just absolutely steadfast in their determination to make sure that we carve out a niche here.
People like Coleman Young, for example, he’s coming in after serving in World War II. He comes back, he gets the job at a Ford Motor Company. He’s attacked by Harry Bennett, this goon squad that’s working for Henry Ford, to kind of destroy the union at that time. Well, Coleman and picked up a pipe and went upside his head. So that was the end of his career at Ford Motor Company. They pushed him into a whole nother thing in terms of the TULC, the Trade Union Labor Council. Again, we’re talking about the Black worker not able to exercise any kind of power and assert themselves within the larger movement began to create their own offshoots and their kind of derivative forms of the union. TULC is one.
You have individuals there that I talk about in a book, Sheldon Tapsy, Chris Austin’s, Betty Battle, all these individuals who very much formidable fighters for labor representation. Then after that, you move into the 19, those Civil War, the Civil Rights period when Dr. King arrives in Detroit in 1963. See, that’s another thing that’s important is that everybody talk about what happened with the Great March in Washington in August of 1963. But before that, they had a dry run or a dress rehearsal, so to speak in Detroit. People like Rev. Seio, Frank Lenon, Benjamin McFall, James Dela Rio were some of important leaders, and then some of our civic leaders at that time in Detroit, who were instrumental in inducing Dr. King to come to Detroit.
The purpose was is a fundraiser, and he spoke at the Cobo Arena. The speech that he delivered there would be similar to the speech that he delivered in Washington, I Have a Dream Speech. Of course with Dr. King, we understand that by 1967, ’68, he was moving a far more militant, radical way than the kind of stuff he was talking about, generally with the civil rights movement.
When you go back and look at the whole development of the factories in Detroit and what was happening with the workers, and what happened with the kind of … There were the dreams that we had in the 1960s when we thought that the revolution was right around the corner. I think the League and drawn and looking at the Black Panther Party, the Shrine of the Black Madonna, Republic of New Afrika, all these political formations gave us that same kind of hope and possibility that things are going to change so dramatically, that suddenly you have the so called dictatorship of the proletariat would serve itself in such a way that we can hold back the kind of menace there was coming from the corporate capitalism in this country.
In the early to mid 1960s, groups of workers and radicals in the city were meeting and developing both organizing strategies and revolutionary theory. These included Uhuru, a Black socialist group, which contained most of the people who’d become the core central group of the League, and other groups like Facing Reality, including African American auto worker, Jimmy Boggs, Grace Lee Boggs and auto worker, Martin Glaberman.
In that period 1960 to 1968 when League started, I got to know on a personal basis, sometimes working politically, with the six major leaders of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, got to know Kenneth Cockrel, who was, I think one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. He did not suffer fools gladly. But wonderful speaker in public. He could talk and he always logical and so forth. I got to know him fairly well.
Then there were others like Charlie Johnson was involved in. Luke Tripp, who was very radical that time. 1964, these guys went to Cuba. They were part of the first unofficial trip to Cuba. The people I talked to have talked about and some others took Marxist study groups with Glaberman, and they were involved in various activities. I mean, they’re always trying to do something. At one time, we had an integrated group called the Negro Action Committee in which you had to sit down at a bank. Then they went into a group called Uhuru, General Baker that’s a given name, as he informed the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.
General Baker and some of his associates were charged by the police with trying to start a riot on the far east side in 1963. There was a lot of discussion about the RAM Organization, Revolutionary Armed Movement, which was the Robert Williams counter to King that we were nonviolent except we’re armed. The government was persecuting him and so forth. He ended up going to Cuba and China and all the rest of it. So there’s all that going on. So the group that studied Marxism was very taken by [Russian Bolshevik Vladimir] Lenin’s description of the role of newspapers.
John Watson said, “We can make a newspaper which will help us change the world.” This is one of the legacies of the League, it thought big, it thought big. When the great rebellion broke out-
In 1967, first of all, the League people and people in Detroit in general called it the Great Rebellion. They did not call it a riot. They were very careful to say, there’s a race riot, which happened in 1943, in which Blacks and whites fought each other gladly. Whereas the rebellion in ’67 was mainly against property, and the things that were attached were stores, and there was integrated looting. In fact, more whites were arrested for shooting at the police than Blacks.
That doesn’t mean it was race riot. But I mean, the complexion of it was completely different than in ’43. And so they called it the Great Rebellion. I always call the Great Rebellion. People say, “Oh, it’s controversial.” I said, “It’s not controversial. It’s the Great Rebellion. It’s what it was.” But of course, get an overthrow of the government with a rebellion. So that’s when they launched their newspaper. So to that degree, when people say, oh, the events of ’67 generated this radical movement, yes and no. The average Black worker now was listening, looking for some solution, but these other things guys have been working for 10 years trying to find that solution.
General Baker, a worker at Dodge Main Assembly Plant in Hamtramck was one of the founders of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, or DRUM, which was the first workplace group which ended up forming part of the League. A few years ago, he took part in a talk which was recorded by the Bristol Radical History Group, and he recounts the group’s formation.
Now, I think the important thing for us was that we learnt from the Detroit Rebellion. I keep saying that over and over again, because that’s the main lesson we got. When the Detroit Rebellion took place, and the National Guard and 101st Airborne was sent in, and they imposed curfew, if you got sick, you couldn’t go to the doctor. If you got hungry, you couldn’t get no food. But if you had a badge from Chrysler, Ford or General Motors, you could get to the police line, the National Guard lune, the army line, all of them to take your butt to work. The conclusion we draw from that was that the only place in this society that Black people had any value was at a point of production. That’s why after the rebellion, we turned all our efforts into organizing inside the plants. Believe it or not, like an accident history in one year from that time, DRUM was born.
If you look at the history of DRUM, it grows right out of the labor unionism in Detroit because the wildcat strike of 1968 led to the formation of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. Some of the demands they were making, the same legitimate demands that was being made by the rank and file of the UAW itself. But after a while, UAW for us meant you ain’t white. They were not taking care of some of the basic concerns. The promotion and dealing with some of those critical, what you call online issues at that time working on that assembly line, which I had done for five or six months,
When I worked at Dodge, man, I was called a swing man. When someone didn’t show up to do their job, I did it. So consequently, John, I was all over that five floors of that factory. Whether it was like jockeying cars, that’s the last part of it when you push the assemble or half the assembled car onto a line, and then you go downstairs, and you pull it off the line. So I put it online and took it offline, or I was an assembler, where you jump in a car, a whole line of cars that go and past. At that time, I think the speed was like 73 cars an hour.
So I absolutely had to jump in there and you had nine screws to put in before they go down to the other floor. So if you get in the hole, maybe the steward or a floorman would jump in and help you out and get the other two screws before you go downstairs.
So when I first started on it, I stated in the hole. I can get the screws in here by the time you get there. So after a while though, the guy able to learn that job as soon as I learned that, somebody else didn’t show up in the wet deck, I had to go down there for about three weeks. Then I’m on to have a buffer, taking the primer off of these cars and storing all kinds of filaments into my skin. It really messed me up quite a bit. So that was the most hazardous job that I had that was working on the wet day, others, yeah, being an assembler that was okay, it was not at all … It’s just a matter of speed. One of the concerns that DRUM would have was to slowdown that production line… bring in more people to work, but we understand very well, if you know the history of the assembly line in the Ford Motor Company there, and the consequences that it had on the workplace, then you can understand some of the issues that we faced there at that time.
Dan gives some more information about the birth of the group.
We had this newspaper called the Inner City Voice which talked about various issues. General Baker at that time was working at a place called Dodge Main Assembly Plant, which had overwhelmingly Black membership but had lots of whites in it, too. I don’t know if it’s overwhelming, but there was a lot of Black workers there. The UAW wasn’t treating them well and so forth. They did the first wildcat strike in decades, in May of 1968. They issued pamphlets and stuff, which talks about socialism. So it’s called Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. It was so important in the world… I want to put it this way. Mass media: The Wall Street Journal, put it on the front page. Detroit Free Press stuck it back somewhere. But the Wall Street Journal said “Is this a resurgence now of socialist rebellion in Detroit?” which is the center of other rebellions. So the question that then come, hou must ask yourself is what are the United Auto Workers Think about this? This is a problem. The UAW beginning in the 50s and continuing had entered into what I call peaceful coexistence with capital. What they had done, they thought they were doing the right thing. They were trading off wage increases, and they’re trading off control of the shop floor for pensions, and health benefits, and other things. We’re not going on strike. The amount of injuries and problems increased. The assembly lines went faster, compulsory overtime came through, whenever there was a blip in the economy, there was a give back. It fell heavier on Black workers because they were usually the … They must have been hired during World War II. But even so, they didn’t have the seniority. Now, the other thing-
Seniority, that gave longer serving staff benefits.
Seniority is based on how long you’ve worked, and if you have a layoff or cut back, they start with those recent hires, which makes sense, but it hurts your group. You say, “Wait a minute.” What the UAW did not do is there were skilled trades, higher paying jobs, and they did not fight to get Blacks into those organizations. In fact, it kind of resisted it. So if you’re a Black worker, you’re more likely being a foundry, which is the most dangerous place than in some last minute hooking in lamp somewhere.
The UAW did not have many Blacks representing the local union, sometimes it’d be election. Sometimes it’d be appointed. So therefore, you didn’t feel it. Is it my union or not my union? The UAW Central Organization had almost no, it had tokens, it had a couple of tokens. So nationally, it was known as a progressive union. Martin Luther King Martin marched in Selma, Walter Reuther marched with them.
… who was the leader-
… who was the president of the UAW and its ideological leader. But then you go back to Detroit, and the things that people are protesting in the south are happening in this other more sophisticated form in Detroit. They thought, the UAW leadership thought once you have liberal Democrats come to power, you can slowly change things. But in fact, things were getting worse in the city of Detroit.
On the 2nd of May 1968, 4000 workers at the Dodge Main Plant walked out on wildcat strike against speed up, the first unofficial strike there in 14 years. Several African American strikers, the core of them being the group who put together the Inner City Voice Newspaper, met up in a bar across the road and founded DRUM. From there they began to grow. Two months later, they organized another wildcat strike when 3000 workers downed tools for three days.
When DRUM blew up, many, many other factories said, “Hey, yeah.” Different RUMs started at Ford, Cadillac, and a place that hardly anybody would ever know about, Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle. The people in Rumson, this is the place we should organize. Why would you organize Eldon Avenue Gear Axle? Well, it’s 25 factories, why that one? Because that was the factory they made all the axles for all the cars, like Flint. So if you could win control at Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle, you would have Chrysler hostage.
Well, you have to know some history. You have to have some strategy to do that. It’s not just some workers saying, “Yeah, I’m angry, I’m going to close down this place.” The RUMs also expanded, there was UPS RUM, there were youth groups, there were community groups, and eventually gathered them all together and called them the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
We had organized in a different way inside the shop. We made sure we were not a caucus. We refused to get caught up in Union politics. We had a base in the community and a newspaper, the Inner City Voice that we operated out of. We organized the students and the youth that helped us. Because when we first decided that we needed to put out a leaflet, I think my brother, Carlos, was talking about earlier about how people didn’t know in the next plant what happened in this plant. That was always the case, we decided to put out a weekly leaflet because nobody, on the other end never knew what happened on this thing. The only way to close the gap was to print out a weekly newsletter, let people up to date on what happened. In order to do that, when we get ready to go out and do it, security would come out and take pictures of our guys. So that’s when the young students, high school students, Waistline [nickname of League member Darryl Mitchell] right there. Now think it was, what 14, 15 years old. They came forward and said, “Look, let us come out and pay us out.” We picked them up every Tuesday morning at 5:00 in the morning, took them to the plants, and they passed out the leaflet and said “They can’t fire me because I ain’t got a job there yet.”
So anyway, we grew up having to rely on these students to help us do this. We had some expertise around newspaper, Frannie. We had access to a mimeograph machine, paper and ink. So when we get organizing inside the shop, those are the tools that we use. When we struck the Dodge Main Plant, and the Chrysler management decided to declare the Dodge strike extra legal, instead of illegal because they didn’t know how to deal with it. They had already taken Al Dunmore, who was the editor of the Michigan Chronicle, which is the biggest Black local newspaper and gave him a job, a head of Community Affairs for Chrysler.
Al told us when Lan Townsend called him in the room, the first thing he did was show him a copy of the DRUM paper and said, “I need you to help us deal with this.” So it has shut you know the company to its roots. So anyway, it was those kind of struggles that we did that forced us to organize in a certain way. We had to organize everything else in the plant. I didn’t get Walt to come here today.
But in the body shop alone, they had 2000 people, we had six softball teams. We had a whole basketball League, we organized International Black Appeal, and we had our own League. We used to play other teams from other plants there. So we had to use the sports network as an organizational tool. So we had to use everything in the plant that we could get our hands on, but not the traditional stuff. After we closed the plant down, we still didn’t believe in running for union office. Finally, a trustee at Dodge Main died. That’s the story about how we got the name of the movie, Finally Got the News [a documentary film about the League].
A trustee at the plant died and we decided, well, maybe we should run for this position since it’s open. So we, and Ron Marsh, and Chuck Wooden, we just lost Chuck Wooden last month. He just died from brain cancer. But they flipped the coin to see who would run because that show you just what we cared about a damn union office. Ron Marsh won the flip. We ran him for trustee. After the regional election, Ron came out ahead of everybody else. That’s when the Hamtramck Police Department came to the back of the plant and began to attack the workers.
Let me tell you a couple of things about the plant to get the picture of this. At the Dodge main plant, they had 10,000 employees. When you come over the gate, you came right down into a new strip mall. They had three bars, two delicatessens and a motel. They had a setup so you could lose every dime you made before you got a block away from the plant. On Friday night, they would bring a Brinks truck out that had three pay cash and windows in the Brinks truck.
On Thursday, Friday night on the afternoon shift, it looked like Bella or Wanda Fox because all the wives would come out and try to get the check before the husband spent it. So they come out on Thursday nights, and they get the money and the checks. That’s the way life was. But we had a group of people that stayed in the alley, at least 200 people, that used to work eight hours and drank another eight. That those people that stayed in alley and drank another eight, that became my base. We could always get there and rally 200 people. Anyway, the police decided after Ron came in first in that election, to go in the alley and start beating everybody in the alley. They attacked everybody. We didn’t know why that happened. Come to find out that in the city of Hamtramck, they had these three Polish trustees.
Hamtramck was a Polish stronghold. We found out that when the police department and fire department or the city got in the hole, the union would lend their money out of the union accounts to bail out the police department and the fire department in Hamtramck. Knew damn well that if we got one Black guy elected as trustee, that shit was over. That’s when we came up with the slogan, “We finally got the news.” Our dues are being used. By that time, we’ve been beat and arrested and everything else.
So that’s just a little story on how we got that, what we did, we had to use those non traditional organizing efforts. After the Dodge main strike, people came from everywhere to want to be organized. We were frankly just telling them, “Listen, we have paper, we have ink. We have some typesetting capabilities. We have some students and youth that help you distribute. We’re not in your plant. We’re not going in your plant. Whatever is taking place in your plant. You got to write it, you got to organize it, and we’ll give you this level of support.” That’s how we built LRUM and FRUM, and JRUM, ChryRUM, and all of those other plants, all those other organizations came off of that, with that model.
We could not contain editorial control or nothing like that. People had to print whatever they so chose to print, and we’d have to write on that. So anyway, that’s just a little background, Marvin and everybody, in terms of how we got off the ground, the methods that we had to use to organize That’s kind of how we got started.
Something which was central to the growth of the League was the South End newspaper.
One of the things which again, to show you the why consider the visionary part of this organization, Wayne State University had a newspaper called the South End, which published about 10,000 copies a day. It had never had a Black editor. So John Watson decides, “I’m going to become the Black editor.” So first thing he did was take enough courses to be eligible. And then ran and got elected. He takes over the south end. Philosophically thinking of Lenin, says, Okay, this is a community financed newspaper. It happens to be published on campus, but why should it remain on campus? Why shouldn’t the common person be able to read it?
So very slowly, this became a daily newspaper, which 5000 copies supposedly were all being given on campus, but surreptitiously, 5000 somehow found themselves to laundromats, community centers, factories and so forth. They began reading articles that you don’t find in most college newspapers. They had this saying underneath, “One class conscious worker is worth a hundred students.” People say … They said, “Oh no, that’s derogatory to students.” They said, “No, it’s just a historical fact.” That if all the factory workers went on strike, to society stops. If all the students go on strike, there would be laughs. It is very strategic. Then they had a couple of issues. They were almost totally about UAW and about DRUM. Gosh, about 8000 copies showed up in the factories.
So he was attacked immediately, and he said, “this community resource. I was elected, and this is my editorial policy”. Because they were practical, they kept the sports pages. They kept the fraternity pages. They kept all that stuff. So the student body is like, “Yeah, yeah, our newspaper. We’re in there I can see my picture, I can see what I’m interested in.” So there was no student protest. If you didn’t like an article and you wrote a counter article, they printed it. Well, you see common sense. Well, yes, but that’s the point. It was common sense.
So that’s how they League advertise itself and so forth. First of all, they decided not to have a single leader. They would have a collective leadership, but not a central committee collective, but really a collective leadership. So there were six. If we one of them if we’re wrong, got arrested, if one of them got goofy, it wouldn’t ruin the organization. That was a very conscious decision. I compare it more to anarcho syndicalism. They always said, “We’re Marxist Leninist,” they weren’t Marxist Leninist at all. They didn’t have that kind of structure. They had more of an anarcho syndicalist structure where the different units knew but each other, worked in concert, but they were not under direct orders.
One of the things they tried to do was set up their own publishing company, which Fredy Perlman, who is anarchist, helped them with the technical, setting it up. They actually got one book out before the League fell apart, and they thought they would be able to publish their own newspaper. There was a whole history of other police suppressed their newspapers. The government tried to suppress the Southend of college newspaper because they took on a pro Palestinian position. They said this is antisemitic. This usually works, right? Didn’t work. Clint Leve he said, “No, we’re pro Palestinian in the sense they’re an oppressed people and Detroit has the America’s largest air population, and therefore we’re simply serving the community.” We’ve got Jews on the staff, we have people writing counter articles. Boy, the advertisers, the city, the state, the federal government, and they didn’t budge, and they won. And they won.
Well, not to mention that Ford was obviously a big… in the area-
He was the biggest anti-semite around.
Yeah, well, that’s …
He even got an award from Hitler for being such an antisemite. I guess no one had a problem with that.
I was pointing, they had pointed that at Dodge Main, there were a lot of Palestinian workers. if you look at some of the League posters, they’re written in Arabic. Somebody said, “Yeah, that’s for the Black Muslims.” No, that’s for Palestinians. The League had a pretty good relationship with the Arab community. Detroit was a hub of a kind of Arab left awakening. One of the activities of the League was to gather testimony from people who had been injured or killed. One reason why certain factories immediately wandered, RUM knows it didn’t, because of conditions a forklift that didn’t work correctly and killed a worker, speed up that injured people. Rulings about foreman that dealing with vacation time, sick leave and all that kind of stuff.
The UAW just wasn’t doing anything. They are speeding up the assembly lines. One of the ways the workers retaliate at speed up was to lose a tool, and then break down the machine. Well, maybe only took a half hour, an hour to clean it up but-
Gave you a break.
A break. A lot of wildcats, and the difference between a wildcat strike, which is a strike which is not authorized by the union and it usually starts in a factory, between now and then is if there’s a wildcat strike, then we shut down the things to, “I’m walking.” Everybody would go out. Everywhere would go up and they’d say, “Well, what was it about?” Then they may say, “Joe, he’s crazy,” and go back in or they say, “No, he’s right,” which also brings us to the key difference the League with the other Black organization the time. Why Black workers?
Well, of course they’re from Detroit, no one from the working class. But philosophically, they said, “How do you gain power? How do you control capital?” You got to hurt their profits, you got to hit them where it hurts. One of the things they tried to do. Of course, they had wildcat strikes and informal things, but they tried to take over control of the local. In the United States, each factory has a local, and the local can exercise a lot of power on daily life.
At Dodge, the machine, the UAW, the auto worker machine, they weren’t doing very much. So they ran this slate against them. Again, I recommend my book. I go into details about this because there’s a lot of details. But in fact, they won the election, it seems. Then the police came to the union hall and took away the ballot boxes. Then when they came back and counted again, they lost. There are several incidents like that, which clearly, the UAW was working with the police to keep these guys from coming to power.
Now, the tragedy for America was UAW in 1960 was still a pretty strong union. If it had seen these Black revolutionaries as new blood, real fighters who were going to go in and do things, and resist the company, it revitalized the industry. Detroit is one of the few places wherein those radical groups I was talking about before, you’re talking about automation. They said, “We’re going to lose this job unless we control automation.” If you control automation, you can get profits, and you can work less hours for the same money or more money. But what they’re going to do is take the jobs away, and make the others work harder for less. They knew that. So if UAW can embrace that, who knows what they’ve been able to do? At that time, they had not moved so many factories the right to work states.
Well, if you have a general strike on the basis of you’re not moving these factories, they might have won. A right to work state means that you don’t have to join a union, even if you were voted in, which you know … That comes with a whole series of other restrictions is, how do you get a ballot to vote? How do you count the votes and all that kind of stuff? The UAW had been very unsuccessful in organizing the self. You just say, “What if they said to General Baker and some of those guys, ‘Look, here’s some funds. Go ahead and organize.'” You just don’t know.
So what I say is the UAW really failed its own tradition. Now, what happened later on in the late 70s and early 80s, a lot of people have been in the League and that been elected and doing things, but it was too little too late. Too late, more than too little.
At its height, what was the kind of size and basis of the organization?
The League was not interested in membership. In other words, it didn’t say sign up, good or just sign up. Yeah, if you want to be active, that’s good. What they wanted to do was create a dues checkoff system. They have that in mind to sustain the organization.
That would be they’d take a section of people’s paychecks.
Essentially through the employer or the union.
Yeah. Instead of induce to the union, give them to us. We’ll do something with it. So the formal membership, I know how you can calculate it because you can’t calculate it. But the influence was enormous.
African Americans had to organize autonomously as most white workers and the UAW were happy to ignore the concerns of Black workers, especially around biased disciplinaries and lack of opportunities for promotion.
You have to understand, it’s called the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. So you have to be concerned like, well, how does whites fit into this? Whites did fit into it. We had a number of white individuals who were close to the League at that time. You can talk about Frank Joyce and Joanne Castle. Jack Russell .You can talk about Johnson Sinclair, Lenny Sinclair, we had a number who were affiliates on the periphery, and sometimes very much involved in promotion, and making the fundraising, those kind of things.
So the White Panther Party, that kind of thing, you know, was something that they’re very current, and how we began to be very useful to each other. Our understanding about that is that whites should go into the own community and began to politicize and organize and galvanize that community. We take care of ours, you take care of yours. At some point, since we are on a progressive path, we can bring those ideas together to bring about a total change in our society. Similarly with Black women, the role of Black women. They’re very few in a position.
Edna Watson, the former wife of John Watson, did a nice piece in the second edition of Detroit, I Do Mind Dying. I think there’s no way I’m going to cover all of the stuff we need to cover. But I would recommend that our listeners pick up Detroit, I Do Mind Dying, both the first second edition and get some of the ideas that that I can’t cover here fully, break them down so you can understand some of the very positive and some of the negative aspects, so we can get an understanding on how you can use that as a primer, how you can use that as a teachable moment, and how we can move forward on that.
Same thing, as I say with Black Detroit is to go back because I cover a lot of this stuff in terms of the role of Black women across the city’s history. If I focus on my mother alone, getting good ideas, she becomes almost emblematic, symbolic, that particular drive, and ambition, and concern, and how it plays into the larger picture, and understanding the dynamic about how corporate capitalism came arrived came to power in the City of Detroit. Then Detroit becomes so pivotal in the whole nation’s economy terms … A nation sneezed, Detroit comes down with pneumonia. So it’s a very significant role that the city has played. Of course, the engine of that city is always from my perspective, been the Black workers. That meant Black men and Black women and at the point of production.
While the League was predominantly male, several women played an important role in the organization. They also attempted to organize a health workers RUM, although without much success. Unfortunately, the group did reproduce sexist dynamics, both of wider society and of the general workers movement, and the white left with many women activists in more clerical type supporting roles rather than leading roles. With some women members being subjected to sexual harassment and assault, a problem which continues to plague all aspects of our society, including revolutionary movements today. General Baker also talks about the crucial role women played in the League.
My wife, Ms. Mary Kramer, they’ve been meeting all day long here today and she was tired. So she didn’t want to come tonight. But I like to have some comments from her. But I just wanted to point out that we had at least three community organizations that we were solidly based in while we organized in the plat. We had a Unicom Organization, West Central Organization, North Workers With Interfaith. Without the women that was active on those fronts, we wouldn’t have not had the resources that was necessary to try to surround the plant and try to organize it.
Employees in the city were not happy about having an active militant, an openly revolutionary organization of Black workers. So they fought back against the League with the help of police and city authorities. Under pressure, divisions within the group started to grow.
Let’s put it this way, the entire Detroit power structures against the League because they understood these guys were not going to … He said not to bargain with them. They gave out a … The first thing was to give some chips. When the chips weren’t taken, the media turned against them. I mean, it wasn’t even for them, turned up the heat, the government turned up the heat. All kinds of pressures all along the way. Now, they were not able to create violent incidents, as it did with Panthers because of the strategy that the League used. They had to be very careful because of the popular identification people had. But it was always there, it was always there, to grinding away, grinding away, grinding away and the police are cooperative. I mean, all those kind of things. Your income taxes were suddenly examined. Draft card numbers were pulled, all that kind of stuff. So there was enormous pressure.
So some would what? Get drafted to go to Vietnam.
Yeah, yeah. Luke Tripp was one. Of course they did some, some just left country, and some went into hiding. But I mean, then you can’t organize because you’re …
They made firings.
The firing, and with the firing, see, you don’t have to fire the leadership, you just have fire anybody come close to them. Then people say, if you get close, then you’re going to get fired or something will happen. Suddenly you’re working night shift when you want to work day shift. You’re working in this job instead of that job. So there was enormous pressure on them at all times. They had this problem of expansion. How are you going to expand from this, people who knew each other since childhood or had 10 years of experience, and now new people are coming in. You got to take them in. You got to take somebody in, otherwise, you’re going to stay the same thing which but how do you decide who prod tour, who’s a splitter, who’s just a little goofy, James Foreman, for instance, who had been very prominent in SNCC.
That’s the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was really the shock troops of the movement in the south. They’re the ones that stayed after King marched. They’re the one who stayed and got people registered and so forth. Everybody, I mean-
They were very prominent at the time.
Yeah. They’re very very prominent at the time. James foreman, who’s now prominent, is he Senator or is he congressman? He’s a congressman, I believe, is a leader, was a leader of that group. What happened was when SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee fell apart, the different people then went in different directions, Stokely Carmichael [who later changed his name to Kwame Toure], for instance, tried to become part of the Black Panthers. James Foreman came to Detroit and half the people liked him and half the people didn’t like him. So there were those kind of issues. I think if you say, “I’m gonna overthrow capitalism, you’re taking on a big opponent.”
At the same time, you had some internal concerns about growing it so fast and reaching so far without consolidating it at home. So at least to some of the internal contradictions, there are some differences in the executive committee, people who are concerned that, well, we really should be moving more and more to organize the workers at the point of production, and the plants and everything, that’s our lifeblood, that’s the mother’s milk of our struggle and not be reaching to all these other ancillary aspects in terms of whether you’re talking about a film, whether you’re talking about a book coming out.
Of course one of the books that came out was the Political Thought of James Foreman, that was put together by Black Star Press. He was able to do that because largely he had brought in the finances for it. But many people, that was like a waste of money, it could have been spent better otherwise. So all these differences are occurring to say nothing of the personal concerns and the treatment of Black women within the organization, some of the kind of sexual harassment and the kind of reducing them and name calling, and even raped.
All these kind of things with concern of the more conscious members of the organization. But ended up to begin to point to some very destructive elements that was falling apart. That despite the efforts of like Mike Hamlin for example, who was probably one of the more conscious mature thinkers in there are concerned with the harmonizing things. But that’s a hell of a load to put on them. They had much to do with some of the kind of physical and mental problems that’s going to handicap him later on. That’s a formidable task that he had, trying to hold together all these disparate parts, people trying to go this, that and the other way. At last, it fell apart.
They had tactics that were quite different. What began to happen was Watson, Cockrell, Hamlin, really thought the most important thing was to have broad coverage. We were protected by publicity, we reach out and build ourselves that way. General Baker, John Williams, Luke Tripp began to feel that no, we got to really concentrate on the factory and better keep the lights off, and maybe a little clandestine. Not that we’re doing anything illegal, but it’d be clandestine because the company will retaliate. That group began to gravitate toward the Communist Labor Party and thought, “We need a vanguard party, we’re too loose.” The other guys said, “No, no, the last thing we need is a vanguard party.” Then there was all the usual like, “Well, Kenny’s getting an awful lot of publicity and all that kind of stuff.” So the organization fell apart.
In addition to improvements in the job won in various factories and in local disputes and the strikes, perhaps the most significant achievement of the League was in its contribution towards transforming the workers movement in itself.
Who we can point to a number of accomplishments that was made certainly to do with the union organizing at the time, the pressure that was put on the UAW, AFL, CIO, Teamsters, and what have you, is the role of the Black worker within these organizations and putting pressure from the rank and file on the leadership to take care of some of the concerns we had. Whether it was on the floor, inside of those factories, whether you’re talking about the larger formations of that organization in terms of having our voices represented there, all of that pressure was put on these unions.
Later on, we see some results of that in terms of the positions that certain individuals as they rise within those organization, become on this executive council, this particularly the executive commission. Part of one of the caucuses and what have you, so all of those are developments that take time to in terms of absolute consistent determined struggle. So some of the most important thinkers that we had, losing their Ken Cockerel, losing their Mike Hamlin, losing the General Baker all of those people no longer around to have this kind of intergenerational dialogue, which I think is probably the most potent thing we have going now, is to look at Black Lives Matter and the whole Me Too, and Time’s Up.
All those of things are inspirational, but it harkens back to a time when we thought that those would be the seeds that we need to plant. They can bury us, but we’re the seeds, we’re going to grow out of this here burial. It was just too much to fight back against. Finally, you have people who were co opted, some individuals right there, suddenly they said, “Well, look, this is really beautiful, this is impossible. I’m gonna have to try something else. Strategically, tactically, I think I need to move in another direction.” They had every right to make a decision about their own prospects, what they want to do with their lives, and saying that they will no longer, won’t be a member of an organization, because the organization wasn’t going anywhere. So you have this kind of defeatism that was so widespread. You only had three or four individuals out there of any kind of real magnetism and charisma, who could galvanize and bring things together.
An important element often overlooked in the history of social movements and organizations is a transformative effect which taking part in them has on the participants themselves.
I was always excited about the Revolutionary Union Movement, particularly when I found that a number of those workers in their plants were now trying to improve themselves at the academy. Suddenly they were no longer … They were still working on these jobs. I find it particularly true with Black women that I’ve been teaching over the last 30 years here in New York, because at one point, when I was at the College in New Rochelle, I would have 35 students in a classroom. 31, 32 and sometimes even 33, 34 will be back women and only one or two Black men in here.
So they become like my heroines, you see that knowing full well that most of them have children. Most of them got a job, you’ll see hooked up with some agency or city, and at the same time trying to go to school. I just had to applaud them, that kind of determination, the desire to improve their life. That’s always so inspirational. I saw the same thing in Detroit when these workers from from Dodge and Ford, from River Rouge, trying to improve their lives and hold down a job in a factory, and still good go to classes absolutely exhausted sometimes and not even had a chance to eat. But be in that classroom, trying to increase and improve themselves, the possibilities, the dreams that they had.
That continues to be for me the kind of one thing that I think I hold a lot of hope and keeps me optimistic is that we got another crew coming up, another shift that’s coming on. I think that they’re going to be a little bit wiser. I hope that they kind of studied to past. You got to have that Sam Coffler outlook. You have to face forward but you got to look back. You got to see that past is prologue.
You got to find a way to get in touch with some of those people who were there, the veterans of the struggle. Listen to them. That’s what I did. That’s what I learned from Harry Heywood. That’s what I learned from Chris Austin and some of the individuals who have been on the ramparts. I guess, I’ve been on the ramparts quite a while myself. I get these young people in my classroom. Hell, one of my students walked up and said, asked me if I knew Frederick Douglass. I said, “Well, I haven’t been on the ramparts that long, but I know what you’re talking about.” [Laughter]
We’ve got additional audio from this episode from our conversation with Herb available exclusively for our Patreon supporters. So you can check that out and support us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory. At the same time during the Vietnam War, there was a wider strike wave in the US. In our episode eight, we talk about this with historian Jeremy Brecher. This episode for the time being is also available exclusively to our Patreon supporters. As always, we’ve got links to further reading more information as well as links where you can get a hold of Dan and Herb’s books in the show notes below. Thanks for listening and catch you next time.