Double podcast episode about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit in the late 60s/early 70s. We hear from former members of the group including Herb Boyd, General Baker, Darryl “Waistline” Mitchell, as well as Dan Georgakas, co-author of Detroit I Do Mind Dying.
Content note: these episodes contains two brief mentions of sexual violence
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This is an improved, extended and partially re-recorded version of our podcast episode 12. We have added more audio clips from other members of the League and added narrative for additional detail, context and to tell the story in a more cohesive manner. Whether you listened to the original episode or not, we hope you enjoy it!
- Part 1: Background, the formation of the League, League activities
- Part 2: Women in the League, League publicity, repression, growth, internal divisions and the legacy of the group
- Bonus episode: More information from Herb Boyd about Detroit’s Black history – available exclusively for our patreon supporters.
Get hold of Dan and Herb’s books on the below links, and check out these related podcast episodes.
- Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution
- Herb Boyd, Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination
- E8: The Vietnam war strike wave
- E43-46: The movement against the Vietnam war in the US
- Video of talk by the LRBW hosted by the Bristol Radical History Group
- Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution (Haymarket Books, 2012).
- A. Muhammad Ahmad, “The League of Revolutionary Black Workers (a Historical Study),” libcom.org, October 28, 2005, accessed January 15, 2022, https://libcom.org/library/league-revolutionary-black-workers.
- “Race riot of 1943,” Encyclopedia of Detroit, accessed January 28, 2022, https://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/race-riot-1943.
- Wright Thompson, “His Name Was Emmett Till,” Atlantic, July 22, 2021, accessed January 18, 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/09/barn-emmett-till-murder/619493/.
- Erin Einhorn and Olivia Lewis, “Built to keep Black from white,” NBC News, July 19, 2021, accessed January 18, 2022, https://www.nbcnews.com/specials/detroit-segregation-wall/.
- Caroline Llanes, “Detroit ranked as one of the most segregated cities in the country,” NPR, June 21, 2021, accessed January 18, 2022, https://www.michiganradio.org/families-community/2021-06-21/detroit-ranked-as-one-of-the-most-segregated-cities-in-the-country.
- FBI Twitter, 9:01 AM January 17, 2022, accessed January 17, 2022, https://twitter.com/FBI/status/1483076938403139588.
- Sam Briger, “Documentary Exposes How the FBI Tried to Destroy MLK with Wiretaps, Blackmail,” NPR, January 18, 2021, accessed January 20, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2021/01/18/956741992/documentary-exposes-how-the-fbi-tried-to-destroy-mlk-with-wiretaps-blackmail.
- Martin Glaberman, Unions And Workers: Limitations And Possibilities (Bewick Editions, 1994), accessed January 17, 2022, https://libcom.org/library/1911-1970s-unions-workers-limitations-possibilities-martin-glaberman.
- “Ford’s Anti-Semitism,” PBS, accessed January 19, 2022, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/henryford-antisemitism/.
- Charles Higham, Trading with the Enemy: The Nazi-American Money Plot 1933-1949 (iUniverse, 2007).
- Eric Grave, “Republic of New Africa (1968-), Black Past, March 10, 2012, accessed January 19, 2022, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/republic-new-africa-1968/.
- Hal Draper, “The “dictatorship of the proletariat” in Marx and Engels,” Monthly Review Press (1987), accessed January 21, 2022, https://libcom.org/library/dictatorship-proletariat-marx-engels-hal-draper.
- Richard Turner, “James Johnson,” Harvard Crimson, November 20, 1974, accessed January 21, 2022, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1974/11/20/james-johnson-pbnbo-one-knew-who/.
- “James Johnson Acquitted,” Communist no 6 (October 1971), accessed January 21, 2022, https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/periodicals/communist-mlp/mlp-johnson.htm.
- Heather Ann Thompson, Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City (Cornell University Press, 2017).
- Michael Coard, “White Panther Party — genuine white allies,” Philadelphia Tribune, November 1, 2021, accessed January 21, 2022, https://www.phillytrib.com/commentary/michaelcoard/coard-white-panther-party-genuine-white-allies/article_1af6bb9f-9e5e-52c4-8904-a422fc7d6605.html.
- Francis X Donnelly, “Advocate for auto workers never backed away from fight for rights,” Detroit News, May 23, 2014, archived July 14, 2014, accessed January 20, 2022, https://web.archive.org/web/20140714182307/http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20140523/OBITUARIES/305230128.
- Nelson Blackstock, Cointelpro: The FBI’s Secret War on Political Freedom (Pathfinder, 1988).
- “North American vehicle production from 1951 to 2012,” Statista, March 5, 2013, accessed January 20, 2022, https://www.statista.com/statistics/204186/north-america-vehicle-production-since-1951/.
- “Forecast number of passenger cars produced in the United Kingdom (UK) from 1972 to 2018,” Statista, May 21, 2015, accessed January 20, 2022, https://www.statista.com/statistics/298822/forecast-growth-of-car-production-to-2017-in-the-united-kingdom/.
- Thanks to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James, Ariel Gioia, Stone Lawson, and Fernando López-Ojeda.
- Thanks to the Bristol Radical History Group for permission to use the meeting audio clips.
- Music used in these episodes is Union Town, performed by Tom Morello: The Night Watchman. Buy/stream it here.
- This episode was edited by Jesse French.
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In Detroit in 1968, with the background of civil rights struggles, the Vietnam War, a global wave of protest and a major urban insurrection, Black auto workers in the city organised themselves to fight against discrimination and eventually radically transform society, setting up the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. This is Working Class History.
Before we get started, just a reminder that our podcast is only possible because of support from our listeners on patreon. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merch and other content. For example, you can listen to both parts of this double episode now, as well as an exclusive bonus episode. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes.
These episodes are a re-edited, partially rerecorded and improved version of our episode 12, with additional tape from other members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and a new narrative format to tell the story in a more cohesive way. We will gradually be working through all of our old episodes to improve them and release them in the new improved format. We moved this one up the queue to rerelease earlier than planned because of the sad passing of our friend, Dan Georgakas, who we spoke to for these episodes, at the age of 83 in November 2021. So whether you listened to episode 12 already or not, we hope you enjoy these episodes.
Herb Boyd: 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.
This is Herb Boyd. Herb was an autoworker in Detroit, a member of the League, and is the author of Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination.
Herb Boyd: 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.
The Detroit race riot of 1943 saw hundreds of people injured, with nine white people killed and 25 Black people killed, 17 of them by the police. This was the backdrop of race relations in Detroit prior to the civil rights movement. This movement was usually influential for people like Mitch, who later formed the League. This next audio clip, was recorded at a meeting held by the Bristol Radical History Group in 2011, which we use some other clips from as well.
Mitch: My name is Mitch and I kind of came into my awareness as far as something being wrong socially when I might have been, the best I remember, seven or eight years old. Me and a friend of mine, every time they printed the Jet, we’d go down into the basement and look at it because they had a picture of a pretty girl [laughter] in the Jet magazine. One day, we went to get the Jet and they had a picture of Emmett Till in it.
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old Black boy was murdered by white racists in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of whistling at a white woman. Till’s mother decided to have an open casket at Till’s funeral and gave Jet magazine permission to publish photographs of it, so everyone could see the brutal racist violence inflicted on this young child. And this gave great impetus to the civil rights movement. Most famously, Rosa Parks said she was thinking of Till when she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus a few months later.
Mitch: I’ll never forget. I remember just like I saw it yesterday. It shocked both of us and it kind of made me wonder what was going on. I guess through my early teens, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement was moving to desegregate the South. I watched this police dog they put on innocent people who were trying to desegregate swimming pools and beaches and people were getting beaten down because they were trying to get something to eat at the lunch counter. All of that I found extremely horrible.
Detroit in 1968 was the centre of the US auto industry, and there was a long history of worker organising and radicalism in the city.
Dan Georgakas: 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.
This is our friend, Dan Georgakas. Dan was born in Detroit and was friends with many leading members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Dan was so close to the group that when people kept asking them to write a history of their organisation, members of the group asked Dan to do so instead. So, alongside Marvin Surkin, Dan co-authored Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution, which is an excellent history of the League, available in the link in the show notes.
Dan Georgakas: 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.
Housing segregation was rampant in Detroit, like many other northern cities. But Detroit was even more extreme than most, with a wall constructed in 1941, called the 8 mile wall, to keep Black residents away from their white neighbours. Even today, Detroit remains the most segregated city in the United States.
Black workers had always been part of the working class movement in the city, despite attempts by some employers and even unions to keep them out. In the 1940s, there were numerous industrial disputes where white workers shut down or slowed down production, not to win any improvements to pay or conditions, but to protest against the hiring of promotion of Black workers.
Herb Boyd: 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… 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.
The real Martin Luther King Jr. was very different to the sanitised, whitewashed version presented nowadays by the establishment. For example, as I’m writing this narrative it is MLK Day in the US, and the FBI has tweeted a commemorative quotation from this mythical MLK. But the real MLK – who was criticising capitalism and imperialism, and who did not condemn violent rioters but instead condemned white moderates – the FBI had him under constant surveillance, and even wrote him a letter trying to blackmail him into suicide.
Anyway, back in Detroit in the early to mid 1960s, groups of workers and radicals in the city were meeting and developing both organising 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, as well as the Facing Reality group, who were in contact with and heavily influenced by Trinidadian Marxist CLR James, and included Detroit auto workers Martin Glaberman and Jimmy Boggs as well as veteran activist Grace Lee Boggs, who was married to Jimmy.
Dan Georgakas: In that period 1960 to 1968 when League started, I got to know on a personal basis, sometimes working politically, with five of 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.
The House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, was a congressional committee to investigate subversion, often associated with anti-communist senator Joseph McCarthy, although McCarthy himself wasn’t on the committee.
Dan Georgakas: 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 Organisation, 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 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.
Robert F Williams was an extremely important, but now not very well known, Black civil rights activist who advocated armed self-defence. And Lenin, mentioned here, is Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin, who argued that newspapers played a central role in revolutionary organising.
A key event in the birth of the League itself was what is generally referred to as the 1967 Detroit riot.
Dan Georgakas: 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 white 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. He passed away in 2014 at the age of 72. He also took part in the talk put on by the Bristol Radical History Group, where he recounted the group’s formation.
General Baker: 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 through the police line, the National Guard line, 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 organising inside the plants. Believe it or not, like an accident of history in one year from that time, DRUM was born.
One of those people working in the plants was Herb.
Herb Boyd: When I worked at Dodge Main, 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.
As any of you who have done it will know, assembly line work is tough. Both physically, and psychologically. To increase efficiency, machines are used for everything they can do, and humans are used for anything which machines cannot yet do for the same price. But to maximise output, humans have to act like machines. Exact motions are calculated and instructed to workers, to ensure they work as fast as possible.
Detroit car factory Martin Glaberman, who was white, but worked with the League, wrote a lot about his experiences in the plants. And one thing he wrote I think really gets across what it feels like to be on the assembly line, even if you have pretty decent wages and benefits:
Consider these two units of time: 36 seconds, the rest of your life. The job that takes 36 seconds to do that you’re going to do for the rest of your life. I don’t know a better definition of alienation than that…
As in the auto industry around the world, management constantly tried to increase the speed of the assembly line. And although this was often a primary concern of workers on the shopfloor, speed-up and other issues of control over the work process itself were not often taken up by the United Auto Workers union, the UAW. The union was pretty happy to trade off issues like that in return for making progress on issues like pay and benefits.
So to challenge management on speed-up, workers would have to take matters into their own hands. And it was in protest against speed-up which around 4,000 workers at the Dodge Main Chrysler plant in Hamtramck walked out on strike on May 2 1968. It was the first wildcat or unofficial strike at the plant for 14 years. Several Black strikers then met up in a bar across the road, and founded the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement to organise Black workers.
Herb Boyd: 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.
Dan Georgakas: 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.
DRUM found itself in conflict not only with factory management, but also the UAW union. DRUM posed a challenge to the UAW both in racial terms, and in terms of the union’s desire to keep peace in the workplace
Dan Georgakas: So the question that then come, you must ask yourself: what 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. And 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.
Seniority is a system which gives preferential treatment to employees depending on how long they have been with an employer. As a system, it is unlawful in places like the UK and Europe because it discriminates on the basis of age, but in the US treatment based on seniority has long been something which has been demanded and won by unions. And because of US history, seniority doesn’t just discriminate on the basis of age, but since many industries were formally segregated by race and gender until recently, it also discriminates on the basis of race and gender.
Dan Georgakas: 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 organisations. In fact, it kind of resisted it. So if you’re a Black worker, you’re more likely be in a foundry, which is the most dangerous place than in some last minute hooking in lamp somewhere.
The UAW also had disproportionately few Black representatives, especially when compared with the large number of Black workers in the city.
Dan Georgakas: So therefore, you didn’t feel it. Is it my union or not my union? The UAW Central Organisation 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.
Walter Reuther was the president and ideological leader of the UAW.
Dan Georgakas: 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.
After it was founded, DRUM began to grow. As well as speaking about issues inside the plants, DRUM also spoke about other issues of concern to the Black community. For example, the group published a list of the names of Black people who had been killed by Detroit police, and attacked the UAW for endorsing police events. And it organised a successful boycott of two bars frequented by auto workers which didn’t hire Black workers.
Growing in confidence, the group soon drew up an extensive list of demands to make of Chrysler management and the UAW. These included things like:
- minimum numbers of Black workers in various senior roles, including a Black head of the board of directors
- the reinstatement of all Black workers fired in racist disciplinaries, with backpay
- for Black Chrysler workers in apartheid South Africa to be paid the same as their white colleagues
- for Black workers to cease paying union dues, and for a proportion of union dues to be set aside to aid self-determination for Black people.
On 7 July 1968 DRUM marched on the UAW local headquarters, and crashed a meeting of the executive board. The executive board panicked, called off their meeting and instead gave DRUM demonstrators a platform to air their concerns. Unhappy with the response from union officials, DRUM announced it would shut down the Dodge Main plant following day, in breach of the union contract, which included restrictions on strike action for the duration of the contract, as is typical for union contracts in the US.
The following day, DRUM used supporters of the group, rather than employees, to set up a picket line outside the plant at 5 AM, which ignored white workers but tried to persuade Black workers not to go in. Around 70% of the Black workers stayed out, and while most white workers went in, a fair number respected the picket line and went home. The wildcat strike lasted for three days, until DRUM, satisfied that they had demonstrated their power, called it off, with no victimisation of any participants.
Soon, other Revolutionary Union Movements, or RUMs, began springing up at plants around Detroit.
Dan Georgakas: 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 RUM said, “this is the place we should organise”. Why would you organise 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 Black 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.
Mitch was a young worker, looking for a way to get involved and do something about the issues he faced, and after meeting General Baker, decided that RUMs were the way for him.
Mitch: I don’t know if any of you have ever heard of a church called the Shrine of the Black Madonna but I said, ‘I’m going to go and check this out and try to be a Black Christian.’ I wasn’t really feeling that and that wasn’t really radical enough. I wanted something else and so I said, ‘Let me go down to the Nation of Islam and let me try that one,’ [laughter] but the religious thing just didn’t work. Shortly after that, I wound up working for the Detroit News and I met Ken Cockrel and Mike Hamlin and I was ready and open for what they were talking about. My thing was like, ‘Hey, let’s get it on,’ because it sounded good to me. What they did was introduce me to that gentleman there, General Baker, and that’s formed my whole life. I was so impressed with General and his work and just everything he did. One thing I admired about him was that there was never a task too small for him to do and he did just about everything. I hung with him and he taught me all he possibly could. Eventually, we got to working on the DRUM and I got to help him with the DRUM and organising the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the groups that came before that
General Baker: We had organised 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 organised 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 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.”
Darryl “Waistline” Mitchell was one of those young people who got involved to help the factory groups.
Waistline: The League represented this centre of energy that fought for a good cause as I understood things at 14 and 15 years old. That’s not too young to be involved in the movement. We forget that youth always play a role in revolutionary movements. Most of George Washington’s army was made up of 13, 14 and 15-year-old kids. We forget that. At its peak, the Black Student United Front had, roughly, 17 to 21 organisations in different schools. The youngest person to walk up and ask to join was nine years old. Warren still has his application [laughter]. We were asking, ‘Why you want to join?’ Because he wanted to fight for the right things [laughter]. He was nine years old. All of us understood our role because we’re talking about a different kind of society back then. We’re talking about a society where you grew up and where you were oriented to go into the factory system, so it was natural for us to understand what was taking place inside of the factories because that was our orientation. There’s a couple of things that, if you go online, you can read about the League and I’ve read different points of view over the years about its ups and downs and the reasons for its demise. What is not talked about is that the League invested an inordinate amount of time in education as a singular function – an inordinate amount of time; financially and down to organising babysitting classes and tours so that the women had an opportunity to become educated.
Women played an extraordinary role in the League, including within the student component because the core of organisers was, in fact, young girls of 13, 14 and 15 who went on to become this force that opened a union to women in the ‘70s and ‘80s. These women who took part in that struggle came from somewhere and they were part of this, what we call, youth and student movement.
My biggest disappointment in terms of producing these episodes is that I was unable to interview any women who were involved in the group. I was able to make contact with a couple of former women members, but unfortunately we weren’t able to actually carry out any interviews. But we will learn more about the central role played by women in the group later on.
The media being produced by DRUM and the League was being well received by workers in the city, which started causing major concern for the employers.
General Baker: 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 organising 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 shook, you know, the company to its roots. So anyway, it was those kind of struggles that we did that forced us to organise in a certain way. We had to organise everything else in the plant. I didn’t get Walt to come here today.
In addition to organising inside the plants, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers also organised its own cultural and fun activities, to really build a countercultural base in the community.
General Baker: But in the body shop alone, they had 2000 people, we had six softball teams. We had a whole basketball League, we organised 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 organisational tool. So we had to use everything in the plant that we could get our hands on, but not the traditional stuff.
By “traditional stuff”, General Baker is referring to typical industrial tactics of socialist and communist political parties and groups. So these tactics are normally to get involved in some rank-and-file organisation on the shop floor, but also to try to take over official roles within the union, either by election or appointment or what have you. The League by contrast focused almost entirely on the rank-and-file organisation. Until one day, they gave union officialdom a go.
General Baker: After we closed the plant down, we still didn’t believe in running for union office. Finally, a trustee at Dodge Main died. 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 Wooten, we just lost Chuck Wooten last month. He just died from brain cancer. But they flipped the coin to see who would run because that shows 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 of how our dues are being used.” By that time, we’ve been beat and arrested and everything else.
“Finally got the news” then became the name of a video documentary made about the League.
Dan explained how the election ended, after the police waded in and attacked everyone.
Dan Georgakas: 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 were several incidents like that, which clearly, the UAW was working with the police to keep these guys from coming to power.
That’s all we’ve got time for in this episode. In Part 2, we hear more from Herb, General Baker and Dan about how the group organised, how women were involved in the group, how the police and union officials responded, and what they achieved.
Our patreon supporters can listen to that now, as well as an exclusive bonus episode with more audio from our conversation with Herb Boyd. For everyone else, part 2 it will be out in the next couple of weeks. It is only support from you, our listeners which allows us to make these podcasts, so if you appreciate our work please do think about joining us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes. In return for your support, you get early access to content, as well as exclusive bonus content, discounted merch, and much more. If you can’t spare the cash, absolutely no problem, please just tell your friends about this podcast. If you have a Spotify account, Spotify now lets you review podcasts, so we would really appreciate it if you would take a second to give us a five-star review.
If you want to learn more the League, we strongly recommend getting hold of Dan and Marvin’s book, Detroit I Do Mind Dying. You can also get Herb’s book, Black Detroit. Links to get both of these from an independent bookstore in the show notes. As always, we’ve got sources, links to more info, photos, transcripts, further reading and more on the webpage for this episode, link in the show notes.
Thanks again to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James, Ariel Gioia, Stone Lawson and Fernando López-Ojeda. Music used in these episodes is Union Town, performed by The Nightwatchman, Tom Morello. You can buy it or stream it on the link in the show notes. Thanks to the Bristol Radical History Group for the use of the audio clips from their meeting, and finally thanks to you for listening
This episode was edited by Jesse French.
Catch you next time.
Hi and welcome back to part 2 of our double podcast episode on the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit. If you haven’t listened to part 1 yet, I would go back and listen to that first.
Again, before we get into the episode, this is just a quick reminder that we are only able to produce this podcast thanks to support from our listeners on patreon. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merch and other content. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes.
Just a short content note that later on in this episode there are two brief mentions of sexual violence.
Where we left off last time, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was pretty definitively shut out of official positions within the United Auto Workers union (UAW). This left the League no option other than to pursue their strategy independent organising, media and communication, as General Baker, a worker at the Dodge Main plant explained.
General Baker: After the Dodge main strike, people came from everywhere to want to be organised. 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 organise it, and we’ll give you this level of support.” That’s how we built ElRUM and FRUM, and JRUM, ChryRUM, and all of those other plants, all those other organisations 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 ride on that. So anyway, that’s just a little backgroundin terms of how we got off the ground, the methods that we had to use to organise That’s kind of how we got started.
Now here General Baker mentioned a few other Revolutionary Union Movements the League started: ElRUM at the Eldon Chrysler axle plant, FRUM at Ford, ChryRUM at another Chrysler plant and so on.
In addition to their own publications, something which was central to the growth of the League was the South End newspaper. Dan Georgakas, co-author of Detroit I Do Mind Dying, told me more about this.
Dan Georgakas: One of the things which again, to show you the what I consider the visionary part of this organisation, 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 people 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 centres, 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, it’s 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. And 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.
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 South End, the 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 America’s largest Arab 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.
Allegations of antisemitism in Detroit were also particularly ironic, given that auto industry mogul Henry Ford was a legendary antisemite, who repeatedly published the antisemitic hoax document the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in his newspaper, along with reams of other antisemitic propaganda. Ford was even awarded the prestigious Grand Cross of the German Eagle by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi government, and Ford supplied Hitler’s forces with vehicles during World War II.
Dan Georgakas: I was pointing, they had pointed that at Dodge Main, there were a lot of Palestinian workers. And 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 the Palestinians. The League had a pretty good relationship with the Arab community. Detroit was a hub of a kind of Arab left awakening.
One employer where the League failed to build a strong base of activity was at Ford. And as General Baker explains, this was most likely because of the different history at the company, where Black and white workers had already created strong bonds of solidarity through previous struggles.
General Baker: The problem we had was how do I explain the fact that when we built this movement in the city of Detroit, we had very little input at Ford, like I just talked about? We had one group at the engine plant and one at Rawsonville. You’ve got the Rouge conflict was there and we didn’t have much input in there. One of the reasons is that we discovered the development of the sit-in. Henry Ford’s attempt to try to diversify the workforce to such a degree that he became the principal person in terms of Detroit becoming the place to come with this huge, big, Black working class. So he got the unintended consequences of an attempt to do that. I think the figures are that in 1922, Ford Motor Company had 20,000 Black workers… as early as ’22. So he got the intended consequences of that work. The other thing is that the struggle to organise Ford in the ‘40s is almost never celebrated in this city because right now, it’s the 70th anniversary of the Ford strike in ’41 but it’s never celebrated, even though we’ve got White Shirt Day in Flint that’s celebrated every day. I think part of the reason for the lack of celebration for the Ford victory was the role that Black workers played in organising Ford. The Rouge plant would have never been organised had it not been for the work of the Black workers at that plant because of the way Harry Bennett, who was Ford’s henchman, organised it. He attempted to turn the organising strike in ’41 into a race riot. That was his plan. It was to have a group of Black workers stationed in the foundry. Many of them weren’t even workers and were just hired in the foundry on hold. So when the picket lines broke, the plan was to let them charge out of the plant, attack the pickets, turn the organising strike into a race riot, force the Governor to bring in the National Guard and crush the strike. That was their plan. So, therefore, all this effort had to be turned over to Black workers’ efforts to organise Black workers. The union put out six different editions of Ford Facts newspaper just for the Black community. They organised the Black preachers and all the Black organisers to go into the Black communities and organise them. They opened up two union offices; one on the East Side at Hastings Street and the other one on the West Side on Milford so the workers could come and join a union without ever coming to the plant. They did all this work. They put people on sound trucks. Reverend Hill preached sermons from Gate 3 for a week straight at the gate to win over those Black workers in there and after a week’s time, the Black workers came into the fold, joined the strike and the issue was settled. But the fact that that never gets celebrated is a problem. It’s a problem for me because I retired from Ford and Ron, Judy and all of us that worked there, it ain’t never talked about that way and the year will be gone in a minute [laughter], so we have to celebrate something else. I just wanted to mention that but I think because of that, you had a different kind of solidarity that developed at the Rouge between Black and white workers. [03:36 – unclear], who’s 95 years old now, told me that he was hired in the Tool and Die Building in ’41. After the race riots in the city in ’43, when he went back to work and he walked into the Tool and Die Building, all the workers stood up and applauded him because they were so happy that he lived through it which is a different kind of solidarity than you had in all these other shops. You didn’t have that at Packard. You didn’t have that at Turnstairs. When Black worked in the final assemblies in those plants, whites walked out and refused to work with them. So Ford had a different kind of cultural history gained through struggle that made it different than the rest of those plants. That’s why we never got a lot of traction at Ford around fighting for equality. A lot of that went past us and that’s not saying there ain’t no discrimination at the Ford shops. There damn sure is because that’s why we had Rawsonville and Mahwah but at the Rouge plant, in particular, you had a different kind of character.
One major issue for the League was health and safety in the plants. It was dangerous work. I’ve been unable to find figures on workplace fatalities, but the UAW recorded 15,000 injuries a year around that time. And in the Eldon axle plant, in 1970 in one two-week period alone one woman and one male worker were killed in accidents. And rather than just pursuing official union-management grievance procedures, League members continued a tradition from members of earlier radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World, of direct action on-the-job.
Dan Georgakas: 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 wanted a RUM and those that 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. And 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-
This type of sabotage wasn’t appealing to management for breaks, or trying to get breaks negotiated into a new union contract – it was workers creating breaks for themselves.
Dan Georgakas: [DC1] 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, “I’m walking.” Everybody would go out. Everywhere would go out 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 of the League with the other Black organisation 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.
The late 1960s were times of heady optimism for radicals, and there were a rash of Black revolutionary organisations around the country. Herb Boyd, a member of the League, and author of Black Detroit, was very much swept up in this mood.
Herb Boyd: 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 DRUM 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.
The Shrine of the Black Madonna is a pan- African church in Detroit, which was an important organising centre for civil rights activism. The Republic of New Afrika is a Black nationalist group founded in 1969 based on the idea of creating an independent Black Republic in the US South. The Black Panthers were the most prominent Black liberation organisation at the time. By “so-called dictatorship of the proletariat” here, Herb is referring to the Marxist terminology for an aspect of socialist revolution. How Marx used the word “dictatorship” is actually very misunderstood, even by a lot of Marxists, because it is not actually counterposed to democracy as such. But this is a big diversion from the topic at hand, so we will just pop some related reading in the sources for this episode.
The League of Revolutionary Black Workers was different from all of these other Black radical groups both in terms of its focus on Black workers at the point of production, and also in terms of how it was organised, as Darryl Mitchell, known as “Waistline”, explains:
Waistline Mitchell: General pointed out a fact about the League that’s overlooked because how the League was actually organised is important. All these different groups, including student groups, and the groups inside of the factory had an autonomous existence. No one controlled them. Sometimes, people will look at all the old literature and they say, ‘Well, it goes too far. There’s too much profanity. It’s this. It’s that.’ There were no controls on what people wrote in their particular circle and in their area. I mention that because the League did not have this so-called hegemonistic structure. It simply isn’t true. Each group had its own autonomy and that’s something that just needs to be talked about and brought out into the light of day.
Dan Georgakas: 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. And if one of them got sick, if one of them got arrested, if one of them got goofy, it wouldn’t ruin the organisation. 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.
So while the leadership of the group described their ideology as being based on the ideas of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, Dan believed that the actual functioning of the League as a group more followed the organisational model of anarcho-syndicalism. Anarcho-syndicalism is essentially anarchist trade unionism, which was applied by unions like the CNT in Spain which we discuss in our podcast episodes 39-40 about the Spanish civil war, or many early unions in Latin America, like the FORA in Argentina. These were confederations of connected but autonomous self-directed groups and industrial unions, without a central, top-down leadership. Although we think it’s important to stress here that the League was not ideologically anarcho-syndicalist by any stretch of the imagination – just that its organisational model of autonomous groups and collective leadership mirrors typical anarcho-syndicalist groups.
The League also had informal attitude towards membership.
Dan Georgakas: 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.
The League also engaged in acts of solidarity with non-members. One prominent example is the case of James Johnson. Johnson was a Black assembly line worker, Christian and army veteran at the Chrysler Eldon Avenue axle plant, who wasn’t a member of the League, didn’t attend union meetings, and was trying to save up to buy a house for himself and his sister. On 15 June 1970, Johnson was suspended for refusing to participate in a speed-up. He re-entered the plant later that day with an M1 carbine hidden in his overalls. And when he saw one of the foremen who had been involved in his suspension, he started shooting. By the time he was done, two foremen were dead, one white, one Black, as was a white job setter. Job setters set up and make minor repairs and adjustments to machinery which is then run by operators.
Johnson was then defended in court by Kenneth Cockrel, one of members of the executive committee of the League who was also a lawyer. Meanwhile, in the plants, the Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement published a leaflet titled “Hail James Johnson”. The leaflet explained the context for what happened and blamed the deaths on intolerable working conditions at Chrysler and on Johnson’s hard life, which included him witnessing the brutal lynching of his cousin. Johnson had also lost his finger in the plant, suffered other workplace injuries and was racially abused by foremen referred to him as “boy” and the N word. The context of the events meant that he got a lot of sympathy from other workers at the plant. Leaflets supporting Johnson also appeared in plants around the country, as far away as New Jersey and California.
In court, Cockrel fought to ensure that the jury should be integrated, and include Black people, working class people and women, and was successful in this. The defence presented evidence about Johnson’s life, about the appalling conditions at Chrysler, and took the jury to the plant so they could see them for themselves. A white worker who was a friend of those killed even told the judge “You ought to go to that plant and watch those men and see what it’s like.” In the end, the jury found that Johnson was not responsible for his actions, which infuriated the judge, who had previously been a lawyer for the police. Rather than prison, Johnson was sent to a psychiatric hospital, and released in 1975. Johnson was later awarded workman’s compensation and back pay for injuries done to him by Chrysler.
Now, members of the League felt that as Black workers they had to organise themselves autonomously, as most white workers and the UAW were happy to ignore the concerns of Black workers. This was especially the case around questions such as workplace disciplinary proceedings being biased against Black workers, and there being a lack of opportunities for promotions for Black workers. But some white workers and local residents did try to assist the work of the League.
Herb Boyd: 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 John Sinclair, Leni 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 politicise and organise 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.
The White Panther Party was a group formed by a group of white radical artists in Detroit, including John and Leni Sinclair, in solidarity with the Black Panther Party and their struggle for self-determination and socialism.
Herb Boyd: 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 at the point of production.
While the League was predominantly male, several women played an important role in the organisation. They also attempted to organise 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 spoke about the crucial role women played in the League.
General Baker: 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 organisations that we were solidly based in while we organised in the plant. We had a Unicom Organisation, West Central Organisation, 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 organise it.
In the early days of the League, there were not many women working inside the plants, but this started to change as time went on.
General Baker: We had one real active woman at Dodge who was Betty Griffin and we called her Betty Boo. When you ever see those DRUM posters, she was one of the candidates on that but we didn’t have a lot of women at that time. They came into the shop in ’68. They started coming in right after that in ’68/’70. I
As you can probably imagine, employers in Detroit were not happy about having an active militant, an openly revolutionary organisation 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.
Dan Georgakas: 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 were 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 some members of the League, like many young working class men around the US, were drafted to go and fight in Vietnam. We talk a lot more about the draft, and ways of people resisted and avoided the draft in our podcast episodes 43-46 about the anti-war movement.
Dan Georgakas: Luke Tripp was one. Of course they did some, some just left country, and some went into hiding.
And employers relied on their primary power: their control over the jobs.
Dan Georgakas: 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.
So there were those kind of issues. I think if you say, “I’m gonna overthrow capitalism”, you’re taking on a big opponent.
One of those fired, after a wildcat strike, was General Baker, who wasn’t able to get another job in the car industry for 5 years afterwards, when he was eventually hired at the Ford Rouge plant under a false name.
The League also suffered from the same kind of organisational problems which any new radical group develops when they start to have some level of success.
And 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 is a provocateur, who’s a splitter, who’s just a little goofy.
I’m sure that some of listeners who have been involved in lefty groups will be familiar with this sort of situation. Especially in times of upswings in struggles, like in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007-9. When lots of people who were in small but stable radical groups suddenly had loads of new people wanting to join and get involved. Which is great of course, but it brings difficulties, because new people might not have the same amount of political agreement on various issues you haven’t had time to go into yet, they may have different ideas about strategy, they may not be serious, they might just be looking for a social club or what have you. And on the flipside of this, existing members might not want to have their preconceptions challenged, they may feel that their level of power and influence in the group may be under threat, they might be resistant to change, even if that might mean working in new, better ways, and so on.
To this standard mix, you’ve also got to look at the context of the time, which especially for Black revolutionaries in the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s was extremely dangerous. The FBI had its COINTELPRO counterintelligence program, through which it was infiltrating and disrupting radical groups, especially groups led by Black people, Native Americans and other people of colour. And the stakes were high: it wasn’t just about lefty groups splitting and infighting like today. People were being assassinated by the FBI, like Black Panther Fred Hampton, people were being snitch jacketed, that is to say, made to look like informants by the FBI, and people were being tortured and killed because of it.
One development which proved divisive for the League was the famous civil rights leader, James Foreman, who moved to the city and got involved in the group. His prominence enabled the group to raise money to set up a publishing house, Black Star Press, but then his individual prominence and access to resources then gave him disproportionate power over the organisation.
So all these factors were in the mix as the League developed.
Herb Boyd: 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 organise 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 organisation, some of the kind of sexual harassment and the kind of reducing them and name calling, and even rape.
All these kind of things with concern of the more conscious members of the organisation. 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 harmonising 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.
Dan Georgakas: They had tactics that were quite different. What began to happen was Watson, Cockrel, 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 organisation fell apart.
Eventually, the external pressures and the internal contradictions within the group led to its demise and splitting. But this doesn’t lessen the fact that the group was active in and help win improvements on the job which lasted beyond the organisation itself.
And in addition to these concrete gains, the group had a significant impact on the Black working class in Detroit, and in the wider workers’ movement and its official organisations like the AFL-CIO union confederation and its other member unions.
Herb Boyd: Who we can point to a number of accomplishments that was made certainly to do with the union organising 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 organisations 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 organisation 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 organisation, become on this executive council, this particular 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 organisation, because the organisation 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.
For Dan, a real lesson of the experience of the United Auto Workers union and the League, was how by its own disregarding of its Black members, it weakened itself, and the workers’ movement as a whole.
Dan Georgakas: 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 could have 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 to 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 organising the South. You just say, “What if they said to General Baker and some of those guys, ‘Look, here’s some funds. Go ahead and organise.’” 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 ended up being elected and doing things, but it was too little too late. Too late, more than too little.
People often blame jobs going overseas as the reason for the decline in employment in manufacturing industries like automobiles. But in reality, the main reason for the decline in the number of jobs is automation. Both in the US and UK, more cars are manufactured now in both countries that they were in the 1960s and 70s, just with far fewer workers. In the US, jobs were also relocated from areas like Detroit with better organised workers to states with more anti-worker laws, and less union organisation. This has enabled car companies to gradually erode pay and conditions for their workers over the years.
The economic and political environment today is very different from that of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and Waistline and Mitch believe we need to get to grips with that to be able to apply the lessons from the work of the League to our situation today. Bear in mind again that this was from a meeting in 2011.
Waistline Mitchell: That’s kind of our role at this point; to be educators and to talk about why today is different from yesterday. I love it but the League is gone. It’s been gone 40 years. We cannot go back to that period of time. Even if we wanted to, we can’t. What has changed in our society is the means of production and we have to mention that and talk about it. I’ve got another point and I’m sure I’ll give it up but we look at this thing critically. Back then, we studied Marx. Karl Marx is not a bad word to us. I would strongly suggest anybody who hasn’t read or studied Marx to look at him again for the first time. Karl Marx has come back more times than Michael Jordan. He got more hits than Michael Jackson [laughter]. I mean he’s not going to go away whether we want him to or not. Marx has this incredibly simply law. It is so simple. I did not graduate from high school. If I can get Marx, I’m telling you, anybody can understand it. He has this tiny law. It says that when the means of production change in society, the society has to organise itself around the new means of production. Period. End of story. That’s it! The steam engine meant that society had to reorganise itself around the steam engine and the technology implied in it. It brought the society based on a plough to an end but the plough represented a revolution because a plough was more productive than a bow and arrow or than a hoe. Each of these means of production creates and gives you the basis for a new society.
For me, this is a miracle. All of us oldies know that this is a new technology. Now what we face is a new technology. We can call it computers, the information age or whatever you want to call it. I’m learning it. Some young people told me this on tour because I asked them, ‘What the hell is taking place?’ They call it the ‘robotic economy’. I was calling it the ‘electronic revolution’ but I’m through with that. We’re dealing with the robotic economy because the young people told me we were [laughter]. In a robotic economy, society has to reorganise itself around that. That’s it. They call that social revolution. Our job is to fight in a way where the society is set up in our favour. That is the legacy of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Its legacy is that you study, you become cultured and educated so that you understand it can aid the next generation of revolutionaries and that next generation made itself apparent on September 17th. We’ve been waiting for you for 30 years. Welcome! [Laughter]. Welcome! [Applause].
Here, Waistline is referring to the start of the occupy movement in the US.
Mitch: One thing we were clear about after the split was that we didn’t know nothing [laughter]; that through all these struggles, all the literature, all the grief that we still didn’t know nothing and so we embarked on a path to try to educate ourselves and studied revolutionary works and we did. At that time, we didn’t understand where we were in history, what was possible for us and what our tasks were at that time. We just didn’t understand. We were not in a revolutionary situation. Mostly, we could only fight for reforms at that time to try to fix what was wrong about the ills of society. We were still not ready to make a step to the next level. Here today, if we look back, we can see that relatively clearly. We’re in a different epoch now that has been created by what Waistline refers to as the robotic economy. The period that we left was a period of industrial growth when opportunities abounded for everyone. I’m sure that people here, from Detroit anyway, can remember there was a time in the ‘60s where you could get three jobs in each site on the same day. General emphasised how important our labour was. He mentioned that if you had a badge, you could go to work. They didn’t care whether you were a terrorist
, whether you were a Black Nationalist, you could go to work. You’d get through the line as long as you get that ass on that assembly line [laughter]. You were okay as long as you were making cars. Today, an opportunity of a different nature abounds for us. We cannot go back to the type of economy we had before. We’re entering into an era that is decreasing the level of human participation in the labour process, yet people have to eat, yet people have to live and we’ve got to find a solution to do that. Our distribution is based on money and there’s a certain amount of our population that’s being separated from production which is how you get money and so how are they going to live? These are real questions that can be answered today. They couldn’t have been answered in the ‘60s or ‘70s but they can be addressed today. In the richest country on Earth, we have people starving to death when we have an abundance of food. We have people dying because they can’t get the proper medical attention. We have seniors who have to opt to pay the light bill instead of getting medication and things like this. Our kids are not being educated. Furthermore, they don’t have much of a future and so our struggle has to take a different turn. Our struggle has to be for everyone to have the necessities of life to be able to live.
An important element often overlooked in the history of social movements and organisations is a transformative effect which taking part in them has on the participants themselves.
Herb Boyd: 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 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 the past.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 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.”
That concludes our double episode about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit. 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.
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At this same time period 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. As always, we’ve got links to sources, transcripts and further reading, on the webpage for this episode, link in the show notes. Also in the show notes are links where you can get hold of Dan and Herb’s books in the show notes below.
Thanks again to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James, Ariel Gioia, Stone Lawson and Fernando López-Ojeda. Music used in these episodes is Union Town, performed by The Nightwatchman, Tom Morello. You can buy it or stream it on the link in the show notes. Thanks to the Bristol Radical History Group for the use of the audio clips from their meeting, and finally thanks to you for listening
This episode was edited by Jesse French.
Catch you next time.