Whose Detroit? A City’s Upheaval

Against the Current, No. 108, January/February 2004

Nicola Pizzolato

Whose Detroit?
Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City
by Heather Ann Thompson
Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2001, $19.95 paper.

ON JULY 15, 1970, James Johnson Jr., a Black autoworker at Chrysler Eldon Avenue Plant in Detroit, shot and killed two foremen and a fellow worker. Forty-five minutes into the shift he had been reassigned to the ovens, where the heat that day was more than 120 degrees.

Johnson was enraged because he thought he’d worked his way up to a better job; he was also angry that the replacement foreman, also Black, betrayed him with the reassignment. Written up for insubordination — refusing to do his assigned job — Johnson thought he’d been fired.

Three months earlier Johnson had been in a serious car accident. While out on a medical leave he received a telegram from management demanding his immediate return to work. Against his doctor’s advice he returned — only to find the company denied him his medical benefits.

The following month his jobsetter, going on vacation, recommended that Johnson fill in for him. Instead the foreman placed one of his own personal friends on the job. Everywhere James Johnson turned, racism seemed to box him in.

Historian Heather Thompson uses the incident of Johnson’s triple murder, and his widely publicized trial with its controversial verdict, as a magnifying lens to examine a period of significant transformation in Detroit. As the author points out in the introduction, Detroit has long held a symbolic meaning for the entire nation:

“In the 1940s, this city represented America’s vision of itself as an ‘arsenal of democracy.’ In the 1950s, it exemplified the best of postwar American consumerism and productivity; in the 1960s, it was deemed a ‘model Great Society city’; in the
1970s, it was called the ‘murder capital’ of the then-troubled country; and by the 1980s it represented the worst of what America had become after decades of social and political turmoil. (7)

Framing each chapter is a snapshot in the life of James Johnson, Jr.– particularly his quest in Detroit to find a decent job and the economic stability that could allow him to purchase his own house.

Johnson endured racism all his life. Born in Mississippi, Johnson witnessed, at the age of nine, the lynching of a cousin. Like millions of others, Johnson moved north<->ward in search of dignity and economic opportunity. But racial discrimination restricted the possibilities for Black people’s economic advancement even in the industrial centers of the Midwest and Northeast.

Symptomatic of race in the auto industry, although he came to Detroit in 1953 Johnson was not able to secure an auto job until 1968, when he was hired at Chrysler’s Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle Plant. His first job was to load six brake shoes a minute into a 380-degree oven. It was “one of the most despised jobs in the plant, and once again all of the workers performing it were black.” (103)

Thompson interweaves what was happening with the politics of the city with the situation workers faced inside the plants, and inside the structure of the union, the United Auto Workers (UAW). In Whose Detroit? Thompson interrogates both the narratives and existing interpretations on the fate of liberalism in the post-World War II period.

She argues that postwar cities were more politically complex than is usually acknowledged. Urban Americans were not only racially, but politically, fragmented. For Detroit, that meant white conservatives attempting to maintain their traditional control, tenaciously fighting off interracial coalitions of white liberals and Black middle classes as well as the challenge of Black nationalism.

The presence of a strong radical movement, both in the city and in the factories, added to the complexity. From the late 1960s until the election of Black Mayor Coleman Young in 1973 these forces contended for power and this prolonged struggle, in turn, shaped the future of the city.

The author briefly sketches in the historical background of the 1940s, when the Motor City, like a score of other northern cities, attracted thousand of migrants from the South, both Black and white. She reminds us that between 1940-50 more than 1.6 million
African Americans moved from the South to major northern cities — including Detroit — with another 1.5 million to come between 1950-60.

The automobile industry offered relatively high wages and, since it was the country’s leading industry, the illusion of steady employment. Since Henry Ford “enjoyed a national reputation as the black man’s friend, willing to employ him when others would not” (12), African Americans were drawn to Detroit. This massive migration meant a social and racial recomposition of the city’s working class.

Tensions over competition for housing and jobs became racialized, exploding into the 1943 Race Riot, when white mobs attacked African Americans in the streets, killing dozens. Although during the riot, UAW President R.J. Thomas mobilized union stewards to end the violence, at the same time white workers held race strikes within the plants to protest the employment of Black workers in their departments.

The author builds on the work of Thomas Sugrue, whose The Origins of the Urban Crisis <D>demonstrates that the crisis that befell Detroit in the 1970s had its roots in the social and economic inequalities of postwar Detroit. Heather Thompson points to the closely fought, racially charged, mayoral races of 1945 and 1949 to illustrate not
only the conservative victory but to note that the narrow losses of the left-of-center liberals meant that “urban conservatives were unlikely to rule indefinitely.” (14)

Thompson’s analysis complements but contrasts at key points with Sugrue’s. She adds to the literature about Detroit by emphasizing two points.

First, racial polarization was always impeded by political fractures between liberal and conservatives. For every Albert Cobo and Louis Miriani, two mayors unsympathetic to Black issues, there was attorney Maurice Sugar or sociologist and councilman Mel Ravitz who fought battles to end segregation in the city and its labor movement.

Second, African Americans were never “passive victims.” They too strove to shape their own Detroit. Detroit hosted the largest NAACP branch in the nation as well as a number of other African-American associations at either end of the political spectrum, from the Urban League to the Nation of Islam.

Auto Apartheid and Exploitation

As the center of the auto industry, Detroit was a hub of union activism. The UAW, at the time one of the largest industrial unions in the United States and one with a liberal political and social agenda, played a prominent role in the city politics. While on the national level the UAW supported progressive legislation and campaigned for civil rights, at the local level its record was much more variegated.

Thompson records the failure of UAW leaders to challenge discrimination in the auto plants. After World War II African Americans were able to move out of janitorial positions — but into the foundries, stamping and painting facilities where dirty and hazardous working conditions prevailed. Discrimination was rampant in the hiring and
allocation of jobs; the skilled trades were lily white until the 1970s.

Since her study is focused on Detroit, Thompson’s discussion about the auto plants is most particularly about the inner-city Chrysler plants. While these plants were run down, the company was turning out more and more cars by forcing its workers onto six-and seven-day schedules and twelve-hour shifts.

A combination of speedup and forced overtime strained the work force, but especially Black workers stuck in the worst jobs. Added to the deadly mix were decrepit machinery and foremen who were bullies. Back in the 1970s the radical left called this mixture “niggermation.”

If discrimination was deeply ingrained in manufacturers’ labor policies, it was also present, although in a different form, inside the UAW itself. Again, Thompson quickly sketches the internal ideological battle within the UAW during the 1940s.

When Black UAW activist Shelton Tappes placed a motion on the floor of the union’s 1943 convention that a Black be elected to the International Executive Board (IEB), he found support from progressive officials Richard Frankensteen and George Addes but the motion failed after other key UAW leaders — >most notably Walter Reuther — opposed it. In fact it was not until 1962 that the first African American was elected to the IEB.

Thompson sees Reuther’s narrow victory over Frankensteen for the UAW presidency in 1946 as setting the stage for a more conservative UAW leadership in the postwar period. Reuther carefully cultivated a progressive image through the UAW’s commitment to national civil rights legislation — but ignored the actual culture on the shop floor.

Many scholars have pointed to the limits of racial integration in the UAW, but Thompson emphasizes African-American agency in altering the union. She particularly outlines the work of the Trade Union Leadership Council (TULC). In 1957 thirteen Black UAW activists — including Horace Sheffield, Shelton Tappes, Robert Battle III and Marc Stepp — formed the TULC “to demand Black entrance into the skilled trades and into the leadership of the UAW.” (49)

TULC began with around 500 members, but according to Thompson by the mid-1960s had 13,000 workers and a periphery of supporters. TULC became extremely vocal in its attempt to end discrimination at a time when leaders of the labor movement believed in a “gradual” improvement of African Americans’ position.

Thompson outlines the work TULC carved out for itself; her pages on the TULC are one of the book’s highlights. In fact, it makes the reader hunger to read the TULC story in its entirety.

It is within this context that the first African American, Nelson “Jack” Edwards, was elected to the UAW International Executive Board in 1962. Despite the uneasy alliance between the UAW and the TULC, and despite the support both organizations had for Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and mayor Jerome Cavanagh’s administration (1961-69), racial tension within the plants and within the city continued.

The fact of the matter was that the Great Society-style programs like Total Action against Poverty failed to reverse the effects of decades of job and housing discrimination. While the Black middle class gained more access to the city’s administration, the bulk of the Black community remained impoverished, deprived of decent housing, schools and employment.

A major source of tension was the Detroit Police Department for its brutality and racial profiling. Attempting to rein in the police, the Cavanagh administration found itself surrounded by white conservative opposition and resistance inside the department.

By the mid-1960s Blacks comprised 65-70% of inner-city plants such as Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle. Although since 1964 UAW officials had been more aggressive about filing grievances over managerial abuse, foremen “continued to act with virtual impunity.” (68) Fed up with promises that foremen would be penalized, workers retaliated by wildcats, absenteeism, refusing to follow the foreman’s direct order and, increasingly, by acts of violence against foremen.

Although the UAW leadership had warned Chrysler that conditions were intolerable as early as 1963, the company disregarded the warning. In fact local union officials at the Jefferson plant accurately predicted the growing anger when they told the company that “mental and physical suffering can’t be measured as easily as time and money, and that is why this local union cannot tolerate totalitarianism, which will, without a doubt, end in rebellion.” (70)

Whose Detroit? does not recount the 1967 Detroit riot that resulted in the death of 43 people — three-quarters of whom were African Americans — and the destruction of millions of dollars of property. Instead the author outlines the pressure cooker atmosphere that existed within the plants on the eve of the 1967 riot.

The second half of Whose Detroit? details how “the crisis that now gripped both the city and its plants would soon generate completely new political possibilities for Detroit.” (70) In the aftermath of the riot a number of interracial organizations were formed, including Focus Hope and New Detroit. But Thompson contends that New Detroit seriously underestimated both the power of white conservatives and Black nationalists.

While white conservatives blamed liberals for bringing the city into chaos, new political forces rooted in Black Power were challenging the liberal leadership from the left. Between 1967 and the election of Coleman Young as mayor in 1973, Thompson describes the processes of deepening racial and political polarization so that “Detroit had become a war zone.” (102)

The author summarizes much of the ground that had been explored in the classic Detroit: I Do Mind Dying by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin — a book that apparently prompted Thompson, as an undergraduate, to understand more about her city. Her purpose is not to retell the story of the Revolutionary Union Movement (RUM) but to analyze the tensions that gave rise to its existence as a movement, and how it contended with other political forces to effect the politics of Detroit.

Whose Detroit?is not the passionate story that Detroit: I Do Mind Dying tells, yet her analysis advances our understanding of the dynamics of that period.

It is also important to recall that the running narrative in Whose Detroit? is the story of James Johnson, Jr., a man who worked at a plant that was a hotbed of RUM activism, “yet was completely uninvolved in the controversies and conflicts at Eldon. He was not a member of ELRUM, and he had never walked out in a wildcat. He was, however, deeply frustrated by the treatment he had endured since Chrysler hired him.”(124)

Nationalist and Class Insurgency

Thompson sketches out the post-riot period by analyzing the swelling ranks of the Black Nationalist groups active in the city. Organizations like the Republic of New Africa, the group around the Inner City Voice, and the Shrine of the Black Madonna came to wield greater influence on the policies of the city administration.

It was in the plants, however, where militant Black nationalists first challenged liberals. She points out, “when workers rebelled on the shop floor their ire was directed as much against black leaders as white. By 1967, many workers considered the strategic agendas of both black and white labor liberals equally ineffective.” (70)

As Thompson points out, between 1960 and 1974 there were 122 wildcats at Chrysler. The company pressured the UAW to put an end to them; the union feared their bargaining authority would be eroded if they failed to do so.

At Chrysler Dodge Main, the largest plant in the Detroit area, a group of white women in the bumper department walked out on May 2, 1968 over line speedup and management’s treatment of women; they were immediately joined by the others in their department, including several Black men. The company fired a number of those they considered the instigators: two of the women and five of the Black men.

Later that month two of the Black men, General Baker and Chuck Wooten, pulled together a meeting that formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM). Through its leaflets DRUM denounced not only the company but also the union — even Black union officials — charging them with being accomplices of Chrysler’s discriminatory practices.

DRUM organized against speedup and unsafe working conditions on the shop floor, and argued that the grievance procedure deprived the rank-and-file of their power. Between 1969-70 a number of RUMs were established at other workplaces, including ELRUM at the Eldon Avenue plant. These RUMs did not just denounce in-plant health and safety violations that resulted in the injury and death of their co-workers, but organized walkouts, rallies and even marches on UAW meetings.

One of the largest wildcats was the July 8, 1968 walkout of 4,000 workers at Dodge Main. But two other successful wildcats in 1969-70 were at the Eldon Avenue plant. Thus in the eyes of the UAW leadership the RUMs represented a political threat: They undermined the legitimacy of the union both in front of its dues-paying members and a management that demanded a reliable business partner.

Thompson documents how closely the UAW leadership kept tabs on the RUMs and quotes the “progressive” UAW official Emil Mazey, who in an interview with The Detroit News remarked that “black militants in Detroit’s auto factories pose a greater peril to the UAW than the communist infiltration did in the 1930s.” (123)

Initially shocked by how well the DRUM candidate, Ron March, did in his 1968 election campaign for trustee at Dodge Main, the UAW International decided to intervene and prevent his victory in the runoff. Successful, the UAW leadership went on to defeat RUM candidates three more times.

Yet while UAW officials were obsessed with the RUM influence, it is interesting that they seemed to have little concrete analysis of the movement’s weaknesses. Thompson points out that while Black autoworkers “admired the RUMs for their bravery when dealing with the company and the union” and “recognized that the RUMS were usually the first to speak up on their behalf,” few actually became members.

She sees that their “rhetoric, style, and racially exclusive and ill-planned tactics” as well as their male-dominated leadership severely weakened the groups over time. (168) Many of its members ended up being fired or blacklisted; by 1971 they were no longer a force within the plants.

Thompson neglects, however, the important fact that the UAW’s response to in-plant Black revolutionaries lay not only in a context of city politics, but also in a situation of rapid deindustrialization. Chrysler Detroit’s plants, notably Dodge Main, were old fashioned multi-story complexes.

The company was moving operations to newer locations in Indiana, Delaware, and Ontario throughout the 1960s. This allowed them to automate their lines and thus significantly reduce the work force. In the opinion of many union leaders, Dodge Main could survive only if the union reasserted control over the work force.

The chapter that details Johnson’s trial also takes up a number of controversial trials between 1969-73. Attorney Ken Cockrel, a leader of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the RUMs’ umbrella group, along with several other attorneys (most notably Mel Ravitz, Milton Henry and Sheldon Halpern) successfully challenged the jury selection process, the bail system and the authority of the police.

In a jury commission hearing Cockrel and Ravitz were able to prove “824 total cases of exclusion which were `consistent with our contention’ that the process is `illegal, unconstitutional and racist.'” As a result, the presiding judge of the city’s Recorder’s Court issued an order overhauling the way juries were chosen. This set the stage for Johnson’s trial, in which he would have a shot of being judged by a jury of his peers.

The story of James Johnson, Jr., city politics and the shop floor come together for a moment during Johnson’s trial for murder in 1971. Johnson’s attorneys were Ken Cockrel and Mel Ravitz. They argued for a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity — and won.

Thompson reviews the audacious defense strategy built on explaining the role of racism in creating Johnson’s mental instability. The most important moment in the trial came when Johnson, Judge Colombo and the entire jury visited the Eldon Avenue plant. Although Chrysler had the plant spruced up and the assembly line shut down, “the sight of the workers with fists raised at Eldon impressed upon the jury that even if Johnson was insane, other workers in Detroit obviously understood why he had snapped.” (143-44)

The confrontation with the League profoundly shaped the attitude of UAW leaders towards any rank-and-file activism. While Black nationalists of the RUM variety virtually disappeared in the factories after 1971, working conditions that fuelled the protests remained.

Thompson characterizes the rank-and-file activism of 1971-73 period as markedly interracial and reformist in character. The United National Caucus (UNC), founded in 1967 among the skilled tradesmen and growing along<->side the RUMs in many of the same plants, became the main dissident UAW group.

Describing the UNC’s broad appeal Thompson writes: “The UNC’s commitment to reforming the UAW and making it more responsive and democratic soon attracted both black and white, skilled and unskilled workers. What appeared to many black workers, despite the UNC’s predominantly white and skilled-worker origins, was that its co-chair was an African
American [Jordan Sims from the Eldon Avenue Plant] who made sure that the UNC took racial equality in the UAW very seriously.” (108) Thompson’s discussion of the UNC is another highlight of the book.

While the UAW tried to force management to reverse the deteriorating working conditions, it was unwilling to halt production. Thus when wildcats erupted in the summer of 1973, union officials fought this second wave with even greater determinacy.

Thompson describes the three dramatic wildcats of that summer: the walkouts at Chrysler’s Jefferson Avenue Assembly and Detroit Forge and the occupation at Mack Avenue. But while the UAW International was caught off guard by the first strike, UAW President Douglas Fraser was able to convince the Detroit Forge wildcatters to return to work after six days with a prom<->ise to authorize a strike vote (which never happened).

In the third case, the International decided to forcibly end the Mack Avenue strike. The morning following the occupation 1,000 union officials mobilized at the local with baseball bats, pipes and other assorted weapons. Before they marched to each of the four Mack gates and attack the picketing workers, they listened to Emil Mazey tell them that “they [the strikers] are a bunch of punks, [and] we are not going to let them destroy everything we’ve built.” (202)

The physical confrontation put an end to the wildcats as dissidents recognized the difficulty of fighting against both the employer and the leadership of one’s own union. For Heather Thompson, the price the UAW paid to keep control on the shop floor was tragically high: Having snuffed the militancy of its members, the UAW was in no position to resist management’s assault after 1973.

Even as this drama unfolded in the plants, the city continued to be a contested terrain between liberals, conservatives and radicals. In order to please his conservative white constituency, Mayor Roman Gribbs, Cavanagh’s successor, instituted STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) — a special, even tougher, notoriously brutal police unit targeting poor Black neighborhoods and even high schools.

STRESS tactics resulted in the fatal shooting of dozens of suspects, mostly young Black men. Liberals and radicals built a grassroots campaign to challenge the existence of STRESS. This included massive rallies and demonstrations as well as a number of highly publicized trials.

While the struggle within the plants was choked off by UAW officials and Chrysler’s firings, Black Detroiters became more optimistic about the fairness of institutions such as the court system. As a consequence liberals were once again able to channel discontent through the electoral process.

In 1973 Detroiters elected Coleman Young as the city’s first Black mayor. In his first term Young carried out his most important campaign promise: to abolish STRESS and integrate the Police Department. Whereas Thomas Sugrue viewed the 1967 rebellion as the trigger for “white flight,” Thompson sees Young’s election as the power shift that
resulted in whites abandoning Detroit. She points out, though, that they did so “as losers, not victors of their battle to lead urban America into the future.” (219)

The author maintains that in Detroit and other key urban centers Black liberal politicians, the Black middle class and white progressives did succeed in transforming the political culture of the city — although not on their own terms.

Today Detroit does have an integrated police force headed by an African American. Unfortunately it still has cases of police brutality, even to the point of provoking federal intervention. And it’s true that the UAW has far more Black officials, yet they are very far from the militant leaders of either the RUM or UNC variety.

There’s also been a partially successful white/suburban political backlash: Recorders’ Court has been merged into a countywide court system, diluting the chance that Detroiters would have a jury of their peers.

One can agree with Thompson that it’s too simplistic to view U.S. inner cities as abandoned wastelands by the 1980s. Yet the chronic unresolved crisis of Detroit makes this reviewer at times wonder if the author is wearing rose-colored glasses. Her point, though, is that the thirty-year period she examines is one chapter in a long struggle. There are more books to be written about the subsequent thirty years.

Thompson’s purpose is to provide the reader with an understanding of the contending powers and complex racial and class politics of that critical period of 1967-73. By combining social, labor, and urban history Heather Thompson has produced a refreshing account of Detroit during a crucial period for the shaping of urban America.

Whose Detroit? challenges many assumptions the media and old literature have forced upon us in the past twenty years. It is a book best savored by those who have already read several histories of postwar Detroit.

ATC 108, January-February 2004