Black history, labor history intertwined in Detroit

DETROIT – Between the two World Wars, the groundwork was laid in this city’s Black community that culminated in the 1941 organizing of the world’s most powerful corporation: the Ford Motor Company.

That piece of  Detroit’s rich labor and civil rights history was brought to life by professors Beth Bates and Quill Pettway in a Department of Africana Studies Black History Month celebration at Wayne State University here.

Bates’ research has focused on political, social, and economic developments within the 20th century African American community. Pettway is both a student and maker of history. He was helped organize the huge Ford Rouge plant and continued working there for 27 years before becoming a professor. Now almost 90, he continues to teach math at Wayne County Community College.

The two traced the origins of Detroit’s Black population. Escaping what for many was life as a Southern sharecropper, Black migration north took place at record levels in the early part of the last century. From 1916 to1917, Black migration to Detroit averaged 1,000 a month. “Simply put, they came looking for a better life, better education, security and to escape lynching” said Pettway.

By the early 1920s, 45 percent of Black men in Detroit worked at Ford.

Bates said those jobs at Ford gave hope to Blacks, but Henry Ford “extracted more than his pound of flesh in speed-ups.”  She quoted the late autoworker Dave Moore who said “there was nothing liberal in the bastard – Ford’s strategy was simply different than GM or Chrysler,” where cleaning rest rooms and mopping floors was the best Blacks could expect.

Interwoven in Ford’s strategy was a paternalistic philosophy. Bates said Ford imagined Blacks might be “the perfect workers for his open shop movement, what he called his American Plan.” However, Bates said, Blacks also had their own American Plan, one that grew more incompatible with Henry Ford as time went by. Contrary to what many scholars have written, it was Black workers who paved the way for unionization at Ford, she said.

Throughout the 1930s the old AFL autoworkers union missed opportunities to support the Black community in their fight for civil rights and against police brutality, and did not work to develop a broader-based union organizing drive.  “Black workers not initially signing union cards had less to do with allegiance to Ford than wanting to be treated as equals” by the union, said Bates.

She credited the role played by the Communist Party and other radicals in organizations like the unemployed councils and the International Labor Defense (which led the fight to save the Scottsboro Boys) because they facilitated a “cross-fertilization” and politicalization within the Black community, between workers at Ford and community members, on issues like racism, civil rights and jobs.

“By 1935, Black Detroiters considered Communists friends you could count on,” said Bates.

Unlike the old AFL union, the CIO’s United Auto Workers had a policy of racial equality that gave it an advantage, Pettway said.

He noted the role played by white Ford worker and lead union organizer Bill McKie. McKie’s job in Ford’s maintenance department allowed him to circulate amongst different workers. The fact that McKie was a known Communist did not hurt his ability to organize.  He was “second to none, highly respected by everyone. Elected as a trustee his first year,” said Pettway.

The CIO saw to it that a broad base of union support was built within the Black community and on three occasion organized rallies with Paul Robeson.

Pettway said the last rally, in Detroit’s downtown Cadillac Square, drew 60,000 people. “Regardless of race, creed or color, they came to hear Robeson, Walter Reuther, former City Council President Erma Henderson,” among others.

On May 21, 1941, Ford workers overwhelmingly voted for the union.

The vote shook the automotive industry and shaped it for decades to come.

During discussion, retired UAW activist General Baker pointed to the “high level of solidarity” still seen within UAW Ford Local 600. At its peak there were 17,000 Black workers and even today, most top UAW national leaders come out of Local 600 he said.

Pettway said “the unity needed to organize Ford was the same unity that elected Barack Obama.  This is what is necessary to move forward.”

Photo: Quill Pettway accepts an award from Beth Bates. (PW/John Rummel)



John Rummel
John Rummel

Activist John Rummel covers events in Michigan. It's not politics-only for John; he loves sports, the outdoors and a cold beer or two!