On the 50th anniversary of the start of the Great Rebellion in Motor City, Viewpoint is proud to present the opening chapter of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, Dan Georgakas and Martin Surkin’s indispensable chronicle of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. We thank Haymarket Books for allowing us to reproduce this chapter here.
Two years after the riots in Watts had catalyzed a turn to Black Power, the summer of 1967 saw black-led rebellions in some 164 cities across the United States. A hundred more would follow in ‘68. But the insurrection in Detroit was the apex of this cycle, erupting across the heartland of the automotive industry for five days, making it the third largest social disorder in the history of this country, only steps behind the Rodney King riots in 1992 and the viciously racist New York Draft riot of 1863. In the Detroit case, looting and property destruction had an indelibly political character, with most rioters being of black working class backgrounds (with especially high rates among the unemployed and armed forces members). And racial animus – so vital to the divide and conquer management of the shop floor – was in part suspended. While the politics of Appalachian migrants in Detroit tended to vacillate between the sympathy for the Kennedys and support for George Wallace, in the heat of 1967, they had a vital role in the city’s “proletarian shopping.” And to the surprise of the local police department, they discovered that the cop-targeting snipers were not the poor black residents but white “hillbillies.”
In this chapter, Georgakas and Surkin stress how the Detroit Rebellion not only significantly disrupted the order of things, but fortified and energized pre-existing radical networks in the city. General Gordon Baker Jr., a central figure in the LRBW and in 1967 a prominent labor activist and leader of the draft resistance movement in Detroit, noticed that many of the fellow participants in the uprising worked alongside him on the assembly line. He and fellow militants from black nationalist and socialist circles used the rebellion as an opportunity to establish a “permanent organization” that “could provide a bridge” between the ebbs and flows of political activity. Inner City Voice, the newspaper founded by John Watson, Baker, and other future LRBW cadre, was only the initial foothold, but it channeled the currents of resistance the Great Rebellion set in motion, and helped chart the course for one of the most powerful sequences of insurgent working class struggle in US history.
Inner City Voice (1975)
In the violent summer of 1967, Detroit became the scene of the bloodiest uprising in a half century and the costliest in terms of property damage in U.S. history. At the weeks’ end, there were 41 known dead, 347 injured, 3,800 arrested. Some 5,000 people were homeless…while 1,300 buildings had been reduced to mounds of ashes and bricks, and 2,700 businesses sacked. Damage estimates reached $500 million.
– Time Magazine, August 4, 1967
Less than 30 days after the Michigan National Guard lifted its occupation of the city of Detroit, H. Rap Brown spoke to an explosive crowd of some 5,000 persons gathered in and around a theater on Dexter Avenue just a mile or so from what had been the center of the Great Rebellion. Brown, who in August of 1967 was near the height of his influence as a revolutionary orator, delivered the kind of angry and militant speech for which he was famous. Later, he would be quoted as saying, “There are people who can relate the struggle of black people better than I can. People in Detroit, for instance.” The sponsors of his appearance were some of those people. Their purpose had been to raise interest in their new monthly newspaper, the Inner City Voice.
The first issue of the newspaper appeared in October 1967. The headline was “MICHIGAN SLAVERY,” and the focus on urban revolt was underscored in one of the first editorials:
In the July Rebellion we administered a beating to the behind of the white power structure, but apparently our message didn’t get over…We are still working, still working too hard, getting paid too little, Jiving in bad housing, sending our kids to substandard schools, paying too much for groceries, and treated like dogs by the police. We still don’t own anything and don’t control anything…In other words, we are still being systematically exploited by the system and still have the responsibility to break the back of that system.
Only a people who are strong, unified, armed, and know the enemy can carry on the struggles which lay ahead of us. Think about it brother, things ain’t hardly getting better. The Revolution must continue.
ICV (Inner City Voice) carried two descriptive phrases astride its masthead – “Detroit’s Black Community Newspaper” and “the Voice of Revolution.” These reflected a belief that the paper’s hard-hitting and revolutionary viewpoint was an accurate expression of the dominant mood of Detroit’s black population. ICV was not like the alternate-culture newspapers of that period. Its editors did not see its function simply as one of a principled opposition to the dominant culture. Using their own resources, they tried to build their paper into a vehicle for political organization, education, and change. ICV was to be a positive response to the Great Rebellion, elaborating, clarifying, and articulating what was already in the streets. There seemed to be no reason why ICV could not supplant the weekly Michigan Chronicle, Detroit’s largest-circulating black newspaper, and perhaps one day become a black-owned daily able to compete with the morning Detroit Free Press and the evening Detroit News.
The people who put out ICV were not newcomers to struggle and they were not underground journalists of the type which produced hundreds of periodicals during the late 1960s. Their collective experience included every major black revolutionary movement of the previous decade. They had been active in SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the Freedom Now Party (an all-black party which gained ballot status in Michigan), UHURU (a Detroit radical action group), RAM (Revolutionary Action Movement), and a number of additional formal and informal groupings. Some of them had been part of a group which defied the State Department ban on travel to Cuba in 1964, and some of them had personal conversations with Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
ICV met its monthly publishing schedule for the next year with an average press run of some 10,000 copies. Each issue coupled a dynamic prose style with explicit revolutionary ideas about local, national, and international events. The first issue set the tone with three front-page stories concerning living and working conditions in the city of Detroit. The lead story was an exposé of substandard conditions at Detroit General Hospital, an institution most poor people in the inner city had personal contact with. International problems were given a sharp local focus by ICV’s advocacy of massive black participation in the national anti-war March on Washington scheduled for October 21, 1967. Subsequent issues dealt with self-defense in the event of new fighting, with food and water logistics treated as seriously as overt military problems. Stories covering national events adopted a united front approach. Every figure or group actively engaged in struggle was given space, whether a white Catholic integrationist priest such as Father Groppi in Milwaukee, the emerging Black Panther Party of Oakland, California, or a black nationalist such as Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) in Newark. Much of the paper dealt with revolutionary events on the national and international levels, but the front-page and feature stories were rooted in Detroit conditions. Over the year, the headlines included:
COPS ON RAMPAGE – 14 YEAR OLD SHOT
GIRL LOSES EYE RUNNING FROM RATS
WHITE FOREMAN KILLED AFTER RACIST INSULT AT FORD’S
BLACK WORKERS UPRISING
The literary style and sensationalistic photographs of ICV were deliberately provocative. The editors of ICV wanted to present complicated revolutionary ideas in a popular and exciting format. The influences of Malcolm X and Che Guevara were strong, but there were many other currents. ICV regularly reproduced articles from the Crusader, a newsletter written by Robert Williams, an ex-marine whose advocacy in 1954 of armed black self-defense while head of the Monroe, North Carolina, NAACP had led to a kidnapping charge and self-exile, first in Cuba and then in China. ICV featured a regular column by Detroiter James Boggs, who had published The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook in 1963. Some of the ICV staff had worked with Boggs in political groups, and he was highly respected even when people did not agree with him. ICV also reprinted speeches by black Marxist C.L.R. James, best known for his book Black Jacobins, a study of the Haitian revolt led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. James had organized political groups in the city, and Martin Glaberman, the chairman of one of those groups, had once conducted a private study class on Marx’s Capital for some of the individuals most prominent in producing ICV. Although a totally black-owned and -operated paper, ICV published a few stories by whites which were either written exclusively for the paper or taken from wire services. The unifying ingredient in all ICV material was the sharp emphasis on defining the strategy and tactics of the ongoing black liberation struggle and how it might prefigure and trigger a second American revolution.
Virtually all the individuals who later emerged as the leadership of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers worked on ICV, but the key person was editor John Watson, a slightly built man then in his early twenties. Watson already had a long political history. As early as 1960, he had been identified as too radical for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). A few years later, he was expelled from SNCC, along with the entire Detroit chapter, because the group had advocated direct action in the North as well as in the South. During the next few years, he worked with NAC (Negro Action Committee), the Freedom Now Party, and UHURU. In 1963, Watson was part of a group accused of jeering at the American flag and booing the national anthem during a ceremony at City Hall staged to interest the Olympic Committee in selecting Detroit as a site for a future Olympiad. A year later, he was part of a group that threatened a mass insurrection of 50,000 blacks if one of their number should be drafted, a pure bluff which brought about the mobilization of hundreds of troops around the Wayne County Induction Center. Instead of 50,000 demonstrators as promised, there were only eight. Nevertheless, the prospective inductee was found “unsuitable” for service.
Watson had been involved in so much activity and he had such a nonchalant personal manner that his power as an intellectual was sometimes underestimated. Watson had attended the Friday night forums of the Socialist Workers Party in the early 1960s, and he had helped organize the all-black group that studied Marxism with Glaberman. He was a perennial university student, but most of his learning came from private reading, political activism, and contacts with people involved in political struggle. In contrast to some of the original SNCC and UHURU people who fell away from activism, Watson became increasingly important as an idea man, a public speaker, and a person who could get things started. A relatively poor administrator who was sloppy with details and time schedules, Watson was most effective when he had a colleague to handle day-to-day operations. He had almost unlimited energy when he was working on a project he considered important. At considerable ·cost to his health, his sheer energy pushed through project after project that others considered too bold for success. Watson had the ability to take an idea, shape it to Detroit reality, and somehow find funds to put it into action. Watson, more than anyone else, was responsible for the existence of ICV and for its characteristic ability to present complicated ideological analyses of capitalism in a popular style which made the leap from theory to practice seem almost automatic. An editorial of February 29, 1968, was typical:
To struggle in our own interest means that the black people of the ghetto must struggle to overthrow white capitalism. The struggle against capitalism is world wide and the revolutionary struggle of the ghetto is crucial and essential in the over all world revolution. If the Koreans and Vietnamese can overthrow imperialism in Asia then Asia will be free. But if the Black Revolution can overthrow capitalism and imperialism in the U.S., then the whole world will be freed. This, then, is our role.
With this understanding, let us praise the Vietnamese and Koreans, but let us pass the ammunition and do our own thing.
The paper’s consistent anti-capitalist analysis transformed articles about hospitals, police, and housing from simple expressions of grievances capable of reform to a critique of the entire social order. While emphasizing caution, ICV continually evoked the liberating spirit of the Great Rebellion, which it referred to with the phrases “shopping for free” and “the general strike of ‘67.” The ICV analysis of what was happening to blacks in the Detroit auto plants followed the same style. Other forces in the city spoke stridently of an abstract black power, but ICV raised the specter of an uprising of black workers which not only would strike at the company but would totally bypass the United Auto Workers as well. A June 1968 front-page story laid out the problems of black workers and spoke of direct action on the shop floor:
[B]lack workers are tied day in and day out, 8-12 hours a day, to a massive assembly line, an assembly line that one never sees the end or the beginning of but merely fits into a slot and stays there, swearing and bleeding, running and stumbling, trying to maintain a steadily increasing pace. Adding to the severity of working conditions are the white racist and bigoted foremen, harassing, insulting, driving and snapping the whip over the backs of thousands of black workers, who have to work in these plants in order to eke out an existence. These conditions coupled also with the double-faced, back stabbing of the UAW have driven black workers to a near uprising state. The UAW with its bogus bureaucracy is unable, has been unable, and in many cases is unwilling to press forward the demands and aspirations of black workers. In the wildcat strikes the black workers on the lines do not even address themselves to the UAW’s Grievance Procedure. They realize that their only method of pressing for their demands is to strike and to negotiate at the gates of industry.
The first steps to stop such messages from reaching the streets of Detroit were taken by the American Legion and other well-organized groups of the Right who tried to use their influence in the state legislature and the mayor’s office. They contended that ICV was calling for a resumption of the Great Rebellion, but, in fact, the paper stayed within the boundaries of the Bill of Rights and could not be legally suppressed. Breakthrough, a Detroit split-off from the John Birch Society which had terrorized peace marchers with physical assaults, began to attack ICV through its spokesman, Donald Lobsinger. Breakthrough eventually attempted to disrupt a public meeting. An ICV article carried this terse information on the outcome: “Lobsinger found one of his followers laying in the lavatory floor in a pool of his own blood.” ICV omitted all details about its self-defense procedures. This was characteristic of those who produced the newspaper. While considering military matters to have a high priority, they always gave their specific apparatus a very low profile in all public pronouncements.
The enemies of ICV soon found more effective pressures than violence and open censorship. The FBI made a practice of visiting shops which produced the paper and of inquiring why the owners were supporting subversion. The usual result was an immediate refusal to print any more issues. An even more effective weapon was the typographers’ union, which took the position that even if a printer was willing to publish ICV, the union would call a strike to prevent it. John Watson recalls with bitterness that one of the officials of the union had been a well-known member of the Communist Party. When personally asked to use his influence within the union, the official replied that nothing could be done. Other established radical groups and individuals associated with them as former or active members were likewise unwilling or unable to aid ICV. Their lack of support, rather than apparent ideological differences, was the basis for the generally poor opinion of the Left held by most of the ICV staff. As a result of the FBI and union harassment, the ICV was never printed in the same shop more than twice. The consequence of the double attack was that copy had to be taken to Chicago, where it was printed by the same firm that printed Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. The printed papers were then trucked back to Detroit for distribution.
Senator [Robert] Griffin: Can you tell me what is the significance of General Gordon Baker? Is that really his given name?
Detective Sergeant Paul Chambers: That is his name, sir…It is not a rank.
– U.S. Senate Sub-Committee to Investigate Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws, hearings of August 6, 1970
The publishers of ICV were the core of a group of some 30 black activists who had organized themselves into an informal study/action group. Most of their time was spent exploring how revolutionary ideas might be implemented in their places of work. One of the most respected members of this group was General Gordon Baker, who was then working at Dodge Main, an assembly plant of Chrysler Corporation. Baker’s radical background was extensive. He had been part of RAM, the Capital study group, UHURU, and the group that visited Cuba in 1964. In 1966, along with Glanton Dowdell and Rufus Griffin, he had been charged with carrying concealed weapons to a disturbance on the east side of Detroit. He and Dowdell had been convicted and placed on five years probation.
Baker was a powerfully built and amiable man who had often expressed his revolutionary views at work and in the streets, only to find them rejected as too militant. By the spring of 1968, the mood of workers had shifted. Mike Hamlin, another of the key figures at ICV, recalled the situation in an interview given to the authors on August 24, 1972: “Gradually he [Baker] began to pull together a group of workers who began to meet in the offices of the Inner City Voice. Usually, General and I would meet with them late at night…One of the key persons in the plant was Ron March. It took him a long time to move to understanding that conditions in the plant were related to what was happening in Vietnam. Eventually he came to a sound analysis and with the rest of the group of workers decided to start agitation at Dodge Main.”
Hamlin’s role as an intermediary between those most concerned with the publication of ICV and those who were involved in direct in-plant organizing was one he would repeat many times in the next years. A truck driver and Korean War veteran, Hamlin’s special talent was to act as a mediator when serious disagreements arose. A soft-spoken man of great patience, Hamlin spent hours welding together elements that might otherwise have blown up at each other in fits of anger, frustration, and misunderstanding.
Nine months and five days after the Great Rebellion, the work of Baker, Hamlin, and March bore fruit when on May 2, 1968, 4,000 workers shut down Dodge Main in the first wildcat strike to hit that factory in 14 years. The immediate cause of the strike was speed-up and both black and white workers took part, but the driving force was the ICV group, which now named itself the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement – DRUM. The activities and ideas of DRUM were to inspire black workers in factories throughout the United States. No less an authority than the Wall Street Journal took them very seriously from the day of the first wildcat, for the Wall Street Journal understood something most of the white student radicals did not yet understand: the black revolution of the 1960s had finally arrived at one of the most vulnerable links of the American economic system – the point of mass production, the assembly line. And the DRUM militants were not simply another angry caucus of rank-and-file workers of the type that periodically sprang up in one plant or another. DRUM’s anger was the anger of the Great Rebellion and its vision was that of a new society. In one of his rare public writings, General Baker, the soul of DRUM, spoke of being dismissed from his job for leading the wildcat strike. When Baker raised his voice against Chrysler Corporation, his words represented the feelings of many rank-and-file workers, and they reverberated throughout the plants. His views were a mixture of socialism and revolutionary black nationalism, but he was always consistent and forceful in supporting workers’ grievances and in pushing confrontation forward. Using the device of an open letter to Chrysler Corporation published in the June 1968 issue of ICV, General Baker took the offensive – the DRUM road – against the company and the union:
OPEN LETTER TO CHRYSLER CORPORATION
In response to my discharge on May 5, 1 968 for violation of the 5th section of the agreement between Chrysler Corporation ·and the UAW, dated Nov. 10, 1967, which reads
“No Strike or Lockout”
(1) Strike prohibited (etc.)
In discharging me you have falsely placed the banner of leadership upon my shoulders. And in so doing you have denied two main things. Number one, you have denied me the right to receive any justice from this corporation. And number two, you have nullified the possibility of the real issues which caused the walkout of ever being aired. Even though you have falsely placed the banner of leadership of a wildcat strike upon my shoulders I shall wear it proudly. For what more nobler banner could a black working man bear. In this day and age under the brutal oppression reaped from the backs of black workers, the leadership of a wildcat strike is a badge of honor and courage. In discharging me you have attempted to belittle the racial overtones in this affair which will prove to be an impossible task on your behalf. Any confrontation between black and white men in this racist decadent society is a racial and therefore a political question. Let it be further understood in the wildcat strike that the harshest discipline was issued against black workers attributing further to your blatant racism. Also, Hamtramck Assembly Plant (old Dodge Main) has a long history of trampling upon the rights of black people. It was as late as 1952 while black men were shedding their blood in the dirty unjust war of aggression against the Korean people that black men were allowed to work on the assembly lines, in the trim shop, and final. assembly. And even then, many white workers stormed off of the line refusing to work next to black men. Some of the same outright white racist policy makers of this corporation are still in control of this racist corporation today. Black people are expected by the Chrysler Corporation to purchase Chrysler finished products, but are brutally oppressed and overworked and harassed on the production lines.
Yes, the struggle between black workers and white, racist Corporation owners and operators is the most vicious of all existing struggles in the world today. It is sometimes opened and sometimes closed, it is sometimes hot and sometimes cold. It is, nevertheless, in the final sense a vicious struggle. Let it be further understood that by taking the course of disciplining the strikers you have opened that struggle to a new and higher level and for this I sincerely THANK YOU. You have made the decision to do battle with me and therefore to do battle with the entire black community in this city, this state, this country, and in this world of which I am a part. Black people of the world are united in a common struggle which had its beginning with the exploitation of non-white people on a world wide scale. To quote from W.E.B. Du Bois, “The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown, and black.” You have made the decision to do battle, and that is the only decision that you will make. WE shall decide the arena and the time. You will also be held completely responsible for all of the grave consequences arising from your racist actions.
Thank you again
General G. Baker, Jr.
p.s. You have lit the unquenchable spark.
This excerpt is taken from the chapter “Inner City Voice,” in Dan Georgakas and Martin Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012 ), 13-25.