Still Got the News
— Betsy Esch
Detroit: I Do Mind Dying A Study in Urban Revolution by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin (Boston: South End Press, 1998) $18 paperback.
AS A STUDENT activist at the University of Michigan in the middle and late 1980s, I was part of a coalition of activists who planned and carried out a democratic takeover of our school's newspaper, The Michigan Daily.
With a circulation of about 30,000, the Daily was a perfect vehicle for a group of students intent on widening the impact of our organizing around a range of issues—racism in the university, apartheid in South Africa, reproductive rights, Palestine liberation and U.S. imperialism in Central America.
Though in our planning we focused almost exclusively on the particular conditions we faced on our campus, we also saw ourselves as taking a page from history: In 1968, revolutionary students at Wayne State University had taken over their daily paper, the South End, and it was their struggle that sparked our imaginations and energized our plan.
We were able to study the takeover of the South End because we had a copy of the 1975 classic history of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, A Study in Urban Revolution, by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin.
Though it was out of print by the time we got to it, we read xeroxed copies of pages filled with riveting stories that inspired us to use history as a guide to our own organizing. It was thus with great excitement that I anticipated the 1998 release of an updated version of the book that had literally changed my life.
Published to coincide with the thirty-year anniversary of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), the new edition includes all the original chapters plus a brief foreword by longtime activist and historian Manning Marable.
It also includes a preface to the second edition by the authors and two new concluding chapters, “Thirty Years Later” and “The Legacy of DRUM: Four Histories,” both of which reflect on the meaning, then and now, of this extraordinary moment in American history and some of the people who shaped it.
In the Wake of Rebellion
The authors brilliantly set the stage for their exploration of Black radicalism in Detroit with two separate, but related, beginnings. First they tell the story of Detroit as it looked following the rebellion of 1967, when the New Detroit Committee was formed in response to what had been the most costly and destructive of all the urban uprisings of the period.
The New Detroit Committee, made entirely of forces “that were the social antithesis of the movement led by Black revolutionaries” brought together corporate executives, politicians and union bureaucrats to “rebuild” Detroit from the top down.
The most noted accomplishment of this coalition was the creation of the Renaissance Center, the cold and imposing waterfront conglomeration of shops, office space and luxury housing that loomed over neighborhoods scarred and charred in the rebellion. [A major commercial failure, the RenCen has been sold more than once at a loss, most recently to General Motors for its new corporate headquarters—ed.]
Georgakas and Surkin demonstrate the New Detroit Committee's and liberal establishment's failure to respond to the needs and aspirations of the city's predominately Black working class.
The second narrative that opens the book is the story of James Johnson, a Black auto worker who walked into his workplace, Chrysler's Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle plant in July, 1970 and shot and killed one white foreman, one Black foreman and one white worker.
Though Johnson himself was in no way a union activist or a revolutionary, his case was taken up by Ken Cockrel, a young attorney and a leader of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
With the aid of League activists organized in the Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement (ELRUM), Cockrel put Chrysler on trial as he argued that the working conditions in the plant were so horrific that Johnson, literally driven insane, could not be held responsible for his actions on the day of the murders.
Battling the race and class biases that prevented African Americans from ever getting a jury of their peers, Cockrel ultimately tried the case in front of a jury which included two auto workers and three spouses of auto workers.
To show that the Eldon Avenue plant was one of the most dangerous of all Detroit's auto plants, and literally deadly for those who worked there, Cockrel took the jury inside the factory where they could experience first-hand the intensity, temperature and noise that auto workers lived with day in and day out.
Not only was Johnson acquitted as a result of Cockrel's brilliant defense, three years later Chrysler was made to pay Johnson worker's compensation retroactive to the day of the killing.
The DRUM Story
The formation of the New Detroit Committee in 1967 and the trial of James Johnson in 1970 bracket two years indelibly marked in the history of the Black freedom struggle in Detroit.
In 1968, Black auto workers wildcatted at the Dodge Main plant, catapulting the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement into leadership of the Black movement in the plant. In the wake of the wildcat, DRUM activists, led by General Baker and Chuck Wooten, intensified their organizing.
Using the Inner City Voice (ICV), the paper that had originally brought these activists together, as well as a weekly leaflet series, DRUM addressed all the issues Black workers confronted on the job as they prepared to contest the local's leadership in an election.
Though the UAW leadership joined forces with the Hamtramck police to smash the movement and isolate the activists, they did not succeed and revolutionary union movements continued to take hold in plants all over the city: ELRUM at Eldon Avenue, which became the largest organization, surpassing DRUM in size by late 1968; JARUM at Jefferson Avenue Assembly; CADRUM at Cadillac's Fleetwood plant and nearly a dozen other smaller RUMs in and out of the auto industry.
Building on the success of their organizing in the plants, the handful of cadre who had initiated the ICV and then the revolutionary union movement decided it was necessary to weave their various projects into some kind of organizational unity. Thus the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was born in 1969.
The League lasted only a few years, grappling through its existence with challenging political and organizational questions, many of which, ironically, resulted from its successes in influencing Black workers on the mass level. Despite its short life span, the League's history is filled with stories of creative organizing and prescient politics.
Each chapter in Detroit: I Do Mind Dying tells a story of the theoretical contributions of and central organizing projects undertaken by the League cadre, most of which deserve book-length treatments of their own.
The 1968 takeover of the South End, described in the chapter “We Will Take the Hard Line,” helped build both DRUM and the League. It remains one of the most significant organizing projects of the time for its strategically conceived linking of student organizing to workplace organizing.
There was never after all a sharp divide between students and workers, especially among African Americans, as Wayne State students could frequently be found working on the city's numerous assembly lines. In part because of this, new South End editor John Watson was able to argue successfully that Wayne State's student paper belonged to the community.
Wayne State was a public school, funded by taxpayers, and Black students certainly weren't exempt from the pervasive racism that shaped life chances among the larger Black community. Bearing the provocative new masthead “One class conscious worker is worth 100 students,” the South End became the voice of Black working class power and was distributed at plant gates by the thousands.
In “Niggermation at Eldon” the authors explore one of the League's most scathing contributions. Among the most persistent concerns of League activists were the working conditions of Black workers.
According to Georgakas and Surkin, in 1946 550,000 auto workers produced just over three million vehicles, while by 1970 eight million vehicles were produced by just 750,000 workers. Though the company credited this to increased efficiency and technological innovation, the League knew that it was speedup of the work process, what Black workers called “niggermation,” that made these advances possible.
In the year before James Johnson shot and killed his co-worker and two foremen, three workers had been killed in workplace-related accidents. Not until after the Johnson case did the UAW begin to collect date on workplace health and safety.
In late 1969 and early 1970 League activists made a film documenting the Black labor struggle in Detroit. “Finally Got the News” takes its title from a phrase coined by General Baker at a demonstration in front of Solidarity House, the UAW's headquarters. “Finally Got the News, `Bout How Your Dues Are Being Used” chanted Black workers as they marched in front of the UAW carrying signs that read “UAW means U Ain't White.”
Numerous League leaders took turns narrating the film, which opens with an extraordinary montage of Black and white laborers, men and women, throughout U.S. history.
Other chapters in the book introduce us to much less sizable but nonetheless fascinating aspects of the League's creative legacy. The history of Arab- American workers who fought the UAW in the early 1970s over its investment in Israel bonds is documented, as is the personal transformation of one white worker as a result of the work of ELRUM.
The Black Student United Front, a high school based organization, developed in collaboration with League leader Mike Hamlin and numerous multiracial organizations fighting discrimination in housing and education, and police brutality, worked in alliance with the League and its various members.
One of the greatest victories of the League and the milieu it helped inspire was the campaign against STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets), the reactionary and undercover organization of “elite” assault cops which emerged in 1971.
Though previous years had seen much community unrest against police abuse and the organized presence of white supremacists in the city, the city's administration still resisted pressure to respond to Black demands for community control of the police.
During the first year of the STRESS operation, Detroit police killed more civilians per capita than any police force in the country. Claiming that they themselves were under siege, STRESS units were given free reign to terrorize the Black population, including launching “decoy” operations designed to lure people into committing crimes for which they would then be arrested.
One cop, Raymond Peterson, had twenty-one civilian complaints against him when he became a STRESS unit member, where he was involved in nine killings and three non-fatal shootings in two years.
A Profound Legacy
While all the community-based work that League members led and participated in testifies to their politics, which understood that racism permeated all of the institutions which African Americans had to negotiate, it is undeniable that the work that most distinguished the League was its workplace organizing. Their assessment of the trade union bureaucracy and its relationship to structural racism represented an important step in both the Black Power and the rank-and-file movements.
As much as it narrates the history of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying also tells the story of a time and place in U.S. history whose meaning reaches well beyond the specific terrain of auto work, Black radicalism and even Detroit.
We can't fully understand the past thirty-five years of downsizing, speedup and plant closings, the growth of labor-management cooperation without considering the role of race and racism. The League made it possible to theorize the possibilities for anti-racist resistance on the shop floor.
Today nearly every factory where the League organized has closed, a fact about Detroit, deindustrialization and U.S. capitalism which not only bears out much of their analysis but also reminds us that the struggle continues.
ATC 84, January-February 2000