A Revolutionary Detroit Memoir

Dan Georgakas

What My Left Hand Was Doing
By Joann Castle
Against the Tide Books, 2018, 334 pages, paper $22

JOANN CASTLE’S MEMOIR chronicles how a white, working-class mother of six children evolved into a revolutionary socialist involved with the Black Liberation movement. Her title comes from Walter Benjamin writing about the inadequacy of “competence” versus the strengths of improvisations. Benjamin concluded, “All decisive blows are stuck left-handed.”

Castle was brought up as a Catholic by conservative Irish-German parents. Three days after her high school graduation, she got a job in the personnel department of Ford Motor where she met Don Castle, her future husband. They lived in Taylor Township, which she describes as a predominately “redneck” community with little sympathy for nearby Detroit.

Although her parents were hostile to Blacks, the teenaged Castle had been inspired by the militancy of Rosa Parks and horrified by the murder of Emmet Till. These feelings inspired activism when the impact of Vatican II was brought to Detroit by 35-year-old Father William Cunningham, a powerful speaker with a commanding presence.

Castle writes she was “transfixed” by Cunningham’s vision of a society with equal rights for all and greatly affected by the murder in Alabama of civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo, a fellow Detroiter. Don Castle also responded positively to Cunningham’s activism.

Through church retreats and related community activism, she came to know Blacks living in Detroit. During her sixth pregnancy, the opportunity arose to buy a large house in a majority-Black area of Detroit.

The Castles had been in their new home for only a few months when the Great Rebellion of 1967 erupted. Castle captures the bewilderment of those days and the fears she felt. Rather than considering white flight when the Great Rebellion subsided, the Castles focused on how to heal their wounded city.

Castle soon found the Church hierarchy good on promises of aid but poor on delivering it, sometimes even mismanaging poverty funds. She became resentful when told what people and groups she must avoid and what positions she must advocate. She increasingly resented the paternalism and authoritarianism of the Church and ultimately found it was unbearable.

The Church’s birth control restrictions were especially troubling. She concluded, “My church has misused me as a human being.” Her husband, however, remained comfortable with patriarchal Church practices.  She writes with sadness, “I gave up my religion and unconsciously I began to tear at the remaining ties that bound me to the last part of my old self: marriage.” This led to a divorce.

Activist Organizer

These opening chapters of Castle’s memoir are invaluable to anyone wishing to organize urban whites raised in a conservative tradition. There is no hallelujah moment, decisive incident, or physical violence at play, only humanistic reactions to actual events in the city and nation.

In Part 5 of her memoir, Castle encapsulates for would-be organizers what she has learned about organizing, but the meat of the book is her account of her own emotional and intellectual responses to events as they unfolded.

While working in the Catholic milieu, Castle met Sheila Murphy, whose parents were leaders of the local branch of the Catholic Worker movement. Murphy was a pivotal figure in the West Central Organization that was dealing with a myriad of social issues. Although Murphy was ten years her junior, Castle identified with her political activism and states that Murphy was “a major transformative force in my life.”

Two years after the Detroit Rebellion, James Forman, working with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and other groups, issued a Black Manifesto asking religious institutions to atone for their past racism by paying reparations to militant Black organizations.

Half a million dollars was eventually raised. A portion of those funds went to Black Star, the publishing unit of the League headed by Mike Hamlin, one of the League’s founders. During meetings regarding the Black Manifesto, Castle met Hamlin, whom she would later marry.

Another major organizing initiative project in 1970 was the founding of the Control, Conflict, & Change Book Club (CCC) under the leadership of Castle and Murphy. The CCC was launched as a joint project by the League and the Motor City Labor League, an allied organization of white radicals, as an educational forum primarily for whites who wanted to know more about the League and the Black liberation movement. No one anticipated that 350 people would show up for the first meeting.

Each CCC session featured a lecture on a book (sometimes the speaker was the author) followed by small discussion groups, usually led by a member of the League. Local radical writers such as George Rawick were presenters, as were national personalities such as David Dellinger and Jane Fonda. The first book chosen, at the suggestion of Mike Hamlin, was The Man Who Cried I Am by John Williams.

Castle excels at capturing the nuts and bolts of organizing. She is candid about the problems as well as the successes of an amazingly successful project. A major crisis developed in 1972 when Castle came into conflict with Murphy, who was in a relationship with attorney Ken Cockrel, another League founder.

With the League beginning to crumble, Murphy wanted CCC and the Motor City Labor League to support Cockrel’s plan to engage in local electoral politics. Castle opposed the change in strategy. The end result was the dissolution of the CCC.

Castle was not directly involved in Black Manifesto activism, but due to Forman’s association with Hamlin, he and his family moved into her home. She writes appreciatively of Forman’s historic contributions to the movement. Forman was an intellectual and a visionary. But in Detroit he did not do well with the rank and file. This led him to become divisive and erratic, and sloppy about security in her home. She found it necessary to ask him to leave.

Partnership and Tensions

Mike Hamlin be­came chairman of the Black Workers Congress (1971-1973), a national effort to mobilize Black workers originally conceived by the League. During this period, Castle believes the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, aimed at infiltrating and wrecking radical movements influenced the decline of the BWC, which became very sectarian and destructed through a series of political purges and splits.

Castle does not dwell at length on the “white wife” controversies of the period, but just telling her own story reveals the tensions of the times. Although she was disowned by her parents who would not accept her marriage to a Black man, Hamlin’s family was welcoming.

Some male and female Black radicals were unhappy with leaders pairing with white women. Far more serious was the social segregation in most of the city. Her children, however, would become close with their Hamlin-Castle siblings. One reason the children were so accommodating was that although Castle was always frank with them about her political positions, she accepted but never demanded their participation.

In the early 1970s, Castle was hired by Metropolitan Hospital, where she would remain for 23 years. She began her community health experience in the emergency room. She writes of her efforts to improve patient care and to upgrade working conditions of health workers, an example of a revolutionary socialist still making an impact after the peak of the movement had passed.

More about Hamlin’s continued radical activism in Detroit would have been welcome, but Castle keeps the focus on her activities, satisfied that before his death in 2016, Hamlin published his own memoir: A Black Revolutionary’s Life in Labor: Black Workers Power in Detroit (Against the Tide Books. 2013).

The longterm perspectives of Hamlin and Castle are summed up in Castle’s account of a dinner with a former deeply committed activist who felt the movement had lost on every front. He believed nothing had changed and lamented giving his best years to hopeless causes.

Hamlin responded by speaking of being raised in a sharecropper’s shack in a very segregated Mississippi and how Black consciousness had been profoundly altered since those times. Social changes had not been sufficient, but he thought enormous change had occurred in the every day life of America. Hamlin’s final judgment was, “Everything we did mattered.” Castle offers an often poignant account of what some of those actions entailed.

January-February 2019, ATC 198