Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution
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Palestine solidarity activists face intimidation. If we are talented at what we do, organizing and educating about the nature of Israel’s white supremacy and colonialism, it is a real risk that we may lose our jobs or get thrown out of school. That the media, the twin managers of corporate capital and trade union bureaucracy, and even so-called defenders of intellectual freedom are liable to turn against us is an occupational hazard. John Watson, member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and student editor of the South End, the campus newspaper of Wayne State University in Detroit, confronted these obstacles in 1968.The paper published an article/editorial favorable toward Palestinian guerrilla operations against Israel. The reaction far outstripped anything before thrown at the South End and set off a series of events that would lead to Watson being pushed out as editor.
Meanwhile in the auto plants of Detroit, thousands of Arab immigrants were laboring, like their African American co-workers, under difficult conditions and represented by a United Auto Workers (UAW) union that was, when not openly hostile, showed willful neglect. By 1973 the number of Arab auto workers had grown significantly. As a sign of increasing militancy, they organized against Leonard Woodcock, then president of the UAW, for accepting an award from B’nai B’rith and against Local 600 for buying Israeli bonds. As well, whereas in the past they had often crossed the picket lines, these Arab auto workers participated in the wildcat strikes called by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
Racial and class subordination at home, along with imperialism abroad, produced important and significant activity among Black and Arab workers in the Detroit area. Looking at such a confluence can bring historical weight to the vital strategic importance of a principled and consistent anti-racist democratic perspective which is independent and antagonistic to the permanent hypocrisy of the politicians, local officials, administrators and the union bosses.
The League of Revolutionary Black Workers
The League of Revolutionary Black Workers arose out of the growing militancy of the Black Freedom Movement during the 1960s. The struggle for black autonomy, that found its form in both non-violent direct action and armed uprisings across the U.S., was being unrelentingly repressed by the forces of coercion protecting white supremacy. The so-called progressive moves by the state to expand public welfare and civil rights legislation were finally implemented to subdue rebellious masses (not forge a “Great Society” as the state pretended). Out of continued frustration, anger, and the hopeless limitations of these progressive moves, Black communities exploded from Watts to Newark to Detroit.
The Detroit rebellion of July 1967 was one of the largest Black insurrections this country has seen. It lasted about five days, and during that time African Americans responded to years of police brutality and oppression in the workplace by taking to the streets and battling all the forces of coercion that the U.S. state had to offer—the Detroit police, the National Guard and the U.S. army were called out to suppress the uprising.
Out of the ashes of the city wide rebellion, Black workers brought militant rebellion directly to their capitalist managers. In May of 1968, while the world was watching an epic uprising in France of workers and students which nearly toppled the French rulers, between three and four thousand workers participated in a wildcat strike at the Dodge Main auto plant. This strike was a protest against two main factors. First, black workers were being stifled in the factory by racist policies that kept them in the most back-breaking jobs with no chance of promotion or pay increase. At a time when intellectuals were theorizing about automation making workers obsolete, black workers at another plant were beginning to refer with ironic humor to the conditions of labor they faced as “niggermation.”
Second, Black workers faced racism in the unions, particularly the United Auto Workers (UAW), which the League renamed “U Ain’t White” for its policies of discrimination and exclusion towards black folks. This fact has not always been clear in the historical record because the major leader of the UAW, Walter Reuther, while doing nothing to fight racism where he had the power to do so inside his own union, has been written up more as a symbol of unity between civil rights and organized labor than for his actual substance.
Several of the Black workers decided to organize the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM). A number of other RUMs were soon established at other factories in Detroit including the famous and huge Ford River Rouge Plant, and Chrysler’s Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle plant, but also with spinoffs nationally. With increasing success and popularity of RUM wildcat strikes and popular associations among black workers, an umbrella organization, named the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW), was created in 1969 to centralize the organizing efforts.
During its short lifetime, the LRBW was to become a radical beacon of light in the struggle for Black autonomy in a turbulent time of political assassinations, state repression, and growing imperialist aggression at the hands of the U.S. state. The founding leaders of the LRBW along with John Watson were Ken Cockrel, Luke Tripp, Mike Hamlin, General Baker, and Chuck Wooten. Ernest Allen and James Forman would play prominent roles subsequently. They would be inspired by such precursors as the Afro-American Student Movement, the ideas of CLR James and James and Grace Lee Boggs, Pan-Africanism, and Third World Marxist ideas associated with China and Cuba. There would be a permanent tension between race and class as a prism for maintaining the direction of the LRBW’s political philosophy which would lead ultimately to its collapse.
On one hand the LRBW with its initial dual unionism approach was not advocating for a progressive ruling class, where folks of color would replace the colonial or white rulers to whom they were currently enslaved. On the other, their dual unionism did not maintain ideals of working class self-management but contributed to the compromise of affirmative action in both union and managerial leadership. However, in keeping focus on their international outlook, they did maintain that the key to worldwide liberation lie in the dismantling of white supremacy and empire, and the creation of societies based on the self-determination of all people. Elements from the DRUM constitution demonstrate this aspect of internationalism within the LRBW. The organizers wrote:
We recognize our struggle is not an isolated one and that we have common cause with the black workers in this racist nation and throughout the world…By being in the forefront of this revolutionary struggle we must act swiftly to help organize DRUM-type organizations…be it in Lynn Townsend’s kitchen, the White House, White Castle, Ford Rouge, the Mississippi Delta, the plains of Wyoming, the tin mines of Bolivia, the rubber plantation of Indonesia, the oil fields of Biafra, or the Chrysler plants in South Africa.
The LRBW’s solidarity with international struggles found its way into many of the organization’s writings. Every organization needs its mouthpiece, and for some time the messenger for DRUM, and later the League, was the Inner City Voice (ICV). A publication distributed mostly among Black workers in the various Detroit auto factories, it was originally published in 1967. When funding began to run out for the ICV a year later, the DRUM organizers sought another outlet through which they could continue to advocate autonomous organization of the Black workers and denounce institutionalized oppressions.
John Watson soon found that opportunity when, as a student at Wayne State University, he ran for editor of the student newspaper and won. The South End was turned into an important outlet for LRBW perspectives and a mass circulation paper. Watson sought to distribute the paper off-campus as well. It would become a platform for which it advocated support for a number of national liberation and guerilla warfare struggles in Mexico, Guatemala, Vietnam, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa as well as Palestine, making systematic connections between conditions at home and struggles abroad. Making these connections was to lead the League of Revolutionary Black Workers to cultivate links with Arab groups and showing films on the Palestinian struggle. Finally, in 1973, Watson went to the Middle East and met with Palestinian guerrilla organizations.
After Watson published the editorial statement on Palestinian resistance to Israel in Wayne State’s student paper, President Keast of the university—already eager to remove Watson because of the publishing of articles on Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Marxism and the struggle in Greece, as well as local controversies such as attacking the United Auto Workers leadership—attacked the paper saying it was “reminiscent of Hitler’s Germany.” City, state, union officials, local papers and television shortly followed suit, culminating in an arson attack on South End offices. The alumni group and state legislature threatened to cut off funding and even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) made a censuring statement. A Pandora’s Box was opened.
Watson’s response cut to the heart of the matter. If all of these people were so horrified by racism then why did all of the critics of the editorial say nothing about the institutional racism against Black and Arab workers in the auto plants or in the city. Official society protested criticism of the abuses committed by the Zionist state, and yet remained silent about the abuses being suffered by Black and Arab workers in Detroit, even though the facts and figures displayed these abuses for all to see. Watson also asked why some critics of the editorial belonged to the exclusive Detroit Athletic Club, which discriminated against Jews, or lived in the exclusive suburb Gross Pointe, known to discriminate against Blacks. For Watson the South End, like the League, took a stand against all forms of racism but the critics only selectively and disingenuously responded to racism when it benefited them. Further, Detroit had the largest Arab population in the United States and he wondered why they were so dangerous that their points of view had to be kept in the closet at all costs.
Considering Watson’s response from a contemporary point of view is rewarding. While today’s politicians, union officials, alumni groups and newspapers piously celebrate jumbled and falsified versions of the African and African American freedom struggles, the Arab struggle is designated still as a major enemy. The discontents and battles fought by Arab Americans are silenced as the state attempts to mold them into another “model minority,” when convenient, leaving suppressed a rich history of resistance, especially surrounding Palestine solidarity. On the other hand, when Palestinians and Arabs do not comply, the state, politicians, experts and “responsible” leaders mobilize the rainbow-colored coalition against the “bad races.” This reflects the structural relations in the Middle East where the Palestinian struggle is in the forefront of fighting imperialism and colonialism. The “Pandora’s Box” is indicative of this important point. The greater the oppression the greater the hysteria over the racial threat found in the Arab peoples and, in particular Palestinians.
We are told that Palestine solidarity arose in the states during the 1980s by white college kids. This historical account offered to us, like most accounts of U.S. history we receive in school and elsewhere, ignores not only the more radical grassroots elements of Palestine solidarity among Arab Americans, but likewise the essential multi-racial alliances forged by Arab Americans with African Americans, among other groups. White supremacy and imperialism cross all racial, ethnic, and geographic boundaries and have been the tools facilitating the oppression of peoples in Detroit and around the globe. As one radical group operating out of the Dodge Main plant put it, “Chrysler figures that no one will try to help an Arab worker when Chrysler attacks him. So now Chrysler is attacking…It’s the same kind of shit they have pulled with black people.”
Many Arab workers in turn honored wildcat strikes called by the League and when their numbers increased they became more organized, like Black workers, independently within the union. The confluence of fighting white supremacy in the union and the auto plant and in Israel/Palestine took shape in organizational form during this period in Detroit. Arab workers like African American workers got the worst jobs and the least pay – something the union facilitated for the management. Union leadership, had since just after the Second World War, worked with capitalist management to discipline workers from any further advance toward control of the union and ultimately production. Further, union bureaucracy worked with management to use people of color workers as strike breaking leverage, while at the same time tried to keep them out of the union or from forming their own organizations.
By the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Arab workers were experiencing this same dynamic. Not only did they get low pay, the worst jobs, and were the first to be fired. But when the local union boss, Leonard Woodcock accepted a Humanitarian Award from B’nai B’rith, Arab and other workers walked off the job as two afternoon shifts were shut down to protest the UAW purchase of Israeli bonds. When Ford local 600 union bought Israeli bonds, only adding to its three-quarters of a million in bonds it already held, Arab workers decided to organize against union leadership. Arab workers made the argument that the Union should not be invested in the Zionist state just like it should not be invested in the Afrikaaner or Rhodesian regime. 3,000 marched to the union’s offices. The ignoring and coercion of Arab workers by the union bureaucrats and the management was part of a long history of racism and class warfare against the rank and file that is still with us today.
This Pandora’s Box in America, its explosive potential for fundamental change, suggests two lessons on some of the key struggles of this period for our own time. The first was in the contradictions within the union between discipline from above and rank-and-file control of the union and, ultimately, moving out into control of production in the plant. The second was the contradictions between two forces. While all along the state and official society talked about democracy and freedom, there was racism directed against Black and Arab workers and students at home along with U.S. support abroad for the racist war in Zimbabwe, Vietnam and the Portuguese colonies, and Apartheid under the Afrikaaner and Zionist regimes. On the other was the struggle by ordinary people against this systematic racial oppression. These two diametrically opposed traditions of democracy still hold their explosive force today – one seeking to enforce racial and class discipline from above in the name of democracy and freedom, and the other the struggle and implementation of self-government towards the abolishment of class and white supremacy from below.
Arab and African American workers never formed an organization coming out of this period of ferment in early 1970’s Detroit. However, what is important is that Black and Arab workers, while coming from different cultural histories, found themselves together under white supremacy and capitalism in the U.S., and African and Arab nations attacked and subordinated by imperialism and settler colonialism abroad. Facing this they began to move in the same direction. The explosiveness of the Palestine/Israel situation was indicative of this. Nowhere in the world are the contradictions of imperialism and liberal and social democracy so sharp and clear than in the oppression of the Palestinians. Watson and the LRBW’s experience shows how the officials who said they support civil rights could say so little about the exploitation of Black people and workers in Detroit and elsewhere, or about the oppression of the Palestinian people. At this point the state had assimilated the civil rights agenda and used it as a way to beat back more fundamental change suggested by aspects of the Black Power movement, including efforts towards an end to imperialism and colonialism abroad, such as that which the Palestinians live under in the Jewish state. We are witnessing a similar trend today, as rulers, politicians and bureaucrats in the U.S. and Palestine/Israel pay lip service to the desire for peace and justice, while blatantly working to destroy any such hopes by denying return of refugees, equal access for Palestinians to land and water resources, open travel, and the support of Arab-only zones, both financially and militarily.
The League of Revolutionary Black Workers was not the only Black radical organization of its era to express support for Palestine’s freedom; numerous groups, from SNCC to the Black Panther Party, likewise expressed solidarity with Palestinians. At the same time the League’s solidarity was unique in several ways that we can draw lessons from today. The organization of workers, both in Palestine/Israel and here in the U.S., will be essential to a successful fight against the institutions, such as white supremacy, which oppress us. This is especially instrumental for divestment campaigns; we cannot organize, isolated on our campuses from the outside world, but must actively incorporate the local communities and the thousands of workers who are involved with and give support to our universities. Likewise, the struggle for a free Palestine is not an Arab or Arab American battle, but must be a multi-racial, multi-ethnic struggle of all justice seeking peoples who are opposed to imperialist and racist agendas. And finally, our struggle must be against all forces which desire to block the self-activity of the Palestinians to liberate themselves—from Arafat and his lackeys, to Western imperialists, to Zionists (leftist, liberal or right-wing). As the League wrote so many years ago, we must continue to battle those enemies “who would further impoverish the poor, exploit the exploited, and take advantage of the powerless.”
Thanks to Aaron Michael Love and Matthew Quest for their assistance with this article.
The definitive study of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers is Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin’s Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. 2nd ed. Boston: South End Press, 1998. The other major full length account is James Geschwender’s Class, Race and Worker’s Insurgency: The League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Cambridge University Press, 1977. The following are two other important accounts. Ernest Allen. “Dying for the Inside: the Decline of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.” In They Should Have Served that Cup of Coffee. Dick Cluster ed. Boston: South End Press, 1979.; Akbar Muhammad Ahmad. “The League of Revolutionary Black Workers: A Historical Study.” Circa 1979. Collective Action Notes. 13 October, 2003
Walter Reuther was the major representative speaker for organized labor at the Dr. Martin Luther King led March on Washington of 1963 – one of the many reasons Malcolm X’s assessment of it as “The Farce on Washington” needs to be remembered. For a vision of Walter Reuther seen at his most progressive see Nelson Lictensstein’s The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor. New York: Basic Books, 1995. For a critique of this study see “Walter Reuther and the Decline of the American Labor Movement.” In Martin Glaberman’s Punching Out and Other Writings. Staughton Lynd, ed. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2002. 64-92.
These national spin off included RUMS in the steel mills of Birmingham, Alabama, and auto plants in Fremont, California, Baltimore, Maryland, and Mahwah, New Jersey. For insight on the latter see “Wilbur Haddock on the United Black Brothers.” Souls. 2.2 (Spring 2000): 27-33.
DRUM Constitution (1968) quoted in “Black revolutionary union Movement: Drum, The League, BWC.” EBlack Studies. 1 September, 2003
John Watson (Sept. 26, 1968) quoted by Nicole Lanctot in “Revolution at Wayne State’s Student Newspaper from 1968-1969.” In South End. 13, November, 2002. 1 September
Quoted in Georgakas and Surkin, p. 51. The phrase was used by a comrade of Watson’s, Nick Medvecky, at the South End: “When John Watson and myself, as the Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor of last year’s South End, came out with a front page news/editorial statement on Al Fatah, little did we realize at the time what a Pandora’s Box had been opened.” Inner City Voice, November 1969.
Ibid.; pg. 51-52.
Ibid.; pg. 30.
Ibid.; pg. 65