From the Archive | The Detroit workers’ rebellion

In the late 1960s, US automotive workers held massive protests for better conditions. Out of this, the radical newspaper Inner City Voice emerged, channelling the insurgent view.

This is a lightly edited excerpt of an article first published by Viewpoint Magazine in 2017. It is taken from the chapter “Inner City Voice”, in Dan Georgakas and Martin Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying (Haymarket, 2012 [1975]).

Editor’s introduction

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 (LRBW). We thank Haymarket Books for allowing us to reproduce this chapter here.

Two years after the riots in Watts had catalysed 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 1968. 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 energised pre-existing radical networks in the city. General Gordon Baker Jr, a central figure in the LRBW and in 1967 a prominent labour 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 organisation” 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 channelled 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

“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 US 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, 4 August 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 theatre on Dexter Avenue just a mile or so from what had been the centre 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.

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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, living 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 organisation, 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.

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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 21 October 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:

MICHIGAN SLAVERY

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

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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 (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) 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 CLR James, best known for his book Black Jacobins, a study of the Haitian revolt led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. James had organised 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 20s. 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 mobilisation 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 organise 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 ideas 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 29 February 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 US, 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.”

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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 emphasising 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 1967”. 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 realise that their only method of pressing for their demands is to strike and to negotiate at the gates of industry.”

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The first steps to stop such messages from reaching the streets of Detroit were taken by the American Legion and other well-organised 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 terrorised 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 Federal Bureau of Investigation (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.

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