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The Ford Massacre: Detroit's darkest day.

Introduction

A newspaper article mentioning the Ford massacre.
A newspaper article mentioning the Ford massacre.

Imagine yourself in Detroit in the 1920s. The auto industry was booming with giants like Ford, GM and Chrysler rising as the top three automotive giants on Earth. The American automotive market was a monopoly, as the top three own all of the market share in the American automotive industry. Those were times of glory for everyone in America and Detroit was the center of it all. Businesses were booming, everyone lived a happy life, the automobile was accessible to everyone, and no one was unemployed.

The big three were making lots of profit, especially Ford who took top spot as the biggest automotive company in North America, after the massive success that came from the Model T. The US was producing 50% more cars every year since 1929. But Ford was struggling with sales of the Model T slowing down time by time, as it was getting old and out of date. Henry Ford’s son, Edsel Ford tried to make a new model to replace the Model T called the Model A, but failed, and the company encountered losses.

But those were the least of Ford’s problems. In the year 1929, the stock market began to fall and would eventually crash. The great depression had begun. Because prices of petrol skyrocketed, no one wanted to buy a car, which lead to high unemployment, as usual during an economic recession as there was a lack of demand. The big three were forced to lay lots of people off, as costs of production were rising.

The Great Depression

Unemployed workers lining up for free food
Unemployed workers lining up for free food

Unemployment was rising, and costs of living are at an all time high. Not a lot of people were earning money, and even the big three were beginning to fail as a result. People were on the road giving out free soup and canned beans, because everybody was starving on the streets. Detroit’s promise of prosperity blew right in front of their faces. Everybody was losing jobs, no one was buying cars due to fuel and production costs skyrocketing, and it was an absolute recession in the US.

Two years later the crisis had deepened; one statistic showed four Detroiters dying of hunger every day. Unemployment compensation did not exist. With two-thirds of his employees laid off, Henry Ford, then the richest man in the world, said the unemployed created their own misery by not working hard enough. Back then, unemployment compensation didn’t exist, and Ford laid most of their workers for “not working hard enough”, when they were in fact working as hard as they can to support each of their families, and laying them off is the worst thing that Ford could do to them.

The network of unemployed in Detroit became one of the strongest in the world, which would save many families from sleeping on the streets. A citywide meeting was held, and it was decided that all of those who were unemployed would march on the streets of Detroit in front of Ford’s manufacturing complex for unemployment compensation and worker’s rights. It was the birth of the trade union, along with industrial action.

The Hunger March

Workers marching on the streets of Detroit
Workers marching on the streets of Detroit

The march, called by the Unemployed Councils and the United Auto Workers, had 14 demands: “Jobs for all laid off Ford workers; immediate payment of 50 per cent of full wages; seven-hour day without reduction in pay; slowing down of deadly speedup; two fifteen-minute rest periods; No discrimination against African-Americans in jobs, welfare, medical service; free medical aid in Ford hospital for employed and unemployed Ford workers and families; five tons of coal and coke for the winter; abolition of Service Men, Ford’s hated private army of spies and thugs, led by the notorious Harry Bennett, no foreclosures on homes of Ford workers; immediate payment of lump sum of fifty dollars for winter relief; full wages for part time workers; abolition of the graft system of hiring; and the right to organize.”

Some other demands made by the Council of the Unemployed were related to other worldwide issues which affected workers around the world. They called for freedom for the Scottsboro Nine, a group of African-American youths falsely accused of raping two white women. And when that time Japan was conquering Asia, workers all protested for the big three to “keep their hands off China,” a reference to the sale of scrap iron to Japan, which used it in attacking the Chinese people in events such as the Nanjing massacre.

The march started without incident in Dearborn, Michigan. It was all going well until the Major of Detroit at that time, Clyde Ford, who was cousins with Henry Ford, dispatched riot and military police. The marchers were attacked with tear gas at the city’s border, but the marchers managed to overthrow the police’s resistance by throwing sticks and stones at them. One police officer shot a protester. All the protesters dispersed, but then regrouped in front of Ford’s manufacturing complex. Firefighters also sprayed freezing cold water at the protesters to try to stop them in the middle of Winter.

The Massacre

Protesters running away after the first shots were fired.
Protesters running away after the first shots were fired.

All looked well until they reached the Fort Street bascule Bridge, the entrance to Ford’s manufacturing complex. While Henry Ford was inside the manufacturing complex, he ordered his “Service Men”, who were Ford’s mafia, or hated spies and thugs who Ford hired in order to make his company unstoppable, to open fire at the approximately 5,000 protesters outside the manufacturing complex. They were also backed by the Detroit police an fire department, which were dispatched by Clyde Ford, Henry Ford’s cousin. The police were joined by Ford security guards, and began shooting into the crowd. Joe York, Coleman Leny and Joe DeBlasio were killed, and at least 22 others were wounded by gunfire.

The protesters were about to call the march off and walk back home peacefully when suddenly the notorious Harry Bennett, head of Ford Security and the infamous Service Men, went out of a car with two other accomplices and started to open fire on the protesters with machine guns. The auto magnate’s right-hand man, Harry Bennett, was immediately recognized and injured by stone-throwing workers. Bennett emptied his own gun and then a police officer’s revolver into the workers. He and his goons killed 16-year-old Joe Bussell and left many more injured. Forty-eight workers were arrested, some chained to their hospital beds.

Aftermath

The Fort Street bascule bridge, the site of the Ford Massacre.
The Fort Street bascule bridge, the site of the Ford Massacre.

At the funeral, Ben Bussell, Joe Bussell’s brother spoke loudly: “In the name of my murdered brother, I call upon you to organize and fight. Long live the workers of the world.” As a band played the International—the lyrics “Arise, ye prisoners of starvation” particularly fitting—some 80,000 joined the march to the cemetery. In June a African-American worker, Curtis Williams, died of wounds suffered during the march. Segregation policies kept him from being buried with his comrades; the funeral committee hired a plane and scattered his ashes over the cemetery, or by some accounts over the Rouge.

Detroit Mayor Frank Murphy said that “the chaining of patient prisoners to beds is a brutal practice that should find no encouragement in an enlightened hospital”. Murphy came under criticism because of the possible involvement of Detroit police in the violence, although a later historian described their role as “peripheral”. Murphy denounced Harry Bennett as an “inhuman brute” and called Henry Ford a “terrible man”. He asked, “What is the difference between the official Dearborn police and Ford’s guards?” His answer was, “A legalistic one.” Despite Murphy’s criticisms of what happened on March 7, the hard left Third Period policy required that the Communists denounce him as well as Ford and Bennett.

Nine years later, on April 11, 1941, after a ten-day sit down strike by 40,000 Ford workers, Henry Ford signed a collective bargaining agreement with the United Auto Workers union. And decades later, in 1992, The Auto Workers Union retirees bought five headstones—including one for Williams—and placed them by the four graves. On each is carved the words, “He gave his life for the union.”

Investigation and Court Report

An announcement of the public investigation.
An announcement of the public investigation.

Prosecutor Harry S. Toy convened a grand jury to investigate the violence. At the end of June, they completed their investigation and issued their report. They said “After hearing many witnesses on both sides of the matter, this grand jury finds no legal grounds for indictments. However, we find that the conduct of the demonstrators was ill-considered and unlawful in their utter disregard for constituted authority. We find, further, that the conduct of the Dearborn City Police when they first met the demonstrators, though well intended, might have been more discreet, and better considered before they applied force in the form of tear gas. However, we believe that the said police discharged what they conscientiously considered to be their sworn duty as law enforcing officials, alike when they intercepted the rioters at the city’s limit, using tear gas and in the critical and violent situation which ensued employing gunfire to protect life and property, which were then manifestly in danger.”

One grand juror, a political ally of Frank Murphy, dissented, calling the administration of the grand jury “the most biased, prejudiced and ignorant proceeding imaginable”.

Ford Today

The Ford Factory today
The Ford Factory today

Today, Ford employees are treated fairly and equally without any form of discrimination or abuse of workers. Ford provides free health insurance for all employees, free healthcare and employee discounts when buying Ford products. They also receive many perks such as paid leave, free vacations, etc. The Union of Auto Workers now backs up all people working in the automotive industry in the United States, and constantly fights for work conditions, higher wages, and so on which will benefit the employees.

All this would not happen today if it was not for the hundreds of people who fought for worker’s rights back then in 1932…

Source: Workers.org