You might ask why this historical marker is included with the listing of Associations and Clubs. I wondered where to place it myself. It is here because the violent labor-management conflict it commemorates played a role in the development of industrial unions in Detroit and throughout the United States.
Automobile employment grew very rapidly in Detroit in the 1920s. Many of the nation’s most rewarding blue-collar jobs were in Detroit and the future of the area seemed very bright. Then came October 29, 1929 and the greatest Depression in the nation’s history. Automobile firms found their sales plummeting and promptly laid off workers. Into 1930, many assumed that the economic crisis would be a short one and the growth of the 1920s would soon resume. By 1931, it became apparently to most that the Depression was much more severe than the previous economic recessions of the post-Civil War era. In Detroit, automobile production in 1931 was only one-quarter of what it was in 1929. Many banks closed in Detroit that year wiping out the savings of their depositors.
By 1932, a variety of individuals were arguing that the capitalist system was fatally flawed and should be replaced by a different economic structure. Many Detroit plants were closed or were open sporadically. Unemployed Detroit workers often met in Grand Circus Park and demanded changes. At that time there was no unemployment insurance and the modern welfare system had not emerged. The city of Detroit was one source of welfare but it was able to provide only 15 cents per day for some people. The unemployed were pretty much on their own when it came to supporting themselves as their families.
Various organizations advocated change and attempted to rally the unemployed. There was an inert Auto, Aircraft and Vehicle Workers of America Union that played a role in this. There was also an organization called the Detroit Unemployed Council, a group many believed supported Communism as a replacement for failed capitalism. Henry Ford was frequently criticized in Detroit since many thought of him as one of the richest men in America who was doing nothing to assist the men whose labor created his fortune. They contended he used their labor to get rich in the 1920s, then laid them off and refused to provide them with assistance. He was attributed as saying that those unemployed during the Depression had themselves to blame for their economic woes since they were not frugal and lacked the work ethic.
Labor organizations in Detroit called for a march on the Ford River Rouge plant for Monday March 7, 1932. They circulated a list of 14 demands they were making of Henry Ford. These included the rehiring of all laid off workers, a seven-hour work day with pay for eight hours, medical care for Ford workers and their families to be paid by Ford, no discrimination by Ford against Negroes, the immediate payment of $50 to all laid-off workers and that Ford pay the mortgages of his unemployed workers for six month. Henry Ford, not surprisingly, did not respond to their demands.
The march was to begin in the city of Detroit along Fort Street north of the intersection with Miller Road. A surprisingly large number of men showed up on a bitterly cold day. That day, Ford announced major layoffs and, apparently, many of those men who just lost their jobs immediately joined the marchers. Mayor Frank Murphy of Detroit did not grant the marchers a permit but did nothing to impede their march which was peaceful within the city of Detroit.
The crowd of marchers got to the corner of Fort and Miller and turned to walk northwest on Miller toward the River Rogue complex. When the marchers got to the Dearborn city limit, they faced about 50 Dearborn city and Ford police officers who threatened to shoot them if they marched into Dearborn. Apparently, the marchers paused, then decided to march to Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn. The police used extensive amounts of tear gas. However, the marchers picked up stones from a nearby field and began pelting the Dearborn and Ford police. Some shots may have been fired at this point but the marchers were sufficiently numerous and dedicated to scatter the first line of defense they faced at the Dearborn city limits.
The marchers then continued down Miller Road toward the major Ford plant. When they got to the bridge across Miller Road that workers used to get from the plant to the parking lot, Ford security forces used fire engines to pelt the marchers with high power hoses. The marchers, however, continued to pelt the police and defense forces and were able to cut the fire hoses. At this point, it appeared that the Dearborn Police, the Ford Security Forces and state police were on the defensive fearing that the marchers might enter the plant and take it over.
At this point, the Security Forces began firing upon the marchers. Three were killed quickly: Joe DeBlasio, Coleman Leny and Joe York. There are differing estimates of how many were wounded. Apparently, 22 of the marchers were hospitalized while the most cited estimate is that about 53 or more were injured. In this midst of the shootings, the head of Ford Security—Henry Bennett—drove up to the scene, got out of his car and began shooting at the marchers. He was easily recognized and was pelted by rocks and knocked unconscious. So far as I know, his shooting did not result in any deaths. However, in a different area, a young marcher, Joe Bussell, was killed by gunfire. The massive use of firepower by the police and Ford Security forces ended the march. The leaders of the march decided to retreat back to the city of Detroit but they were fired upon as they left adding to the list of those injured in this event.
After violent events and riots, there were efforts by the conflicting parties to popularize their version of what happened. Henry Ford’s supporters were quite successful in portraying the event as an attempt by Communist led marchers to sieze the property of a capitalist who was doing what he could to create jobs and hire people. Ford succeeded in having most of the injured marchers arrested. Local and federal officials raided the offices of organizations thought to be sympathetic to Communism. William Z. Foster, secretary of the Trade Union Unity League had visited Detroit on March 6 and strongly endorsed the march. That organization was affiliated with the Community Party as it then existed.
A Wayne County grand jury investigated the violence. They noted that the marchers were quite orderly for some part of the day and suggested that the Dearborn police and Ford Security forces may have used excess force. However, they refused to indict anybody for the shootings that led to four deaths and several dozen injuries. Actually, there was a fifth death. Curtis Williams died in June of injuries suffered in the March 7 violence. Interesting, the first four decedents were buried together in Woodmere Cemetery. Curtis Williams could not be buried with his colleagues since he was a Negro.
For most of the years from the start of industrialization in the United States during the Civil War to the start of the Depression, the governmental agencies and local and state police forces were regularly used to suppress strikers and prevent the formation of unions. A few unions were able to organize workers but they were the exceptions and most industrial states, including Michigan, have a long history of labor-management violence. This began to change with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in the fall 1932 election. After the successful sit-down strikes in the auto industry in 1937, governmental agencies gradually became more supportive of the efforts of unions to organize workers. The violence of the Ford Hunger March received substantial attention in the national press and played some role in changing attitudes about the rights of workers to organize into unions.
A Detroit labor lawyer, Maurice Sugar, began defending the marchers on the evening of March 7, 1932. Some years later, he wrote the interesting book cited below. So far as I know, no historian has written a book about this important incident in Detroit’s labor history.
Date of March: Monday March 7, 1932
Book: Maurice Sugar, The Ford Hunger March (Berkeley, Calif., Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, 1980)
State of Michigan Historical Registry: P25110; Listed December 19, 1981
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Put on the Control House of the bridge on January 21, 1992
National Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description prepared: May, 2013