The Porous Borders Festival, in May, 2015, was a weekend event held outdoors and in venues in Hamtramck and the North End of Detroit. I was asked to write a piece about the Hamtramck-Detroit border for a companion journal to the festival.
Being from Highland Park, a city within the city of Detroit – also on that border – I had many memories, and this is an extended version of what was published.
It was 1968 and I was a freshman at Highland Park High School, an honors student. But outside of a few classes, high school soon held little interest for me and, being a bookworm and not athletic, I found the obsession with things like sports and cheerleading childish and maddening. For I was trying to survive in the chaos of a home in which alcohol ruled, making me adult-like before my time and impatient with everyday teen life.
My father was a record man, Joe Von Battle, who never recovered after he was forced to move his Hastings St. record store and recording studio to 12th St., to make way for the Chrysler Freeway. My parents were at war with each other, awash in drink and rage as they faced dwindling finances and changing times. The turmoil in which we lived on California St. kept me at arm’s length from my scholastically achieving peers. After a while, for me, school held little appeal.
Despite Detroit’s “Model City” reputation of industriousness and prosperity, in 1960s Detroit there was a pervasive undercurrent of discrimination and social protest. The city was heaving with the collective tumult of Civil Rights, Black Power, the Women’s Movement and the anti-Vietnam War movements. Then, in July 1967, Detroit burned for days in The Riots – or The Rebellion as many of us now say.
My father’s record shop – now on 12th St. – was again in the path of destruction. His livelihood destroyed for good, he was despondent and drinking himself to death. As life in our home became ever more chaotic with the reign of drink, I wrenched myself from my frayed familial bonds and joined Black students across the city, protesting the intense prejudice and discrimination in the schools. We would come to be called the Black Student United Front.
Soon I met the grown-up brothers from the plant, of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM). Embedded in household misery, immersed in social uproar, and adrift from school and scholastic ambitions, I raced to be around these new, brave warriors of the struggle (not able to appreciate my father’s own courage, all the years that he fought against defeat). Different than the Black Panthers or the Black Nationalists in Detroit, they eschewed ceremony and cultural regalia, firmly ensconced, as they were, in the workaday world of factory and family life.
The DRUM folks gathered in an old building on Oakland Avenue and Owen, in the city’s North End – just blocks across the Detroit/Hamtramck border from Dodge Main. General Baker and Chuck Wooten, the first of the DRUM brothers whom I would come to know, were at loggerheads with both Chrysler Corporation and the United Auto Workers Union over conditions and discrimination.
Dodge Main was the gargantuan Chrysler complex across the Hamtramck Border. The size of a small city, over forty thousand workers were employed there at its post-WWII peak; not counting a huge constellation of bars, diners and subsidiary businesses – both legal and illegal, I daresay. Much of Hamtramck’s commercial infrastructure serviced the mostly Polish population of the plant, its workers, managers, tradesmen, office workers and subsidiary laborers. I once read that the city had more bars per capita than any in the U.S.
After the ’67 Rebellion, the struggles at Dodge exploded. Detroit’s sweet summers, long-awaited after our months of bitter cold, were dreaded by many auto workers. For in the factories, warm weather meant three months of living, sweltering hell. In those days before air conditioning, workers grew sick and passed out, and speed ups on the line could be deadly. Spontaneous wildcat strikes – not sanctioned by the union – erupted in protest.
After one such strike at Dodge Main, in May of ’68, seven workers, white and black – were fired. After the wildcat ended they were all rehired, except for two black workers – one of them, a radical named General Baker. Many Black workers were outraged at his exclusion and DRUM was formed, to confront Dodge Main and UAW Local 3 over his discharge, discrimination and working conditions. After a heat wave in July – one year after the upheaval in ’67 – DRUM and three thousand workers shut down Dodge Main for two days, disrupting the corporate supply chain.
General Baker was called, “the man who bought Chrysler Corporation to its knees”.
As the revolt spread to other plants, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was formed, an amalgam of DRUM and other factory and workplace groups, like ELRUM – at Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle, and FORUM at Ford – there were even hospital employee RUMs). This loose federation was joined by people in the community, and formed printing presses, bookshops, and neighborhood groups; we high-school students came under the umbrella of the League.
As the organization grew, the League moved to a barn-styled house on a block of solid middle class homes, at 179 Cortland on the corner of 3rd, in Highland Park — two blocks from my high school, where I attended ninth grade. Unmoored from the strictures of normal family life, with a household awash in drink, I gravitated to the League’s offices, a teeming center of printing presses and social action.
General Baker and Chuck Wooten, leaders of DRUM, became my new surrogate fathers (who were probably quite conscious of their role in my life, though I didn’t understand this until I was quite middle-aged). I rode shotgun with them on many of their factory gate adventures and meanderings around town; some of the best – and most educational – times of my life.
My father – though deep in his cups – was nevertheless, still paternal enough to fume at my keeping such mature company, and showed up at the League offices with his gun one day. But after a time I guess he realized that – with the scourge of drugs invading the neighborhoods, and protected by these resolute guardians – I could be much worse off.
At daybreak, before school, they’d pick me up and I’d slip out of the house, as furtive as to a tryst, and jump into General’s old red panel truck, Chuck by the passenger door. I slipped my nubile young self between these two men, who had become de facto leaders of Detroit’s Black workers – and my new fathers. I lit a Kool cigarette with them and sat up straight; proud that I was entrusted with the stories and unconditional camaraderie of these grown men.
We’d leave my home on California and John R, and ride the few minutes from Highland Park to Hamtramck – the two cities, fraternal twins in the womb of Detroit. We’d make a left onto one of the east-west streets and ascend the hill to Poletown. As we got to the top, Chuck would say each time, with great gravitas, as if narrating a film (which he did, later, as he drove through the city in the movie, Finally Got The News).
“There it is – Dodge Main – where you can get anything you want anytime you want it – a city within a city within a city.”
Even such a dramatic introduction into their world of work was no match to the actual view, as we coasted over the top of the hill, facing the eastern sun as it rose, blinding us. On the other side, there it was – a magnificent, terrifying kingdom. As we rode down into the massive industrial netherworld, it was all the more frightening to know that these labyrinthine facilities were a world in themselves, industrial municipalities with their own rules, laws, and codes of survival.
“Anything you want” was Chuck’s sly entendre, censored for my youthful ears, that implied that not only necessities of life could be procured within the borders of the complex 24 hours a day, but other things too, that my even my young, adolescent mind understood as being sex, whiskey and other adult wonders of the world.
As we entered the world of Dodge Main, mostly men and – some women too – rushed by us; a crowded, teeming, proletarian march repeated outside of factories all over Detroit at shift change. Cars jammed the streets as people crossed over to parking lots and bus stops, thousands at a time. Faces grim with fatigue, or heads raised in raucous hilarity. Immigrants from the old country with big lunch bags; ex-sharecroppers in striped coveralls, like in the South; cool dudes with stingy brims and toothpicks changed into suits to match their long, pastel cars. Free at last – until the next shift, the next day – and many rushed on to a second 8-hour job.
We jumped out of the car at the factory gates, grabbed reams of leaflets out of the back of the truck and passed them out – “UAW Means You Ain’t White!,” “Dare To Fight, Dare To Win.” The company couldn’t fire students – who didn’t work there – for passing out leaflets, so we were able allies to the struggle. We passed out flyers for the morning shift change – then I went home and got ready for school each day.
When we’d ride around town or sat on the stairs of the Cortland office, General and Chuck and the other brothers regaled me with stories of life in the plants and on the assembly lines, or segregated in the hellish foundries and hothouse paint departments. They captivated me with uproarious accounts about riotous union meetings in Hamtramck that they had “turnt out.”
I can still hear Gen’s boisterous laughter, and smell Ron March’s big pot of homemade “Danville Stew”. Their tales of factory life and frank stories – of horrific heat, amputations, toxic fumes, burned flesh, relentless speed-up, Blacks relegated to the most dirty, dangerous, lowest paid jobs; barred from promotions, higher positions, or skilled trades – were totally removed from the stoic reserve of my uncles and other elders who said little in front of us kids that might reveal their true oppression in the world of work.
Gen and Chuck they were not the only brothers who changed my life; many live volcanoes of Black intellectual, proletarian machismo were exploding at the Cortland office. Ken Cockrel and his machine gun oratory; Marxist intellectual John Watson; Mike Hamlin, who called me a prodigy and worried about me among the brothers. There were dynamic and brilliant women, too – fighting male supremacy in the plant, in the community – and in the League. They all took me in hand, and though they didn’t make me go to school, they encouraged my ceaseless reading, writing and study.
Their position that workers were divided by race to benefit the companies – greatly influenced my own life, years later, when I became a local union president. Even today, as writer on life in Detroit, this informs my views on the toxic, manipulative use of race – to keep us apart in face of the powerful.
Though the organization was to last only a couple of years, for me, and for many others, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, who crossed boundaries and borders at will – and allowed me to cross them, too – was a league of Detroit superheroes – and they saved my life.
*The drawings are by Detroit artist Jennifer Gariepy, from of a panel of four drawings illustrating my story, that we submitted for Detroit Sequential, a graphic arts project headed by Ryan Stanfest, that exhibited in Spring 2017, at the Signal Return printing press and gallery.
Thanks to Richard Newman and Liza Bilby of the Hinterlands group, for inviting me to participate in the Porous Borders Festival, and encouraging me to write this story, the first time I had ever written about my early life in The League.
All the brothers in the photo above are now deceased – General Baker passed away in May 2014, Mike Hamlin in April 2017; Chuck Wooten, Ken Cockrel, and John Watson preceded them in death. Photo collage by Carolyn Baker.
On General Baker’s deathbed he whispered to me, “Cuz, keep on teaching.”