Beth Tompkins Bates: What is Society’s Obligation to Those in Distress?

The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford, by Beth Tompkins BatesIn the 1920s, Henry Ford hired thousands of African American men for his open-shop system of auto manufacturing. In The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford, Beth Tompkins Bates explains how black Detroiters, newly arrived from the South, seized the economic opportunities offered by Ford in the hope of gaining greater economic security. As these workers came to realize that Ford’s anti-union “American Plan” did not allow them full access to the American Dream, their loyalty eroded, and they sought empowerment by pursuing a broad activist agenda. This, in turn, led them to play a pivotal role in the United Auto Workers’ challenge to Ford’s interests.

Don’t miss Bates’s previous guest blog post, “The High Road to Economic Prosperity.” In today’s guest post, she explores Depression-era debates between Detroit mayor Frank Murphy and Henry Ford over unemployment benefits.


The issue of unemployment benefits has been a hot-button topic since the financial tsunami of 2008. Democrats have supported legislation to extend benefits so the long-term unemployed will not fall through the cracks during the prolonged recovery. Republicans resist extensions, arguing that increased government spending will prolong the recession. Behind the platforms of both parties lies the question of society’s obligation to those in distress, an issue that surfaces when times are tough. During the Great Depression, a similar debate raged in Detroit in the summer of 1931, turning a mayoral campaign into a dress rehearsal for the viability of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Detroit was one of the cities hardest hit by the Great Depression. By the fall of 1930, its percentage of unemployed citizens was greater than other major metropolitan areas, such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. Yet unemployed Detroiters suffered less than they might have because of the efforts of Frank Murphy, mayor of Detroit. Within days of his election, he formed the Mayor’s Unemployment Committee (MUC) and appointed G. Hall Roosevelt, brother-in-law of Franklin D. Roosevelt, as its chair. The MUC was created to act as command central, coordinating the relief efforts and educating Detroiters about government’s responsibilities. Murphy reminded the public that helping the destitute was not only a morally correct policy but one that would keep the social order from being torn asunder.

Murphy was passionate as he addressed the problems of the unemployed, drawing a line between the haves and have-nots as he constructed a “new deal” to replace the old social contract between the industrial elite and politicians. “In order to be elected Mayor, in order to succeed politically, men have pledged themselves until they are hogtied, shackled and bound by promises,” he declared. How could one be a good mayor when in order to succeed, “our department of Public Works is traded off with the ease with which some men engage in a horse deal.”

For several months, Mayor Murphy was able to deliver relief allowances and administer a work-relief effort for able-bodied heads of households. But during the spring of 1931, as unemployment numbers ratcheted up, draining the public coffers and increasing the Department of Public Welfare’s (DPW) case load, Murphy was put to the test. Business interests put pressure on the mayor to cut back relief, advising the administration to show as much sympathy for taxpayers as it did for the needy. At that point Murphy attacked the tight-fisted policy of Ford Motor Company (FMC) and its indifference toward unemployed workers. Henry Ford publicly maintained he would never cut wages or jobs, even as he proceeded to do both. Employment at the FMC’s largest factory, located outside Detroit, fell nearly 50 percent between 1929 and 1932. Since the overwhelming majority of Ford’s laid-off workers lived in Detroit, the city raised the question, who bore responsibility for assisting them?

Mayor Murphy charged that nearly a quarter of Detroit’s welfare recipients were former FMC employees. Didn’t a major employer like Ford have a responsibility to help with the burden of relief? Absolutely not, said FMC spokesmen. How could the company be held responsible for laid-off Ford workers living in Detroit when its factories were located outside the city? With that, the company went on the offensive claiming the city was guilty of incompetence since many of those on the dole were actually working for FMC even as they drew welfare checks and defrauded the city.

The Detroit News investigated these allegations, finding little to support the Company’s claim of fraud. The bitter controversy put Henry Ford on the defensive, exposing the chicanery of Ford’s claims to be his “brother’s keeper” and making national headlines. Known as the “Duel over the Dole,” the showdown between Murphy and Henry Ford had the ring of a David-versus-Goliath story.

Not everyone cheered as Murphy stood up to Henry Ford. At least one death threat was issued to the “Irish son of a bitch.” However, one of FMC’s former general managers, James Couzens, a Republican and former mayor of Detroit, supported Murphy’s public welfare policies. Couzens criticized those who threw mud at the city’s policy of care of the poor and underprivileged, while doing nothing themselves to alleviate distress to their fellows.

By the time Murphy ran for re-election in 1931, the idea that public relief should aid the needy turned the election into a referendum about society’s responsibility to its citizens. Murphy’s re-election with 64 percent of the votes cast was a win for the forces of a new order and a loss for Henry Ford.

Ford nevertheless continued to espouse the importance of private welfare. One of his favorite messages has a familiar ring. Ford liked to remind the public of the ill effects of the dole, which encouraged idleness, shifted responsibility to the government, and substituted “European ideas for the principle that every man should take care of himself.”

Beth Tompkins Bates is professor emerita at Wayne State University and author of The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford and Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925-1945.