Beth Tompkins Bates: Will a New Detroit Rise out of the Depths of Despair and Hopelessness?

The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry FordToday we welcome a guest post from Beth Tompkins Bates, author of The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford In the 1920s, Henry Ford hired thousands of African American men for his open-shop system of auto manufacturing. In her book, 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. In the process, Henry Ford and his company helped kindle the civil rights movement in Detroit without intending to do so.

In today’s post, Bates compares the similarities between Detroit during the 1920s and today, and how Detroit’s previous struggles might inform how Detroit can rebound in the future.

Will a new Detroit rise out of the ashes of its current crisis? Some cannot imagine the city Forbes recently picked as the nation’s most miserable can reinvent itself.  Others place their hopes in the rise of small businesses, including urban farms, manufacturing urban bicycles, hand-made jeans, and even luxury watches.  Although new startups have, so far, created only a few hundred jobs, they represent economic diversification, which may prove significant for creating a viable new Detroit after depending on one industry to anchor the community’s welfare for a century.

This is not the first time Detroit has been reinvented.  In the early twentieth century the City Council was reorganized and the judicial system was transformed when an autocratic structure that denied the majority access to due process was overturned. The issue of judicial reorganization emerged as the city’s industrial elite attempted to seize control of the courts. It was the last in a series of maneuvers created and led by Henry Ford to regulate and manage the lives of Detroit’s demographically diverse autoworkers.

Despite the Ford Motor Company’s (FMC) early success with its innovative moving assembly line, Ford noticed a major flaw when the quit rate and absenteeism among assembly-line workers reached crisis proportions in 1913.  Workers were not content, nor did they exhibit loyalty to FMC. These conditions inspired the Five Dollar Day, Ford Profit-Sharing Plan, launched a century ago.  The carrot was doubling daily wages and reducing the workday to eight hours, which tempered discontent and increased workers’ loyalty.  The stick was the proviso that to earn five dollars a day, workers had to practice Ford’s idea of good work and living habits—sobriety, personal cleanliness, and speaking English. The Five Dollar Day was part of Ford’s larger Americanization campaign designed to construct a new social order based on a unified and loyal work force.

By the end of World War I, Ford and other industrialists, operating through the Detroit Citizens League (DCL), expanded their efforts to the public sector.  DCL members were concerned with the “excesses” of democracy in municipal politics.  To put the reins of power back in the hands of the “better class,” the DCL, with help from the FMC, orchestrated passage of a new city charter reducing a ward-based, partisan city council of 42 representatives to nine members elected through an at-large, nonpartisan contest. The first mayor under the new order was a former vice president of FMC.

Next, the DCL targeted the court system by gaining control over the majority of judges. Initially, the town fathers were successful, but victory was short-lived, for by the early twenties the demographic makeup of Detroit included thousands of African Americans who had recently migrated from the South. They came for jobs opened up by Henry Ford, who rejected the notion that better jobs were for white men only. Ford put black men in positions across the occupational spectrum, making it possible for them to come closer to job equality at FMC than at any other large corporation in America. Expectations and hopes raised by Ford’s policies led black Detroiters to assume a corner had been turned in the ongoing struggle for full inclusion. Ford, however, expected black workers to hew their politics to his demands. Grateful as black men were to Henry Ford for economic inclusion, they drew a line when it came to voting for Ford’s party line.

Tensions between the industrialists seeking to construct a corporate-dominated Detroit and black and immigrant autoworkers seeking to create a new Detroit came to a head during the 1923 election for judges. Black Detroiters—inspired by racial profiling (“black” equaled “criminal”) and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK)—turned out in large numbers to support Frank Murphy for judge on the court. Murphy—a young lawyer, an Irish Catholic, a Democratic Party activist, and an opponent of Henry Ford’s agenda—challenged the dominance of the protestant industrial elite (Ford’s interests) by championing the rights of excluded blacks and Catholic immigrants. Calling for a new day in Detroit politics, Murphy sought to counter the weight of the KKK and relieve “this city from the shackles of judicial tyranny” perpetuated by industrialists. Turning his campaign into a crusade, Murphy saw his supporters as the young in heart and mind who were going to free the city from “a government un-American.” Racist and anti-foreign charges hurled by the DCL mobilized the black and foreign-born vote, putting Frank Murphy on the Court. He won with the highest margins in wards with African Americans, immigrants, and Catholics, the coalition of voters that put Franklin Roosevelt in the White House a decade later.

The results shocked Henry Ford and his lieutenants. The observation of one DCL leader, summing up the loss industrialists felt in the early twentieth century, could speak to Detroit’s current situation in the twenty-first century: “The old Detroit . . . is disappearing and a new Detroit is arising. What it will be, nobody knows.”

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