The Ford Hunger March of 1932
Published Mar 25, 2009 3:45 PM
March 7 was the 77th anniversary of one of the bloodiest chapters in Detroit
labor history: the Ford Hunger March of 1932.
The stock market crashed in October of 1929. By 1930 millions were without
work. Nowhere was the pain felt more deeply than in Detroit, where the auto
industry’s promise of prosperity had turned into its opposite. When the
Trade Union Unity League, the Communist Party, the Young Communist League and
the newly formed Unemployed Councils called a coast-to-coast demonstration on
March 6, among the millions of participants were 100,000 at a rally in the
Motor City. Detroit police broke up the protest, clubbing and arresting scores
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
Detroit’s network of Unemployed Councils had grown into one of the
strongest in the country, saving untold numbers of families from a life on the
streets. A citywide meeting of the councils—there were more than 80
neighborhood-based chapters in metropolitan Detroit—decided to march on
the Ford Motor Co.’s River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Mich.
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
Negroes in jobs; relief [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.” (Philip Bonosky,
Brother Bill McKee: “Building the Union at Ford”)
The protest brought out thousands of workers. Beyond the immediate 14 demands,
signs connected issues affecting workers around the world. They called for
freedom for the Scottsboro Nine, a group of Black youths falsely accused of
raping two white women. They said “hands off China,” a reference to
the sale of scrap iron to Japan, which used it in attacking the Chinese
The march began and proceeded without incident in Detroit. Dearborn, however,
was Ford’s personal fiefdom; his cousin Clyde Ford was the mayor.
Marchers were attacked with tear gas at the city’s border, but forced
police to retreat with a barrage of stones and clumps of frozen mud. Police
regrouped, only to have the scenario repeated.
At the entrance to Ford’s complex, Dearborn police were reinforced by the
Dearborn Fire Department, Detroit police, and Ford’s own “Service
Department.” The firefighters turned their hoses on the unarmed marchers,
while police fired a hail of bullets. Coleman (also spelled Kalman) Leny, Joe
DiBlasio, and Joe York—the 19-year-old district leader of the
YCL—were killed. Fifty more were wounded.
When Unemployed Council leader Alfred Goetz attempted to lead an orderly
retreat, machine-gun fire, this time from Ford’s own finest, began anew.
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 YCL member Joe Bussel and left many more injured.
Forty-eight workers, some in their hospital beds, were arrested.
More repression followed, with hundreds fired if they possessed left-wing
literature or donated to the martyrs’ funerals. Membership in the CP was
cause for arrest.
At the funeral, Ben Bussel 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 Black 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.
Attorney Maurice Sugar had written two months earlier that police brutality
“grows out of the institution of private property under which one class
in society lives in luxury at the expense of the great mass of workers who are
compelled to live in a state of poverty, wretchedness, and despair.”
(Christopher H. Johnson, “Maurice Sugar, Law, Labor and the Left in
Detroit, 1912-1950”) Although Sugar was able to convince the grand jury
not to indict any of those arrested, no one was ever indicted for the Ford
In 1941, after years of sacrifice and struggle, the Auto Workers union finally
won recognition from the Ford dynasty. In 1992 UAW Local 600 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
As workers begin again to fight evictions, foreclosures and the layoffs that
cause them, the unyielding courage of the Ford hunger marchers is an
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