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How ex-students linked up with Black workers

By Debbie Johnson & Jerry Goldberg


This is excerpted from talks to a Workers World Party meeting in Detroit on the 30th anniversary of the party branch there. It examines the revolutionary heritage of the working-class struggle in that city, which of course is ignored in the official
tri-centennial celebrations.

In 1970, the student movement, especially in opposition to the U.S. imperialist war in Vietnam, was at its peak. In May of that year, when the U.S. invaded Cambodia, strikes and demonstrations shut down universities nationwide.

Students at the University of Michigan were in the forefront of that movement. The leading group was Students for a Democratic Society.

While SDS had originally begun as a left liberal organization, based on participatory democracy, it had been transformed into a revolutionary formation with diverse ideological currents by the late 1960s.

The Ann Arbor SDS chapter was one of the strongest in the country, with units in every dorm on campus. In 1969 and 1970 it led many thousands of students in shutting down military recruiting, opposing the conspiracy trial of the Chicago 8, defending the Black Panthers and Brown Berets, and lending active support to Black students on strike for affirmative action.

It was a period of intense struggle. The SDS members were constantly studying Marxism and debating revolutionary ideology. By the spring of 1970, a consensus had developed among the leadership that to be a serious revolutionary you had to leave the campus and move to cities where the working class, the only class that could overthrow capitalism, was concentrated.

In the spring of 1970, a group of 35 activists left Ann Arbor and moved to Detroit to become revolutionary working-class organizers.

This group was not ideologically cohesive. It ended up dividing into various political currents.

While in SDS, a number of the student leaders had gotten to know Workers World Party. Among the established left parties, this party and its youth arm, Youth Against War and Fascism, were unique in their willingness and ability to link up with the most militant sectors of the student movement. They were respected for their organization and discipline in the many street battles taking place.

The cutting-edge question in that period, as today, was the defense of the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, especially the internal colonies of U.S. imperialism--the Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican and Native nations. No group defended the Black Panthers, the Young Lords and the other revolutionary formations of the oppressed nations with more vigor and determination than Workers World Party.

As a result, shortly after moving to Detroit, a group that had formerly been the leadership of Ann Arbor SDS affiliated with Workers World Party.

When the comrades came into Detroit in the spring of 1970, the city was a center of revolutionary activity, especially in the Black community. Detroit had experienced one of the largest Black rebellions of the late 1960s, triggered by police brutality. The Black community fought the cops and National Guard for six days and nights in 1967, suffering 43 deaths.

National liberation
and class struggle

In the late 1960s the auto industry was booming in Detroit. Unlike today, many of the plants, particularly Chrysler plants, were located right in the city where the workforce was predominantly African American. Young Black workers just out of high school could get jobs in the plants. The benefits and wages were pretty decent, as long as you were willing to put up with miserable working conditions.

Detroit was unique in the Black struggle because of the dominant position and concentration of African American workers in the auto plants. Here the struggle for national liberation tended to merge with the working class struggle.

In the rest of the country, because of high unemployment and generally oppressive conditions in the Black community, the Black Panthers reached out to the lumpen-proletariat, the most oppressed and unemployed sectors of the community, as the base for building their organization. However, as Huey Newton explained, the Panthers studied Marxist ideology and understood the historic role of the working class in overthrowing capitalism.

Detroit's auto industry was then the largest industry in the country, as it continues to be today on a lesser scale. Because of the concentration of Black workers, particularly in the inner-city Chrysler plants, revolutionary leaders in the Black community saw a unique opportunity to directly merge their liberation struggle with the working class struggle to overthrow capitalism.

The formation that reflected this ideological view, and was unique to Detroit, was the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

The base of this political party was among Black workers organized into caucuses in most of the Chrysler plants. In Dodge Main, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement was extremely strong and led many job actions. Another powerful group was the Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement at the Eldon Avenue axle plant.

The league also recruited the revolutionary intelligentsia in the Black community. Among its leaders were attorney Ken Cockrel and John Watson, who while a student at Wayne State University became editor of the South End newspaper, turning it into an organ of the league. The masthead of the South End read: "One class-conscious worker is worth 1,000 students."

The league struggled to free James Johnson, a Black worker who, fed up with racism at the Eldon Avenue plant, shot a couple of supervisors and a labor relations representative. The league's newspaper ran a famous poem about him that concluded, "Whenever Black workers are under attack, there will be thousands of Johnsons back to back. James Johnson needed a Thompson." Because of the legal and political struggle on his behalf, Johnson was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity and even won workers' compensation benefits.

Even after the League of Revolutionary Black Workers began declining organizationally in the 1970s, the link between the Black liberation and working class struggle continued. In the summer of 1972, two Black workers took over the power plant and shut down the Jefferson Assembly Plant in Detroit to demand the firing of a racist foreman.

Some 5,000 workers surrounded the power plant to defend them. They won.

This was followed by other wildcats, or unsanctioned, strikes.

The movement began impacting white workers, who recognized the Black workers in the union as the militant force.

In 1971, at the Michigan Truck Plant in Wayne, Mich., where only about 15 percent of the workers were African American and the union leadership had been virtually all white and very racist, Jerry Goldberg of Workers World Party and another radical worker were instrumental in forming a multi-national rank-and-file caucus and newsletter. The caucus got a shop committee elected of five African Americans and two whites.

Even though there was still plenty of racism among the white workers, they knew they were exploited every day on the assembly line and needed representatives who would fight for them. They saw the strength and militancy of the Black workers in Detroit who were constantly battling the bosses. And they wanted some of that fight in their plant as well.

This was a sign of the dynamic developing in Detroit at that time. Revolutionary Black leadership in the auto plants was becoming a pole of attraction to white workers looking to fight their oppressive conditions as well.

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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