The intersections of radical Black and working-class politics in Detroit
Undertaking my Master of Arts at Central Michigan University, I developed an interest in radical Black politics. I opted to focus my main research paper on this topic. Despite limited prior knowledge, conversations with Professor Timothy O’Neill introduced me to the unique and fascinating history of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and the formation of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit’s auto industry following the race rebellion of 1967. The findings led to my argument that the intersections of race and class in the radical politics of the movement are crucial in understanding their aims, and the historical context within which they emerged.
The Hamtramck Assembly Plant (formerly Dodge Main), owned by the Chrysler Corporation, was located a Polish ‘enclave’ within the geographical boundary of Detroit. By the 1960s, the workforce at the plant was around sixty percent African American, and there was a history of racism and confrontation amongst the workforce. The establishment of DRUM was a reaction to the disciplinary procedure of Chrysler following a wildcat strike of White and Black workers against the speed up of the production line on May 2nd 1968, which had halted production the following day. The United Auto Workers (UAW) stated that strike action was ‘unauthorized’ and were working ‘to get them to call off the pickets,’ whilst Chrysler stated that they had received no official notification of the action. Following the strike, African Americans were disciplined disproportionately. This led to the formation of DRUM, with the first issue of their self-titled newsletter stating that ‘we as Black men and women looking for equal opportunity in employment can not tolerate this.’
DRUM continued to agitate and organise within the Hamtramck Plant, with the publication of a regular newsletter and direct action to achieve their aims. They participated in the local democratic processes of the UAW, and sought their members elected to key posts, albeit with limited success (amidst accusations of racism against the local branch). DRUM led to the creation of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, who strove to develop the struggle against oppression outside the auto industry and challenge the racial and capitalist oppression of Black Americans.
DRUM, and the League, have most frequently been described as a Black Nationalist organisation in extant literature on the politics of the period. Through an analysis of DRUM’s literature, it is evident that while they were a racially exclusive organization—with membership restricted to Black workers—their long-term ambition was international socialism and the end of the economic exploitation of all workers. This positions their ideology outside of the dominant discourse of race-based nationalism. My research indicated that the politics of DRUM were both a race and class-based response to the socio-economic position of the Black population in Detroit. The social structures in which DRUM emerged are crucial in explaining their ideological motivations, the nature of the organization, and their objectives.
Table 1: Percentage of Detroit’s African Americans living in White or predominately White areas, 1940-1960.
Percentage of African Americans living in predominantly White areas
City of Detroit
As table 1 demonstrates, Black Detroiters increasingly lived in separate locations through the process of White Flight. Overwhelmingly located in the poorest housing, Black’s perspectives on racial and economic structures of society were vastly different from much of the White population. As a result, working-class Black organizations assumed a racial differentiation from Whites and visibly constituted a distinct group within Detroit society. Many Black radicals used the terms of colonized and colonizer in describing the relationship between Blacks and Whites. DRUM’s approach highlighted this class struggle. Although the final aim of the Black workers’ struggle was a unified working-class movement to overthrow capitalism; in the social context of Detroit, DRUM believed that they had to first engage in an anti-colonial struggle, to free the Black population from racial oppression, before assuming a vanguard role that united working-class struggle.
That being said, there existed a racially defined labour aristocracy in the auto industry. The notion of a labour aristocracy is based on factors such as wage security, skill status, geographical differentiation, and union representation. These factors were evident in the Detroit auto industry and race was the primary indicator of these differentials. The relegated position of Black workers at Hamtramck was substantial. Despite Blacks accounting for approximately 60% of the workforce in the late 1960s, 99% of General Foremen, 95% of all Foremen, 100% of Superintendents, and 90% of skilled apprentices were White. Due to the lack of action by the UAW over the position of Black workers, DRUM attacked the union and accused it of failing its Black membership. However, this was also a reaction to the perceived conservatism of the union in representing the interests of all workers, not purely a struggle based on racial separatism. As with the social structure in Detroit, the racial aspect of the labour aristocracy largely predisposed that the struggle of Black workers within the auto industry would embody a race-based critique of the UAW.
Rather than viewing DRUM as a ‘Black Nationalist’ organisation, it is evident that their politics emerged from the lived experience of the Black population in Detroit and its auto industry in the late 1960s. In seeking to overthrow the oppression of capitalism, DRUM asserted that Black freedom was a necessary precondition. This highlights the nuanced intersections between race and class politics in the period, moving the discussion beyond racial assumptions of political activism. The position of DRUM, in their own words, was clearly international, intersectional socialism:
White workers are being cheated and yet hate Black workers. Capitalism lives off the hate of racism and America lusts after death...WORKERS OF ALL COUNTRIES UNITE!
Andy Clark is a Postdoctoral Research Associate with the Newcastle University Oral History Unit in the UK. He completed his MA at CMU in 2012 before obtaining his PhD at the University of Strathclyde in 2017. He has recently signed a contract to publish his first book, Dynamics of Activism: Scottish Women’s Factory Occupations, 1980-1982 with Liverpool University Press (2021).