front cover of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying
front cover of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying

Happy frigid day Detroit! As promised, today’s post will be about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers…sort of. To close out February I thought it would be pertinent to focus on more Detroit history, And while I’ve been chomping at the bit to talk about this particular subject, I don’t think I could adequately do it justice in the space of a blog post. Instead I will point you towards one of my favorite books: Detroit: I Do Mind Dying by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin. The book was initially published in 1975, just a few years after the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) came into existence. The LBRW was a coalition of black workers who had come out of the numerous Revolutionary Unity Movements that had sprung up, and led several wildcat strikes at auto plants in the late 1960s. The LBRW fought for better working conditions in the factories in and around Detroit, and clashed with the United Auto Workers over their role in their worsening plight. Instead of trying to summarize what is contained in the book, I will focus on a few of its particular elements and try to draw out what I find relevant to the present.

During the 60s rebellions occurred in every major urban area. Watts exploded, Newark erupted, and then the Detroit Rebellion of 1967. The 67 Rebellion was the most destructive of its era and has had lasting consequences for the city ever since. It’s important to note that all of the areas with large scale rebellions were also central in the Black Arts Movement. Amiri Baraka was beaten near to death by police during the Newark Rebellion. His wife made a phone call Allen Ginsberg, who in turn called upon French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, who was able to convince Newark police to release him. In Detroit, one of the most significant pieces of history to follow the Rebellion were the workers’ movements, particularly of black workers in the city. This is not to say that the Rebellion had any direct correlation to the Revolutionary Unity Movements (RUMs) or the LRBW, but that the atmosphere was one of solidarity and mobilization in the wake of great anger and destruction. It’s also worth remarking that the Concept East Theater and Broadside Press supported the workers’ movements in a way that underscored the connection between arts and activism during that era.

One of the things that immediately struck me about Detroit and Hamtramck is the way in which certain areas, particularly commercial areas, often make you feel as though you are driving through both space and time. You find wide boulevards and signage that looks as though it has been untouched since 1963. While I find the aesthetics of these areas to be charming, I think it also speaks to some element of Detroit as a place. One of the most endearing things I have found about Detroit thus far is the constant reference to the past in a way that makes it feel as though there is a living history here. While this is fascinating to me, I understand that much of this comes out of the aftermath of 1967 in some way. As I noted in my last post, Philip Levine saw dramatic changes in Detroit between the time of his youth and 1968, but that there was a kind of stagnation that occurred between the late 60s and mid 80s, where the destruction had remained untouched. This is not haunting in any typical sense, the vestiges of the past that linger are not specters pock-marking the landscape so much as there is a kind of time-collapse even after decades of demolition, rebuilding, urban renewal, eminent domain restructuring, displacement and abandonment.

I had a conversation one night with a friend's husband who is a lifelong Detroiter. I was bemoaning the feeling of having my viewpoint on the city be privileged in anyway over the opinions or views of people who have lived here for many years. One of the things that he mentioned to me was that having grown up in the city with the family that moved around a lot is that he could no longer return to places from his childhood, because many of them are no longer there. I think about that often, because while this reality is true in many places, it feels more significant and prescient in Detroit. Even the young people that I work with in two Detroit high schools can map out their neighborhood and point to the people who moved away for the stores that are no longer there. I won't name what this is for them, but I know in my own life when this kind of lacking or loss or desire for what once was to remain, I feel a strong sense of grief. And I think inevitably this is a recurring theme in my own life, and perhaps why even cling to the past so fervently. I experienced a great deal of loss as a child that it still plagues me in many ways, but if I return to my hometown they are not too many things amiss. I don't know what this level of the historical loss of place or home feels like.

The connection here to Detroit: I Do Mind Dying is that in the collapsing of time, the history of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers is not highlighted nearly enough. In many cases, there seems to be no era to go back to. While there are still factory jobs in Detroit, there number is nowhere near that of the late 1960s and early 70s, which were nowhere near that of the demand for workers in the WWII era. The LRBW influenced city governance, contemporary activism, but is often less recognized for its significance than the nonviolent protests of the SCLC or even the Black Panther Party. Their history has garnered some notice beyond Georgakas and Surkin’s book, but in terms of popular history, there are scant references to the League. Their work has relevance to contemporary minimum wage struggles being waged across the country, as well as to the more recent protests against police brutality against African Americans. Instead, there is an inheritance in people. Take, for example, Kenneth Cockrel Jr. who is the executive director of Detroit Future City. He’s served on city council, even as interim mayor for a short period after Kwame Kilpatrick left office. Cockrel’s life has been dedicated to public service in this city, not unlike his parents’ lives. Kenneth Cockrel Sr., his father, served on the executive committee for the LRBW and was a renowned radical lawyer, known for going on the offense to defend his clients.

In the prologue of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, the authors detail the case of James Johnson, a black factory worker at Chrysler’s Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle plant who, in July of 1970, shot and killed two foreman, one black, one white, and a white worker. Kenneth Cockrel Sr. defended Johnson in court, and even took the jury to visit an auto plant to show them the conditions under which, as Cockrel argued, Johnson was literally driven to insanity. Cockrel managed to have Johnson acquitted, which was no small feat. At the center of the case was an issue near to the hearts of the LBRW—work speed ups. The production lines of factories had become rapid enough that Cockrel’s defense of Johnson’s stability was plausible enough to be proved in a court. The title of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying is taken from a song by Lil Joe L Carter, who worked in one of Ford’s auto plants, called “Please Mr. Foreman”; the Detroit blues classic’s refrain is “Please Mr. Foreman, slow down your assembly line/ You know I don’t mind working, but lord I do mind dying” and the song is featured in the film Finally Got the News, which documents the work of the LRBW. Cockrel represented one tendency within the LBRW, which focused on connecting activist struggles in and outside of the factory walls, whereas other League leaders, such as General Baker, tended towards more worker-specific issues.

Another prominent case Kenneth Cockrel worked on involved fighting against an elite police unit known as Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets (STRESS). STRESS was comprised of Detroit police officers ostensibly brought into being to stop violent crime in the city. Formed in 1971, STRESS operated mostly in predominantly black neighborhoods, and their legacy quickly became one of intense brutality and violence towards black civilians. One of their often used tactics involved “decoy” operations, which involved setting up a scenario in a high crime area where one STRESS officer would essentially wait to be attacked, so that other STRESS officers could then swoop in and make arrests. While this tactic might otherwise be seen as entrapment, it somehow managed to evade legal issues. Within a year of STRESS’ formation, The Detroit Police Department killed citizens and a higher rate than any other police department in the entire country, with one third of those deaths caused by STRESS agents. This was grimly impressive considering that STRESS likely had no more than 100 agents and represented no more than 2% of the entire police force. One particular incident involving STRESS, known as the Rochester Street Massacre even saw white STRESS operatives firing upon and killing their black counterparts who had called in for back up on an incident. One black officer, Deputy Henderson, was killed with his back to a wall, his hands in the air, holding his badge.

Kenneth Cockrel was the lawyer and a case for Harrison Brown, a young black radical and former drug addict who was a kind of vigilante, targeting drug dealers at gunpoint in an attempt to rid the community of heroin. In 1972, STRESS had been trying to set up Brown and a group of his comrades at a house they were targeting. STRESS went after this group of vigilantes, leaving the drug dealers alone, and leading to a shootout which Brown and his colleagues escaped from. Eventually this led to a second shootout between Brown's group and police, where an officer was killed. Brown’s colleagues managed escape the city to Atlanta, where they were later killed by Atlanta police officers. Brown was tried and chose to be represented by Kenneth Cockrel, who used STRESS’ violent history against them in the courtroom. After three trials, Cockrel had Brown acquitted of all charges levied against him. In light of the number of non-indictments in the cases of officers who have killed unarmed African Americans in recent history, Cockrel’s persistence and tenacity in winning cases for African Americans who had been involved in murders is practically unthinkable today. Sheila Murphy Cockrel, Kenneth’s wife, writes in the Detroit: I Do Mind Dying’s epilogue that even years after her husband’s death, she often had people come up to her and tell her about the ways in which he had helped them. Both she and her husband served in city governance after the LRBW era.

Last June when I was attending a writing workshop I was told by poet Vievee Francis, who is based out of Detroit, that my the voice in many of my poems was too sure of itself, like it had all the answers. Paradoxically, when looking at history, I am consistently propelled by questions. Most historians like to suggest one route or another as to arrive at a particular destination. My particular impulse as a historian is to look at power dynamics. Who has power? Who wants power? Who seeks to benefit from powerful change and in what direction? My questions about the LRBW are still plentiful, but I think the ones or greatest relevance are connected to today. How do we recognize a past where American industrial workers could be driven mad by their working conditions in a contemporary America that thirsts for Apple products despite ample knowledge of the conditions in Foxconn’s factories? What relevant lessons can activists involved in anti-police brutality campaigns learn from the LBRW’s struggles to win over white workers? What parallels exist between STRESS and what’s transpired in recent months around the NYPD? Would an exclusively black organization be of benefit to battling unemployment, underemployment and low wages in Detroit today? I don’t have succinct or fixed answers, but in the collapse of time, I look at the LRBW’s place in black history as part of a vision towards Detroit’s future if for no other reason than if working conditions in the city are to change, the tradition of solidarity and camaraderie must be front and center.


TOP IMAGE: Kenneth Cockrel, from the film "Taking Back Detroit"