How the UAW Broke Ford’s Stranglehold Over Black Detroit

In the early 1900s, Ford Motor Company commanded strong loyalty from Detroit’s black workers. But the United Auto Workers broke Ford’s stranglehold through patient organizing, cementing an alliance that would bear fruit for decades.

A black autoworker installs engines into Ford automobiles. (Bettmann / Getty Imges)

In December 1942, during the heat of World War II, a private report trickled in from an investigator at the Office of War Information. The department was busy monitoring the progress of defense production and the potential explosive effects of racial discrimination in employment. Discussing Detroit, the investigator noted, “It is remarkable how thoroughly the whole Negro community supports and believes in the UAW [United Auto Workers]. . . . The leadership of the UAW . . . has converted them into a solid union asset.”

Just ten years earlier, most black Detroiters would have had a hard time imagining this. The auto companies, especially Henry Ford personally, commanded the loyalty of and hegemonic influence over the city’s black workers through a sophisticated web of paternalism and patronage. Most black workers were understandably skeptical of trade unions given past discriminatory practices and their cynical use as strikebreakers by employers.

But through patient, thoughtful, and skilled organizing, the UAW was able to break through Ford’s stranglehold over Detroit’s black workers and cement a productive alliance that would bear fruit for decades.

This process, described in excellent detail in August Meier and Elliott Rudwick’s Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW, should serve as inspiration for organizers today seeking to build broad labor-based coalitions to counter corporate dominance. The story is also a quintessential example of the emergence and consolidation of the civil rights/labor alliance that was so critical for advancing the cause of working people throughout the twentieth century.

“Enough to Make the Savior Himself Weep”

There was a material basis to Ford’s prestige and influence within Detroit’s black population. The jobs provided by Ford Motor Company were exceptionally good opportunities for black workers before and during the Great Depression. Already by 1926, Ford employed twenty-six thousand black workers in its Detroit area plants, far outpacing other auto companies.

Black autoworkers were disproportionately concentrated in the more difficult and dangerous jobs in the foundry, paint shop, and wet sanding operations. While this was true at Ford as elsewhere, the company was unique in opening up more skilled jobs for blacks as bricklayers, crane operators, mechanics, electricians, and tool and die makers.

Ford cleverly sought to ingratiate himself with Detroit’s important black institutions to promote these economic opportunities. He did this most effectively through cultivating contacts in the clergy. For example, Reverend Robert L. Bradby was pastor of Second Baptist Church, the oldest and largest black religious institution in the city. In 1919, he was invited to a luncheon with Ford and other company executives where he agreed to begin recommending good workers.

Respected black figures were recruited to join the Ford Motor Company cadre: policeman Donald J. Marshall was hired by the Ford Service Department, for instance, and University of Michigan football star Willis Ward was placed on the personnel staff.

Eventually, it became virtually impossible to get a job without first going through the conduit of an influential black minister or public figure. Ralph Bunche explained this dynamic in The Political Status of the Negro in the Age of FDR: 

The fact is that the possibility of getting a job at the Ford Motor Company has been the incentive in many instances of Negroes’ joining [a] church. . . . It follows that the minister will cater to the positions taken by the company which employs large numbers of his flock.

Some were of course critical of black churches’ subservience to Ford. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leader Roy Wilkins wrote in the Crisis, “The spectacle of poor preachers, ministering to the needs of poor people whose lot from birth to death is to labor for a pittance, rising to frenzied, name-calling defense of a billionaire manufacturer is enough to make the Savior himself weep.”

Ford’s infiltration was common across all black institutions, not just the church. Lloyd Harding Bailer remarked in his study Negro Labor in the Automobile Industry, “There is hardly a Negro church, fraternal body, or other organization in which Ford workers are not represented. Scarcely a Negro professional or business man is completely independent of income derived from Ford employees.”

The Detroit NAACP was dominated by religious and business leaders tied to Ford, and Henry Ford’s son Edsel made large contributions to the chapter. National NAACP president Walter White remarked in his autobiography A Man Called White about the executive committee of the chapter, “Most of its members at that time were businessmen, doctors, and other representatives of the upper middle class of Negro life.” The Urban League was no better, as it was financed in part by the anti-union Employers’ Association of Detroit.

The UAW Makes Progress

Despite these many challenges and barriers, the UAW slowly made progress with black workers. As was often the case with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions, early defeats unearthed critical lessons and worker leaders that would prove invaluable in the future.

The UAW’s effort to organize black Ford workers in 1935–1936 failed, but through it the union established a cadre of younger pro-CIO black activists. This converged with broader developments in black politics that tipped the scales more in favor of trade unionism. In 1936, a Detroit chapter of the National Negro Congress (NNC) was created. A brainchild of black trade unionist A. Philip Randolph, the NNC worked to unite black union activists and promote the labor movement within black communities.

Not many black workers were involved in the famous sit-down strikes, but there was an active group in the first one at Midland Steel Frame Company in 1936. During the peak of the strikes, Detroit YMCA secretary Wilbur Woodson hosted a debate on unions and the black workers between minister Horace White and Ford personnel member Donald Marshall. White broke from the ranks of the black clergy and endorsed the cause of the UAW.

As it grew clear that there was no way to successfully organize Ford without winning over black workers, the UAW became more deliberate in its efforts to overcome racial division. Paul Kirk, a crane operator and NNC activist, was the first paid black organizer hired in April 1937 to help organize the Ford River Rouge plant. Gradually more black staff were hired, including Walter Hardin, a former Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Communist Party member.

The new staff organizers created neighborhood committees to reach black workers. The Ford Organizing Committee got creative and sponsored radio programs that targeted black audiences, while also hosting baseball games and band concerts.

Black union organizers played an important role in fostering continued debate on the trade union question. For example, Kirk put together a conference sponsored by the Michigan NNC and the Works Progress Administration Union. Randolph was featured on a panel discussion about what black workers could gain with the UAW. Here Randolph declared, “The day the Negro depended upon the ‘good, rich white man’ is gone — and gone forever!”

This debate spilled over into other black institutions and came to a head at the NAACP annual conference in June 1937. In his autobiography, Walter White recalls being met by an angry delegation of black ministers who demanded that UAW activist Horace Martin be removed from the convention program or else they would boycott. White refused to bow to the pressure, and Martin was able to give his talk. However, the convention still refused to formally endorse the CIO.

Even certain ministers began to express more openness to unions. William Peck was a conservative pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church, but was willing to host pro-union speakers in his church. In February 1937, Peck opened up his doors to  Howard University president Mordecai Johnson, who made the case that black workers should not be afraid to join unions that seemed supportive of racial equality.

Progress was slow-going, but there were signs that the auto companies’ hegemony over Detroit’s black workers was starting to break. In 1939, the UAW struck Chrysler, and a lockout ensued. Predictably, the company attempted to develop a back-to-work movement among the seventeen hundred black autoworkers at the Dodge Main Plant.

It was clearly a strategy to heighten racial tensions, and fears of racial violence were high. Minister Horace White sprung into action to prevent the situation from deteriorating like it had so many times before. He organized twenty-five prominent black leaders, including two pro-union ministers, to distribute leaflets to black church attendees that discouraged them from supporting the back-to-work movement.

Black workers began to see some measurable progress in exchange for their support of the union. After the Chrysler lockout was over, certain UAW contracts won clauses prohibiting racial discrimination in seniority and promotion. Some larger locals went a step further and began including black workers at social events.

At Chrysler, the UAW was finally able to rally blacks to their side and demonstrate their ability to fight discrimination on the job. The stage was being set for a big showdown with Ford.

Showdown at Ford

The Ford organizing effort was renewed in earnest in September 1940. CIO leader John L. Lewis added seven salaried black former autoworkers as staff organizers to help with the drive. One staffer was even assigned specifically to work with Detroit’s black ministers.

Emil Mazey, former Briggs Local 212 president, was chosen to direct the effort. Though Mazey was white, he had won the allegiance of black workers within his local by fighting discrimination on many fronts.

Ford was the last major auto company holdout against unionization. The River Rouge plant in Detroit, by far its largest operation, was the most important for both its economic and symbolic power; it also had the largest concentration of black workers. Clearly the Ford Motor Company was not going to let the union in without a fight.

Black UAW organizers had to make contact with black workers at their homes because of the harassment they would face in the plant. Besides the progress the UAW made in the workplace, other organizational developments also helped the union.

By the end of 1939, membership of the Detroit NAACP branch had risen to six thousand members. Its president, James J. McClendon, was not particularly pro-union but developed a broad base that included left-labor activists on the board. But the real dynamism was found in the chapter’s youth councils, which were more focused on labor issues and exerted independence from the more moderate members. Horace Sheffield was one of the more skilled youth organizers and worked with his father at the Ford River Rouge plant.

Two days before the Ford strike began, the Interdenominational Ministers Alliance publicly endorsed Ford. But this did not fully represent the mood of black Detroit. The NAACP chapter was divided, with even the conservative former president Louis Blount endorsing the UAW. The Detroit Urban League board had members like Geraldine Bledsoe and Beulah Whitby who were vocal union supporters.

With the situation still in flux, Sheffield attained a UAW sound truck (without permission) so that the youth councils could urge blacks to leave the plant. The Ford Motor Company, of course, was making their own preparations. It recruited two thousand unemployed blacks as strikebreakers, making sure to include many boxers and street fighters.

The strike began spontaneously on April 1, 1941. Most black workers did not cross the picket line, but a significant minority did. On April 2, the UAW managed to get one thousand black strikebreakers to leave the plant and put out a press release to clarify that it held the company, not black workers, responsible for trying to break the strike.

The UAW continued to consolidate black support by holding a UAW luncheon at the black YMCA on April 3. The meeting was noteworthy for the broad spectrum of organizations in attendance. Clergy were present, but also the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the Michigan Federated Democratic Clubs, and the Detroit Urban League. The meeting did what would have been unthinkable just a few years before — it released a joint statement that endorsed the UAW and criticized Ford’s strikebreaking.

The UAW continued to put on radio broadcasts targeting blacks and purchased advertisements in local newspapers. The NAACP played a critical role by distributing ten thousand leaflets at churches on the morning of April 6. While its message still was not a full-throated endorsement of the union, it told black workers clearly to not let themselves be used as strikebreakers. Walter White came to Detroit and personally drove around the plant in a sound car urging workers to leave.

On April 11, Ford relented and finally recognized the union; the UAW signed a contract with Ford on June 20, 1941. The alliance between the UAW and Detroit’s black workers was cemented and ready to pivot toward enforcing fair employment.

Fair Employment

The coalition was immediately put to the test as a tight wartime labor market was loosening by 1942. While government agencies like the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) were by now in place, they had little ability and resources to enforce employment laws.

The limitations of federal regulatory power made the importance of a continued civil rights–labor activist coalition even more important. Fortunately, both the UAW and black political organizations were well-positioned for the task. By 1943, the Detroit NAACP had exploded to twenty thousand members. Many of these members were black union activists who poured into the chapter and gave it a decidedly working-class character. The executive secretary, Gloster Current, was interested in labor and worked closely with black union leaders.

Wildcat walkouts from white workers over the promotion or transfer of black workers, often called “hate strikes,” tested the UAW’s commitment to racial equality and involved an ongoing delicate dance between the union, civil rights organizations, and the federal government. As time went on, the UAW became more confident in their ability to discipline the leaders of hate strikes.

The union often displayed courage in its willingness to stand with black workers at the risk of losing the support of white workers. At Dodge Truck in June 1942, twenty-six blacks were transferred, and a few hundred white workers walked out. The union went as far as to make sure the leaders of the walkout were fired. At Hudson, Local 154 dealt with the issues by putting up signs that read, “Violators cannot expect to get the support of Hudson Local 154, UAW-CIO in any discipline they may suffer.”

Sometimes the international got involved when local union leaders were obstinate. At a Chevrolet plant in late 1941, 240 black janitors were being denied transfer rights. When it became clear they would not get help from the local, international officials like Victor Reuther inserted themselves. Rallies were held, and eventually the transfers took place.

The UAW’s actions during this period earned the praise and deepened trust of Detroit’s black workers. As Meier and Rudwick state, “The union was an organization whose top leadership was far in advance of other sectors of the white community in its racial attitudes.”

The culmination of this fair employment work came during the fight specifically for black women autoworkers. In contract talks with Ford, the UAW proposed that black workers make up at least 7 percent of the women hired, especially at the Willow Run plant. The company refused, claiming that hiring black women would create “disturbances.” Local 600 officials even met with white women workers and got them to acknowledge (in front of Ford management) that integration wouldn’t create any problems.

But Ford still refused, and the coalition sprang into action. Black leaders in Local 600 worked with civic groups to picket Ford’s employment offices. Repeatedly, FEPC investigators were brought to Detroit to monitor progress. The peak of this activity came in April 1943 when over five thousand marched in Cadillac Square and joined a rally of ten thousand against discrimination in war plants.

While progress was often slow and incomplete, the UAW successfully allayed the fears of many black workers that the union would not look after their interests. As the battles within the plant gates raged on, the coalition turned to address issues outside the workplace.

“Warmest and Most Dependable Ally”

The war brought with it not just dramatic changes to employment, but also an explosive housing situation. The federal government constructed public housing projects to deal with the influx of defense workers, and the racial basis of this housing became a thorny topic.

In January 1942, the Detroit Housing Commission, whose secretary-director, George Edwards, was a former UAW organizer, was authorized to assign the Sojourner Truth housing project to blacks. Just two weeks later, this decision was reversed on the claim that it would cause a race riot.

In response, the Sojourner Truth Citizens Committee was formed, its leadership including black UAW activists. Sheffield from Local 600 organized black foundry workers to send five hundred postcards to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the local made a big financial donation to the committee. White UAW members participated in interracial picket lines at City Hall and the Detroit Housing Commission offices. By April, the activists had won, and blacks began to move into the housing project.

Campaigns such as these yielded an enduring close political alliance between black Detroiters and the UAW that took shape in mayoral and city council campaigns. This rich history gives proof to Meier and Rudwick’s claim that, “It was in the UAW that the black community found its warmest and most dependable ally.” Horace White later acknowledged that, “The CIO has usurped moral leadership in the [black] community.”

The long-standing relationship between black workers, the auto industry, and the UAW have their roots in these early struggles. By the mid-1960s, the auto industry was the second-largest employer of black semiskilled production workers, surpassing one hundred thousand in 1966. Even today, black workers make up 16.6 percent of autoworkers (as compared to 12.5 percent of workers in the economy as a whole). A casual glance at video footage and pictures from the current UAW Big Three strike shows that black workers still have a strong presence within the UAW.

The UAW’s work in Detroit is just one more example of how closely intertwined the fate of black communities and the labor movement has always been. Their successful campaign at Ford is an important lesson that corporate hegemony is not necessarily permanent or immovable.