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How the UAW Broke Ford’s Stranglehold Over Black Detroit

The UAW's patient organizing cemented an alliance that would bear fruit for decades.

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.