In Detroit, a Hallowed Ground for Auto Workers Finally Gets Its Due

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On March 7, 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, a group of at least 3,000 unemployed auto workers gathered at the corner of Oakwood Boulevard and Denmark Street in Detroit, near Ford’s massive River Rouge automobile plant. The company had laid off more than half of its workforce; a protest march across the city and into neighboring Dearborn, organized partly by members of the Communist Party USA, was aimed at forcing Ford to rehire those workers and help them pay for heating fuel and rent.

As demonstrators chanted and sang their way across the Fort Street Bridge, the fire department turned hoses on them. When they neared the Ford plant, police officers and Ford’s own private security force fired tear gas and guns into the crowd. Five demonstrators were killed in the violence that followed, and dozens more were injured.

The Ford Hunger March — also known as the Ford Massacre — served as a turning point in the story of organized labor in Detroit and across the U.S. The incident helped catalyze the creation of the United Auto Workers. But it was scarcely memorialized locally. For decades, Ford and the UAW did little to acknowledge the incident. The half-acre tract in Southwest Detroit where demonstrators gathered for the march before being brutalized sat empty and neglected. Only a lone placard describing the dire circumstances leading to the protest and its violent conclusion marked the old bascule bridge the marchers had crossed.

That changed on Oct. 22, when the new Fort Street Bridge Park officially opened. Featuring a rain garden, plaza and symbolic sculpture, the park represents the culmination of nearly a decade ofgrassroots efforts by academics, union members, industry representatives and local activists determined to pay homage to the March. Not only does it formally acknowledge an oft-ignored milestone in labor history in a moment of resurgent interest in labor rights, it represents another step in the ongoing revitalization of a post-industrial city. 

“I see this as a toehold for the regreening of the entire industrial corridor,” said Paul Draus, one of the park’s organizers and a sociology professor at the University of Michigan. “It points to a different type of future.”

The site’s tragic past has long been overlooked among Detroiters. Despite national and international press coverage of the march and its aftermath, both sides in the conflict successfully distanced themselves from it. According to Lloyd Baldwin, historian for the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Ford Motor Company spent years denying the incident ever happened. Because of anti-communist sentiments, the UAW was equally reluctant to acknowledge the protest, even though grief and anger over the bloodshed helped lead to the union’s formation in 1935. 

When the bridge that held the sole commemorative marker was rebuilt in 2013, the Fort-Rouge Gateway Coalition (FRoG) formed to finally give the site its due. FRoG pulled together an unlikely coalition of more than two dozen organizations, including the Marathon Petroleum Corp — which owns a massive refinery just blocks away — and UAW Local 600, as well as environmental groups, community nonprofits and the University of Michigan-Dearborn. FRoG said the Ford Motor Company also signed up to support the project, donating $100,000.

To build momentum and solicit community input, local activists like Wanda Lowe-Anderson, who was born and raised in Southwest Detroit, helped organize numerous community events, from concerts and tavern meet-ups to meetings at local Rotary Clubs. Between donations from businesses and philanthropic foundations, members of FRoG, and a crowdfunding campaign, the coalition raised about $1 million. The Michigan Department of Transportation donated the land for the park, which will eventually be expanded onto land donated by Marathon Petroleum. “Anything worth having requires a lot of work,” Lowe-Anderson said. 

In addition to memorializing the Hunger March, the park will do something else that once seemed unthinkable: bring visitors into close contact with the Rouge River. Decades ago, the same industry that became an engine for middle-class growth in Detroit also brought a slew of chemicals to its waterways. Most notoriously, aheavily polluted section of the Rouge caught fire in 1969, when a torch dropped by a worker ignited oil and debris and sent flames 50 feet into the air.

The tight-knit neighborhood around the river’s banks suffered from decades of pollution, depopulation and economic distress. But the last decade has seen signs of rebirth. Separate from the Fort Street Park project, Marathon Petroleum recently added 100 acres of green space into the neighborhood as it was expanding a refinery, via a controversial mass buyout of homes that left some residents resentful. A number of locals were skeptical of Marathon’s intentions, afraid the buy-out would instead result in even more industrialization.

Despite distrust about industry’s role in the community, most residents ultimately joined with organizers of the new Fort Street Park, determined to honor a crucial moment in labor history. Draus hopes that by giving members of the community a place to spend time outdoors, this new park will help compel local industries to behave as good corporate citizens. “For me, having the park done is the delivery of a promise,” he said. “It’s not greenwashing. It’s real — you can see it. You can go there.” 

The park also offered a way for Ford to directly acknowledge the march, and the company’s role in it. A representative from the automaker was on hand for the official opening of the park on October 22. “The events surrounding the Hunger March mark a difficult chapter in our history,” Ford Motor Company archivist Ted Ryan said in an interview. He hopes that the incident, and the park dedicated to it, “serves as a reminder of how much the relationship between our company, its employees and the community have improved in the 90 years.”

For labor leaders like former Michigan AFL-CIO president Mark Gaffney, today’s labor movement can learn from the history represented in the park. “Does it make sense to organize the unemployed? Does it make sense to organize workers who will never have a contract?” Gaffney asked. “Around the time of the Hunger March, the answer to those questions was a resounding yes.” Thanks to that strategy, he says, unions added thousands of workers in subsequent years.

“The Hunger March is a snapshot of what life looked like without unions,” said Bill Cohen, one of the park’s creators and a member of UAW Local 600 since 1976. “You worked until you dropped, and there was no safety net.”

Tony Paris, a Detroit civil rights lawyer at theSugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice (named for Maurice Sugar, who represented the families of the slain marchers), also pointed to how the thread of police violence in the Ford Massacre connects with today. “It’s almost like what Detroit is doing now with protesters,” he said, referring to the arrests and alleged brutalizing of Black Lives Matter demonstrators this summer. 

There are further echoes of the Hunger March in current events. In a time of growing income inequality and unemployment, the economic circumstances that drove the jobless into the streets are not hard to envision today. With so-called “Right to Work” laws limiting unionization in more than half of states,Trump Administration rollbacks of labor and environmental regulations, and the ongoing debate about classifying gig workers, workers’ rights are weaker than they have been in decades. Union membership in the U.S. is down to about 10%. But recent strikes and actions led by teachers, nurses, grocery employees, fast food workers and media groups show a resurgent interest in organized labor, said Bob Bussel, who runs the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon.A recent Gallup poll shows public approval for unions at a near-50-year high. 

“I think a lot of people are beginning to give collective action and unionization a second look,” said Bussel. He praised the new park’s role as a memorial to the Hunger March just as questions about worker protections and compensations are being asked today. “The nation being willing to look at itself — warts and all — through these sorts of commemorations is very important.”

Today, what was once a vacant lot features a lush patch of lawn surrounded by trees and a large gathering plaza. Trails and bike loops connect the park to theIron Belle Trail, which runs the length of the state. Signage across the park tells the story of the Hunger March and the environmental cleanup of the region, particularly the once-toxic Rouge River that flows along one edge of the park. Residents enjoy spotting the returning wildlife, from foxes to herons and eagles. In the center, steel from the old Fort Street Bridge has been fashioned into a large, copper-colored, abstract sculpture. In front of it, a poem concludes: 

Because of those movements, those demands, those cries,

We all got a better life. 

For air, for earth, for water, a decent wage, a safe workplace;

For community, for equity, for justice, for recovery:

Together we march on.

Longtime resident Calvin Pearson said that his lifestyle has dramatically improved because of the greening of the area. “I’m the oldest of 16 kids. I’ve never had a chance to sit down before,” he said. “It’s given me peace.”

Nearby, Randy Truant marvels at the transformation. He’s the third-generation owner of Giovanni’s, the beloved Italian restaurant about block away from the park; he’s had a front row seat as Detroit’s economic decline brought down this once close-knit community. And now he’s getting a chance to see at least one small piece of it grow back.

“If you told me this would happen ten, fifteen years ago, I’d tell you to get out of here,” he said. 

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