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Friday, February 24, 2012

February 24, 2012: Detroit Connections

[This week’s posts, following the lead of Tuesday’s Mardi Gras-inspired celebration of New Orleans and friends, will take American Studies approaches to a few complex and interesting American cities. This is the third in the series.]

How a unique 1960s activist organization connects to complex, longstanding American Studies narratives in the Motor City.

In early May 1968, a walkout and strike began at Dodge’s Hamtramck assembly plant in Detroit. The efforts were the results of activism by a new labor organization in the city, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM); DRUM was created and constituted by African American activists and auto workers, and its equally Marxist- and Black Power-inspired worldview and manifestos critiqued management and the predominantly white United Auto Workers (UAW) in equal measure. Yet in its use of tactics such as wildcat strikes, picket lines, and elections for union executive boards, DRUM firmly located itself in the long histories of labor organizing in America and Detroit labor activism; moreover, one of DRUM’s central leaders, Gordon Baker, was centrally connected to the UAW as well. Any analysis of DRUM’s efforts and identity must begin with such multi-layered ties to organized labor.

At the same time, DRUM’s 1968 origins cannot be separated from other late 1960s Civil Rights and Black Power histories in Detroit. From similarly new and revolutionary organizations such as the Afro-American Student Movement (founded in 1965) and the city’s chapter of the Black Panther Party (1966), to the July 1967 riots that took over the city’s streets and much of the nation’s attention, Detroit was a flashpoint for much of the era’s African American activism. Moreover, those 1960s organizations are likewise deeply interconnected with one of the city’s and America’s most longstanding revolutionary African American communities: the Nation of Islam. Founded in the 1930s by two residents of Detroit, Wallace Fard (who had emigrated to the US from Saudi Arabia) and Elijah Muhammad (who had been born Elijah Poole in Georgia and had come north during the Great Migration), the Nation was by the 1960s a powerful nationwide organization; yet no history of African American activism in Detroit can ignore this central presence in the city’s racial and revolutionary communities.

For an American Studier, however, such historical, political, and social histories must be complemented by cultural ones—and it so happens that Detroit in the 1960s was also home to one of American popular culture’s most significant new communities: Motown. Founded in 1959 by Barry Gordy, himself a former auto worker, Motown Records represented a truly singular presence on the American musical and cultural landscape—an organization that built on the many 1950s developments in American music and the concurrent boom in Detroit artists during those years, but that put such developments and successes in the hands of African Americans in a profoundly new way. Motown’s goals were, of course, to achieve national popularity and sales, which could be seen as quite distinct from, and even opposed to, the more revolutionary purposes and efforts of DRUM and its peers; yet it’s more accurate, to my mind, to call each of these organizations part of an interconnected web of African American activism and power in the city and nation over these tumultuous years.

Last city post this weekend,


PS. What do you think?

2/24 Memory Day nominee: Winslow Homer, whose pioneering artistic career began during the Civil War, ended in the early 20th century, and along the way exemplified new, realistic, and deeply human engagements with social and natural places, worlds, and experiences.

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