The man that Chrysler learned to fear
General Baker, one of the best-known figures from the Black workers' rebellion in Detroit in the 1960s and early 1970s, died on May 18 after a long illness. Baker helped found the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), which along with other RUMs led workplace actions and wildcat strikes in defiance of both the Big Three automakers and the United Auto Workers union, by that point mired in bureaucracy and racism. The rebellion of Black autoworkers inspired rank-and-file upsurges in other industries.
More than 1,000 people turned out for a memorial service on May 24 at UAW Local 600 to honor Baker. Here,, a lawyer and activist in Detroit, pays tribute to the revolutionary he met 45 years ago.
I FIRST met General Gordon Baker Jr. in the spring of 1969 when a worker was killed in an accident at the Eldon Avenue Chrysler plant in Detroit.
Gen, one of the founders of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and DRUM, had called for a wildcat strike at the Eldon Avenue plant. My boss at Community Legal Counsel (from a family of militant labor activists) took us out to act as observers since arrests inevitably followed in the wake of wildcat strikes--which put the United Auto Workers union and Chrysler even more firmly in bed together.
I had only been in Detroit six months. I was already working with the Black Panthers and the Michigan welfare rights organization in the citywide public housing rent strike. But I had never heard of DRUM. Gen was standing in front of the main gate with others handing out leaflets and repeating, "That plant is a death trap."
After the shift change, we all went to a nearby bar to compare notes and strategize what was going to happen next. While we were there, someone (presumably the Detroit Red Squad or the FBI) broke into our car and stole our notes and papers. I began to understand what a major Black political leader Gen was, and how closely he was watched and followed. He was fired from three Chrysler plants, and the company's lawyers got an injunction preventing him from coming within 500 feet of a Chrysler facility for the rest of his life.
He changed his name and got a job at the Ford Rouge plant, where he worked in the foundry. Some ultra-leftists ratted him out, and Ford fired him. At that point, the UAW was stuck. He had been at Ford for two or three years under the name "Alexander Ware." Since 1945, the UAW had a deal with Ford that any worker who gave false information on an employment application, but who had worked for a year without any trouble, could not be fired for the infraction.
Ironically, in 1968, the UAW sent a letter to all of its members calling the LRBW and the DRUM movement the single greatest threat to the union in 30 years. But could they give up the protection for all Ford workers just to get Gen?
My firm took the case. Dave Moore, an older Black leftist from the 1932 Ford Hunger March--five killed, 98 wounded, and no charges--who worked at Solidarity House as an international rep, convinced union leaders that they had to protect Gen. They did. He went back to work under his real name and retired from Ford. By that time, he was president of the foundry unit inside Local 600. When he died, he had long been celebrated as one of the most effective and progressive leaders in the union and the labor movement.
IT IS widely thought that Muhammad Ali was the first prominent African American to defy the draft during the Vietnam War. In fact, it had been Gen in 1965.
Gen was already well known among the rising Black liberation/civil rights/revolutionary movement in Detroit. The word went out that if Gen was drafted, the city would blow, and the sky was the limit. Leaflets suggested that there would be a huge gathering/demonstration at the induction center the day he was to report. The Army flew in troops from Fort Hood, Texas to be ready.
To hear Gen tell it, they looked around the night before and figured they had 12 people for the demo. The next morning, they accompanied Gen to draft headquarters. Gen told the commander he was trying to keep things peaceful and had only brought a delegation. I think he also suggested that he was looking forward to being drafted and organizing Black soldiers against the war.
Mysteriously, Gen--fit as a fiddle and strong as an ox--flunked the physical. We assume the Army blinked.
After Rev. William Sloan Coffin of the Riverside Church in New York City issued a call from the pulpit for the payment of $500 million in reparations to African Americans for their enslavement, Gen was among the leaders of the National Black Economic Development Conference (NBEDC), which called a meeting in Detroit and issued a similar demand. Shortly after that, Gen was served with a federal grand jury subpoena.
Naturally, every left/progressive lawyer in town would have been happy to represent him. But Gen indicated that he did not need a lawyer. The morning he was going to appear, the LRBW, Black Panthers and Black United Front joined in a unified action for the first and only time in Detroit history. Angry and militant (predominately) young Black men not only demonstrated at both entrances to the Federal Building, but surrounded the entire block, five or six rows deep, chanting slogans.
Gen went into the grand jury room (witnesses are not covered by the secrecy provisions), took the oath and was asked his name. He said, "My name is General Gordon Baker Jr., and that is the last question I am going to answer." After a prolonged silence and some conferencing, the assistant U.S. attorney in charge said, "Thank you for coming, Mr. Baker." That was the end of the investigation into NBEDC.
IN 1976, the Communist Labor Party (CLP), an integrated organization of which Gen was one of the founders, decided to run him for the state legislature, going after a seat where the incumbent was an Black conciliatory politician, George Edwards, who was married to Esther Gordy Edwards, Motown founder Berry Gordy's mother. It took 40,000 signatures to get on the ballot as a third party candidate, and the CLP got them.
In 1966, one year before the Detroit Rebellion, there was a "mini-riot" on Kercheval Street on Detroit's east side. It was before I came to Detroit, and I have never understood all of the details. But Gen was arrested--possibly by himself, or with one or two others--charged with carrying a concealed weapon and convicted.
In order for Gen to run for the state legislature, I had to get this conviction expunged, which can be done if there have been no further convictions and five years have passed. I told the court the truth-- Gen needed to have his conviction expunged because he wanted to go into electoral politics. I didn't explain which party he planned to represent. Patty Boyle, a conservative Democrat who was later on the Michigan Supreme Court, granted the motion.
Gen ran as an open communist and almost beat Edwards. The legislature quickly changed the law to make it almost impossible to qualify for the ballot as a third party candidate. We challenged the law and lost.
In 1978, Gen decided to run again, as a Democrat. Edwards resigned. Thus, we had to contend with the UAW Democrats; the Black nationalist slate; the Christian Democrats, mainly representing the Black Baptist churches; and the Republicans.
The preachers went crazy supporting Ethel Terrell, an extremely stupid and venal Bible-thumper. Churchgoers were warned not to even speak to canvassers, nor take any literature from anyone except their preachers and Ethel Terrell. Surprisingly, liberal Congressman John Conyers, who represented the district in the House of Representatives, threw his support to the Christian Democrats, presumably to keep from having an elected official to his left in his district.
Terrell barely won--Gen beat everybody else. A few years later, Terrell became a laughing-stock of the legislature after she put out white supremacist literature in her office, thinking that it was good because it had so much Christian symbology on the cover. I never had much respect for Conyers after that. Plus, so much for electoral politics.
Gen had an interesting affect--a big, kind of goofy looking Black guy who was a brilliant autodidact. If you went to the Reuther Labor Library at Wayne State University on any given Saturday, there would be Gen, studying.
I have made it clear in previous writings that coming to Detroit exposed me to an entire network of political activism and leftist ideology, which became life-changing. I have had a lot of remarkable friends and colleagues in my 46-plus years here. But General Baker stands above them all.
I am proud to have had him as a friend and comrade. So long!
As the LRBW said, "Dare to struggle, dare to win! Fight, fail, fight again, fail again, fight on to final victory!"