- A newspaper article reporting on the Ford Massacre.

The Ford Massacre - Detroit's Darkest Day

The most heinous crime committed by Henry Ford's Service Men.

Imagine yourself in Detroit in the 1920s. Demand for cars skyrocketed thanks to the automobile finally being accessible to the working class. The U.S. auto industry was booming with giants like Ford, GM and Chrysler climbing towards the top three automotive giants on Earth. Detroit was the home of the automobile industry, as at the time, almost every car on the road was produced there. Those were times of glory for everyone in America. Businesses such as car dealerships were booming, highways that would boost the economy were being built, everyone lived a happy life, the automobile was accessible to everyone, and no one was unemployed.

The big three were making lots of profit, especially Ford who took the top spot as the biggest automotive company in North America, after the massive success that came from the Model T. The US was producing 50% more cars every year since 1929. However, Ford was struggling with sales of the Model T slowing down overtime, as it was getting old and out of date. Henry Ford’s son, Edsel Ford tried to make a new model to replace the Model T called the Model A, but failed, and the company encountered losses.

But the sales drop were the least of Ford’s problems. In the year 1929, the stock market began to fall and would eventually crash. The great depression had begun. As a result, a really bad domino effect had occurred. Prices of petrol skyrocketed, no one wanted to buy a car, which led to high unemployment, as usual during an economic recession as there was a lack of demand. The big three were forced to lay lots of workers off, as costs of production were rising.

The Great Depression

Unemployed workers lining up for free food. (Source: steemit.com)

Unemployed workers lining up for free food. (Source: steemit.com)

It was an economic nightmare. Unemployment was rising, businesses were closing down, and no one could afford anything or gained income, and the Great Depression had began affect the Big Three and the U.S Economy as a whole. People were on the streets after not being able to afford the rising costs for basic needs. Many people were living off canned beans and soup given to them for free.

Two years later, the crisis worsened. One statistic showed that four Detroiters were dying of hunger every day. The government couldn't afford welfare as they would have to pay many unemployed citizens. Henry Ford, the richest man in the world back then, said that the unemployed had created their own misery by not working hard enough. As a result, Ford laid off most of his workers for that reason when they were in fact, working as hard as they can to support each of their families, and laying them off was the worst thing that Ford could do to them.

The network of the unemployed in Detroit was founded as a result and quickly grew, saving many families from sleeping on the streets. A citywide meeting was held, and it was decided that all of the unemployed would march on the streets of Detroit in front of Ford’s manufacturing complex for unemployment compensation and worker’s rights. It was the birth of the trade union, along with industrial action.

The Hunger March

Workers marching on the streets of Detroit. (Source: workers.org)

Workers marching on the streets of Detroit. (Source: workers.org)

The march was conducted by the Unemployed Councils and the U.S Auto Workers Union. They had fourteen demands. Their demands were, quote, “Jobs for all laid off Ford workers; immediate payment of 50 per cent of full wages; seven-hour day without reduction in pay; slowing down of deadly speedup; two fifteen-minute rest periods; No discrimination against African-Americans in jobs, welfare, medical service; free medical aid in Ford hospital for employed and unemployed Ford workers and families; five tons of coal and coke for the winter; abolition of Service Men," who were Ford’s hated private army of spies and thugs led by the notorious Harry Bennett, "no foreclosures on homes of Ford workers; immediate payment of lump sum of fifty dollars for winter relief; full wages for part time workers; abolition of the graft system of hiring; and the right to organize.”

Other demands made by the Council of the Unemployed were related to other issues getting to do with the city of Detroit, the automotive industry, and other issues around the world. They demanded the freedom of the Scottsboro Nine, a group of nine African-American youths who were falsely accused of raping two white women. They also called for the Big Three to "keep their hands off China", a reference to the sale of scrap iron from factories to Japan, which would be used in war crimes against the Chinese.

The march began in Dearborn, Michigan. It all went well until the mayor of Detroit, Clyde Ford, who was Henry Ford's cousin, sent out riot and military police to try to stop the march. Marchers were attacked with tear gas at the city's border. However, they had managed to overthrow resistance from the authorities and forced police to retreat by throwing sticks and stones at them. However, they soon regrouped in front of Ford's manufacturing complex. Firefighters also joined in, sprayed freezing cold water at the protesters to try to stop them in the middle of Winter.

The Massacre

Protesters running away after the first shots were fired. (Source: workers.org)

Protesters running away after the first shots were fired. (Source: workers.org)

All looked well until they reached the Fort Street bascule Bridge, the entrance to Ford’s manufacturing complex. While Henry Ford was inside the manufacturing complex and saw the march happening, he ordered his “Service Men”, who were Ford’s hated spies and thugs who Ford hired in order to make his company unstoppable, to open fire at the approximately 5,000 protesters outside the manufacturing complex. They were also backed by the Detroit police an fire department, which were dispatched by Clyde Ford, Henry Ford’s cousin. The police were joined by Ford security guards, and began shooting into the crowd. .

The protesters were about to call the march off and walk back home peacefully when suddenly the notorious Harry Bennett, head of Ford Security and the infamous Service Men, went out of a car with two other accomplices and started to open fire on the protesters with machine guns. Harry Bennett was immediately recognized and had many rocks and stones thrown at him. After the entire ordeal, protesters Joe York, Coleman Leny, Joe DeBlasio, and sixteen-year-old Joe Bussell were killed. At least 22 were wounded by gunfire. Forty-eight workers were arrested, with some chained to their hospital beds.

Aftermath

The Fort Street bascule bridge, the site of the Ford Massacre. (Source: YouTube, detroitdrone.com.)

The Fort Street bascule bridge, the site of the Ford Massacre. (Source: YouTube, detroitdrone.com.)

After the massacre had happened, a funeral was held. Joe Bussell's brother, Ben Bussell spoke loudly: “In the name of my murdered brother, I call upon you to organize and fight. Long live the workers of the world.” As a band played the song The International, the lyrics “Arise, ye prisoners of starvation” was fitting. 80,000 joined the march to the cemetery. Unfortunately, an African-American worker, Curtis Williams, passed away a few days later, succumbing to his sustained injuries during the massacre. The funeral committee scattered his ashes over the cemetery from a plane.

Detroit's new mayor, Frank Murphy commented on the practice of the chaining of patient prisoners to their beds, saying quote, “The chaining of patient prisoners to beds is a brutal practice that should find no encouragement in an enlightened hospital”. Murphy also came under fire due to his involvement in the massacre, dispatching police officers and firefighters to disrupt the march. Frank Murphy described Harry Bennett as an "inhuman brute and a terrible man." In an interview, Murphy was asked what the difference was between state police and Ford's service men was. He responded "“A legalistic one", indicating that the two were equally as horrible.

Nine years after the massacre, 40,000 Ford workers conducted a sit-down strike that had lasted for ten days. As a result, Henry Ford signed a bargaining agreement with the United Auto Workers. Decades later, in 1992, Auto Union retirees placed five headstones in memory of the workers who died during the massacre, including one for Williams. Each headstone is carved with the words, “He gave his life for the union.”

Investigation and Court Report

An announcement of the public investigation. (Source: timetoast.com)

An announcement of the public investigation. (Source: timetoast.com)

Prosecutor Harry S. Toy convened a grand jury to investigate all the violence that had happened. After the investigation was complete, a report was filed, saying:

“After hearing many witnesses on both sides of the matter, this grand jury finds no legal grounds for indictments. However, we find that the conduct of the demonstrators was ill-considered and unlawful in their utter disregard for constituted authority. We find, further, that the conduct of the Dearborn City Police when they first met the demonstrators, though well intended, might have been more discreet, and better considered before they applied force in the form of tear gas. However, we believe that the said police discharged what they conscientiously considered to be their sworn duty as law enforcing officials, alike when they intercepted the rioters at the city’s limit, using tear gas and in the critical and violent situation which ensued employing gunfire to protect life and property, which were then manifestly in danger.”

One grand juror, a political ally of Frank Murphy, dissented, calling the administration of the grand jury “the most biased, prejudiced and ignorant proceeding imaginable”.

Ford Today

The Ford Factory Today. (Source: YouTube, YouCar.)

The Ford Factory Today. (Source: YouTube, YouCar.)

Today, Ford employees are treated fairly and equally without any form of discrimination or abuse of workers. Ford provides free health insurance for all employees, free healthcare and employee discounts when buying Ford products. They also receive many perks such as paid leave, free vacations, etc. The Union of Auto Workers now backs up all people working in the automotive industry in the United States, and constantly fights for work conditions, higher wages, and so on which will benefit the employees.

All this would not happen today if it was not for the hundreds of people who fought for worker’s rights back then in 1932…

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Comments (3)

  • Very interesting, and tragic. Henry Ford could be a bit of a git sometimes.

      2 years ago
  • Mate, you really need an editor. Your facts are good, but your sentences are terrible. Keep at it, though!

      2 years ago
  • Ah, Detroit. An interesting article for sure.

      2 years ago
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