“You know, Henry Ford killed like six hundred people,” my grandfather said while detailing his youth in Detroit during the Great Depression.

That statement, said so nonchalantly, would lead me down a 4-year rabbit hole of incredible stories having been scrubbed from the books of history, and acts as the impetus for this documentary - Gangsters and Rebels: unionizing Detroit (1930-1941).

It began with Ford’s “Service Men,” the world’s largest private army consisting of 3,000 ex-cons, ex-athletes, ex-cops and mobsters - led by the brutal, bowtie clad ex-boxer, Harry Bennett.

Harry Bennett led the Ford Service Department, the world's largest private army, and fought his way to second-in-command at Ford Motor Co.

I read hundreds of accounts detailing their ruthless union-busting tactics, and how they were the inspiration behind the Gestapo.

Harry Bennett and his Ford Service Men beat a union organizer handing our pamphlets near the Ford Rouge facility.

I learned of Ford’s antisemitism and kinship with Hitler. I learned about the Purple Gang (Detroit’s Jewish mob), the Black Legion (a branch of the Ku Klux Klan), communist infiltrations, Black Hand kidnappings, assassinations, spies, and for good measure, a tale of live lions being walked around Ford’s manufacturing plant as a warning to the employees against unionizing, communism, and theft.

These incredible tales led to an important question: in the face of such a powerful and violent adversary, how did the union prevail? Answer: Enter Walter Reuther and his brothers Victor and Roy.

Roy (left), Victor (center) and Walter (right) were the product of a socialist father that ingrained workers' rights into his sons at an early age.

The Reuther Brothers, led by the middle child, Walter, joined the rebellion against rising inequality and poor working conditions during the Depression.

The Hunger March - a protest against Ford layoffs resulted in the death of five men at the hands of the Ford Service Department and Detroit police.

Walter, in particular, was a master of organizing, public relations, and negotiating idealistic pursuits with practical solutions. He saw labor movements not as narrow special interest groups but as instruments to advance social justice and human rights in democratic societies.

 

After surviving multiple assassination attempts, the brothers succeeding in making the United Auto Workers (UAW) the most progressive labor union in American history. Walter leveraged the UAW's resources and influence to advocate for workers' rights, civil rights, women's rights, universal health care, public education, affordable housing, environmental stewardship, nuclear nonproliferation, and democratic trade unionism around the world.

A household name during his life, Reuther's legacy is all but forgotten to history. (excerpts taken from wikipedia)

A powerful ally of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, Walter Reuther helped organize and finance the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, delivering remarks from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial shortly before King gave his historic "I Have a Dream" speech.

It’s important to note that the Reuther Brothers weren’t the first to take on corporate interests in Detroit, and they weren’t alone. I believe it’s fair to say, Genora Johnson Dollinger may be the most unsung figure in the fight to establish an automobile union. She was the founder and organizer of the Women's Auxiliary and the Women's Emergency Brigade during the 1937 sit-down strike of General Motors in Flint. These events were recounted in a documentary film, Babies and Banners, which was nominated for an Oscar. (excerpt taken from Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame)

Genora Johnson Dollinger founded the Women's Emergency Brigade, instrumental in winning the Great Flint Sitdown Strike of 1937.

And then there was Fanny Peck and the Housewives’ League of Detroit. Fannie organized the group in 1930 by calling together fifty local housewives, and over the next 30 years the organization worked to uplift their communities social and economic status. Requirements for league membership included a pledge to support black-businesses, buy black products, and to support black professionals within the community. By 1935, membership in Detroit increased to ten thousand. The success of the Detroit League made it the model for the establishment of the National Housewives’ League of America, in which Peck served as the first president. (Excerpt taken from Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

Genora Johnson Dollinger founded the Women's Emergency Brigade, instrumental in winning the Great Flint Sitdown Strike of 1937.

Certainly these are all interesting stories, but why are they important stories for a modern audience? Because in the end, it was history’s relevance to today that struck me most. A society struggling to adapt to an economic revolution and the battle of ideas that ensued. Ideas such as the virtues of socialism and communism versus capitalism, labor versus corporate interests, authoritarianism, xenophobia, racism, “fake news” and even, yes, “Russian interference.”

 

At its core, this is a story about rising inequality and the fight to stem the tide. It parallels the conversations taking place today, and it’s my belief that the timing couldn’t be better. These stories don’t just act as inspiration in the next step toward a more equal society, but as a blueprint for the successes (and failures) that brought us to this moment in time.

In closing, I want to clarify that Henry Ford did NOT kill six hundred people, but the number of murders carried out by those surrounding Henry Ford, well, that number remains horrifically unclear.

-Christopher Tedrick

Currently in pre-production, Gangsters and Rebels is actively seeking investors. Please contact us at gangstersandrebels@gmail.com if you’re interested in supporting this project.

© 2019 Proudly made by Mariana Tedrick