While the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s is rightly credited with fostering numerous gains among African Americans over the past half century, the attendant labor movements of that era are regarded by many as playing a vital — albeit less prominent — role in the advancement of racial equity.
Now, Wayne State University associate professor David Goldberg is shining a spotlight on the labor struggles of the era with an upcoming book about late activist (and former WSU student) General Gordon Baker, founder of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and inarguably one of the most influential Detroit labor organizers of the late 20th century.
Goldberg, who teaches in the Department of African American Studies and is the director of the W.E.B. DuBois Scholars Learning Community, sat down for a chat about the upcoming book, Baker and Wayne State’s black activist tradition.
What made you want to do this book?
The focus of my research has always been on the connection between black freedom movements and labor, because the majority of the black community has always been working people, and black workers have played a central role in every black social movement, whether it was the New Negro movement, the civil rights movement, or the Black Power movement. I’m looking at uncovering that kind of nexus by looking at the centrality of workers to liberation politics and activism. I am writing about General Baker because his life’s work is the embodiment of this general theme, but also because I think his approach to racial and socioeconomic injustice remains incredibly relevant to contemporary struggles. Beyond that, General was a friend and mentor to me. While he was alive, we discussed telling the story of the Dodge Revolutionary Movement and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) from his perspective.
To my mind, the LRBW was the most advanced form of black power politics that emerged during the 1960s and early 70s. While the organization is known and discussed by scholars, it has yet to be captured in its full complexity. It’s often dismissed as a fanatical small sect when, in fact, it was an extremely influential political force in Detroit for a brief, but critical, period in the city’s history. And its influence carried over into grassroots Detroit politics for the next 50 years. For example, General’s wife, Marian Kramer, was arrested for laying down in front of the QLine a few months back, so as DRUM used to say, ‘the beat goes on.’
These politics resonate with me. Their critique of capitalism made sense to me. Growing up in this area, of course the nexus between racism and capitalism made perfect sense. Plus, General was a friend of mine. I used to ask, ‘Why don’t you write this history? There are lessons to be learned here.’ He’d be like, ‘You write it. I’m too busy actually doing things.’ General was unwillingly to focus on intellectual work rather than political activism, despite the fact that he was both an intellectual and a historian. He wanted the story told right so people could learn from it, but he felt that this had yet to be done.
General felt like his activism had been caricaturized, and I felt the same way. I mean, he was the one actually organizing people in the plant, organizing workers, and scholars have kind of, to use vernacular from the field, caricaturized him as a ‘pork chop’ nationalist devoid of class politics. That really hurt him because he was the one, of course, organizing at the point of production. His message to me was to tell the story, to get what really happened out — but also to be critical, because General’s whole idea about using history was to learn from it and build upon it.
The book is kind of a dual biography — because if you talk about General, you have to also talk about (Baker’s wife) Marian and because they lived revolutionary lives. They lived in the spirit of what Che Guevara referred to as ‘The New Man and Woman,’ which required revolutionaries to develop and live by collectively oriented principles. Not only in your public work, but in your private work.
When did you start working on the book, and when will you be done?
I started working on the book probably in the late 20th century. I mean, I’ve been collecting stuff on black power in Detroit for years and years. In fact, General and I used to collect the material and share it together. I have tons of material, so I’m currently sorting through it and breaking it into chunks as I prepare to write different sections.
It’s very hard for me to predict when I’ll be done. I’m a slow writer generally, very careful with my writing — especially this one, because this is my passion project, the one thing that I’ve always wanted to write. And because its somebody that I not only knew, but revered and loved, I don’t want to screw it up. I’m going to be as thorough as I can be, so I can’t really predict when it will be done.
You were friends with General Baker, so you already know his story. Are you making any new discoveries as you go?
One of the things that’s very difficult about this is to really understand organizations like the Black Panthers or the League and what happened to them. You really have to get an understanding of just how active the FBI was in suppressing movements. So I’ve been getting a lot of files. And it takes years and years, and you never know if they’re giving what they have or if they’re giving you a portion of it, so you have to be very careful using those things. So I’m learning certain things through that. I was looking at a group that General was involved in after the league, called the Communist League. The depth of surveillance during this time was really intense and pervasive. I’m also trying to get evidence of the various different forms of counter-intelligence that helped foster the split in the League, and in Detroit’s Black Power movement more generally.
General Baker was part of a long line of black political activists who came out of Wayne State. Can you talk a bit about the university’s role as it pertains to the local activist tradition?
Wayne was central to the black radical tradition in Detroit, but perhaps not always for the right reasons. It was always a school that was very accessible to the working-class, so people sought to get their educations here. But at the same time, the school has always had a very complicated relationship with the surrounding community, particularly the black population.
A lot of the organizing that took place on this campus by students was focused more on the real-world implications of what the school was doing in the community. Groups like UHURU quickly took what resources they could get on campus and sought to mobilize those in community to deal with real-life issues facing the black student body in the ‘60s, like police brutality. The general ethos of ditching the ‘ivory tower’ and having connections in the broader community has always been a part of black student activism at Wayne State. Many in the community would like to see more of that again because we think that it’s important for Wayne State to not only educate people from Detroit but be an urban institution that serves working-class people — and the black working class in particular — a mission that the Department of African American Studies is committed to.