Friday, June 21, 2013

Herb Boyd Reviews Mike Hamlin's New Book about the Social and Political History of Radical Black Labor Struggles in Detroit in the 1960s and '70s



Book Review
By Herb Boyd 

Mike Hamlin, Labor Activist and Revolutionary Tells Very Important Story of Legendary Radical Black Labor Movements in Detroit During the 1960s and '70s and Strips Away the Myths

A Black Revolutionary’s Life in Labor:  Black Workers Power in Detroit.  by Mike Hamlin (wlth Michelle Gibbs)  Against the Tide,  2013

     Among the most redeeming and rewarding moments in Michael Hamlin’s “A Black Revolutionary’s Life in Labor:  Black Workers Power in Detroit” (Against the Tide,  2013) is his analysis of the several organizations in which he was a vital force, a significant member.   His first-hand account offers in vivid detail the strengths and weaknesses of such promising formations as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Black Workers’ Congress, and several other less prominent groups.

     Not only was Hamlin a founder and leader of some of these organizations, his maturity and calm under pressure was the tissue that held them together in times of tension and disagreement that threatened to tear them apart.  Hamlin also provides readers with insightful profiles of a few of the notable Detroit figures in the movement, including the late Ken Cockrel and John Watson, both of whom were with him at the very beginning of his labor activism.

     Without the diligence and commitment of Michele Gibbs, Hamlin’s memoir may be like so many others that are waiting to be written.  She returned to Detroit from her home in Oaxaca, Mexico at a most propitious moment and her very presence not only resuscitated Hamlin who had been stricken with life-threating ailments but she stayed around for several weeks interviewing him, gathering much of the material that was critical in shaping this engrossing book.

      In fewer than a hundred pages of narrative Hamlin and Gibbs touch on riveting chapters of the revolutionary’s political development, an odyssey that began in the cotton fields of Mississippi, continued in Ecorse, Michigan, and finally settled in Detroit.  Hamlin succinctly summarizes his apartheid days under Jim Crow, contrasting it with the Jewish Holocaust.  “Instead of big death camps,” he writes, “the South had little pockets of them, but everywhere.”

      He experienced a number of memorable moments coming of age in Michigan and he recounts an incident when he was in the fifth grade that had a powerful effect on him.  “The teacher said that I had done something and I replied, ‘I didn’t aim to do it.’  All my classmates laughed, thinking that this was a funny way to talk.  My reaction to that was to keep quiet and listen.”

      Keeping quiet and listening carefully and intently were important attributes for Hamlin during his days in the Army when soldiers are practically driven toward a “nihilistic outlook,” he recalls.  “Once your life is devalued, you carry out orders no matter what they ask you to do.” Fortunately, Hamlin’s mindset was stronger than the gung-ho orientation instilled by drill sergeants and ranking officers, and after mustering out he returned to Detroit and got a job as a truck driver at the Detroit News.  It was here that he met Cockrel and Watson who worked on the trucks delivering the papers to various outlets.

      The three bonded and from their daily discussions about the terrible political conditions, particularly the rampant police brutality in the city, they decided it was time to do something about it.   

      Following a method they lifted from V.I Lenin, they launched the Inner City Voice newspaper in 1967.  The paper would be a vehicle for the voiceless black workers many of whom like General Baker, gravitated to it at first from the factories from Detroit and then across the nation as the RUMs morphed under the umbrella of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.  As the League’s influence and cache spread it cast a fresh light of optimism on the possibility of a working class upheaval, that long awaited “dictatorship of the proletariat.” 

    But the rebellion was stillborn and Hamlin waxes poignant on how and why that pregnant moment fell so disappointingly short.  “It’s interesting the way all the organizations began to dissolve at the same time,” Hamlin laments.  “We know of the efforts of COINTELPRO (a program put into effect by J. Edgar Hoover to destroy the left, including the black movement) to inject as much confusion as possible through infiltration.  We also know the effect of the calculated flooding of our communities with hard drugs.  But there was also the tendency internally, after some successes, to begin to believe in your own invulnerability.  Then personal ego takes the place of group betterment.”

    To this explanation, Hamlin adds a list of internal contradictions that erupted at the League’s headquarters in Highland Park where sympathetic white supporters were the targets of abuse, and where the occurrences of rape fueled the general onset of demoralization.  Some of these issues were spelled out by Hamlin during his recent appearance at the Left Forum in New York City.

      Hamlin is as impressive a storyteller as he is a social scientist, and this expertise is extended across a tableau of problems that curtailed the progressive forces who rallied around such formidable and charismatic leaders as Baker, Cockrel, Watson, et al.  He believes it was their level of commitment, especially for Cockrel and Watson that was responsible for their early deaths.

     Thanks to the dedication of Gibbs and the unconditional love of his wife, Joann, Hamlin is still with us, though not without health issues that makes it difficult for him to resume that relentless, energetic activism that is his legacy. 

      “A Black Revolutionary’s Life in Labor” reaches well beyond this corridor of struggle, and the pages are deftly complemented by essays from George Colman and Charles Simmons, and the photos, Gibbs poetry and illustrations, a study guide, and appendix fill out the rich tapestry of Hamlin’s remarkable sojourn that continues to find inspiration in the students he teaches and the troubled Americans he counsels.

      Towards the end of the book, Hamlin offers this assessment of where we stand and what’s to be done:  “What the situation today lacks is the third component, a revolutionary organization rooted in the masses with the working class to lead it.”

      We might also an additional lack—a strong and vigorous Mike Hamlin.  


Groundbreaking documentary produced by the League of Revolutionary Black workers (LRBW) in 1970:



Herb Boyd is a journalist, activist, teacher, and has authored or edited 22 books, including his most recent one, Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today. His book Baldwin's Harlem, a biography of James Baldwin, was a finalist for a 2009 NAACP Image Award. In 1995, with Robert Allen, he was a recipient of an American Book Award for Brotherman--The Odyssey of Black Men in America, an anthology. We Shall Overcome, a media-fusion book with narration by the late Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, is used in classrooms all over the world, as is his Autobiography of a People and The Harlem Reader. His articles can be found in such publications as The Black Scholar, The Final Call, the Amsterdam News, Cineaste, Downbeat, and The Network Journal, among others.

Among the highlights of his remarkable journalistic career was an invitation to fly on Air Force One with President Obama, whom he has interviewed on several occasions.

Over the last decade or so, Boyd has scripted several documentaries, including several with Keith Beauchamp on cold cases of martyrs from the civil rights era that were shown on Biography Channel and TV One. With filmmaker Eddie Harris, he was the writer on three documentaries--Trek to the Holy Land, Cri de Coeur (Cry from the Heart), and Slap the Donkey, that tracks the Rev. Al Sharpton's presidential bid in 2004. The latter film was recently selected to be screened at the Montreal Film Festival in 2010. Boyd is also a frequent guest on national television and radio shows, as well as a keynote speaker at many functions sponsored by noted community and college organizations, where his commentaries on African American culture and politics have earned him an increasingly large audience and popularity. For more than forty years, he has taught at institutions of higher learning. Currently, he teaches at the College of New Rochelle in the Bronx and at City College New York, and is also a national and international correspondent for Free, a media company that specializes in Internet television.

"Finally Got the News"  (1970)

from Libcom Dot Org 10 months ago:

Documentary about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a radical black workers' group based in the car factories of Detroit. Through interviews with members, supporters and opponents as well as footage of leafleting and picket lines, Finally Got the News documents their attempts to build a radical black workers' organisation that would take on both racist management and unions and fight to improve conditions for all workers, black and white.

Finally Got the News from Libcom Dot Org on Vimeo.