Dying From the Inside: The Decline of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, LRBW
By Ernie Allen, early LRBW member late 1960s
Ernie Allen was active in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements on the West Coast during the 1960s. He joined the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in 1970 and served as its Director of Political Education. He is currently a Corresponding Associate of the Journal of Ethnic Studies and teaches history in the W.E. B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
This paper was gone over at great length in the latest “Discuss, Cuss and Fuss” study group by General Baker Institute in Detroit, with members from the original LRBW contributing and Ernie Allen presenting. As a retired white worker in north-central Wisconsin, who was mentored and taught by many of those folks, I thought we could get the jump on Black History Month by re-printing it here with some screen-snaps from the film “Finally Got the News,” as produced by LRBW.
Clips from the film “Finally Got the News” appear in this post (with German subtitles by Darnell Stephen Summers, now living in Berlin, an early participant in LRBW who Zooms in from Berlin for the LRNA Detroit Labor Committee weekly studies.
In July of 1967, years of pent-up frustration and rage exploded in the city of Detroit. Crowds of angry Black people filled the streets, looting the stores that siphoned their money out of the community, burning the slums to which economic exploitation and housing discrimination confined them, and fighting the police force which harassed and often brutalized them. Lyndon Johnson insisted this “lawlessness” had “nothing to do with civil rights” and fanned the flames by sending in the army. By the time the rebellion was over, at least forty-one people had been killed and 3800 arrested; 1300 buildings had been burned, and 2700 businesses looted.
Widespread unemployment among Blacks in the Motor City was certainly a major cause of the rebellion. When, afterward, companies announced small increases in hiring as a token gesture, thousands lined up at the personnel offices. But it wasn’t only the unemployed members of the working class who had spilled into the streets in . Blacks and even whites who put in their days and nights on the automobile assembly lines of Chrysler, Ford, and GM were seen taking part in the “shopping for free,” getting back some of what was theirs.
The following May, their anger took a new form. Four thousand workers shut down the Dodge Main assembly plant in the first wildcat strike to hit that factory in fourteen years. The issue was the incessant, nerve-destroying, and accident-causing speed-up of the line. A key element in making the strike happen was a group of radical Black workers who called themselves DRUM—the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement.
Black workers had been kept out of many auto plants entirely until the Second World War; now they were the holders of the lowest-paying, most dangerous jobs, and they had the least seniority and job security. In the old, unsafe, and overheated Detroit plants, the auto companies kept up the pressure to produce more cars with fewer people. Black workers, especially, paid the price; they called this process “niggermation.” The United Auto Workers, dominated by an overwhelmingly white officialdom interested in negotiating primarily for pay increases, not better conditions, offered little help.
DRUM set out to attack all these issues—discrimination in the plant, discrimination in the union, and the power of the auto companies to dictate working conditions. Within a few months DRUM had dramatized its seriousness to both the company and the union by publicly calling another illegal strike which was honored by 3000 Black workers and some whites; demonstrating at union and company headquarters; and putting forward a DRUM candidate, Ron March, who pulled out the largest number of votes in the first round of the union election.
Company and union officials responded with injunctions, arrests, firings, and vote-tampering. Still, the model was imitated in other plants. The most successful new attempt was. ELRUM, in Chrysler’s Eldon Avenue gear and axle plant; others included FRUM (in Ford’s River Rouge plant), CADRUM (at Cadillac), and UPRUM and HRUM (among United Parcel workers and health workers). In an effort to keep up the momentum and marshall a strong enough force in the plants and the community to defend the RUMs against growing repression, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was formed.
In general, the effectiveness of New Left groups in attracting support and carrying out action and education was not matched by an ability to create stable organizations. Particularly in the later years, splits and splinters multiplied as rapidly as they ever have on the left. This essay examines a number of dilemmas and failings in the League which were common to many other groups. Among them are:
- A temptation (already noted by Reggie Schell) to seek coalitions and expanded organizations which look impressive in their formal structures—which allow more people to have some kind of contact with the organization and its politics—but which are often much less solid than they appear.
- A related tendency for leaders to lose contact with their base, and to see what is happening only in terms of their own ideas about what is needed.
- A lack of structures to encourage democracy and full participation by members.
- A lack of clarity or agreement about strategies and goals. In dealing with these issues, the essay delves into the internal conflicts and factions of the organization, and it embodies the author’s personal judgement about the roles played by specific individuals, including himself. The readings which he suggests in the Appendix offer other points of view. In this chapter, the footnotes are the author’s.
The founding of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) in the late 1960s proved to be one of the more significant manifestations of Afroamerican political maturity since World War II. Though only a short-lived organization, the League, by virtue of competent leadership and the right conditions, and despite opposition from both company and union, was able to mobilize hundreds of black American workers in the factory—where the material wealth of the country is produced.
The LRBW’s approach differed in several ways from those of other black organizations seeking civil and social rights. Rather than place primary emphasis on combating the awesome effects of Afroamerican oppression, it directed its efforts toward organizing that specific sector, which as a result of its strategic position within the economy, harbored the greatest potential for effecting ultimate political and social change. Rather than view the local police as the principle enemy of the black community, the practical implications of which would lead other, less sophisticated black organizations into fruitless and bloody encounters, the League, while taking concrete steps to combat police oppression, continued to view that phenomenon as only one important aspect of class rule. Rather than attempt to resolve the social problems of blacks in piecemeal fashion, as had the majority of Afroamerican reformist organizations, the League envisioned the creation of a socialist society in the United States in which all forms of exploitation of human beings by one another would be eliminated forever.
The LRBW was an organized outgrowth of the 1967 black urban rebellion of Detroit. Beginning in May 1968 with the creation of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), by early 1969 the more or less autonomous formation of additional Revolutionary Union Movements underwent partial consolidation as the League. With a centralized leadership in command and important material resources at its disposal, the LRBW quickly embarked on a program of expansion into community organizing, film production, and legal defense, as well as the establishment of a small printing plant and a bookstore.
Outwardly, the League operation was extremely impressive. Even those with prior political experience could not help but be moved by the seriousness, dedication, and camaraderie of League members who followed impossible schedules to get the job done. The print shop was always especially busy: a computerized typesetter was pushed to frequent breakdown (not a particularly difficult task), presses ran at all hours, and the continual going and coming of people to drop off “copy,” pick up completed work, or contribute labor was a striking phenomenon.Striking, too, was the activity around the workers’ center in Highland Park, despite some of its internal problems. At all hours of the day and night, black workers facing specific difficulties on the job knew they could stop by to discuss their problems. Organizers on their way to meet the morning shifts would often assemble there before dawn to pick up leaflets and other materials. Regular visits from community people wishing to talk over problems of drug abuse, police harassment, or even personal crises, could always be anticipated.
In short, the League—particularly in its earlier days—was both highly visible and highly respected in the Detroit metropolitan area, in the community as well as at the plant gates. At a time when New Left and Black Power organizations were in the process of decline, League membership gave one the distinct feeling of being part of a “winning” organization. But by mid-1970, when the League began to attract considerable attention nationally as well as internationally, cracks had already appeared in its organizational foundation. The following year witnessed the ultimate crumbling of the edifice: the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was no more.
Today, in 1978, as we “prepare” for further cutbacks in social services, lower standards of living, and increased political repression which invariably oozes from the seams of a deteriorating social situation, it is essential that we avoid, where possible, the more salient “movement” errors of the late 1960s and early 1970s—not to mention earlier periods.
In examining the development of the League from an “inside” perspective it shall become quite apparent that its demise, like that of too many other progressive organizations of that period, was due more to internal than external pressures. With that experience behind us, and with adequate reflection, we can do better. At the very least, we must attempt to understand how organizations such as the League, which held so much political promise for so many people, were unable to surmount their internal contradictions. If the following study does no more than aid that process of understanding, it will have accomplished its purpose.
The Problem With Structure
By 1969—the year the League was founded—the spontaneously formed RUM groups were declining in influence in the plants. Whereas the larger RUMs had often been able to attract hundreds of workers to their meetings in 1968, the following year they were fortunate to pull out a handful.
Several factors account for this decline. The wave of popular discontent unleashed in the 1967 rebellion—upon which the Revolutinary Union Movement had built itself—had now subsided. It might be more accurate to say that it had been engulfed by increasingly violent gang activity and street crime—often drug-related—within the black community. Moreover, by 1970 Chrysler Corporation had visibly increased the number of black foremen on some of its assembly lines, thus robbing the RUM groups of one of their most pressing issues.
RUM activists, meanwhile, had been identified and were constantly surveilled. Even those who had been fortunate or skillful enough to survive the purges by plant management felt a sense of isolation and ineffectiveness. And RUM leadership had furthered its isolation from a large strata of potential constituents by launching indiscriminate verbal attacks on older workers for their “conservatism,” as well as tasteless commentaries on the personal lives of numerous union “mis-leaders.”
In the face of these problems, one of the intended functions of the League was to overcome the isolation of the RUM groups by coordinating their activities and linking the plant struggles with wide, community-based support. There were also several other pressing problems which the formation of a consolidated organization was supposed to deal with. Due to the refusal of local printers to handle the Inner City Voice, concrete means had to be found to fill the movement’s publishing needs. Also facilities had to be secured to provide a permanent home for the organizations, as well as to alleviate problems which had fallen on particular activists’ families. General Baker’s family, for instance, had to contend with a literal “army of unemployed” organizers and leafletters who, having no other place to go, bivouacked nightly on their living room floor. And, overall, the haunting problem of scarce financial resources had to be resolved if the movement was to survive over the long run.
The formation of the League was a creative response to these difficulties: but it proved to be as ominous as it was creative. The drive by the top leadership to provide a supportive apparatus for black workers’ struggles paradoxically ended in its abandoning them. The League did not succeed in confronting the problems of declining mass revolutionary sentiment, tactical maneuvers by management, and tactical errors by RUM leadership which were curtailing the in-plant revolt. But in 1969 and 1970 such political failures were masked by a false sense of organizational successes in other areas: the creation of the League film “Finally Got the News,” the proliferation of LRBW offices in the Detroit area, participation in a book-discussion project which had enrolled hundreds of liberal whites, as well as the growing media attention which the League was attracting nationwide. How did such a situation come about?
The reorganization of the existing RUMs into the League was accomplished by the Executive Board from the top down. This was made possible by money which the EB succeeded in raising from outside sources- -the Black Economic Development Conference in particular.1 As a direct consequence, decisions concerning specific allocations of funds (and, more importantly, decisions about what activities the League would become involved in) could and did occur without the participation, or even the knowledge at times, of the rank-and-file.2
Due to a lack of participatory democracy or even of adequate communication in the new organization, many of those who remained active in the RUMs were not even aware that they had “joined” the League.
With reorganization also arrived a qualitative shift from in-plant organizing to activities nominally supporting that goal: the gathering of resources, development of printing, publishing, and film-making operations, participation in struggles around control of the schools, etc. An unintended but direct consequence was an influx of political and technical personnel who staffed these new projects—and whose personal loyalties generally went to individual EB members heading such operations. (The fact that some harbored “middle class” outlooks also had a bearing on the changing character of the organization.)
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I. The National Black Economic Development Conference—later shortened to BECD—first convened in April 1969 at Wayne State University in Detroit. Sponsored by the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), BEDC was not originally intended as an independent organization, which it later became, but as a means of bringing “together a broad spectrum of black leaders to explore strategies for more rapid black-directed community development.” However, after adopting a “Black Manifesto” under the leadership of James Forman, BEDC began pressuring religious organizations to provide “reparations” to the black community. At least several hundred thousand dollars were raised in this manner, with a significant portion going to the League. For further information, see Robert S. Lecky and H. Eliot Wright (eds.), Black Manifesto: Religion, Racism, and Reparations (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969).
2. Not withstanding the fact that BEDC funds underwrote a number of League activities which, under other circumstances, might not have been immediately feasible, had political emphasis been placed instead on a dues-paying apparatus financed by membership, a more structurally sound organization might have resulted. This approach is to be distinguished from implementation of the League-proposed International Black Appeal through company “checkoff’ procedures (by which money for the United Fund or union dues is secured), but rather through a more direct means of collection—certainly not the most expedient means at hand, but an important process if political organizing in itself.
Coming Next: Part 2