Detroit’s Radical

General Baker spent his life in struggle on the streets and in the auto plants of Detroit.

Charles Ezra Ferrell

Charles Ezra Ferrell

In October 1963, civic leaders in Detroit staged a downtown celebration formally announcing the city’s bid to host the 1968 Olympic games. African-American hurdler Hayes Jones, a Pontiac, Michigan native who went on to win a gold metal in the 1964 Olympics, kicked off the event by carrying an Olympic torch to the epicenter of the proposed games.

As the national anthem played, Jones approached the podium, but didn’t receive a hero’s welcome. Protestors from an array of local civil rights organizations carrying picket signs surrounded his approach, using the occasion to point out the hypocrisy of Detroit’s bid to host an event symbolizing international brotherhood while housing discrimination remained rampant and legally sanctioned due to the city’s unwillingness to pass an open housing ordinance.

One group of protestors — members of UHURU, a proto-Black Power student organization formed at Wayne State University earlier in the year — booed the national anthem. General Gordon Baker Jr, took his sign, swung it at Jones, and admonished the sprinter, “We’ve been running from the white man too long!”

Baker and the other members of UHURU were quickly arrested for “disturbing the peace,” a charge that Baker would transform into his life’s work as an organizer and revolutionary.

I have listened to General recount this and other stories about his life at least thirty times. I teach college courses on black history and social movements at Wayne State, and each semester, I asked General to come speak to my classes. The best teaching I’ve ever done was on the days I handed my class over to him.

Unlike many movement icons or public intellectuals, when Gen recounted his history, he had no affected persona. He was the same whether he was talking to you in his living room, speaking to small groups, or in auditoriums with five hundred people. He told his story frequently, but didn’t do so to brag or inflate his importance (or collect massive speaking fees), but to inform younger generations of the black radical tradition while attempting to spur them into action. And he did so out of an abiding faith in students’ self-activity, intelligence, and commitment to building a better world.

A natural educator and leader, Baker was an organic intellectual who read voluminously, and was an excellent historian with a keen interest in the history of workers and black radicalism. As a speaker, he had a way with an audience that was a sight to behold: once you witnessed it, it became immediately clear how he remained such an effective labor and community organizer and propagandist since the 1960s.

His power as a leader and speaker came from his undying commitment to, and love for, those who catch the most hell under capitalism. His fearlessness, earnestness, and unwavering commitment to this cause moved people in ways that I have rarely seen. I have watched General speak on the topics of revolution, historical materialism, bearing guns, and confronting police in front of largely hostile, predominantly conservative white audiences who then lined after he finished to shake his hand and thank him for providing an understanding of the world in a way they had never considered.

General, in the words of Malcolm X, could “ make it plain,” and did so in a humble and down-to-earth way that fostered friends and comrades rather than followers or disciples.

Yet General also never allowed his political activism to negatively impact his familial life. I have two young children and struggle daily as I attempt to balance my professional, political, and familial commitments. General, along with his wife and comrade, welfare and human rights activist Marian Kramer, seamlessly bound these two worlds into one.

General and Marian rarely missed a rally or protest in the thirty-five years they spent together, but also rarely missed a dance recital, basketball, or softball game. The two were truly equal partners in a wonderfully matched revolutionary relationship. They raised eight children together in their Highland Park home, and several of their grandchildren a generation later.

Well into his sixties, you could catch Gen at his youngest granddaughter’s softball games watching the action from the perch of his walker, as Marian and their decades long comrade, Maureen Taylor, immersed themselves in the never ending work that is welfare rights advocacy and organizing in Detroit. Their “family” included thousands of people from broad sections of the labor movement, Black Power movement allies, socialist and communist groups, welfare rights and housing rights activists, numerous community organizers and activists, colleagues in Gen’s Retirees for Single-Payer Heathcare group, and dozens of scholars like myself with whom he not only always provided time for, but often developed close friendships with.

General Gordon Baker Jr was born in Detroit, Michigan, on September 6, 1941, right after his family had moved north from Augusta, Georgia. His father worked for Midland Steel in the 1940s, and later took a job with Chrysler. The Baker family settled in a home in Southwest Detroit. He grew up in a union household, and often attended union events with his father. Baker graduated early from the nominally integrated Southwestern High School in 1958.

Like many in his generation, he immediately sought work in the auto industry upon graduation, but a prolonged economic recession kept him from steady employment. After working odd jobs, General was “baptized” into the auto industry in 1961 when he got a job in the foundry with Ford Motor Company. During the early 1960s, he continued working while attending classes at Highland Park Community College, then Wayne State University, where came in contact with a group of politically likeminded students with whom he cofounded the group UHURU in 1963.

Baker’s early political identity was shaped by numerous influences. He rejected non-violence as a tactic, and was repulsed by the civil rights movement’s gradualist, integrationist approach. Frustrated and in search of a more militant, unapologetic root and branch approach to confronting white supremacy and American imperialism, Baker believed that the system needed to be toppled rather than joined, but he was unsure how.

Baker and his colleagues in UHURU (Swahili for “Freedom”), were deeply influenced by African Independence struggles, Robert F. Williams and his program from exile “Radio Free Dixie,” the black nationalism of Malcolm X; and groups like the Nation of Islam and the African Nationalist Pioneer Movements.

These same currents also nurtured the simultaneous development of proto-Black Power groups elsewhere, including the Afro-American Association and Soul Students Advisory Council in Oakland, the Afro-American Institute in Cleveland, and Liberator magazine in New York, all of which, along with UHURU, would play a major role in the growth and development of Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), an underground urban Revolutionary Nationalist organization that had a tremendous influence of the radical wing of the Black Power and Black Arts movements nationally.

These disparate groups formed independently during the early 1960s, but some of their members were brought into direct contact with one another during a 1964 meeting of 84 student activists in Cuba.

As he often explained, the Cuba he visited in 1964 profoundly influenced his understanding of Marxism, communism, and revolutionary nationalism. Baker spent the summer on the island, forming friendships with other black student activists on the trip; meeting radicals from Asia, Africa, and Latin America; playing baseball with Fidel Castro; discussing revolution with Che Guevara; and informing a number of sympathetic representatives from abroad about the conditions that African Americans were subjected to in the United States, and meeting his hero Robert F. Williams and his wife Mabel to discuss the black struggle.

Upon returning from Cuba, Baker abandoned a nationalist ideology and began developing an approach to Black Power that incorporated elements of black self-determination and Marxism. By 1965, Baker and his friend, then roommate, and future League of Revolutionary Black Workers collaborator John Watson briefly published Black Vanguard, where Baker first articulated his vision for the formation of a “League of Black Workers” to confront racialized capitalism it at its source, the largest corporations in the world.

Baker’s evolving political philosophy was made explicit in letter that he sent to representatives of the US Army in 1965. After receiving a letter from his local draft board inquiring about his fitness to serve in the military, Baker replied by citing a litany of American-backed atrocities at home and abroad, and admonished the draft board, “With all this blood of my non-white brothers dripping from your fangs, you have the AUDACITY to ask me if I an “qualified.”

He explained he would only fight

when the call is made to free South Africa, when the call is made to liberate Latin America from the United Fruit Co., Kaiser, and Alcoa Aluminum Co., and from Standard Oil; when the call is made to jail the exploiting Brahmins in India in order to destroy the Caste System; when the call is made to free the black delta areas of Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina; when the call is made to FREE 12TH STREET HERE IN DETROIT!

Ignoring Baker’s protests, the army sent him a notice to report for induction on September 10. He responded by calling for thousands to join him in what he, in an ode to the Cuban Revolution, dubbed the “September 10th Movement.” When only eight people showed up in support, Baker went through with the induction process but, like Muhammad Ali a few years later, refused to be sworn in. He expected to be arrested for being one of the first Americans to resist the draft, but the board instead declared him a security risk, and released him.

Baker’s developing Revolutionary Nationalist formulation of Black Power gained little traction locally during the mid 1960s, but rose in popularity after the 1967 Detroit rebellion, when many of the concepts like “internal colonization” seemed to be concrete realities rather than abstractions.

According to historian Sidney Fine, over 17,000 police and soldiers from an assortment of agencies patrolled predominantly black sections of the city during the five-day upheaval, harassing citizens, arresting thousands, and firing indiscriminately into apartments, houses and the air. The 46th Division of the National Guard, for example, fired 155,576 rounds of M-1 ammunition during a six-day period.

Baker missed much of this, as he had been picked up on a curfew violation after returning from Cleveland at the rebellion’s onset. Transferred to Ionia State Penitentiary, he noticed that most of the people being locked up were not “the lumpen,” but guys he knew from the plant.

After his release, he observed that were only two places Black people were allowed to could go in Detroit without being arrested or harassed during the rebellion; the hospital for treatment, or “the plant-tation” to make sure that production and profits continued unabated.

Following the rebellion, as historian Heather Thompson has argued, the future direction of the city “was up for grabs.” Baker and Black Power activists fervently organized to secure black self-determination in the plants and their communities. Together with John Watson and Mike Hamlin, Baker disseminated the movement’s message through the Inner City Voice, and later through a takeover of Wayne State University’s South End paper.

Baker, now working at the sprawling, antiquated Dodge Main plant in Hamtramck, ramped up his criticism of Dodge and the United Auto Workers from within the plant, protesting shop-floor paternalism and racism, the lack of black union representation and leadership, the cozy relationship between labor and management, and constant speed-ups that physically and mentally taxed workers, exacerbating already unsafe working conditions.

On May 2, 1968, Baker, along with a group of white and black workers, responded to a speedup with a wildcat strike of 4,000 people that shut down production. In the strike’s wake, the white workers who had participated were hired back, but Baker and Bennie Tate, both African American, were fired. General, whom Chrysler erroneously deemed the strike’s ringleader, was never given an opportunity to appeal.

His blacklisting from the industry, as he made clear in a letter to the company, provided a spark to escalate the movement.

Let it be further understood that by taking the course of disciplining the strikers you have opened that struggle to a new and higher level and for this I sincerely THANK YOU. You have made the decision to do battle with me and the entire Black community in this city, this state, and this country, and in this world of which I am a part . . . [Y]ou have made the decision to do battle, and that is the only decision that you will make. WE shall determine the arena and the time. You will also be held completely responsible for all of the grave consequences arising from your racist actions.

The prior organizing done in the plants, papers, pool halls, schools, bars, and communities of Detroit began to pay off, as people searched for more radical and militant vehicles to confront racism and economic oppression. When Baker formed the Dodge Revolutionary Movement (DRUM) after the initial wildcat, he did so with rapidly growing in plant and community support.

Student activists formed affiliates that reached all the way down to the elementary schools, and helped distribute leaflets and papers at the plants. Allies in an array of grassroots organizations mobilized against racist urban renewal policies, slumlords and substandard housing, police brutality, and racism within the building trades unions.

Black workers in other plants and industries also began following DRUM’s lead, organizing an assortment of their own revolutionary union movements (RUMs) and wildcats to fight against racist employers and company unions. To coordinate this activity, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) was formed, with General Baker, Mike Hamlin, Ken Cockrel, Chuck Wooten, Luke Tripp, John Watson, and John Williams comprising the Executive Committee.

The history of the DRUM, the Revolutionary Union Movements (RUMs), and LRBW has been covered in great detail in books like Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. “The League” was one of the most important and influential Black Power groups to emerge during the 1960s. Its approach and membership had a tremendous influence on black radicalism, the Left, and the radical wing of the labor movement. Its analysis of how race and class intersect, as wonderfully represented in the film Finally Got the News, remains a standard bearer for radicals today.

Scholars have rightfully situated Baker as the person most responsible for the formation of DRUM, but the critical role he played throughout this intense period of activity had been largely under-appreciated. Baker helped shape and publicize the movement’s message as managing editor of the Inner City Voice, was easily the LRBW’s most respected organizer in both the factory and the street, and along with fellow RAM activist Glanton Dowdell, had worked tirelessly to support, work with, and to help unite a diverse array of local grassroots organization into an effective, progressive, and militant black United Front.

His centrality to post-rebellion Detroit black radical politics was clear to the police, FBI, the corporations, the UAW, and rival civil rights and labor groups at the time, and made Baker a marked man. Shortly after the first wildcat strike and the formation of DRUM, Baker narrowly survived an attempt on his life.

Speaking with tenants’ rights organizer Fred Lyles near a window in their shared office on Grand River, rifle fire tore through the wall and window of the building. A bullet, which both Baker and police assumed had been intended for him, instead struck Lyles, paralyzing him for life.

Perhaps the greatest misconception about General, and one that he often expressed frustration about privately, regarded his role in the break up of the LRBW in 1971.

Georgakas and Surkin in Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, for example, citing insults and invectives hurled about in the heat of the moment between two opposing factions, depict the split as an ideological battle between narrow nationalists and Marxist-Leninists, with Baker representing the former and Watson, Cockrel, and Hamlin representing the latter. Others, like Ernest Allen, have traced the LRBW’s internal problems to its very successes, citing the subsequent availability of resources that brought into relief deep prevailing divisions on its Executive Board.

It is certainly true that nationalists in the plants and streets of Detroit had a profound respect for General, and that he had influenced them in a way that the others did not. But this showed a continued deep connection to the black working class in ways others had not, not a betrayal of class analysis. Marxism remained critical to his analysis throughout, and one of the major disagreements (among many) between the LRBW’s leadership factions stemmed from Baker’s insistence that the group remain focused on the concrete realities faced by the black working-class in the plants and communities rather than spreading itself too thin by moving away from labor organizing.

Following the League’s split, Baker, along with allies from several different RUMs and the LRBW, gradually resurfaced under the banner of the Communist League (CL), led by Nelson Peery. Baker made a clean break from Revolutionary Nationalism, turning instead toward a more disciplined, orthodox interpretations of Marxism and Communist political organization.

Blacklisted from auto work since 1968 and in need of a job, in 1973 Baker was hired at the Ford Rouge Plant under the assumed name of “Big Al” Ware. Ford eventually caught on to the ruse and attempted to fire him, but Baker, with help from Dave Moore, a McCarthy era victim and Local 600 member, maintained his job on an appeal after they pointed out that the company had failed to identify him within the six-month window required by union contract.

Once he was firmly back on the job, Baker, along with his CL comrades, worked within and outside the UAW to combat business unionism, deindustrialization, layoffs, and attacks on wages during the long slog of the 1970s and 1980s. Offering an indication of how much had changed since the late 1960s when he battled both the company and the union, in the 1980s Baker was elected to serve as Chairman of UAW Local 600 by his union peers in the Rouge Plant.

General remained steadfast in his commitment to the fight against social and economic inequality and injustice outside the plant. He ran for a position in Michigan’s House of Representatives as a candidate of Communist Labor in 1976, and again as Democrat in 1978. Organizationally, Baker and his comrades in the Communist League, which was subsequently renamed the Communist Labor Party, and later, in 1986, the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, focused much of their attention on organizing those who have been displaced by automation and technological shifts in production.

Baker, along with his wife Marian Kramer, Maureen Taylor, Darryl “Waistline” Mitchell, many others, have been at the forefront of local and national housing rights, water rights, and welfare rights movements. Together, they remained omnipresent at the grassroots level in Detroit nationally, coordinating and participating in countless protests, marches, tent-cities, and housing occupations.

In the last few years of his life, Baker was slowed significantly by reoccurring complications from the congestive heart disease that ultimately took his life. He gave no quarter, though. After each of what became annual bouts of hospitalization, he did his rehab, rebuilt his strength, and reassumed his familiar role at protests, meetings, and discussion groups.

A gentle giant of a man with a broad gap-toothed smile, hearty laugh, and love for people, he will be missed by many, particularly in Detroit, where corporate and financial buzzards are now surveying the city to pick it clean after state- and court-imposed austerity measures are handed down.

The struggle continues without him, but General Baker’s life’s work and legacy provides an “unquenchable spark” for those who willing to pick up the torch.

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