Black, White and Red All Over: Detroit’s History of Racism and the Integration of the Detroit Lions and Tigers
On September 3, 1948 at United Sound Systems, located at 5840 Second Avenue in Detroit, a then-unknown janitor at the Dodge Main Plant in Hamtramck, named John Lee Hooker, recorded a song that would forever define him and his trademark sound. The song was a tribute to Detroit’s center for black nightlife, Hastings Street. Combining Hooker’s sparse Mississippi blues guitar with his “stark, chilling vocal,” the song was called ‘Boogie Chillin.’ And by early 1949, it was the number one single on the national R&B chart.[i]
While Hooker was set to make a name for himself on radios, jukeboxes and juke joints all over America, the Detroit Lions and their first-year head coach, Bo McMillin, had made history only a few months earlier.
In April 1948, the Lions signed black players, Bob Mann and Mel Groomes, to contracts. The duo would become the first two black players to play for the Detroit Lions. Mann was a second-team All-American end at the University of Michigan in 1947, while Groomes had played halfback for McMillin at Indiana.
The fact that McMillin opened the door to Groomes and Mann is very notable. At the time of their signings, there were only two other NFL teams, the Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants, with a black player on their roster. The Rams had former UCLA star, Kenny Washington, while the Giants suited up University of Iowa rookie, Emlen Tunnell, who would one day become the first black player elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Meanwhile, over in the rival All American Football Conference, the Cleveland Browns, New York Yankees, Chicago Rockets, Los Angeles Dons and San Francisco Forty-Niners had a total of eleven black players on their rosters in 1948. Those names included four future Canton inductees; San Francisco’s Joe Perry and Cleveland’s Marion Motley, Bill Willis and Len Ford. Ford, by the way, was a teammate of Bob Mann at Michigan.[ii]
While Mel Groomes would play in just nine games for the Lions next in two seasons, Bob Mann would become a star.
“We’re tickled to get Mann. We’ve been after his name on a Detroit contract ever since I came here as coach. We know he will be a valuable professional performer,” McMillin said to the Associated Press.[iii]
Mann signed a contract for $7,500 with a $2,500 bonus, which was quality NFL money in the late 1940s. In addition, Mann was also hired by the Goebel Brewing Company as a salesman. Lions’ team President, Edwin J. Anderson, also served as President of Goebel Brewing.
In 1948, in a reserve role, Mann would catch 33 passes for 560 yards and 3 touchdowns. The following season, Mann led the NFL in receiving yardage, catching 66 passes for 1,014 yards and 4 touchdowns. His catch total was second-highest in the NFL, behind Tom Fears of the Rams who grabbed 77 pigskins.[iv]
McMillin made NFL history again in 1949 when he selected Penn State halfback Wally Triplett in the 19th round of the draft. McMillin’s selection made Triplett the first black man drafted in league history.
As a reserve in his rookie season, Triplett would average 4.2 yards rushing, 13.4 yards per-punt return, gain 592 total yards and score 2 touchdowns.
Despite Triplett and Mann’s abilities, Triplett said he, Mann and Groomes, for the most part, felt unwelcome with the Lions.
“Half of the Detroit players wouldn’t speak to me,” Triplett recalled. “I was made to feel like I was ‘intruding.’ I know Bob Mann felt the same way. Pro football did not welcome Negroes, the term we used to use, in the 1940s.”[v]
Not only did the Leo trio not feel welcome in their own lockeroom, they also had to suffer indignities on the road.
In the 1949 preseason, the Lions were scheduled to play the Philadelphia Eagles in New Orleans. Like most of the Jim Crow south, Louisiana forbid black athletes to share the field with whites. Prior to the Lions departing for the Big Easy, McMillin met in his office with Mann, Triplett and Groomes. McMillin told the three that the sponsors of the game had left the decision to him as to whether the black Lions could play. While McMillin would sign and draft blacks in Detroit, he didn’t want to betray his Texas roots by making history in New Orleans. The three would not be able to play in the game or stay with the team in the same hotel.
“Bo told us he didn’t think he should be the one to break it,” a still angry Mann said in 2005. “I thought to myself, ‘fine that’s his decision.’ Bo could have ended all that. He was supposed to be Mr. Great Liberal. But he didn’t do it. He just passed it by. He could have been a big guy, a big fellow, but he didn’t do it. I’ve never forgotten that. Don’t tell me how liberal Bo was; he wasn’t. He had a chance to be a hero, step up to the plate, but he didn’t do it.”[vi]
Despite being drafted by him, Wally Triplett never thought much of Bo McMillin either.
“I never got along with Bo,” Triplett said. “Bo felt like I had a ‘chip’ on my shoulder, and he didn’t like that, no matter how good you were.”[vii]
While the Detroit Lions had broken the NFL color barrier by 1948, it would be another ten years before the Detroit Tigers would suit up a non-white player in their “Old English D” uniform.
The fact that the Tigers remained segregated well into the Eisenhower Administration was due to the influence and legacy of Walter Briggs Sr. Briggs was a Detroit industrialist who opened Briggs Manufacturing in 1908. His company specialized in the manufacturing auto bodies for Detroit’s car companies. Briggs soon made a fortune and bought a 25 percent stake in the Tigers in 1919. He kept that stake until 1935, when he became sole owner after the death of Frank Navin.
Briggs was an unabashed bigot. Throughout his ownership, he steadfastly refused to sign black players. Long after Jackie Robinson became a Brooklyn Dodger, the unofficial Tigers’ motto remained, “No jigs with Briggs.”
When Briggs Sr. died in 1952, his son Walter “Spike” Briggs took over ownership of the team. That summer, seven black ballplayers who graduated from Detroit high schools signed major league contracts with teams outside the Motor City. By 1953, every team in major league baseball has black players in their farm systems except Detroit.
Protests, bad press . . . and losing became the norm during Fifties at the corner Michigan and Trumbull. In 1956, Spike Briggs was bought out by a consortium of eleven men led by radio and television broadcasters, Fred Knorr and John Fetzer. Knorr personally and immediately pledged $75,000 to sign seventeen black players into the Tigers’ farm system. Nevertheless, two years later it was still just the Tigers and Boston Red Sox who remained Caucasian on the professional baseball diamond.[viii]
In that fateful summer of 1958, the Michigan Association of Negro Trade Unions and pastors of several leading black churches in Detroit called for a boycott if the Tigers remained segregated.
Finally, in June 1958, the Tigers broke their color barrier by trading with the San Francisco Giants for utility player and Dominican Republic native, Ozzie Virgil. Virgil made his debut with the team on June 6, 1958.[ix]
Why did the Detroit Lions and Tigers – despite Detroit having over 500,000 black residents – and prospective ticket buyers by 1950 – remain the second to last teams – before the Washington Redskins and Boston Red Sox – to integrate in their respective leagues during the decade?
To better answer that question, it is necessary to explore the history of racial tension in Detroit in the first half of the 20th century.
The evolution of the Detroit’s racial problems began with the beginning of the Great Migration, which was the period between 1910 and 1970, when roughly six million blacks left the southern United States to escape the oppression of Jim Crow. They migrated north and west into America’s growing industrial regions seeking better jobs, higher pay and overall better lives.
As a result, Detroit’s black population grew from just 5,741 in 1910, to roughly a half-million people by 1940. Meanwhile, Detroit’s overall population stood at 1.6 million by the start of World War II.[x]
It was during the first twenty years of the migration (1910-30) that municipal governments and their partners in business, real estate and finance began to create a systematic, institutional system of residential and economic apartheid in Detroit and other northern cites.[xi]
Of course, in Detroit, the biggest victims of that apartheid would be the residents of the city’s segregated black ghetto.
As early as 1919, the Research Bureau of Associated Charities of Detroit reported that, “Seventy-five percent of the Negro homes have so many lodgers that they are really hotels. . . . The pool rooms and gambling clubs are beginning to charge for the privilege of sleeping on pool room tables overnight.”[xii]
In 1924, the Detroit Realtors Association instituted restrictive covenants as official policy to bar blacks from moving into white areas. Banks and insurance companies also during the 1920s began to restrict access to home and business mortgages as well as home improvement loans to blacks in Detroit.[xiii]
In addition, the Klu Klux Klan made major inroads into the North after the First World War. Sending their first recruiter into Detroit in 1921 – the “Invisible Order” amassed thirty-five thousand members in Detroit by 1924. In Chicago, that number had reached fifty-thousand by mid-decade.[xiv]
In the 1924 runoff election for Mayor of Detroit, the Klan – in a write in campaign – elected an unknown lawyer named Charles Bowles by over 7,000 votes over his Republican and Democratic opponents.
It was only by the actions of the Democrats and Republicans – and their pals on the Detroit Election Commission, who managed to throw out 17,000 Klan votes on technicalities – that burning crosses and white sheets did not join automobiles as Detroit’s biggest exports.[xv]
On September 8, 1925, a black Detroit doctor named, Ossian Sweet, attempted to move his wife and young daughter into their newly purchased home at the corner of Garland and Charlevoix on Detroit’s east side. By dinner time on September 9, hundreds of angry whites had gathered in front of the Sweet home. Inside, Dr. Sweet and his wife Gladys, along with Sweet’s brother, Henry, and six other friends, armed themselves with guns for what was to come.
As darkness fell on the neighborhood, rocks began to rain onto the Sweet home.[xvi]
“Here’s niggers!” “There they go!” “Get them! Get them!” Shouted the angry mob outside as Dr. Sweet’s second brother, Otis Sweet, and another friend, William Davis, raced up the front steps after exiting a taxi cab that had brought them there for night two of the siege.[xvii]
A few minutes later, as another window shattered from a projectile, someone in one of the upstairs rooms of the Sweet home opened fire into the crowd outside. When the shooting stopped, two white men were on the ground. The first, Eric Houghberg, had been shot in the leg, bleeding but alive. The second, Leon Breiner, lay dead from a single shot in his back.[xviii]
The Detroit police, who had been on the scene for hours but had done nothing to stop the rocks, swooped into the home and arrested everyone inside. The Wayne County prosecutor would charge all eleven, including Ossian and Gladys Sweet, with murder.[xix]
In their trail, the defendants were represented by an NAACP-funded defense team led by the immortal defense attorney, Clarence Darrow. Darrow and his team managed to get a hung jury in the initial trail. In the second trial in 1926, where just Henry Sweet was tried for murder after admitting he fired the fatal shot, Darrow got the all-white jury to acquit the accused. The Sweet trials were possibly Darrow’s greatest victories, cementing his place in history as the “Attorney of The Damned.”[xx]
The judge who presided over both cases in Detroit Recorders’ Court was 35-year old Frank Murphy. Mayor Murphy would later be elected Mayor of Detroit and Governor of Michigan. He would later serve as U.S. Attorney General, with his final stop being the U.S. Supreme Court in 1940, upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s nomination. Murphy would serve on the nation’s highest court until his death in 1949.[xxi]
The Ossian Sweet case and other events helped shape the racial order in Detroit during the 1920s and 1930s. The result was that by World War II, systematic housing, economic, educational and job discrimination resulted in most of Detroit’s 149,000 blacks being locked into a 60-square-block area on the city’s Lower East Side. The residential and business sections of this territory became known as “Black Bottom.” Meanwhile, the entertainment district, located just to the north of Black Bottom, became known as “Paradise Valley.”[xxii]
During his first year and a half with the Detroit Lions, Wally Triplett lived in a rooming house in a section of Black Bottom. The area was filled with speakeasies and “houses of ill repute,” Triplett said. But as Paradise Valley became the center of Detroit’s night life in the late Forties, players from the Lions and other professional teams would head out to “black and tan” integrated nightclubs such as The Flame Showbar and the 666 Lounge, to see entertainers like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.
Triplett remembers running into a blonde Texan in the black and tans who was just beginning to become a Motor City legend himself, on and off the field.
“Bobby liked a good time,” Triplett said of Bobby Layne, “Bobby would put a $100 bill on the bar and tell the waitress, ‘When I’ve used that up, call me a cab.’ He was a great tipper.”[xxiii]
Bobby Layne’s willingness to integrate with black Detroit was the exception rather than the rule. By the start of World War II, the geography, politics and culture of Detroit had largely come to be defined in terms of black and white. A example of that fact is that at the outbreak of the war, nearly 90 percent of Detroit’s white population would have had to move from one census tract to another for there to have been an equal distribution of black and white over Detroit’s 140-square mile area.[xxiv]
Because of federal policies constructed during the Great Depression that insisted that mortgages and loans be restricted to racially pure neighborhoods – white Detroiters came to expect a vigilant government to protect their segregated neighborhoods.
On February 28, 1942, on the city’s Northeast Side, whites fought blacks as the city attempted to move a black family into the public Sojourner Truth housing project. In the months leading up to the battle, Detroit City Councilman and University of Detroit Mercy football coach and athletic director, Gus Dorais, led four of the nine Detroit councilmen to rescind their original ruling that allowed Negro occupancy in the project. Only a bi-racial effort by Detroiters to lobby local and federal housing officials kept Dorais and company from keeping Sojourner Truth segregated.[xxv]
In January 1943, Gus Dorais was hired as head coach of the Detroit Lions. He would split his time between coaching and bigoted politics until the Lions fired him in 1947 after compiling a 20-31-2 record.
As 1943 warmed with the summer heat, racial tensions and violence followed suit. On June 20, racial brawls on Belle Isle spilled into downtown as blacks looted Paradise Valley’s white-owned stores. The following day, more than ten-thousand whites – aided by a sympathetic police force – stormed through Paradise Valley. The result was the deaths of 34 people, 25 of them black – 17 shot dead by police – 675 serious injuries and 1,893 arrests before federal troops restored order.
Detroit’s 1943 race riot was the most violent and destructive U.S. unrest since the Civil War draft riots eighty years earlier. Unfortunately for Detroit, it wouldn’t be the last time such an incident would occur.[xxvi]
On VJ Day, September 2, 1945, which marked the end of hostilities on World War II, now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Frank Murphy, spoke in front of Detroit’s City Hall, reminding his fellow Detroiters about the importance of overcoming their city’s racist past as they moved into the post-war era.
“Unless we cleanse our hearts of hate – racial and religious – this war will only be half won,” Murphy cautioned. “We still have to stand guard against those in our midst who have been nurtured on the myths of the superior and inferior races and who practice discrimination against fellow Americans because of the color of their skin.”[xxvii]
Apparently Gus Dorais, and a prominent former Detroit Tigers’ infielder, we’re not in attendance that afternoon to hear Justice Murphy’s words.
In 1946, Dorais and fellow councilman, Billy Rogell, who was most famous as being the shortstop on the Detroit Tigers’ World Series teams of the 1930s, proposed the establishment of an exclusively Negro section of the city. Under the Dorais and Rogell plan, whites currently residing in this designated apartheid zone would be paid to leave.[xxviii]
“[We] have talked about taking an area and moving the whites the hell out – and moving the Negroes in. You won’t have peace and quiet until you have such an area. I’d like to see the Negro get a city of his own, with his own school. We need a Harlem for them,” Rogell declared at the time. Thankfully, this proposal was too radical even for racially charged Detroiters to pursue beyond the suggestion box.[xxix]
On May 3, 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in the case of Shelley v Kraemer that restrictive covenants could not be enforced by the state. What resulted was that real estate brokers and developers now encouraged the formation of “neighborhood improvement associations” to enforce the long standing restrictive covenants.[xxx]
In addition, realtors who disobeyed the Supreme Court by breaching Detroit’s color line faced penalties or expulsion from the Detroit Board of Realtors. They were also denied access to the board’s cross-listing service. Most of all, they faced harassment from angry whites who made up the ranks of the new improvement associations.[xxxi]
Between 1943 and 1965, Detroit whites founded at least 192 neighborhood organizations throughout the city. These groups “shared a common bond of whiteness and Americaness.”[xxxii]
World War II saw Detroit’s white majority trade-in their shop aprons for combat rifles. The result was a massive local labor shortage that created new job opportunities for Detroit blacks – both male and female – as industry would use them to fill the employment void.
But as employment opportunities grew for Detroit’s black community, so would the level of racial backlash.
Between 1941 and 1944, white Detroit workers staged dozens of wildcat and hate strikes as they protested the hiring and promotions of black workers to formerly restricted jobs and positions.[xxxiii]
In June 3, 1943, white workers in the city went on strike for three days at Packard Motors’ facilities because the company had hired three blacks to work in previously restricted jobs.[xxxiv]
At the time of the 1943 race riot, the Detroit Police Department was reportedly “one of the most bigoted” departments in the nation. It was also one of the most segregated. Little had changed in that regard by 1958. That year, while Detroit blacks made up 23 percent of the city’s population, they were only 3 percent of the police force. And eighty percent of those black officers were concentrated in the four precincts that had largest black populations.[xxxv]
Grand Rapids, Michigan native, Roger Wilkins, was the Head of Community Relations in the Lyndon Johnson administration, spent a lot of time in Detroit in the early 1950s while attending the University of Michigan. Wilkins, the nephew of legendary NAACP President Roy Wilkins, recalls that the Detroit Police Department’s relationship with Detroit’s black community was strained.
“I had a lot of friends in Detroit. So I spent a lot of time in Detroit during the seven years I was in Ann Arbor,” Wilkins said. “And even in the early fifties it was taken for gospel in the black community that the police were brutal. They were known to use their batons freely on black people who didn’t do what they wanted. And those batons, in the black community, were generally referred to as ‘nigger sticks.’[xxxvi]
“Detroit wasn’t a popular city for blacks,” Wally Triplett recalled. “We’d just finished a race riot. Because of restrictive covenants, blacks had to live in certain areas of town. The police department was racist. You couldn’t be in certain areas at certain times.”[xxxvii]
Longtime Detroit resident and activist, John Sinclar, described black Detroit’s historic relationship with its police department in stark terms.
“Basically they didn’t want to look at the fact that these people were rebelling against in occupying army. I mean, this went against every rhetorical devise America had presented – about ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ and all that horseshit. Ya’ know? It’s a ghetto and in those days it was just about being suppressed [by the police] and making sure [black people] didn’t get out of line.”[xxxviii]
Ohio State University professor Kevin Boyle, author of the award-winning book on the Ossian Sweet case, Arc of Justice, agreed with Sinclair.
“From the time that the African-American population in Detroit starts growing, which it does in the late teens and twenties, the police force in black neighborhoods act as kind of an occupying army,” Boyle said. “They are infamous for the amount of harassment of African-Americans, for police brutality. In the twenties, the police force is the center of Klu Klux Klan activity. And so for decades there is this animosity between the black community and the Detroit police department.”[xxxix]
While the friction was clear between black citizens and white police, for black Detroiters who happened to wear a Detroit police badge, things were not much better. Hubert Locke, a Detroit native and pastor who also served as an administrative assistant to Detroit Police Commissioner Ray Girardin beginning in 1966, recalled a time when even a black police officer couldn’t expect equal treatment in Detroit.
“There were any number of black veterans who could remember the period in the department, in an earlier time, when they were not allowed to make arrests of white citizens who broke the law,” Locke said. “They could only apprehend the person. They would then have to call for a white officer who would then come and make the formal arrest. So that’s how bad things were, historically within the department itself. It just had a very bad reputation of treating its own black officers. So you can imagine the kind of treatment black civilians received at the hands of the department.”[xl]
In 1949, as Mann, Triplett and Groomes were working to earn playing time with Gus Dorais’ replacement, Bo McMillin; Detroit experienced one of the most historic Mayoral elections in its history. The election pitted Common Council member, former UAW organizer and New Deal Democrat, George Edwards, against Republican City Treasurer, corporate executive and real estate investor, Albert Cobo.[xli]
“George Edwards was one of the great liberals in Detroit political history,” recalled Kevin Boyle. “Edwards had come out of the UAW. He was very close to Walter Reuther and for a while had been Reuther’s protégé back earlier in the forties.”[xlii]
Edwards’ campaign was unabashed in favor of building public housing for Detroit’s minority community and championed the rights of blacks to live anywhere in the city. Cobo meanwhile, saddled up alongside the homeowners associations opposition to “Negro invasions” and vehemently opposed public housing.
Despite massive support – in the form nearly thirty thousand dollars in funding, 1.3 million pamphlets, radio ads, soundtrucks and feet on the street – from the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) and Detroit’s minority community, Cobo’s anti-public housing/Negro invasion campaign overwhelmed Edwards. [xliii] Overtly racist campaign literature from Cobo’s camp depicted Edwards as “Pro-Negro.” [xliv] With the 1943 race war still fresh on many minds, it proved to be an effective strategy for the victorious Cobo.
“I think in these municipal elections we are dealing with a people who have a middle class mentality,” said a union organizer in the aftermath. “the [union] member is either buying a home, owns a home, or is going to buy one. I don’t know that we can ever make up this difficulty.”[xlv]
According to Boyle, Edwards lost simply because in the minds of many white Detroit voters he was “too weak, too liberal on the race question.”[xlvi]
Edwards’ defeat starkly showed that Detroit’s divide between the politics of home and the politics of workplace were still firmly separate and unequal.
The loss also had long lasting effects on Detroit’s New Deal momentum from the 1930s. The 1949 defeat marked the beginning of a retreat of the UAW from labor politics in the city. Coupled at a time when the Red Scare was rearing its ugly head in Detroit and elsewhere – the era of organized labor as a driving force for social justice came to an abrupt halt from which it has never recovered.
The victorious Cobo wasted no time in paying back the forces who swept him into office. He vetoed eight of the twelve public housing projects in the city. He stacked the Detroit Housing Commission with his cronies and turning the cities energies from public housing construction to urban renewal projects which turned would soon turn Black Bottom and Paradise Valley into memories.[xlvii]
Over the next fifteen years, Detroit’s black communities on the lower east side, Paradise Valley and Black Bottom would be demolished to make way for the Chrysler Freeway (I-75). The lower west side would see the 12th Street and Highland Park areas cut in two by the John C. Lodge (M-10). And finally on the west side, construction of the Edsel Ford (I-94) would cut a major swath through additional minority communities.[xlviii]
In addition to the upheaval of urban renewal, the fear-mongering rhetoric of negro-invasions, race-mingling and Communist infiltration pushed by Detroit’s neighborhood associations had a powerful effect on Detroit politics. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, the Jefferies and Cobo administrations backed these associations at nearly every turn. And when lawful methods of Motor City Jim Crow failed, Detroit whites got violent. In the post-WWII era, white Detroiters instigated over 200 incidents of harassment, mass demonstration, picketing, effigy burning, window breaking, arson, vandalism and physical attacks against black homeowners to attempt keep them bottled up in ever shrinking areas of the inner city they had long outgrown.[xlix]
Detroit native and University of Pennsylvania professor, Thomas J. Sugrue, summed up the phenomena of the often violent Homeowners Associations in Detroit in his 1995 book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis:
In the area of housing, violence in Detroit was organized and widespread, the outgrowth of one of the largest grassroots movement’s in the city’s history. It involved thousands of whites, directly affected hundreds of blacks, mainly those who were among the first families to break the residential barriers of race, and indirectly constrained the housing choices of tens of thousands of blacks fearful of harassment and physical injury if they broke through Detroit’s residential color line. The violent clashes between whites and blacks that marred the city were political acts, the consequence of perceptions of homeownership, community, gender, and race deeply held by white Detroiters.[l]
If this wasn’t enough, during the late 1940s, the United Auto Workers and NAACP leadership in Detroit began an effort to purge the left-leaning – aka communist and socialist – elements from their ranks as the Red Scare made a monstrous comeback at the dawn of the Cold War.
On August 31, 1946, the Michigan Chronicle reported that General Motors asked the U.S. Employment Service in Washington to send “white workers” to Detroit.[li]
Why would GM exercise such blatant discrimination? The answer may lie in the fact that throughout the emergence of the labor movement in the 1930s and continuing through World War II, two of the most ardent groups supporting an end to workplace discrimination in the United States were the Communist Party and their slightly less fervent comrades in the Socialist Party.
On March 5, 1930, over 50,000 people from all races and ethnicities jammed downtown Detroit to take part in a Communist Party-organized protest against unemployment. [lii]During the Great Depression, the “Reds” were among the most active and successful groups in organizing and leading the fight against joblessness, evictions, workplace discrimination – and unlike many labor unions – racial segregation. That last point proved to be a powerful one for black Detroit.
By 1942, the Communist Party in Michigan was averaging 39 new black recruits a month. In 1941, that number was just 19 per-month. [liii] Future Detroit mayor, Coleman A. Young, who was a member of the UAW as an employee of the Ford Rouge plant in the 1930s before being fired for organizing workers; summed up the Communist Party’s appeal to blacks, their white allies – and the subsequent problems it could cause – in very simple terms:
The reality of the day was that anyone who took an active interest in the plight of black people was naturally drawn toward the Communist Party – not as a member, necessarily, but at least as a friend and ally, owing to the fact that the Communists historically had been out front in the struggle for civil rights. The prevailing paranoia about communism was consequently translated into a paranoia about civil rights – although, in retrospect, it is difficult to say which was the predominant phobia. It seemed that the government was unable to make any distinction between civil rights and communism, and by extension, between civil rights and subversion. As a result, the operative federal credo was the paradoxical and alarmingly unconstitutional notion that the struggle for equality was inherently un-American. . . . It was impossible for a black person to avoid the Communist label as long as he or she advocated civil rights with any degree of vigor. By the standard of Congress and the Justice Department, the two were married.[liv]
The end of the World War II meant that the emerging military-industrial complex needed a new bogyman to replace the defeated Nazis and Imperial Japanese. They soon found their dastardly duo in the form of Stalinist Russia and, after the 1948 Maoist revolution, Red China. As a result of these events abroad, Detroit’s auto companies, in conjunction with the leadership of the UAW and NAACP, were ready to join forces to oust the Pinkos from their various rank and file to demonstrate their loyalty an America gripped in Red Scare hysteria.
One of the most glaring examples of organized labor and civil rights leaders turning on their own came at Ford’s legendary Rouge River facility. The Rouge was home to UAW 600, one of the most militant unions in the industry. The plant was also one of the largest employers of blacks in Detroit – many of whom supported the left-wing caucus of Local 600 – which as a whole had 1/3 of its membership comprised of black workers.[lv]
In the 1951 Labor Day parade in Detroit, the 60,000 member strong Local 600 marched down Woodward Avenue carried signs that read “SPEED UP AND DIE SOONER” and “SUPPORT OUR FIGHT AGAINST JOB RUNAWAY.” [lvi] Theirs was a very different message from the vast majority of the rest of the various union marchers, who waved American flags, sang songs and roared their approval for Michigan Governor G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams.[lvii]
In short, the noticeably integrated and rowdy rank-and-file of UAW Local 600 was bucking the trend of the times, which was not to rock the military-industrial boat during the Cold War and Korean War efforts to stop the dreaded threat of worldwide communism.
Shutdowns, wildcat strikes and general worker disruption at the Rouge could shut down Ford production nationwide. As a result, in the late 1940s Ford targeted the Rouge for automation by shifting stamping, machine casting, forging, steel production, glass-making and dozens of other operations from the site. Local 600 saw this development as an effort by management to destroy labor’s power through automation and the worker attrition that would come as a result.[lviii] Management on the other hand, saw Local 600 as a commie-inspired cancer hell bent on turning Ford into a workers paradise.
Thomas Sugrue described Local 600’s viewpoint and why in the minds of the Detroit power structure it was so dangerous to their bottom line:
Local 600 recognized that deindustrialization was not simply an economic issue. The flight of manufacturing jobs in the 1950s raised fundamental political questions about rights responsibilities, power and inequality that were unresolved in mid-twentieth century America. What obligation, if any, did corporations have toward the communities in which they were located? Should workers have a say in corporate decisions that affected their livelihood? How should government respond to job flight? What about the troubling fact that African American workers, because of entrenched workplace discrimination, bore the brunt of economic restructuring.[lix]
Local 600 was ahead of the curve in addressing these issues and would pay a heavy price during the Fabulous Fifties because of it.
The Red Scare glowed red hot in the Motor City when the House Un-American Activities Committee made a stop in Detroit in February, 1952. The committee’s inquisitors had made a habit of forcing witnesses to cower and plead their Constitutional Fifth Amendment right to self-incrimination. While this was a perfectly legal maneuver, the HUAC and their fellow travelers in the corporate media spun the move to be an admission of guilt. One witness who refused to yield for anything but justice was 34-year old National Negro Labor Council executive secretary and former Ford Rouge employee, Coleman A. Young.
Young recalled his mindset going into the hearings in his 1994 autobiography, Hard Stuff:
Those subpoenaed to testify at the hearings – whose ranks included me and a fair share of the people I knew best – could never be certain whether they would be grilled about their own activities or their friends’ or both. It was a common and simple strategy for a witness to invoke the Fifth Amendment as a defense against incriminating himself, but the protection of others was a trickier proposition. Against the advice of George Crockett, my attorney, I made up my mind to attack that problem with the First Amendment, asserting that any inquiry into my or another’s ideological positions was a violation of my or his freedom of speech and privacy of political beliefs. . . . I wasn’t hiding from those bastards. I wanted them to come and get me.[lx]
Young’s legendary verbal showdown with HUAC Committee Chairman, Georgia Democrat John Wood, and HUAC chief council, Virginia native Frank Tavenner, kicked off on February 28, 1952. The recount of all the dialogue from that showdown comes from Hard Stuff. [lxi] The encounter began with Tavenner telling Young, “Mr. Young, I want to state to you in advance of questioning you that the investigators of the committee have not produced or presented any evidence of Communist Party membership on your part.”
Then after some additional pleasantries, Tavenner began the questioning by asking Young, “Are you now a member of the Communist Party?” Young replied:
I refuse to answer that question relying upon my rights under the Fifth Amendment and in light of the fact that to answer such a question, before such a committee, would be, in my opinion, a violation of my rights under the First Amendment, which provides for freedom of speech, sanctity, and privacy of personal beliefs. . . . And further, since I have no purpose of being here as a stool pigeon, I am not prepared to give any information on any of my associates political thoughts.
From that point, the witness remained on the offensive.
You told us,” Tavenner drawled with his thick southern accent, “you were the executive secretary of the National Niggra Congress.”
Young cut the chief council off mid-sentence.
“That word is “Negro,” not “Niggra.”
“I said, “Negro,” replied Tavenner, “I think you are mistaken.
“I hope I am,” Young said. “Speak more clearly.”
At this point, Senator Wood decided his chief council needed help.
“I will appreciate it if you will not argue with council.”
“It isn’t my purpose to argue,” replied Young. “As a Negro, I resent the slurring of the name of my race. . . .”
“I am sorry. I did not mean to slur it,” said Tavenner.
“The hearings were as big as the damn World Series in Detroit,” recalled Young in his 1994 autobiography, “and they were broadcast live on the radio, which meant that the whole city heard me reprimand the government counselor.”
As the exchange continued, another committee member, Republican congressman Charles Potter of Michigan, questioned Young’s attitude.
“We are here to find out the extent of Communist activities in this area. You are in a position to help and aid, if you will, but the attitude you are taking is uncooperative to such an investigation.”
“I am not here to fight in any un-American activities,” said Young, “because I consider the denial of the right to vote to large numbers of people all over the South un-American. . . .”
Tavenner then cut off Young by asking, “Do you consider the activities of the Communist Party un-American?”
“I consider the activities of this committee, as it cites people for allegedly being a Communist, as un-American activities.”
Tavenner and Young continued to tangle on the issue of Communism, with Young refusing to answer any inquiries. When Young once again said the committee had him mixed up with a stool pigeon, Congressman Potter jumped in again.
Potter: “I have never heard of anybody stooling in the Boy Scouts.”
Young: “I was a member of that organization,”
Potter: “I don’t think they are proud of it today,”
Young: “I will let the Scouts decide that.”
The committee continued to bombard Young with questions about his associations with the National Negro Congress, which had been labeled as subversive by the U.S. Attorney General, and the National Negro Labor Council (NNLC), which had not garnered the subversive distinction. During the exchange, Senator Wood also butchered the pronunciation of “Negro,” making it “Niggra.”
“I might have let it pass this time,” recalled Young, “had they no pushed my by asking the same goddamn thing over and over despite my repeated insistence that I would not answer any question relating to any organization on their list.”
Young: “I would inform you also, the word is Negro.”
Wood: “I am sorry. If I made a different pronouncement of it, it is due to my inability to use the language any better than I do. I am trying to use it properly.”
Young: “It may be due to your southern background.”
Wood: “I am not ashamed of my southern background. For your information, out of 112 Negro votes cast in the last election in the little village from which I come, I got 112 of them. That ought to be a complete answer of that. Now, will you answer the question?”
Young: “You are through with it now? Is that it?”
Wood: I don’t know.”
Young: “I happen to know, in Georgia Negro people are prevented from voting by virtue of terror, intimidation, and lynchings. It is my contention you would not be in Congress today if it were not for the legal restrictions on voting on the part of my people.”
Young’s battle with the HUAC, in addition to being broadcast live, was made into a record, a record that went unofficially to the top of the charts on his native lower east side.
“Coleman did the most magnificent job I’ve ever heard before the investigating committee,” recalled legendary Detroit civil rights attorney Ernie Goodman. “He had them hamstrung, moving backward in their tracks.”[lxii]
“I was incensed that they would have the nerve to question anyone else’s Americanism,” wrote Young years later. “I thought this particularly true of the motherfucker from Georgia who headed the committee . . . my attitude was, Why should I take any crap off this son of a bitch from Georgia? If they wanted to talk about my radical politics, hell, there’s nothing as radical as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I was ready to take them on.”[lxiii]
Young’s stand as a confident, well-spoken and defiant black man in Cold War America – an America that still tolerated daily the injustices of Southern and Northern Jim Crow racism and violence – against the House un-American Activities Committee was a bellwether of things to come. By the middle of the decade, blacks in Detroit and across the nation were no longer willing to defer justice to their daily unjust lives as second class citizens. Soon, many white citizens – who could not be as easily labeled Communist or otherwise subversive – would join their black countrymen and women in their quest for equality.
The final steps of the UAW effort to oust their left-leaning membership also took place in February 1952. That month, UAW International, at the direction of UAW President Walter Reuther, took Local 600 into trusteeship, removed their left-leaning officers, took over the Local’s newspaper and assumed control of the Local’s daily operations.[lxiv]
Ultimately, the victims of the Detroit’s organized labor pinko pogrom included NAACP Detroit Branch President Reverend Charles Hill, UAW leader William Hood, Coleman Young, and his attorney, George Crockett. These men comprised some of the most outspoken, uncompromising and skilled leaders in Detroit’s black community.[lxv]
Crockett had been ousted as UAW Fair Practices Committee Chairperson by Reuther in the late 1940s. [lxvi] He later served four months in federal prison in 1950 for contempt of court charges for defending Jacob Satchel and Carl Winter, two of the eleven members of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), who were convicted during the 1949 Foley Square trials in New York City. Crockett would later serve as a judge in Detroit Recorder’s Court, and in 1980, would be sworn in as the 71-year old rookie Congressman from Michigan’s 13th District.
He would serve four terms in the U.S. House before retiring in 1991.[lxvii]
In his 1994 autobiography, Coleman Young had this to say of UAW President, Walter Reuther, who oversaw and engineered the entire UAW communist cleansing during the late 1940s:
There are hundreds of thousands of people in Detroit and in labor unions around the country who regarded former UAW President Walter Reuther as a great man. To me and those of us on the disenfranchised left, which he purged from the industrial union movement . . . he was a great adversary.[lxviii]
By the end of the Reuther’s UAW purge, American business interests had begun to perfect a propaganda campaign to capture the hearts and minds of Cold War America. According to Thomas Sugrue the:
. . . trend against structural understanding of poverty and unemployment was reinforced by the work of industrial psychologists and manpower experts who stressed the importance of individual skills in the workplace. The reason that large numbers of workers had been displaced was because of their lack of human capital. . . . to solve the problem of unemployment meant behavior modification. . . . The pro-business sentiment of the 1950s bolstered that individual deficiencies rather than structural economic and racial barriers were the roots of urban joblessness. To highlight the problems of industrial workers, to emphasize workplace inequality, was fundamentally un-American.
After World War II . . . major corporations orchestrated an extraordinarily successful propaganda campaign that associated big business with “true” American values, and tainted its critics with charges of communism. To challenge corporate policy was to risk political marginalization and disdain.[lxix]
By the summer of 1950, Detroit Lions’ record-setting end Bob Mann was in the midst of his own battles against marginalization and distain. Amazingly, the man who one year before had led the NFL in receiving yardage was about to become expendable not only in Detroit, but across the entire NFL. And the story behind that development is the beginning of a highly questionable period in Lions’ history.
In early 1950, Bob Mann met with Lions’ President Edwin Anderson to discuss his contract for the upcoming season. In that meeting, Mann was asked to take a 20 percent pay cut, from the $7,500 he had earned in 1949, to $6,000 for the 1950 season.
The reason the Lions gave Mann for the lowball offer was that “the preponderance of player material and the merger of the two leagues [NFL and AAFC] prompted a general salary slash among all teams.”[lxx]
In layman’s terms, the AAFC closing up shop meant that there were more players now available than the still-standing NFL had job openings.
By the spring of 1950, Detroit newspapers had announced that the Lions had signed highly-touted rookies Doak Walker and Leon Hart each to $12,000 offers. Naturally, Mann, a 1,000 yard receiver and proven NFL performer, balked at Anderson’s offer.
According to Mann, the meeting went downhill from there and “at one point Anderson left the room to run cool water on his wrists as a way to calm his anger.”[lxxi]
Mann and Anderson’s relationship had been rocky for some time. While working for Goebel, Mann had unsuccessfully urged Anderson to hire more black employees. Mann would often ask why the company didn’t have more black truck drivers on their payroll.
It was around this same time that Goebel was seeking to open a new beer distributorship on Detroit’s east side in a predominantly black section of the city. A local black business association, Business Sales Incorporated, decided to put in a bid for the distributorship. When Goebel decided to give the bid to two white Goebel employees, Business Sales Inc. decided to fight back.
According to the Michigan Chronicle, “Business Sales Incorporated initiated a boycott attempt against the Goebel Brewing Company, when the firm granted an eastside distributorship to two long-term employees.
“Representatives of Business Sales Inc. contended that a Negro firm should have been given consideration for the distributorship, since the delivery area was in a predominately Negro section”
Mann never became directly involved in the boycott. But in a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Mann would soon be doubly-unemployed.
Mann, an off-season sales employee of Goebel Company, became innocently involved in the boycott attempt when it was erroneously reported that he had conferred with Business Sales representatives relative to the boycott and the distributorship. . . . Mann’s position in the latter was never cleared to the satisfaction of Goebel officials . . . According to reliable sources; Mann was severed from the Goebel payroll as of July 31, which was the date of departure for all Lion players for the training camp at Ypsilanti.
Within days, Bob Mann on a flight to NFL exile with the New York Yanks, while Bobby Layne was on a path to NFL immortality as the new Detroit Lions’ quarterback.
Wally Triplett was very blunt in his assessment of why the Lions traded Mann.
“Because he wanted to own a franchise to sell beer, Bob Mann was dumped and blackballed.”
Ironically, Mann – who had caught 66 passes for over 1,000 yards in 1949 – would never play a regular season down for the Yanks.
One day after catching a 53-yard touchdown pass for the Yanks in an exhibition game versus the all-white Washington Redskins in segregated Shreveport, Louisiana, Mann was released.
“[A]fter playing a total of three minutes in four exhibition contests, the 170-pound Mann was told by New York officials that he was “too small to make the team,” reported the Michigan Chronicle on September 16.
“Has the freeze been put on Bob Mann,” asked Chronicle editor Bill Matney, “Deep mystery still surrounds the fleet star who led both leagues last year in passing yardage and who was expecting to experience his best season thus far during the 1950 campaign.”
In the biggest of ironies, while Mann got to play in the Yanks’ final exhibition in Jim Crow Louisiana versus George Preston Marshall’s Whiteskins; Wally Triplett was held out of the Lions final 1950 exhibition versus the Chicago Cardinals in Birmingham, Alabama.
On November 1, 1950, the Detroit Free Press reported that Mann claimed was being “railroaded” out of the NFL and that he was planning to take his battle to NFL commissioner Bert Bell.
“I’m convinced I was railroaded out of the league because I never had a fair chance to make the team,” Mann said of his being cut by the Yanks in September.
Bell disagreed with Man’s assertion.
“When the Yanks asked waivers in him, 12 other teams could have picked him up or he could have sold himself to any one of the 12 clubs just as many other players have done,” the commissioner said.
Bell added that he had “never heard Mann called ‘undesirable’ until Bob himself used that term,” and that there was nothing to prevent Mann from playing “if he is good enough.”
It is of note that Bert Bell was owner of the Philadelphia Eagles when the long rumored “gentleman’s agreement” among NFL owners to bar black players allegedly went into effect in 1934. Bell became NFL commissioner in 1946. The NFL color line remained Caucasian until 1946, when the Los Angeles Rams signed former UCLA stars Kenny Washington and Woody Strode.
Bob Mann would spend much of the 1950 season in exile. But on November 25, 1950, the Green Bay Packers signed him and he played for them in the final game of the season the very next day. Mann was the first black player in Packers’ history. He would produce and play for the Pack through the 1954 season, then return to Detroit and enter the business world. In 1970, he would graduate from the Detroit College of Law and open a practice in Detroit, where he would faithfully work until his death in 2006.
Bob Mann was elected to the Green Bay Packers’ Hall of Fame in 1988. At the time of his death, he was eulogized eloquently by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
It sounds incredible now, given pro football today, but at one time a myth held sway that black men couldn’t play as well as white men. That myth helped to justify the National Football League’s practice of recruiting only whites. A player who helped make a lie of the myth was Bob Mann, an African-American who integrated the Green Bay Packers in 1950. In 1948, he and Melvin Groomes had done the same for the Detroit Lions. . . . Mann pioneered the idea that skin color does not limit talents.
Despite the setbacks for Bob Mann, George Edwards, Coleman Young and others in Detroit’s black and liberal communities, the 1950s did see the UAW and the city’s black population work together to elect Detroit’s first black councilman in 1957 and the first black citizen to the city’s Board of Education in 1955.
However, the overall events and trends in Detroit between the years of 1910 and 1950 served to galvanize racial tension city-wide and created ripple effects that slowed racial progress on all fronts, including the integration of the two sports teams occupying Briggs Stadium.
[i] David A. Carson, Grit, Noise, And Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock ‘N’ Roll, (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2005), p. 2-4.
[ii] Charles K. Ross, Outside The Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League, (New York, New York University Press, 1999), p. 166-67.
[iii] Detroit Lions Sign Bob Mann, St. Petersburg Times, April 23, 1948
[iv] Michael Ranville, Gregory Eaton, “Bob Mann arrives in Detroit after stellar career at U of M,” Michigan Chronicle, October 26- November 1, 2005.
[v] Jim Sargent, “Wallace ‘Wally’ Triplett: Struggling for Success in the Postwar NFL,” The Coffin Corner, (Pro Football Researchers Association: Vol. 27, No. 4, 2005).
[vi] Michael Ranville, Gregory Eaton, “Bob Mann arrives in Detroit after stellar career at U of M,” Michigan Chronicle, October 26- November 1, 2005.
[vii] Jim Sargent, “Wallace ‘Wally’ Triplett: Struggling for Success in the Postwar NFL,” The Coffin Corner, (Pro Football Researchers Association: Vol. 27, No. 4, 2005).
[viii] Jack Ebling, Tales From the Detroit Tigers Dugout, (Champaign, IL, Sports Publishing, 2007), p. 51-52.
[ix] Reynolds Farley, Sheldon Danzinger, Harry J. Holzer, Detroit Divided: A Volume In The Multi-City Study Of Urban Inequality, (New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 2000), p. 39.
[x] Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 23.
[xi] Kevin Boyle, Arc Of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, And Murder In The Jazz Age, (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2004), p. 9.
[xii] Kevin Tierney, Darrow: A Biography, (Thomas Y. Crowell, New York, 1979), p. 375.
[xiii] Boyle, Arc Of Justice, p. 145.
[xiv] Ibid, p. 8.
[xv] Ibid, p. 140-143.
[xvi] Ibid, p. 27-35
[xvii] Ibid, p. 37.
[xviii] Ibid, p. 38-40.
[xix] Ibid, p. 185.
[xx] John A. Farrell, Clarence Darrow, Attorney of The Damned, (New York, Doubleday, 2011).
[xxi] Boyle, Arc of Justice, P. 341.
[xxii] Sugrue, Origins, p. 23-24.
[xxiii] Richard Bak, “Pride of the Lions,” Hour Detroit, August 2007
[xxiv] Sugrue, Origins, p. 24.
[xxv] “The Truth About Sojourner Truth,” The Crisis, (Vol. 49, No. 4), April 1942.
[xxvi] Sidney Fine, Violence in the ModelCity: The Cavanaugh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit riot of 1967, (East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 2007), p. 1.
[xxvii] Peter Gavrilovich, Bill McGraw, ed., The Detroit Almanac: 300 Years of life in the MotorCity, (Detroit, Detroit Free Press, 2001), p. ??
[xxviii] Farley, Detroit Divided, p. 151.
[xxix] Sugrue, Origins, p. 33.
[xxx] Ibid, p. 45.
[xxxi] Ibid, p. 220-21.
[xxxii] Ibid, p. 211-12.
[xxxiii] Ibid, p. 29.
[xxxiv] Ibid, p. 28.
[xxxv] Fine, Violence in the ModelCity, p. 11.
[xxxvi] Roger Wilkins, interview with author, June 2007.
[xxxvii] Bak, “Pride of the Lions,” Hour Detroit, August 2007
[xxxviii] John Sinclair, interview with author, June 2007.
[xxxix] Kevin Boyle, interview with author, June 2007.
[xl] Hubert Locke, interview with author, June 2007.
[xli] Sugrue, Origins, p. 82.
[xlii] Boyle interview, 2007.
[xliii] Sugrue, Origins, p. 82-83.
[xliv] Heather Ann Thompson, Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City, (Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 2001), p.14.
[xlv] Sugrue, Origins, p. 84.
[xlvi] Boyle interview, 2007.
[xlvii] Sugrue, Origins, p. 84-85.
[xlviii] Ibid, p. 47-48.
[xlix] Ibid, p. 233.
[l] Ibid, p. 233.
[li] Thompson, Whose Detroit?, p. 19.
[lii] Peter Gavrilovich, Bill McGraw, ed., The Detroit Almanac: 300 Years of life in the MotorCity, (Detroit, Detroit Free Press, 2001) p. ??.
[liii] Thompson, Whose Detroit?, p. 19.
[liv] Coleman Young and Lonnie Wheeler, Hard Stuff: The Autobiography of Coleman Young, (New York, Viking, 1994), p. 128-129.
[lv] Sugrue, Origins, p. 153.
[lvi] Ibid, p. 153.
[lvii] Ibid, p.153.
[lviii] Ibid, p. 132.
[lix] Ibid, p. 155.
[lx] Young, Hard Stuff, p. 117-18.
[lxi] Young, Hard Stuff, p. 117-24.
[lxii] Steve Babson, Dave Riddle, David Elsila, The Color of Law: Ernie Goodman, Detroit, and the Struggle for Labor and Civil Rights, (Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2010), p. 216.
[lxiii] Young, Hard Stuff, p. 119.
[lxiv] Sugrue, Origins, p. 161.
[lxv] Ibid, p. 171-72.
[lxvi] Babson, et al., The Color of Law, p. 158.
[lxvii] Scott Martelle, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, (New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 2011). P. XV, XVII, 216-17.
[lxviii] Young, Hard Stuff, p. (photo gallery caption).
[lxix] Sugrue, Origins, p. 156.
[lxx] “Chronicle Editor Tells Inside Story on Bob Mann Trade,” Michigan Chronicle, August 12, 1950.
[lxxi] “Bob Mann arrives in Detroit after stellar career at U of M,” Michigan Chronicle, October 26- November 1, 2005.
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