As America in 2017 struggles with how much to publicly memorialize the ugliest parts of its past, Detroit has found another way to honor painful history and show that teachable moments have the potential to lift up an entire neighborhood.
In the middle of one of Detroit’s most polluted and depopulated neighborhoods—the kind of place that has been struggling since the auto industry deserted the inner city in the ‘50s and ‘60s—organizers hope to build a memorial park in a vacant dirt lot that was once the site of one of the most pivotal moments in automotive and American labor history, the Detroit Free Press reports.
The Fort Street Bridge Park will, hopefully, someday be dedicated to those who participated and died in the 1932 Ford Hunger March, also known as the Ford Massacre.
The massacre happened on an intensely cold March day. More than 6,000 unemployed former auto workers walked from Detroit to Dearborn, where the Ford Motor Company world headquarters still sits to this day. Frank Murphy, then mayor of Detroit, allowed them to pass peacefully through the streets.
But when the unemployed workers hit the Detroit-Dearborn city limits, they were met with intense pushback from police and from Ford’s own thuggish private security force. Even Ford’s right hand man, Henry Bennet, was spotted emptying his gun into the crowd. Police used water cannons and machine guns to push the protesters back.
What were they marching for? The organizers had a list of 14 demands, but the signs the men carried, reading “We Want Bread Not Crumbs” said it all. In 1931, a doctor told the Detroit Times that four people a day were being brought to Detroit Receiving Hospital too far gone from starvation to be saved. The depression was in full swing, and Ford had laid off two-thirds of his workforce. Still, Henry Ford, one of the richest men in the world at this time, blamed the plight of the unemployed on workers having poor work ethic.
To Ford, this march seemed like the beginning of an insurrection. And communist organizations worked hand-in-hand with early labor unions to start the national day of protest. There were fears that the workers would occupy the plant. This was a fight for survival, pure and simple. It ended with five protesters dead and 60 injured.
Here’s what Detroit needs to get it up, from the Freep:
University of Michigan professor Paul Draus wants to honor the heritage of the Ford Hunger March — part of the fabric of Detroit — starting with a park adjacent to the historic Fort Street Bridge.
“We have all the plans in place. We have the blueprint and permission from the city,” said Draus, part of a group of historians and preservationists behind the effort.
All they need now is the money.
It has been six years since the Fort-Rouge Gateway Partnership and MotorCities National Heritage Area began fund-raising in hopes of securing enough money to build the Fort Street Bridge Park.
Today, they still are only halfway to funding the $600,000 project.
“We are eager to preserve the heritage of the 1932 Ford Hunger March,” said Brian Yopp, MotorCities National Heritage Area program and operations director. “We’ve raised over $350,000, including $100,000 from Ford. We are hoping to get some big donors that can help us with the last amount. We are still $260,000 from our goal.”
Hopefully, it can happen.
Henry Ford’s legacy in Detroit is still a fraught subject. Jobs in his plants drew people of every race and religion to Detroit, yet he himself was racist and anti-semitic. Ford famously introduced the $5 workday, effectively building the middle class for his employees, but only because his factories were so dangerous and the work so hard that he had to find some way to staunch the incredible turn over.
Much like the Confederate figures stirring up protest and controversy, we have high schools and roads bearing Ford’s name. There’s a statue of Ford outside of the Dearborn Library, and various Ford plants are now considered important historical and cultural sites. My favorite place to go as a kid was the Henry Ford Museum, and I went to college on grounds that the Ford family donated to the University of Michigan.
You can’t turn around in this part of Michigan without being reminded of Henry Ford, and all the good and bad he stood for. In Detroit, a city that is no stranger to difficult history, this project seems to be a beautiful answer to those who wonder if by tearing down offensive landmarks we are masking our history. As perhaps a hopeful sign of the times, the Ford Motor Company itself donated $100,000 to the park.
Those five deaths and dozens of injuries were not in vain; labor unions solidified after workers witnessed the violence wrought by Ford’s goons. And while Ford plants were some of the last to unionize, even Ford could not hold organized labor forever. Plants slowly became less deadly, and workers gained rights like decent working hours and conditions.
This is the kind of monument we need—the kind dedicated to the forgotten who died to give all of us a better life.