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Ford Hunger March

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The Ford Hunger March, sometimes called the Ford Massacre, was a demonstration of unemployed workers starting in Detroit and ending in Dearborn, Michigan, that took place on March 7, 1932. The march resulted in four workers being shot to death by the Dearborn Police Department and security guards employed by the Ford Motor Company. Over 60 workers were injured, many by gunshot wounds. Three months later, a fifth worker died of his injuries. The march was organized by the Unemployed Councils. The Ford Hunger March was an important part of a chain of events that eventually led to the unionization of the U.S. auto industry.



In the 1920s, prosperity came to the Detroit area, because of the successes of the U.S. auto industry in that decade. Concentrated in the Detroit area, the industry produced 5,337,000 vehicles in 1929, and the 1930 U. S. Census reported the U. S. population as 122,775,046 people. As a point of reference, the U. S. auto industry produced 8,681,000 vehicles in 2008, and the U. S. population was estimated at 304,375,000 that year. Therefore, the U.S. auto industry was producing 50% more vehicles per capita in 1929 than in recent years.

On Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, leading to the Great Depression. U. S. vehicle production plummeted. In 1930, production declined to 3,363,000 vehicles. In 1931, production fell to 1,332,000 vehicles, only 25% of the production of two years before.

As a result, unemployment in Detroit skyrocketed, and the wages of those still working were slashed. In 1929, the average annual wage for auto workers was $1639. By 1931, it had fallen 54% to $757. By 1932, there were 400,000 unemployed in Michigan.

In 1927, there were 113 suicides in Detroit. That number increased to 568 in 1931. In that year, the welfare allowance was 15 cents per person per day, and there was no unemployment insurance or Social Security. A wave of bank closures wiped out the life savings of many unemployed workers and retirees, as every neighborhood bank in Detroit went out of business. There was no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation insurance on bank deposits then. By 1932, foreclosures, evictions, repossessions and bankruptcies were commonplace, and the unemployed felt despair.

The Hunger March

The Detroit Unemployed Council and the Auto, Aircraft and Vehicle Workers of America called for a march on Monday, March 7, 1932, from Detroit to the Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, the company's largest factory. Both of the sponsoring organizations were organized by the Communist Party USA. The auto workers union, founded in 1919, was weak and had no contracts.

The mayor of Detroit was Frank Murphy, a liberal who later became Governor of Michigan and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Murphy administration decided to allow the march to proceed, although no permit was granted.

On March 6, William Z. Foster, secretary of the Communist labor federation known as the Trade Union Unity League, gave a speech in Detroit in preparation for the march. There were 14 demands that the marchers intended to present to Henry Ford. Among these were demands for rehiring of the unemployed, health care, an end to racial discrimination, winter fuel for the unemployed, abolishment of company spies and private police, and the right to organize unions.

March 7 was a bitterly cold day in Detroit, and a crowd estimated at between 3,000 and 5,000 gathered near the Dearborn city limits, about a mile from the Ford plant. The Detroit Times called it "one of the coldest days of the winter, with a frigid gale whooping out of the northwest". Marchers carried banners reading "Give Us Work, "We Want Bread Not Crumbs", and "Tax the Rich and Feed the Poor". Communist leader Albert Goetz gave a speech, asking that the marchers avoid violence. The march proceeded peacefully along the streets of Detroit until it reached the Dearborn city limits. There, the Dearborn police attempted to stop the march by firing tear gas into the crowd, and began hitting marchers with clubs. One officer fired a gun at the marchers. The crowd scattered into a field covered with stones, and then began throwing stones at the police. The angry marchers regrouped and advanced nearly a mile toward the plant. There, two fire engines began spraying cold water onto the marchers from an overpass. The police were joined by Ford security guards, and began shooting into the crowd. Joe York, Coleman Leny and Joe DeBlasio were killed, and at least 22 others were wounded by gunfire.

The leaders decided to call off the march at that point, and began an orderly retreat. Harry Bennett, head of Ford security, drove up in a car, opened a window, and fired a pistol into the crowd. Immediately, the car was pelted with rocks, and Bennett was injured. He then got out of the car, and continued firing at the retreating marchers. Dearborn police and Ford security men then opened fire on the retreating marchers with machine guns. Joe Bussell, 16 years old, was killed, and dozens more were wounded. Bennett was hospitalized.

According to Maurice Sugar, attorney for their families, all four of those killed on March 7 were members of the Young Communist League, USA.

About 25 Dearborn police officers were injured by thrown rocks and other debris, however, none were hit by gunfire.


All of the seriously wounded marchers were arrested, and many were chained to their hospital beds. That night, the offices of many Communist and Communist front organizations were raided in the Detroit area, and their leaders were arrested. There was a nationwide search for William Z. Foster, but he was not arrested. No law enforcement or Ford security officers were arrested, although all reliable reports showed that they were responsible for all of the gunfire. The New York Times reported that "Dearborn streets were stained with blood, streets were littered with broken glass and the wreckage of bullet-riddled automobiles, and nearly every window in the Ford plant's employment building had been broken".

Detroit newspapers published false and sensational accounts of the violence the following day. The Detroit Times, for example, falsely claimed that Harry Bennett and four policemen had been shot. The Detroit Press claimed that "six shots fired by a communist hiding behind a parked car were cited by police Monday night as the match which touched off a riot at the Ford Motor Company plant." The Detroit Free Press wrote that "These professional Communists alone are morally guilty of the assaults and killings which took place before the Ford plant." The Mirror ran a headline saying "Red Leaders Facing Murder Trials".

In the following days, the local newspapers reassigned blame. The Detroit Times, for example, said that "Someone, it is now admitted, blundered in the handling of the throng of Hunger Marchers that sought to present petitions at the Ford plant in River Rouge." The newspaper continued that 'The killing of obscure workmen, innocent of crime" was "a blow directed at the very heart of American institutions." The Detroit News reported that "Insofar as the demonstration itself had leaders present in the march, they appear to have warned the participants against a fight."

The mainstream trade union movement spoke out against the killings. The Detroit Federation of Labor, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, issued a statement saying that "The outrageous murdering of workers at the Ford Motor Plant in Dearborn on Monday has cast a stain on this community that will remain a disgrace for many years."

On March 12, at least 25,000 and perhaps as many as 60,000 people participated in a funeral procession for the four dead marchers, who were buried side by side in Woodmere Cemetery in Detroit. The slogan of the funeral march was "Smash the Ford-Murphy Terror".

Detroit Mayor Frank Murphy said that "the chaining of patient prisoners to beds is a brutal practice that should find no encouragement in an enlightened hospital". Murphy came under criticism because of the possible involvement of Detroit police in the violence, although a later historian described their role as "peripheral". Murphy denounced Harry Bennett as an "inhuman brute" and called Henry Ford a "terrible man". He asked, "What is the difference between the official Dearborn police and Ford's guards?" His answer was, "A legalistic one." Despite Murphy's criticisms of what happened on March 7, the hard left Third Period policy required that the Communists denounce him as well as Ford and Bennett.

Three months later, a fifth marcher, Curtis Williams, died from his injuries. Because Williams was an African-American, he couldn't be buried in segregated Woodmere Cemetery, so he was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the area.

William Z. Foster ran for President of the United States on the Communist Party ticket later that year, losing to Franklin D. Roosevelt. He suffered a heart attack during the campaign, and recuperated in the Soviet Union until 1935.

Nine years later, on April 11, 1941, after a ten-day sit down strike by 40,000 Ford workers, Henry Ford signed a collective bargaining agreement with the United Auto Workers union.

Grand Jury report

Prosecutor Harry S. Toy convened a grand jury to investigate the violence. At the end of June, they completed their investigation and issued their report. They said "After hearing many witnesses on both sides of the matter, this grand jury finds no legal grounds for indictments. However, we find that the conduct of the demonstrators was ill-considered and unlawful in their utter disregard for constituted authority. We find, further, that the conduct of the Dearborn City Police when they first met the demonstrators, though well intended, might have been more discreet, and better considered before they applied force in the form of tear gas. However, we believe that the said police discharged what they conscientiously considered to be their sworn duty as law enforcing officials, alike when they intercepted the rioters at the city's limit, using tear gas and in the critical and violent situation which ensued employing gunfire to protect life and property, which were then manifestly in danger."

One grand juror, a political ally of Frank Murphy, dissented, calling the administration of the grand jury "the most biased, prejudiced and ignorant proceeding imaginable". This grand juror, Mrs. Jerry Houghton Bacon, said that she "witnessed the most glaring discrimination on the parts of the prosecutors in the treatment of witnesses brought before the grand jury. Marked prejudice was voiced by the prosecutors which, without regard to its intent, impressed and influenced the minds of the jurors."


Photographic evidence of the march and the funerals that followed can be found at the website of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.

Documentation of the march survives in a film by the Workers Film and Photo League of Detroit.


Ford Hunger March Wikipedia

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