On Monday, March 7, 1932, 1,300 laid-off Ford Motor Company workers hunched into the collars of their coats and braved a bitter wind as they assembled at a spot just inside the southwest city limits of Detroit. They had come to march to Ford’s massive River Rouge plant in nearby Dearborn. Detroit’s Unemployed Council had been planning the march for weeks, though if the marchers had known the temperature would be pegged at zero with a stiff wind blowing, they might have picked another day. William Z. Foster, the Communist leader, had spoken at a rally the night before, although he was not among the marchers.
The marchers wanted jobs, even at Ford’s $4 workday. They also wanted workdays reduced to seven hours from Ford’s ten, a slower production line, and the right to organize. The company opposed all these demands.
They set out at 2:00 P.M., walking in close ranks against the cold. Others, women as well as men, joined the line of march along the way, clambering off trolley cars and out of automobiles that they left parked along Fort Street. When the marchers reached the city limits where Detroit abutted Dearborn to the west, their numbers had grown to about 3,000, and they now faced their Rubicon. Detroit had given them permission to march, but Dearborn, the home of Ford’s corporate and manufacturing headquarters, had denied it. Dearborn police always worked closely with the Ford security force, which had even spied on workers’ bathroom breaks to keep the production lines moving and union conversations down.
A line of forty Dearborn police, with Ford’s private enforcers in the background, blocked the marchers’ path across the city line. Behind them lay the Ford complex, a colossus of looming buildings and towering smokestacks spread over 2,000 acres, served by its own rail system and deepwater port. It was the largest factory complex in the world. The marchers halted and spread out facing the police line. Dearborn’s chief of police shouted a demand to see their marching permit. “We don’t need one,” a voice shouted back, and the marchers surged across the line, heading for the plant’s Gate Number 3, the employment gate where new hires were announced.
The police fired a barrage of tear gas, which blew away in the stiff wind. The marchers responded by picking up chunks of slag and frozen mud and hurling them at the police. The policemen drew their guns. Although several of them were hit and knocked down by the projectiles, they held their fire, and the marchers reached the factory gate, pooling into a milling crowd while police, Ford security, and a squad of firemen looked on.
More firemen were stationed on an overpass above the crowd that led from the car park to the plant. Wielding high-pressure hoses, they began blasting the marchers with cold water. Then Harry Bennett, the notorious chief of Ford security, arrived on the scene and grappled with one of the marchers, Young Communist League leader Joseph York. Someone threw a piece of slag that hit Bennett on the head, and he and York went down together. When York broke free and stood up, the sudden rattle of a submachine gun sounded from the overpass.
Bullets raked the marchers as they scrambled for their lives. York took a bullet in the stomach and fell, mortally wounded. Three other marchers, including a sixteen-year-old boy, also died in the rain of gunfire. Marchers and police were joined in hand-to-hand fighting as gunshots raked cars along the street, shattering glass and piercing doors and fenders. Inside the Ford employment building, bullets and rocks exploded through the windows, and workers hit the floor. Ten more marchers were shot and scores injured. The bombardment of slag wounded fifteen policemen. A call went out for reinforcements. Detroit police, Michigan state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, and National Guard troops arrived with machine guns, shotguns, tear gas bombs, and pistols. They swept up dozens of marchers on riot charges, sent the most seriously injured to hospitals, where they were chained to their beds, and took the rest to jail to be chained to cots inside their cells.
The press put the bulk of the blame on Foster and the Communist Party. “Responsibility is not hard to fix,” claimed the Detroit Free Press. “The inciters were William Z. Foster and the other Red agitators.” Police put out an all-points bulletin for Foster, whose speech the night before, according to the New York Times, had been “inflammatory.” Detroit prosecutor Harry S. Toy said there was no evidence that the march was “a hunger march or an unemployment march.” “A small group of plotters or agitators” was responsible and “criminal syndicalism” was involved.
Still, the conservative New York Herald Tribune ran an editorial that condemned the Dearborn police “for using guns on an unarmed crowd, for viciously bad judgment and for the killing of four men.” And an assistant Detroit prosecutor who interviewed the hospitalized marchers reported that all but one denied any Communist connection.
The four dead lay in state in Workers’ Hall in Detroit, under a red flag and a portrait of Lenin. Ten thousand people joined their funeral procession, and 30,000 watched their burial in a shared plot that had a view of the Ford plant.
The Ford incident hardened views at both ends of the political spectrum. The right could claim that Communists were intent on turning workers against their employers, causing strikes, and halting production, while the left could charge that the ruling industrialists would go to any end to keep their workers down and prevent them from organizing.
But the vast majority of Americans, those in the middle, recognized that the real issue was the lack of jobs, and neither marching Communists nor gunslinging corporate security forces could be blamed for that. And very few people, even those who attended Communist-organized rallies and walked in Unemployed Council marches, actually wanted to overthrow the government. They were impatient by now and they wanted change, but it was change within the framework of a system they knew, respected, and in most cases loved. They simply wanted their government to address their problems.