The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

General Baker Remembered

May 26, 2014

Nearly a thousand Detroiters turned out for a memorial tribute to General Gordon Baker Jr., a black militant and opponent of U.S. wars, a long-time Detroit trade union activist and community organizer, among other things. He had died May 18, after a lingering illness.

From the time he was a young man, he stood up to power in this country, refusing to be inducted into the army in 1965 and helping to organize wildcat strikes at Chrysler Corporation. Those strikes targeted not only a company that long refused to hire black workers into anything but the dirtiest or most menial of jobs, but also targeted the leadership of the UAW, which in a clear way, despite its liberal veneer, demonstrated a racist disregard for the problems facing black workers.

He was arrested a number of times: from the time in 1963, when he booed during the national anthem to protest the refusal of the Detroit City Council to pass an open housing ordinance – for which he was acquitted – up to his participation on the picket lines of the Detroit newspaper strike in the mid-1990s. And he was fired several times for leading actions against company policies, from Dodge Main in 1968, and from Ford.

The letter he sent to the draft board in 1965 was a clear denunciation of U.S. policies around the world, and at the same time, it showed his refusal to give in to the government threats to jail him.

“How could you have the NERVE [to ask if I am qualified for military service] knowing that I am a black man living under the scope and influence of America’s racist, decadent society??? You did not ask if I had any morals, principles, or basic human values by which to live. Yet, you ask if I am qualified. QUALIFIED FOR WHAT, might I ask? What does being ‘Qualified’ mean: qualified to serve in the U.S. Army? . . . To be further brainwashed into the insidious notion of ‘defending freedom’?

“You stand before me with the dried blood of Patrice Lumumba on your hands, the blood of defenseless Panamanian students, shot down by U.S. marines . . . the blood of defenseless women and children burned in villages [in Viet Nam] from Napalm jelly bombs. . . With all of this blood of my non-white brothers dripping from your fangs, you have the damned AUDACITY to ask me if I am ‘qualified.’ White man, listen to me for I am talking to you!”

Instead of putting him on trial, the government declared him a “security risk” and refused to draft him!

Over the years, he was responsible for the formation of several different political organizations, some clearly nationalist, others on a communist basis, but usually aimed at what he had called the point of production. He ran for elected office – in 1976 as a Communist Labor Party candidate for the Michigan House, but two years later as a Democrat for the same position.

He had been chairman of the Coke Ovens unit in UAW Local 600, and known widely for his defense of workers who sought to fight.

Over the years, his broad political views, including on the UAW, may have shifted, but his commitment to black workers, and more generally to the working class never did.

His passing leaves a big hole in Detroit.