Saw Flash of Genius the other night. When the inventor of the variable-speed windshield wiper finally—after years—gets the Ford Motor Company into court, I wondered what questions they asked to choose the jury. How did they find twelve people in Detroit who didn’t depend on Ford for their livelihood or hold a grudge against Ford—or both? I know about that. My father grew up partly in Detroit and told this story about his eldest brother, Harry. Harry was head of the machine department at Ford, the guys who did the fussy stuff, made the prototypes, I guess, and parts for the machines that made the cars. A couple of guys from administration came through and told him to fire a few of his workers. OK, said Harry, and asked what was wrong—sales going down? No, they said, they just wanted to put the fear of God into everybody in the shop. Harry quit, saying “I’m not going to let Henry Ford make a bastard out of me!” As my father, the kid brother tells it, “After a while, Harry did go back to work at Ford, and they did make a bastard out of him.”

Anyway, I recommend the film, and it set me to reading Maurice Sugar’s book about the Ford Hunger March during the Depression (not the one we’re going into now, the one that started in 1929). His “Soup Song” may come back in vogue soon:

Soup Song
Music: Traditional (My Bonnie), Lyrics, Maurice Sugar

I'm spending my nights in the flophouse,
I'm spending my days on the street,
I'm looking for work and I find none,
I wish I had something to eat.

   Soo-oop, soo-oop, they give me a bowl of soo-oo-oop.
   Soo-oop, soo-oop, they give me a bowl of soup!

I spent twenty years in a fact'ry,
I did everything I was told.
They said I was faithful and loyal,
Now now even before I am old:

   Soo-oop, soo-oop, they give me a bowl of soo-oo-oop.
   Soo-oop, soo-oop, they give me a bowl of soup!

I saved fifteen bucks with my banker,
To buy me a car and yacht.
I went down to draw out my money,
And this was the answer I got:

   Soo-oop, soo-oop, they give me a bowl of soo-oo-oop.
   Soo-oop, soo-oop, they give me a bowl of soup!
   Oh, soo-oop, soo-oop, they give me a bowl of soo-oo-oop.
   Soo-oop, soo-oop, they give me a bowl of soup!

Maurice Sugar was a lawyer who became general counsel to the United Auto Workers. He and his wife were friends with my parents, who both show up in his book, my father because he took part in the hunger march, and my mother in this passage: “Bud Reynolds went on out to California, where he married a song writer named Malvina. Mostly she sings her own songs, like “Little Boxes” and one she wrote for Bud, “Bury Me in My Overalls.” But I understand that on occasion she and Bud sing my “Soup Song,” written just before the workers of Detroit staged the incomparable Ford Hunger March...”

During the hunger march, four young marchers were shot either by the police or by people hired by Ford. According to Sugar, “The bodies of the four dead were taken to a workers’ hall, there to lie in state while tens of thousands, walking night and day, silently, grimly, passed their coffins.

“Mrs. Bussell, mother of sixteen-year-old Joe Bussell, sat in vigil over his body. ‘I wanted him to work in the movement,’ she said. ‘I wanted him to follow in my footsteps. He was a worker’s son and I am proud that if he had to fall, he fell fighting for the workers. It was a brave death for a brave boy.’
“And when friends suggested that the body of her son be clothed in a new suit of clothes and new shoes for the burial, she said, ‘No. Old clothes are good enough to moulder in the ground. Better to send the new things to the striking Kentucky miners. They have more need for them now.’”

Of course when I read that I thought of the song of my mother’s that Sugar mentioned, “Bury Me in My Overalls,” which she did indeed write for my dad, after he’d recovered from a heart attack.
  Malvina sings “Bury Me in My Overalls,” © 1956.

In an earlier chapter, Sugar quotes the Detroit Labor News comparing the murders of the workers with the reception the authorities gave other elements of the community: “When the businessmen of this community marched on City Hall and demanded lower taxes to save their property, were they met with machine guns and tear gas? When the bankers marched on the Federal Treasury at Washington and demanded the liquidation of their frozen assets, were they met with machine guns and tear gas? And oh, what a different story when workers protest.”

My father kept predicting that we’d have another depression. Too bad he’s not here to see what happens next, but then it would have been hard for him to get up on the barricades at 115. If there is anybody on the barricades this time, with the unions tamed and the word “liberal” used to smear in the same way the word “communist” was back in the day. Of course among Communists, “liberal” meant wishy-washy and you only used it to describe people you didn’t like.


I looked up today’s date on “This Week in History” and one of the entries was “Black Man in the White House.” On October 16, 1901 “Pres. Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute and the most prominent African American of his time, to a meeting in the White House. The meeting went long and the president asked Washington to stay for dinner, the first black person ever to do so. 
“Newspapers in the both the South and North were critical, but the South with more venom. The Memphis ‘Scimitar’ said that it was ‘the most damnable outrage that has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.’ Roosevelt claimed he had invited a friend to dinner with his family and it was no one else's business.”
©2008 by Nancy Schimmel
Thursday, October 16, 2008
A photo of the Ford hunger march, from the site This Week in History.*