Richard Felman, August 19th, 2016

Title

Richard Felman, August 19th, 2016

Description

In this interview, Feldman discusses moving to Michigan and getting a job with the Ford Motor Company. He discusses his experiences as an activist and union representative, the state of race relations at the plant and in the area and his feelings about the unrest in Detroit in 1967.

Publisher

Detroit Historical Society

Date

09/20/2016

Rights

Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI

Format

Audio/WAV

Language

en-US

Type

Oral History

Video

Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Richard Feldman

Brief Biography

Richard Feldman was born in 1949. He was born in Brooklyn and then moved to Michigan to attend the University of Michigan in 1967. He later worked for the Ford Motor Company and was a union representative.

Interviewer's Name

William Winkel

Interview Place

Detroit, MI

Date

08/19/2016

Interview Length

00:42:52

Transcriptionist

Robert Lazich

Transcription Date

09/20/2016

Transcription

William Winkel: Hello, today is August 19, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. I am sitting down with Mr. Richard Feldman. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.

Richard Feldman: Great to be here.

WW: Can you tell me when and where were you born?

RF: I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1949 and went to public high school in New York and then moved in 1967 to the University of Michigan to go to college and then subsequently moved to Detroit in 1970.

WW: When you were in Ann Arbor, did you anticipate that you would come to Detroit afterwards, or were you just trying to find yourself?

RF: When I started school in 1967, it’s so important to know that ’67 obviously there was the rebellion in Detroit. It was also learning later the year that Martin Luther King gave his speech “Beyond Vietnam: Breaking the Silence” where he talked about the evil triplets of racism, materialism and militarism would lead to a radical revolution in values. I say that because 1967 was a very important moment. I came to Detroit, I came to Ann Arbor in August of 1967 to start school and the first person I heard speak was Reverend Clay. I was a young white liberal student, 18 years old, from New York and heard this extremely charismatic, vibrant, energetic challenging black leader talk about racism and the significance of the rebellion and capturing the attention of the world through this rebellion, because of this rebellion. From that period on it was just a matter of months before I got very involved in the anti-war movement working to support the Black Panther party, the women’s movement over the next number of years. Went to Chicago in 1968 and went to Woodstock in ’69, went to the United Front Against Fascism organized by the Black Panther party in Oakland, California in 1969. So I became an activist student in Ann Arbor, Michigan for Students for a Democratic Society during the next three years. That became much more important than my studies as such. Studies were just coincidental. As the ‘60s ended we began to talk about how we move from the campuses to work in cities and continue this commitment to radical change, revolution – I’m trying to think of the words we used then – and during my time in Ann Arbor I also went to support wildcat strikes in the auto industry that were occurring in the late ‘60s. So there was a period of militancy. Among workers there was a clear, growing popular conversation about black power, what does that mean. So when 1970 it came time for us to leave, we decided to come to Detroit because that’s where the revolution was happening already because so much organizing had taken place before and after the rebellion.

WW: Before you went to Ann Arbor, and people spoke about what was going on in July 1967, did you ever hear “rebellion” or “uprising” when you were in New York? Or was that new terminology when you showed up in Ann Arbor?

RF: It was new terminology when the word people would use then is “they rioted in the streets.” So they rioted in the streets first in Harlem in ’64, then Watts in ’65, then Detroit in ’67 and then Newark in ’67 too, I think?

WW: ’66.

RF: ’66, thank you. So the word was “you were rioting.” The cause, when it was discussed in the media, it wasn’t discussed as part of a political social revolution taking place. It wasn’t seen as part of a way to define change or a moment of change. I only began to understand the word rebellion through the work of James and Grace Lee Boggs because Jimmy and Grace, who along with a few other folks, were named as the people responsible for the uprising and rebellion by Lomax in the newspaper even though they were on vacation. But they had been organizers with Reverend Clay to bring Martin Luther King here in ’63 along with Reverend Franklin and then bring Malcolm X here in the fall of ’63 to message the Grass Roots conference. After the rebellion they went and – what I think I understood as I look back now, what I didn’t understand then was that people were angry, people were trying to do something, and life gets really messy when that happens. I don’t think I understood that – I think I understood change as out of chaos and anger comes a new world. Because for the first time in history there’s this massive, massive uprising by African Americans by whom this country was built. There had been significant resistance and significant protest over the decades but nothing like the civil rights and Black Power movement brought to the fore in the ‘50s and ‘60s and into the early ‘70s in this country. Jimmy and Grace when they saw this uprising in ’67 said “How come this doesn’t lead to revolution? Why is this not a revolution?” They made this distinction between rebellion and revolution and also the distinction between riots, rebellion and revolution, which was very important because there had been lots of riots in this country. Most of the riots, in fact all the riots, were lynching of blacks by whites or the burnings of blacks in Tulsa, Oklahoma of burning of entire areas of Florida where blacks lived. Whites had always rioted against blacks and then put them on these – you know, a thousand people would come and watch a lynching. The terrorism of whites was a riot. It was not until to my understanding pretty much until ’43 when blacks fight back in Detroit over on the Belle Isle – the baby incident, the alleged rape incident and all this other stuff you still see the pent-up energy of fighting back. But the rebellion was different -- because the rebellion is after 12, 13 years of civil rights and Black Power activities. But Jimmy and Grace were very clear that it was not a revolution because a rebellion is when you reject, you act out of the injustice and the pain and you reject what is taking place. Revolution is when you move from rejections to projections and you also say, “What kind of human beings do we need to become?” That’s how do we change ourselves in to change the world. Revolution is when you are talking about governing a new kind of country, not just protesting so somebody else can solve the problems for you. I didn’t understand this obviously when I was 18 and 20, it’s come from many years of study and conversations and looking around the world. There was a rebellion in Tiananmen Square. It didn’t go beyond that. There was the Arab Spring, which was a rebellion. What’s happening now in Milwaukee and different parts of the country since Ferguson are uprisings and rebellions. They’re not riots. Riots are a way to blame people and put people down for their anger and their frustration rather than see it as part of the stage of historical evolution of social change. Therefore the challenge of looking back 50 years with this important project that you’re all doing is to say “How since that rebellion have people developed the language, some of the initiatives, some of the thinking, to move us forward towards new concepts of revolution.” Really the challenge is what does revolution look like as we move from the 50th anniversary to the 100th anniversary, which is what I myself and others around the city and around the country have dedicated to themselves from moving from this moment towards creating a sustainable, local communities with democracy where folks can not only have a place to work but a life of creating carrying communities.

WW: The wildcat strikes for the auto workers that you supported, they were in the metro area?

RF: They were in the metro area. One was at Fruehauf, the trucking company, if you remember that; I’m glad you asked me. That was when we got up really early in the morning and – you know when you’re young and excited about people standing up for themselves, you get up at these weird times of the hour like 4:00 in the morning and you drove from Ann Arbor to support the workers. Then as we began to learn about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and some of the wildcats that went on there we would be supportive of – some were in Detroit, some were in Macomb County is what I remember. I had been to a wildcat strike at the Ford Mahwah plant in Jersey, the summer before I actually came to Ann Arbor because some of my cousins were involved in the student movement and the wildcats that were going on in some of the plants. Because workers played such an important role in the 30s in creating the unions, obviously, and radicals played such an important role in that, our thinking was you continue to encourage that militancy and that standing up for yourselves and somehow the past would be repeated. That’s really looking back fifty years the main lesson I’ve come to try to understand where the vision you have for change at one time is not sufficient for the vision or the strategy of the thinking of the language for another time. It takes a lot to, as Grace and Jim would say, to think dialectically to realize that the world changes. I went into work in a plant after I left Ann Arbor and spent 20 years on the line at Ford Motor Company in Wayne, Michigan at the Ford truck plant then, a plant that moved from the complex over on Livernois to Wayne as part of the movement of work from the city to the suburbs. A plant that in the 1980s saw this mass technological displacement of people. My plant went from like 4,000 people to 2,000 people and we produced the same amount of vehicles. So the role of wildcats, the role of workers – we romanticize the past period rather than realize it emerged from a particular moment. I do these tours “From Growing Our Economies to Growing Our Souls” and start at the Packard plant. If you look at the Packard plant it is three levels and it has no fence around it. If you go to the GM Poletown plant – that’s what we call it, we don’t call it the Hamtramck Assembly Plant. You see a fence around it and you see one level. That architecture reflects the energy crisis that emerges in the ‘70s and it reflects the design of a plant that goes from three levels to one level. So you don’t move vehicles up and down through conveyors and elevators and you can do just in time delivery. It reflects when the U.S. had a monopoly of the auto industry to the globalization of the auto industry. So I went into the plant because I wanted to bring forth that strength and that love and that belief that workers would make a revolution. I wrote a book “End of the Line: Automakers and the End of the American Dream” in 1988, which is an oral history about the rebellion and what the wildcats did for my work in the plant is to help me uplift the struggle against racism in the plant, to helping blacks get elected as union representatives that helped fight racism in the plant and all the other “isms” because it gave me the spirit that people really make change. I think that for me as a person who has committed myself to this journey is being able to find in history how these moments represented hope even though they look chaotic and confusing and obviously are painful for many people. Because when I moved here in the ‘70s there were organizations in every neighborhood from welfare rights organizing to the Panthers to the League to collectives of students, you just had this sense – there were newspapers being put out, underground newspapers. I was with the State Opinion for a number of years, the South End Press was a radical journal, and everybody and their uncle was putting out underground newspapers. We lived in River Rouge in Ecorse because we were organizing white, working class youth but that was our challenge. So that they would understand what took place in Detroit. I don’t know if I ever saw it written but the story in Wyandotte, Michigan is that in ’67 they put a Gatling gun on that bridge to make sure that none of the blacks were coming from Detroit to take over the all white neighborhood of Wyandotte. From our organizing and a newspaper called Down the River, that was from folks who shared those stories.

WW: When you came to Detroit to work on the wildcat strikes and when when you came to live here, you said you lived in River Rouge, what was your first impression of the city? Was the city welcoming to you? Were you cautious when you went anywhere? What was your feeling towards the city?

RF: I totally felt welcomed. I think in 1970 it was 50-50 black white, maybe 55 black, 45 white. To give you a sense as to how it worked, we came and all of us lived in a large, large house on Commonwealth. This was right – I’m trying to think when the Matthau gym was put up and people were displaced, I don’t remember the year. It was the beginning of the expansion of Wayne State. So we lived over in that area then after about six months we divided up into different collectives; some went to the West Side, women decided to go live together to create a stronger women’s organizing focus, others moved to the East Side, we went to live in River Rouge to organize young, white, working class youths from the steel mills in Zug Island. We did that because the Vietnam War and the rebellion had made symbols of change very prominent among growing numbers of young people. They could be symbols of a Malcolm X poster or they could be symbols of Jimi Hendrix and there was a hunger for people to engage in serious conversation in the plant as well as outside the plant. We went in those very early years and would show films about the civil rights movement, and African liberation struggles, while we’re picketing the military recruiter on Fort Street and Southfield – not Southfield, Fort Street and Southfield Road.

WW: In Lincoln Park?

RF: In Lincoln Park. That’s what I was trying to think of, Lincoln Park. Here we were trying to get young whites -- and a few would come -- to picket this military recruiter because that was a way to challenge the war machine of Vietnam, of the U.S. government towards Vietnam and Southeast Asia. We would host movies in community centers. When I moved in 1970 to Detroit, River Rouge High School was divided two or three rows of whites, two or three rows of blacks and the middle row was empty. What was the most “aha” moment for me – two “aha” moments: one, the importance of working with and learning from the people I was relating to. You’d go to parks and give out these fliers about the war or the Black Panther party, about fighting discrimination, and I was knocked on the head when young people who were the younger brothers and sisters of these teenagers – because I was only 20, so teenagers weren’t that far away from me – but these could have been eight, ten year old, very young people, and they would use words like “spearchucker” and “send them back to Africa” and the level of racist language in the parks and at the fast-food places we would go to was just so filled with venom and so easy for it to come off the lips it challenged me to understand the depth of the significance of racism in the country that I don’t think I felt growing up as a white, Jewish kid in New York with basically liberal parents. I felt understood even in Ann Arbor, Michigan when the black student strike occurred in the spring of 1970 and we shut down the university to demand a 10 percent enrollment of black students at the university which it had never ever, ever reached. To understand how expectations were raised so high because of the response to the rebellion of people organizing, of people building black student movements, black studies departments, anti-racist movements in the campus – winning those initial demands but never, ever them coming to fruition. It was just a fantastic lesson of the structural crisis in this country that we have not yet gained the strength to both envision a new structure let alone create a new structure – thus the massive unemployment, the massive incarceration and so forth. So that was one. The other one was, which was fascinating for me in the plant, because I went in as a radical, militant trade unionist, we would have walkouts over health and safety issues, we’d have walkouts over individuals who were disciplined and you could really clearly see that it was because of racism. We’d have a few wildcat strikes. So you had this sense of militancy to do stuff. People would always ask me, “What do you mean by revolution?” I would talk about other countries. I would talk about Vietnam or China at that point or Cuba. I would talk about the rebellion leading to change, what was happening with the black movement. Mostly they would say, “What about this country?” It forced me to challenge and learn much more about our country and our own history. What Jimmy and Grace Boggs were always very committed to was seeing history of place and taking responsibility for place and space as place is integral to change. So fast forward decades later -- it’s taking responsibility to Detroit’s future, which is part of what revolution entails. It’s knowing the history – and that’s why looking back 50 years is so important – because we’ve never taken responsibility for that history. In fact, the rise of the Trump movement is in many ways our failure to bring that history to this community. I would do it in the plant one-on-one, I would do it conversations and engage people in conversations of, your family came as immigrants, your family gets here and then you begin to be defined as white. You define yourself as white, now it’s time to become human, what does it mean to be human. That’s the journey I think we’re on now 50 years later. To me the narrative of looking back is to what we were, which we did not do, what we did not do successfully, that’s for sure. Why looking at some of the challenges, what does it mean to be human, you can’t do that unless we heal and look in the mirror of our own racism as whites as a society, and Blacks not see themselves as a minority as assuming responsibility for the whole country. That is something that is very important to the work that I had a chance to do over this last period.

WW: Your group of thirty that came from Ann Arbor to settle in Detroit, did you have a name?

RF: The Ann Arbor Thirty. For a while. After a year or so everybody formed different political organizations or created different political organizations. A good number of us are still active in Detroit with some of the anti-foreclosure work, some of the stopping water shutoffs, with some of the urban gardening movement, different coalitions against police brutality -- folks were involved with that for a while. Ron Scott, who I know you’ve interviewed, who was a dear comrade of the James & Grace lee Boggs Center, a dear friend, who also died in this last year. Folks joined things like that and were part of those initiatives. We were a group of people who were inspired by the historical moment that the rebellion in many ways represented to not become cynical, not become solely committed to our privilege or our particular opportunity and at different points made choices. You know, get up every day at 4:00 in the morning to go to the plant was a choice; it wasn’t because I economically needed to do that was the only job. It was a choice that I have no regrets for because I feel that I have learned so much about people and about myself, about change. Folks in the plant would talk about how the rebellion unleashed a potential in their own thinking of what could be. That was profound and that began to shift the image of burnings and jail and the military on the streets, to realize how it impacted most of the folks that become local union elected officials in our plant felt the strength of that moment, that it was their time. So I was glad to be part of that.

WW: You spoke about the racism you experienced passing out fliers and different activities, do you remember any specific moments of pushback in your work that you’d like to share?

RF: Oh, sure. One we got arrested a bunch of times at River Rouge by police. That was pushback. I eventually lost a job at McCloud Steel where I just had my 88th day in but because I was on probation for some arrest in Ann Arbor when the cops stopped me I didn’t want to lie so once I told him the next day I was fired. So that was pushback. I think the major pushback I felt much more in the plant than the general conversations. I can’t remember the particular incident in the neighborhoods. Write down Larry Sparks, Kim Charobie (?), then I’ll sent you a bunch of other names from the folks who had very different experiences. Larry was raised in Wyandotte. Kim was raised on the West Side and still lives in the same neighborhood 50 years later. I think their memories could add to what you’re creating. In the plant I was often attacked by a newsletter that they entitled “The Midnight Rider.” The Midnight Rider took its name from newsletters newspapers from the Klu Klux Klan. So they would put out anti-Rick Feldman. I was always called an n-lover for decades. What’s fascinating, what is very common- and eventually after 20 years on the line to run for union office. Most of my work was more in the community during the cheese line period of the early 1980s and the massive unemployment and permanent layoffs, tens of thousands of people being lined up for a few jobs down at what eventually became the Mazda plant and in different places. But what fascinated me in the plant and what a plant is able to do, it’s a closed environment, so you have to have these through resilience and commitment and just being authentic. People decide either they really like you, really want to do anything they can to discredit you. I always believed it was having honest conversations with people, so I never hid what I believed, if I brought in an article around racism, would distribute it. When I was a union elected official I brought folks in to speak about gay, lesbian and transgender issues too, because they were being harassed in the plant. There were people who would write “dyke” on their cars, and my committee after getting all the materials I’m probably pretty sure to say everyone except for maybe one or two people out of 20 or 30 on the staff took the stuff and would throw it under my desk or under the door because they didn’t want to talk about that stuff. I guess my point is my courage to talk about that, to talk about disability justice, intellectual disability, to talk about every issue came from my courage to take on discussions around racism, which are the hardest and the most difficult. So there were folks in the plant who were part of the Michigan Militia. There were folks in the plant who were proudly Klu Klux Klan members. So every few years someone would put up a noose or a Klan’s hood- I was going to say weird hats- and we would have a big education piece and they would get disciplined and we would have to take a position that it was okay to be disciplined for that but how do you also educate folks. So this is our family who the father really thought I was the devil. He put out this newsletter with his friends from Kentucky and [unintelligible] and difference places in Kentucky and Tennessee and eventually I became the union leader. There was no doubt I was the best union rep he ever had. So he gained respect for me. I never compromised what I would say to him or in my disagreements with him. But history is sort of funny or it is revealing. As he grew older, one of his children was a lesbian, another grandchild married a black guy, so he has black great grandchildren, and to see how much the world has changed on that he still will argue ideologically with me but there is a relation between the anti-liberal ideology and racism but it’s not as clear as it once was. I think it is so important to realize how much the world has changed in relationships, which when I say that does not minimize the structural barbarism that dominates and is more intense now than it ever has in many ways. But it’s those humanizing movements that started with the Montgomery bus boycott through the women’s movement, through the Earth movement, through the gay, lesbian, transgender, through the disability justice movement, that there is a generation that has a different view of what it means to be human. Now how the structures change and create new forms of institutions -- that’s the challenge of the next 50 years. That’s what I see happening in Detroit when I see people creating food security movements, creating food co-ops and grocery stores, creating anti-violence committees. We worked with Save Our Sons and Daughters, We the People to Reclaim Our Streets, Ron Scott created something called Peace Zones for Life, out of the Coalition to the Arts that are so deep in the community, you know, to folks who are making windmills over on the East Side, to others who are using 3D printers. The potential of what’s happening and emerging is to move from these humanizing movements of the last 50 years and the rebellion being a symbol of saying “We have to go somewhere much grander than we could have imagined” is really what allows us to move from rebellion to revolution. Clarifying the language of the ‘60s is really important otherwise we just talk about uprisings or riots or things. So the need to clarify language is really, really important. You clarify language by understanding it historically, not just gut words of “It’s them so they must have rioted.” Rather than yes, it was black folks who were standing up after ten years of a movement and two, three hundred years of racism that was birthed at the founding of our nation that’s so deep in our soul as a nation. Lastly, the grand bargain that happened here to rebuild downtown and saved the Art Institute and all of that was really another expression of the great compromise of the constitution of 1787, 1789?

WW: 1789.

RF: 1789. They started meeting in ’87 and finished in ’89, which was the great compromise of slavery being embedded in our nation as blacks were three fifths of a person. We’ve always had these compromises. The compromise has been white folks and a few others might do okay, do really well, and the rest get left behind. The bankruptcy and the emergency manager in Detroit, had it been in Haiti we would have called it an IMF takeover or a coup d’état. But because we’re a democracy, but because we’re Americans we make up all these legal words and we don’t get to the core or the spirit or the understanding of what is taking place. I know that there are growing numbers of people in our city and across the country that are asking these questions and we see it in Black Lives Matter. We see it in the Occupy, the fight against inequality. We see it in the desire to save the planet as we have a really hot summer. All of these questions are in perspective to the rebellion. Rebellion was one stage. So I’m very thankful- I use these words- I came of age and moved to Michigan. The first person I heard speak was Reverend Clay and then had a chance to work with Jim and Grace Boggs who are good comrades and friends of Reverend Clay in the ‘60s when Reverend Clay ran for governor, the All African People’s Party, regarding Jimmy Jackson who ran for Lieutenant Governor out of Muskegon. To come to Detroit in the late ‘60s early ‘70s and see so many black folks in power by ’73 with Mayor Young winning. Mayor Young’s victory was as significant emotionally as Obama winning. To know that people go through stages and that we go through stages is really, really important. You got enough?

WW: I think for today, yes. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.

RF: This was great. I hope this helps whatever we’re all putting together.

Original Format

Audio

Duration

42min 52sec

Interviewer

William Winkel

Interviewee

Robert Feldman

Location

Detroit, MI

Files

IMG_1182.JPG

Collection

Citation

“Richard Felman, August 19th, 2016,” Detroit 1967 Online Archive, accessed September 15, 2019, http://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/395.

Output Formats