85 years ago: How Dearborn's Battle of the Overpass helped shape the American labor movement

Took place on May 26, 1937

FILE - In this May 26, 1937 file photo, Richard Frankensteen, United Auto Workers organizational director, with coat pulled over his head, is pummeled by Ford Motor. Co. agents at the gate of the Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Mich. Ford security personnel were countering the UAW’s efforts to organize employees at the factory complex. The union marks the 75th anniversary of the event known as the Battle of the Overpass on Friday, May 25, 2012, with a ceremony at the site. (AP Photo, File) (Associated Press)

DEARBORN, Mich. – An event that helped shape the American labor movement took place right here in Dearborn 85 years ago.

The event is known as the Battle of the Overpass, and it took place at the Ford River Rouge complex off Rotunda Drive and Miller Road. It took place on May 26, 1937, and a Detroit News reporter, among others, was there to witness the sight.

About 60 UAW members showed up to the plant that day to pass out leaflets to achieve union representation for the Rouge workers. While doing so, it is reported that members of the Ford Service Department -- which was notorious for having ex-convicts, gang members and ex-cops within the department -- and Harry Bennett approached UAW leaders Walter Reuther, Robert Kantor, Richard Frankensteen, and J.J. Kennedy and started to beat them up around 2 p.m.

A Detroit News photographer named James Kilpatrick was able to capture the beatings on film, and those photos spread like wildfire, with the beatings make headlines across the country. The photographer was standing with women from UAW Local 174′s Ladies Auxiliary below the overpass on Miller Road. They were also attacked, according to The Labor and Working Class History Association.

An unidentified African-American man, center, stares at UAW labor organizers at the Ford Motor plant in Dearborn, Mich., near Detroit, May 26, 1937. Some witnesses to a the altercation at the plant said the man started the fight when a union organizer made a remark about "Lincoln freeing the slaves." (AP Photo) (Associated Press)

“Before the UAW gets through with Harry Bennett and Ford’s Service Department, Dearborn will be a part of the United States and the workers will be able to enjoy their constitutional rights.”

Walter Reuther, UAW

The Smithsonian reported that 16 unionists were injured in the attack, including seven women. While the fight may have ended right when it started, it’s who witnessed the beatdown that makes the event so important.

Dearborn police found that the Ford Service Department was not guilty, as they were “defending public property.”

It was the worst licking I’ve ever taken,” Reuther told reporters after the event. “They bounced us down the concrete steps of an overpass we had climbed. Then they would knock us down, stand us up, and knock us down again.”

According to the Smithsonian, about 90,000 workers were employed at the River Rouge plant. Following the “battle,” a strike took place at the Rouge Plant and eventually Ford Motor Company allowed workers to join the UAW in 1941.

Ford Motor Company workers pick up union handbills at the foot of the overpass which was the scene of a pitched battle between UAW organizers and Ford employees, at the plant in Dearborn, Mich., near Detroit, May 26, 1937. (AP Photo) (Associated Press)

“Labor organizers are the worst thing that have ever struck the Earth”.

Henry Ford, 1937

Check out the issue below of the Dearborn Press from May 27, 1937. (Courtesy: Dearborn Historical Museum)

Read -- From the vault: ‘The Rouge’