Mike Hamlin Retires but Continues the Struggle for Justice
By Charles E. Simmons <csim592951 at aol.com>
When veteran labor and human rights activist Mike Hamlin retired recently, hundreds of well-wishers turned out at Detroit's historic UAW Local 600 union hall to pay tribute to one of the Motor City's leading servants in a career dedicated to the struggle for social justice.
As a founding member 30 years ago of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), the Black Worker's Congress, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the son of Mississippi sharecroppers was a trailblazer in the battle against racism and sexism in the auto industry and also contributed to the building of bridges between workers and community organizations of various racial and ethnic groups. He forged unity between African Americans and organizations such as the Chicano-based La Raza in the U.S. southwestern states in their efforts to establish their legitimate and historical right to be in the U.S. And in Michigan he supported the call of Chicanos and Puerto Ricans to oppose police brutality and to abolish the negative labels such as 'wetbacks' and 'illegal aliens.' Hamlin gave support to and helped to promote the Puerto Rican call for their independence from the U.S., an issue that has been forcefully resurrected recently as a human rights violation as a result of the U.S. Navy conducting frequent and live bombardment on inhabited land that belongs to the Caribbean nation.
The former Ecorse High School star athlete in basketball and football found common ground between African American and Arab factory workers in Dearborn and Detroit to dispel negative stereotypes surrounding religious practices and dress and to gain the support of the Arab laborers in the struggle for worker's rights. As Hamlin recalls, "I was involved personally with Ishmael Ahmed and others in Dearborn when they first formed the civil rights group, ACCESS."
Who would have predicted that the former U.S. Army Sergeant stationed in Korea and specializing in heavy artillery in the late 1950s would a decade later meet with ambassadors from Vietnam and Cuba and become one of the early leaders in America's greatest grassroots peace movement that would stop the U.S. bombing of Vietnam?
Who would have guessed that Sergeant Hamlin would pioneer in the call for the establishment of peaceful relations between Washington and Havana which--seven U.S. presidents later--still remains an ugly and festering sore in U.S. policy at the dawn of the new millennium?
Although as a returning veteran he was hired as a jumper on delivery trucks for the defacto segregated Detroit News in the early 1960s, a few years later, Hamlin along with General Baker and others, was one of the founders of the revolutionary newspaper, The Inner City Voice (ICV) which championed the cause of rank-and-file workers against unfair labor practices. The bold and fearless paper staffed by students, workers and community activists, called for an end to all forms of discrimination throughout Detroit and the surrounding communities where the workers resided. In case it has been forgotten by elders or never known by younger readers, it must be pointed out that in the 1950s and 1960s African American Detroiters suffered daily injustices of discrimination in housing, education, health care, public facilities, and public and private employment. There was openly abusive police brutality by a nearly all-white police force. Detroit had a a segregated Fire Department and civil service, and Blacks had little or no political representation at the local, state and national level. The Inner City Voice also opposed U.S. policies of promoting international racism in the form of war and oppression abroad.
After graduation from Wayne State University with a Masters degree in Social Work with an emphasis on Community Organizing, Hamlin constructed new paths in the area of crisis management and conflict resolution, and provided therapy for workers who suffer from the intense stress of the industrial environment. As he told authors of the 1998 update of 'Detroit, I Do Mind Dying', "I'm the one they call in when there is violence in a factory--a shooting, a knifing, or threats that neither management nor the union can deal with."
Indeed, during the recent retirement tributes at the Local 600 auditorium, one after another speaker recounted the tragic drama of Hamlin regularly rushing to the scene of emergency to talk with honesty and sensitivity to an embattled worker armed with a rifle or automatic weapon who had decided to take out his revenge against a system and bosses and to end his or her own life in the process. In varying degrees of conflict, these were among the thousands of troubled autoworkers and their families who Hamlin counseled during his last decade as a therapist. Some of these tragedies such as the multiple shootings at auto plants in Ford Rouge and Wixom made banner headlines, but most of the thousands of confrontations and threats on the brink of life annually go unreported.
Examining the roots of the widespread and increasing workplace violence in the auto industry in particular and the nation as a whole, Hamlin points out that most of the major incidents involve white working class males who feel a grievance against the employer or the system. A lot of them are connected with the militia or with people who are heavily involved with guns. Most often, says Hamlin, they are people who listen to and read right-wing material and people who do a lot of thinking about how they have been wronged, even though they may be making $100,000 dollars per year. "My view is that Rush Limbaugh is the greatest purveyor of hate in this country. I believe that whenever there is a shooting, the first question a reporter ought to ask is whether the shooter has been listening to Limbaugh. There are a lot of people filled with hate, and especially against Blacks." Hamlin attributes much of this hate to the influence of the media, the politicians and racist code words they use.
In a discussion about his current views on the 21st Century challenges for labor and civil rights activists, Hamlin reflects on his 4 decades of experience working as a labor advocate and organizer. As he sees it, workers and people of color begin this century with the ever present and intensifying problems of racism and sexism. Since Presidents Nixon and especially Reagan, "We have had a reversal of what we accomplished. There is now an attempt to completely reverse that progress and to take us back to where we were in the early 1960s. With regards to sexism, women have taken one step backward and are about to take another step, especially Blacks and women of color whose gains were never equal to those of white women in the society as a whole and in the business community in particular. Another challenge, says Hamlin, is the elitism that existed prior to the civil rights movement within the African American community is making a forceful comeback. "You see it in the fraternities and sororities and in some of the churches where the congregations see themselves as remote from the masses of people and have no sense of the notion that some Blacks are going to get ahead and separate themselves from the lower classes."
Regarding the persistent color line, says Hamlin, "the major problem is our own internal weaknesses from the standpoint of not having an organization to fight against racism and the racists. Without a grassroots organization with the proper leadership, we are basically impotent in this fight in the political and cultural arenas. In terms of the anti-democratic nature of our existing organizations, and the decline of the mass movement, we have gone back to the old authoritarian leadership, the cult of the individual leader.
The consequences are that the organizations are short-lived and the people gradually fall away from that type of leadership." Hamlin argues that it is this lack of revolutionary organizations, leadership and coalitions that accounts for the ability of developers to grab neighborhood land throughout the city, for the lack of quality and community control of education, and for the continuation of discrimination and police brutality.
Addressing the changes currently taking place in Detroit, Hamlin observes that this is just the beginning of a turnaround. But he adds that "many of the problems that we fought about in the 1960s and 1970s are worse such as police brutality. And the problem of corruption and the attitude among many police that they are not here to protect citizens but are here just to earn a paycheck continues to be a major problem. I read that the police solve about 30% of the murders. That is intolerable. And we know that one of the reasons the police in this community don't do a better job is that the people just don't trust them, and for good reason."
As Hamlin sees the problems and remedies for the African American community in the 21st Century, "You're nothing without a good organization and with a good organization the possibilities are unlimited. If we had something now like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, we would be in action everywhere, major substantial and important action. We could sure stop these Uncle Toms from traveling from campus to campus spewing that backwardness and hatred that they carry on. But more important than that, we would be fighting for the right for all people and building a coalition, and we have shown that that is possible. We showed that the working class could be mobilized and win battles. We were a left grassroots political organization based in the community, which does not exist today. We showed that we could build a coalition of workers, students, other minorities, women, whites and trade unionists. It required enormous energy, commitment and risk. My activities in the 60s caused me two wives and lots of physical and health problems, and that type of risk was common among civil rights activists."
Hamlin suggests that there are positive developments taking place in the current national union organizing that is underway by progressive members within the unions and the new leadership within the AFL-CIO. However, he also explains that the weakness is that the progress is limited to trade union consciousness and issues but that is still an advance over where a lot of people are today. Another weakness, says Hamlin, is the disproportionate power exercised by the skill trades segment within the unions which tends to be increasingly conservative, racist, protectionist, and systematically exclude minorities and women from their ranks. A recent positive example Hamlin points out is that AFL-CIO chair Yokich has pulled a major coup by getting the corporations to agree to give the auto workers the presidential election day off and that the election will have a major impact on national and state politics. What the unions need to do now is to increase their activities in the political arena and continue the fight against racism and sexism within the unions. Concerning the possibility of a third party, Hamlin supports the idea of the Labor Party now being formed, but suggests that "it is a ways down the road before it can get off the ground and become an effective alternative."
When asked to name those who have contributed most to his growth, Hamlin attributes his development to his devoted mother and aunts in Mississippi who were very strong women. He also credits his development to reading such authors as Algerian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon; the late president of Ghana and founder of the Organization of African Unity, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah; and Malcolm X. Now in his somewhat retirement as Vice President of Value Options, Hamlin takes more time to enjoy his grandchildren and continues to take counseling assignments. He is currently re-reading another favorite author, James Baldwin who Hamlin praises for his social insight and independent thought in such books as Another Country, Nobody Knows My Name and The Price of the Ticket.
Summing up his experiences before he rushes off to offer counsel to yet another worker in distress, Mike Hamlin the husband, father and grandfather concludes: "Never before have there been so many Americans who ought to be natural political allies. This is a great time to be a revolutionary."
Charles Simmons, J.D., was a member of the LRBW and an international correspondent for Muhamed Speaks Newspaper. He is currently on the Journalism faculty at Eastern Michigan University, on the board of directors of Detroiters Working For Environmental Justice, and a contributor to the Michigan Citizen Newspaper.
Copyright (c) 2000 Charles E. Simmons. All Rights Reserved.