Looking back on 'The Battle of the Overpass' — 78 years later

May 26, 2015 at 10:28 am

It’s an often-told tale in this town, but it bears repeating on its anniversary. It’s a story starring the UAW, Henry Ford, Walter Reuther, and other great names of the past. But at the center of it is a figure who is today obscure. His name was Harry Bennett.

Bennett was a former boxer who headed up Ford’s “Service Department,” which was Ford’s internal security, called by some at the time the largest private police force in the world. Bennett’s “police force” wasn’t designed to keep the peace so much as it was to enforce Henry Ford’s will upon his workers, which mainly meant to keep the company union-free. To this end, Bennett assembled a team of head-crackers that included washed-up athletes like boxer Kid McCoy and star of the 1912 Olympics Jim Thorpe. Bennett’s men prowled the factory like gangsters, and any union organizer unlucky enough to be caught by them could expect to land in a hospital bed.

This goon squad could be deadly. On a brutally cold winter day in 1932, a couple years into the Great Depression, unemployed Ford workers took part in the “Ford Hunger March,” a procession of 3,000 men from the Detroit city line toward Ford’s Rouge Complex. Bennett’s men were ready with a complement of Dearborn police, armed with fire hoses, tear gas, and machine guns. They opened fire on the protesters. Bennett himself was driven out in a car where he emptied two pistols into the crowd before he was pelted with rocks and knocked unconscious. When the smoke cleared, four protesters were dead, and dozens more shot. Eventually a fifth protester died.

This was still a recent memory five years later in 1937, when, on May 26, near Gate 4, Ford goons beat up UAW organizers passing out leaflets. Walter Reuther, Richard Frankensteen, and a few other UAW men were posing for newspaper photographers on an overpass over Miller Road. Several of Bennett’s men approached them and attacked. It became known as the Battle of the Overpass.

As battles go, it was very one-sided. The goons slammed Reuther down on the concrete seven times and kicked him down two flights of concrete stairs. Merriweather's back was broken. Members of the women’s auxiliary of Local 174 were also passing out leaflets and were also attacked by the company thugs.

But it was a pyrrhic victory for Ford. Although the Service Department had been careful to confiscate all the film from the various photographers, one of them managed to swap the negatives out of his camera, surrendering blank stock and keeping the exposed film. When the film was developed and appeared in newspapers, it proved very damning to the Ford Motor Company.

For his part, Bennett insisted that the stories about his goons beating organizers were lies, that they were never involved. Right up until the Ford Motor Company was finally unionized in 1941, Bennett insisted that the union organizers really were “communist terrorists.”

Luckily, the evidence survived of who was really doing the terrorizing on that day in May 78 years ago.