Walking on

Remembering Ethel Schwartz and honoring her legacy

May 16, 2012 at 12:00 am

For nearly 80 years, if there was a protest in metro Detroit involving some social justice issue, it is likely that Ethel Schwartz was there.

"Stalwart" is one of the words inevitably used to describe her.

Which is why Schwartz received a lifetime achievement award from the Gray Panthers of Metro Detroit for the decades of commitment she gave to progressive causes of all stripes. That award came two days before her death on May 8. A resident of Novi, she was 94. 

Too ill to attend the Gray Panthers ceremony in person, she had longtime friend David Elsila accept the honor on her behalf.

He recalled meeting Ethel for the first time about 50 years ago at a fair housing march she had organized in Redford Township. He was just a teenager then, but she was already a seasoned veteran. 

She didn't just talk the talk. Ethel Schwartz walked, and walked and walked.

"Ethel has walked a thousand miles on picket lines and contributed time, energy and expertise in the quest for fairness and equality in labor disputes," the Gray Panther tribute to her noted. "During the newspaper strike of the 1990s, she and a fellow activist quietly sealed the doors of many newspaper vending boxes after they had been stocked with the day's supply of papers."

A secretary at UAW Tool and Die Amalgamated Local 157 for 50 years, as the awards program chronicling her commitment to the labor movement noted, her "resolute dedication to fighting unfair and inhumane labor practices and improving the quality of life for working men and women ... continued unabated for 77 years."

From a young age, she seemed to have an innate understanding of injustice, and a desire to confront and overcome it. Elsila passed along the story of how, in 1932, at age 14, she wanted to attend the Ford Hunger March. Worried that such a young girl might be in danger, her father said no. 

But there wasn't much afterward that she missed. And it wasn't just labor issues that caused her to stand up.

In the 1930s, she helped organize Detroit's Save Our Schools campaign. In the early 1960s, she joined Martin Luther King Jr. and 100,000 others for a march down Woodward, and then went to Washington, D.C., to hear King give his "I Have a Dream Speech."

Among many other things, she was a founding member of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and was active in the Oakland County Democratic Party.

We asked Elsila if he had to use one word to describe her, what would it be?

He gave us two: principled and energetic.

He also told us a story about how, several years ago, Ethel wasn't feeling well and called her doctor. He advised her to go straight to the emergency room. On the way there, however, she stopped at a Kinko's to make copies of some leaflet.

"That was Ethel," Elsila told us. "She always put the movement ahead of herself."

Born Ethel Baskin in Toledo on Sept. 11, 1917, she married Perry Schwartz in 1940. The owner of a Southfield dry goods business, he died in 2004. They raised two daughters, Judy Vocino and Joan Wheaton, and had two grandchildren.

A memorial ceremony is being planned for the fall, around the time of what would have been her 95th birthday.

News Hits is written by Curt Guyette. You can reach him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected].