May 26, 1937: The Battle of the Overpass

1937 The Battle of the OverpassOn this day 78 years ago, the Ford Motor Company won a battle but lost a war. Here we revisit the story of the Battle of the Overpass.   



Above is one of the most well-known photos in Motor City history, taken on Wednesday, May 26, 1937 at the giant Ford River Rouge plant in Dearborn. The scene is the pedestrian footbridge over Miller Road at Gate 4, which connected the plant entrance on the west side of the street to the employee parking lot and the Detroit Street Railway on the east side. To Ford workers, the structure was known simply as the overpass.

On the right of the image are four representatives from the United Automobile Workers, from left: Robert Kanter, West Side Local 174 president Walter Reuther, Richard Frankensteen, and J.J. Kennedy. On the left, moving toward them, are trained thugs from the Ford Service Department. Led by Henry Ford’s right-hand man, Harry Bennett, the Service Department controlled the Rouge plant through spying, intimidation, and muscle.

Reuther and his associates were on the overpass that day leading a handbill campaign to unionize the plant’s workers. And at this instant, famously frozen in time by Detroit News photographer Scotty Fitzpatrick, Bennett’s professional toughs were about to give the organizers an expert physical beating.

Moments later, Reuther was repeatedly picked up and thrown down the stairs, while Frankensteen had his suit coat pulled over his arms and head, in classic street-hood fashion, and was beaten within an inch of his life. While the confrontation is known today as the Battle of the Overpass, in truth it wasn’t much of a fight, with more than a dozen Ford guards bum-rushing the four union men.




When Henry Ford created the five-dollar day in 1914 he was a progressive and an idealist, but by 1937 he was a bitter reactionary with little regard for workers. The UAW won recognition at Chrysler and General Motors early in ’37, but Ford dug in his heels, relying on Harry Bennett and his Service Department to fight off the unionizers. But in the end, Bennett’s methods proved to be as ineffective as they were inhumane. Legal decisions and public opinion steadily turned against the automaker, and Ford was forced to recognize the union and accept a bargaining agreement on June 20, 1941.



Above is the Gate 4 pedestrian bridge as it looks today. Below is one of the thousands of handbills passed out by the UAW that day in 1937—most of them by the UAW Women’s Auxiliary Brigade, who were also attacked by Service Department goons. While it’s not often noted in the historical narrative, dozens of organizers were assaulted in the incident, not just the four local officers on the overpass.


1937 UAW handbill


Reuther Womens Auxiliary


Hours before the assault on the overpass, Reuther (above) passed out packs of handbills to the Womens’ Auxiliary Brigade. These were dangerous times for organized labor. The Memorial Day Massacre, in which 10 Chicago steel workers were gunned down by police, came four days later. Reuther, who was elected national president of the UAW in 1946, would survive several more physical attacks, including an assassination attempt that left him with a permanently crippled right arm. All period photos are from the collections of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University.


21 thoughts on “May 26, 1937: The Battle of the Overpass

  1. Thanks, great story. You have a number of facts here I didn’t know before. It’s always great to go one step beyond the history textbooks.

  2. Thanks, McG. I drive past Gate 4 all the time, not the company’s finest hour. I never knew women passed out the leaflets. We’ve always had that mansplained to us up until now LOL. Thanks for clearing that up. Those were brave ladies.

    • Women were used to pass out leaflets and campaign for membership because the men were coming or going from their jobs. Also any man caught promoting the union by the Service Dept. would lose his job. or worse. Service Dept. members were known to make “visits” to union promoters’ homes.

  3. Thanks for sharing! This is why the Motor city died, this is why it is what it is today in the US – because the brutal capitalism won; the leaders are not leaders, but users; the workers are not workers, but used units.

      • Thanks for your suggestion. I am not sure why you concluded that I hate capitalism ..hmm. On the same basis I can probably concluded that you like it and you are happy with the way things are. Anyway. Ron, I don’t hate capitalism, I hate what is happening.

      • Uh, the United States is supposedly a democracy governed by the citizens not by capitalism. Democracy supersedes capitalism, not the other way around.

        • America is a Representative Republic, not a Democracy. Democracy is mob-rule writ large.

  4. My Aunt was caught up in the middle of the 1948 Univis Lens strike in Dayton Ohio. She wasn’t particularly pro or anti union, she just wanted to go to work so she could pay her rent and buy groceries. She went down there, fully intent on going to work and watched as the union thugs beat a man to death right in front of her. The violence was so bad the Ohio governor called out the National Guard and put tanks in the streets. The violence went both ways.

  5. Thank you for the story behind the iconic photograph. Your details make it seem like we could have been there.

  6. The tall, thin gentleman on the left with his hands in his pockets is former Chicago Black Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte…

    • What is your source for this statement? Other sources say that the man with his hands in his pockets (2nd from the left) is William Commett. Just interested. Thanks.

      • Having traced our family history I found in the census rolls that Eddie Cicotte was employed by Ford in the Security section. Also, photos on a few baseball cards I have of Eddie Cicotte shows/says to me that’s Eddie on the overpass. I have no other concrete evidence, just strong ‘suspicions’.

  7. My grandfather worked for Henry Ford in the plant and my father, who is still alive, recalls how the Company used to send their thugs around to the workers homes to do random spot checks of their pantries to make sure that everything purchased was purchased from the Company store. Henry used to walk the floor of the plant and if he didn’t like what you were doing he would fire you on the spot. There is a reason the unions were needed, as depicted here,

  8. Excellent history lesson, especially for those of us who have been over the Walter P. Reuther Freeway and wondered his significance. (I see there are several other things named after him as well, a library, a hospital, and at least a couple schools.)

  9. The unions were needed at the time but then they became way too powerful which is the primary reason American manufactures sought cheaper less restrictive labor overseas. Too bad we don’t have the skills to create a balanced work relationship that works for most everyone. I grew up working in union and non-union shops which ultimately turned me against unions based on personal observations and negative experiences. The worst being excessive pay for minimal work accomplished. Unions normally produce the best skilled labor for the job at hand but the power and demands that come with it are usually out of balance with the current economics.

    Now, 30 – 40 years since my conversion I’m starting to realize why unions are gaining some voice again. With Wall St., congress and big corporations floating in the same boat, above the chaos they created and now can’t control, someone has to step forward and at least provide some semblance of integrity for those who actually sweat for a living.

    With regards to Walter Reuther I believe there is plausible circumstantial evidence he was assassinated by the powers who saw him as a threat to big industry.

    I love this country but I’m very concerned about it’s future.

  10. Steve Studer and I must have lived parallel lives! I totally agree with what he said.

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