On 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.
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.