USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Rivera in Detroit

Given Diego Rivera’s leftist, communist and revolutionary leanings, the artist would seem like a strange choice to represent Detroit as an industrial powerhouse. This is especially true of the Ford Motor Company, whose founder, Henry Ford, harbored an ugly mix of anti-radical sentiments, including a virulent anti-Semitism. Ford used his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, to disseminate extreme anti-Semitic views and published the infamous Protocols for the Elders of Zion, which purported to outline an international Jewish conspiracy. The Protocols were a favorite propaganda tool of rightwing radicals throughout the world (see this book chapter by Esther Webman for more on the legacy of the "Protocols") . The extremity of Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism compares in longevity and intensity to the leader of the Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler. In addition to being anti-Semitic, Henry Ford was also strongly against unionization of workers and political reformism/revolution in general. The latter was symbolized most acutely for Ford (and for most people during the years between the world wars) by the Russian Bolshevik Party, a party of vanguard revolutionaries that sought to reconstruct Russian society in ways anathema to Western business interests: centralizing economic planning, appropriating private enterprise, collectivizing land and agricultural production, and so on.

In April 1932, Diego Rivera arrived in Detroit with his wife, the painter Frida Kahlo. The deal to bring Rivera in for the murals project at the Detroit Institute of Art had been supported by Edsel Ford, Henry Ford’s son, and Edsel had provided a commission of $21,000, or approximately $350,000 in today’s value. This was a very large sum, and not just because Rivera was a purported communist. In 1932, Detroit and the United States were in the grip of the Great Depression—a severe economic downturn that struck industrial producers very hard. Between the beginning of the economic crisis in 1929 and 1931, production at Ford had fallen by about 75%, from 5.3 million units to 1.3 million. Harder struck, of course, were the industrial workers. Tens of thousands lost their jobs in the automobile factories during the first years of the Great Depression. On March 7, 1932, unemployed factory workers staged a protest march that began in Detroit and ended at Ford's River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. Though peaceful, the intervention of Dearborn police and Ford security brought violence. Police and security opened fire on the crowd, killing five people and seriously wounding dozens of others. Protesters, even those injured, were arrested; none of the security or police were brought to trial for the murders. This incident was just one of many moments of anti-labor violence that defined the relationship between workers on one side and industry and the state on the other in the great industrial age from 1880 to the 1930s (for a thorough quantitative historical analysis of anti-labor violence, see this article by Lipold and Isaac). Sadly, the brief respite of anti-labor extremism is now a thing of the past. A less violence, but still devastating attack on the U.S. worker was renewed in the 1980s and have continued unabated ever since. One famous reaction to a moment of anti-worker violence comes at the beginning of the period covered here: the Colorado Ludlow Massacre in 1913. Here is Woody Guthrie immortalizing the events in his 1914 song:


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