DETROIT (Reuters) - The worst U.S. recession in decades has spawned tens of thousands of references to the Great Depression of the 1930s and a sudden interest in finding out more about America’s darkest economic hour.
Dave Moore was there.
In fact, it is hard to find key labor issues in the first half of the 20th century that this 96-year-old African-American United Auto Workers union icon was not directly involved in or affected by. Moore took part in the Ford hunger march in 1932 that resulted in the deaths of five marchers and is a veteran of the earliest efforts to unionize workers at Detroit’s Big Three automakers.
Moore is deaf in his left ear, mostly deaf in his right and has a “bad right arm.” But his memory is sharp and he speaks with eloquence.
“People talk about the bread lines in the Depression, but they don’t know the half of it,” he said in the living room of his Detroit apartment recently. “I saw women giving birth on the sidewalk in the middle of winter because they had been kicked out of their homes.”
“I saw that more times than I care to remember,” he added.
Born in South Carolina in April 1912, Moore was first confronted with prevailing racial attitudes when he was 12 or 13 years old and he befriended a white girl his age.
His parents became afraid that some members of the white community would not understand this relationship and take matters into their own hands. They feared for his safety.
“Due to the racial climate of the day, my mommy and daddy decided to get us out of South Carolina,” he said.
Moore’s family moved first to Columbus, Ohio, then to Detroit where his father landed a job in the auto industry.
“My daddy’s cousin convinced my daddy he could make some big money,” Moore said. “A big man by the name of Henry Ford was willing to pay $5 a day (to make cars).”
Dave Moore later got a job as a body sander at an auto supplier named Briggs, which made auto bodies for the Big Three -- then as today Chrysler LLC, General Motors Corp and Ford Motor Co.
Black workers earned 27 cents an hour, their white counterparts 29 cents an hour.
“But then the Depression came down hard (in 1929), especially on black people,” he said. “Black people were always at the foot of the economic ladder. When the Depression came, we were knocked off the ladder altogether.”
Black Americans were joined in poverty by vast numbers of working-class white Americans, he added.
“We were left as an army of unemployed, hungry and dispossessed people in America,” Moore said.
The Great Depression left millions like Moore out of work. He and one of his six brothers scavenged for rotten potatoes and other vegetables at local markets for his family.
In Detroit, workers formed unemployment councils and decided collectively in March 1932 to march on one of the Big Three and demand jobs and benefits.
They chose Ford because unlike GM or Chrysler, Ford had just one massive plant -- River Rouge in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn -- which also housed Ford’s employment office.
Thousands of people -- “all different people from all walks of life,” Moore said -- converged on Ford. But in violent clashes outside the plant, five marchers were shot and killed and 19 more were wounded.
While recounting these scenes in surprising detail -- down to how the men who fired on the crowd were holding their guns as they stood on cars’ running boards coming out of the Ford factory -- Moore recalls a young black woman kneeling to wipe the blood off the face of a white man named Joe DiBlasio as he lay dying in the street.
Even 77 years later, Moore blinked back tears before regaining his composure.
“Ford Motor Company has never been charged for the murders of those people,” he said. “This shows the power of the industrial giants.”
After a stint with the U.S. Civilian Conservation Corps -- a peace-time army of unemployed young men created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 for natural resource conservation projects -- Moore joined Ford in 1935, working in the terrible conditions of Ford’s foundry with 17,000 co-workers.
“The foundry was so dirty, so dangerous that at the end of the day if you were white you were as black as the African-Americans,” he said.
Ford was the last of Detroit’s Big Three to reach an agreement with the UAW and Henry Ford said the union would organize workers at his company “over my dead body.”
But in April 1941, Ford workers at Rouge River went on strike. Moore, by now working in the axle and gear plant in the complex, decided to shut down the plant’s assembly line when word of the strike reached him.
In June 1941, the UAW and Ford signed their first contract.
While UAW membership has suffered with the rest of the U.S. auto industry, Moore still remembers that signing day with pride -- and worries about the concessions the union is now being asked to make.
“Sometimes I get frightened as hell because what’s happening now is so reminiscent of the 1930s,” he said. “Now they’re asking us to give up what we fought and died for.”
Editing by Patrick Fitzgibbons and Matthew Lewis