Swans Commentary » swans.com October 6, 2008  



Carlton Jackson's Child of the Sit-Downs


by Louis Proyect


Book Review



Jackson, Carlton: Child of the Sit-Downs: the Revolutionary Life of Genora Dollinger, Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 2008 ISBN 978-0-87338-944-0, 216 pages.


(Swans - October 6, 2008)   Carlton Jackson's Child of the Sit-Downs: the Revolutionary Life of Genora Dollinger is a valuable addition to the ongoing history of the American left. The book is not just worth reading for its account of Genora Dollinger's heroic intervention into the 1937 Flint sit-down strike, the struggle that she is best known for. It will also help long-time leftists figure out how to cope with and even rise above difficult times in American society through her example. The radicalizations of the 1930s and the 1960s were spearheaded by young people and when they subsided, new navigation skills had to be learned in order to cope with a society that had returned to a "normalcy" of racism, imperialist war, class oppression, and alienation. As Carlton Jackson makes clear, Genora Dollinger mastered these skills with uncommon intelligence and a burning idealism that lasted until her death in 1995 at the age of 82.

Despite his academic background (he is now a professor emeritus at Western Kentucky State), Carlton Jackson has written an extremely readable book so much so that I missed my bus stop the other day as I turned the pages to see how Genora and her husband Sol were coping with 1950s repression. Jackson has also written biographies of Hattie McDaniel, the famous African-American actress, and Martin Ritt, the liberal film director. Being able to see the contributions of the Hollywood left and labor activists alike is of course a gift that is shared by Paul Buhle, another academic who has learned to speak directly to the ordinary person.

One of the most eye-opening aspects of Child of the Sit-Downs is its account of how its subject radicalized in the 1930s. It turns out that the Methodist Church in her hometown of Flint had a lot to do with Genora's evolution. Sunday School gave her an opportunity to learn about the Social Gospel ideas of Josiah Strong, Walter Rauschenbusch, and other reformers who believed that government should help the poor. With her rebellious streak, Genora soon found herself taking the opposite stance of her father Raymond Albro, who had become relatively prosperous in the photography business and a racist to boot. He had joined the KKK in keeping with Malcolm X's observation that everything south of Canada was the South.

At the age of 17, Genora fell in love with and got married to Kermit Johnson, a boy she met in Sunday school. Kermit's father Carl had been a "prairie populist" before finding work at the Chevrolet plant in Flint and soon became a member of the Socialist Party. Kermit brought Genora to party meetings where she heard his father and other socialists discuss the Molly McGuires, the Knights of Labor and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and other insurgent labor movements. In no time at all, her Christian idealism transformed into the socialist beliefs that she held for the rest of her life. As Carlton Jackson recounts:

Always the most religious member of the Albro family, she taught Sunday school at the Methodist church and participated in church socials and singing events. While confined to bed during her bouts with TB, she read everything she could find about the world's religions. She wanted to know how and why religions were created. She read lives of Zoroaster, Christ, Mohammed, and the Buddha, and she studied Baha-ism. Steadily she came to realize that the founders of the world's great religions were simple - not simplistic - people who created beliefs that were noncomplicated. Later, these religions were institutionalized to include beliefs and requirements that had nothing to do with the founders. Human beings created dogma, she reckoned, and dogma was not a perfect persuader. Interspersed with her religious readings was Genora's study of the various Socialist movements in the world. As she read Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky and learned of women labor reformers such as Rose Pesotta, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Rose Schneidermann, and Rose Pastor Stokes, she discovered totally different religious and philosophical worlds from the comfortable one in which she grew up. When she read and heard about the events of the day, including so much labor unrest at GM and elsewhere throughout the country, she began to see what in her own mind was the hardboiled capitalist attitude of management toward labor. Accordingly, she plunged herself into the Socialist activities of the time.

Kermit Johnson soon followed his father into the GM plant, where he would join other workers in a struggle over unsafe working conditions and inadequate pay ($1,296 per year.) The only way to make real advances against the boss was to have union recognition, something that GM bitterly resisted. When the strike started on New Year's Eve 1936, wives were called upon to serve as "auxiliaries," which meant cooking meals and brewing coffee.

After the Flint cops attacked strikers with buckshot and rifle fire, Genora spoke to a spontaneous rally of 3,000 people at the plant gate, including many women auxiliaries like her. She invited the women to come forward and join the picket line in the hopes that the cops would not have the nerve to shoot women. Jackson reports that nearly 1,000 did step forward. The ensuing confrontation became known as the Battle of Bull's Run (cops were called "bulls" in that era.)

The next day Genora formed the Women's Emergency Brigade (WEB) in order to add muscle to the picket lines on a permanent basis. These women were no longer cooks but paramilitaries ready to resist GM violence by any means necessary. They wore red berets and armbands with the letters "EB" sewn into them as official insignias. Genora told the brigade members in a speech: "Remember, when we go into a situation and if the police come out...and start shooting or throwing tear gas or clubbing, you stand at your post of duty." These women were transformed by the struggle, as detailed by Jackson:

Genora's speech was the first time the press started taking her seriously. One headline spoke of housewives going into battle with their brooms and mops. Even that was not accurate: they would more likely carry baseball bats than cleaning implements. Or, if not bats, clubs and blackjacks braided with upholstery leather, with wristlets to keep them in place. Some women carried soap bars wrapped in socks and sometimes filled with nuts and bolts. The picket signs they used were deliberately nailed onto two-by-fours that, if necessary, could be used as weapons. "Whenever you saw one of those women," Genora proclaimed, "you knew she was ready for action ... morning, night, or any time."

At the very time that these struggles were taking place largely under the leadership of the Socialist Party, Genora and Kermit found themselves growing sympathetic to the organized left wing of the party, a Trotskyist bloc led by James P. Cannon that was on a collision path with its centrist leaders. As radical-minded youth, Genora and Kermit had no trouble affiliating with the Trotskyists after they were expelled from the SP and went on to form the group known as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

In the immediate postwar period, Genora and her new husband Sol Dollinger were trying to build the party in Flint and Detroit in the face of company-financed goon squads who were trying to weaken the labor movement. As a union rep at the huge Briggs auto parts factory, Genora refused to play ball with the bosses and hence became a natural target.

In October 1945, two men broke into the Dollinger home at 5 a.m. and clubbed Sol and Genora in their bed. She suffered a broken collar bone, a concussion, and nerve damage to her face. Walter Reuther, who would soon become a powerful UAW bureaucrat, dismissed the attack by saying "Come on Genora. Let's not get dramatic." After Reuther was shot by the same kinds of goons, Genora wrote an article for American Socialist magazine in 1954 titled "I warned Reuther" that concluded:

I hope Reuther and the other union officials have second thoughts on all this. I hope they will stop soft-pedaling the issue which involves them as much as the ranks, and use the coming trial on attempted murder of Walter Reuther as an opportunity to expose the whole rotten mess of Big Business tie-up with hoodlums, thugs, spies and the rest of the underworld scum, to expose the responsibility of the corporations for the gangster attacks. I hope also the UAW will give full and unstinting backing to the three of us who were beaten up, and whose court case against the Briggs Corporation is due to come up shortly. This is the best way to prepare the union membership for the hard battles that lie ahead.


At the end of WWII, the SWP fully expected a new economic crash to take place, which would lead to a labor upsurge, rapid growth of the party, a showdown with the ruling class, and finally a victorious socialist revolution. History, however, threw the left a curve ball. Instead of a repeat of 1929, the U.S. began a period of economic expansion that lasted for decades. It was accompanied by a working-class retreat from the prewar radicalization and government crackdown on the left, especially the Communists who were treated as spies and saboteurs.

In the face of inauspicious political conditions, the SWP's worst tendencies toward dogmatism and sectarianism were heightened. It continued to act as if the 1930s had never ended and also failed to make common cause with the Communist Party, which was bearing the brunt of the McCarthyite attacks. Bert Cochran, a party leader with long experience in the UAW, first noted a kind of Stalinophobia at the 1946 UAW convention when he and other party members in the UAW proposed a vote for the CP-backed R.J. Thomas/George Addes slate opposed to Walter Reuther. Cochran and the Communists both understood that Reuther was moving toward a purge of the Communists from the UAW, something that would fatally weaken the union. SWP leader James P. Cannon overruled Cochran since he retained a visceral hatred of the Communists going back to the 1930s when Stalin was at the peak of his power. Cochran concluded at that moment that the SWP was going in the wrong direction and spent the next six years trying to convince the party to break with its sectarian past.

Eventually he concluded that this was an impossible task and launched the Socialist Union in 1953 and the American Socialist magazine a year later that published Genora's article in the inaugural issue. Like many other trade union activists in the party, Sol and Genora Dollinger decided that a new approach was needed.

I first ran into Sol Dollinger in 1998 as a subscriber to the Marxism listserv I moderate. Since his last name rang a bell, I asked him if he was related to Genora. He wrote back that Genora was his wife, who had died only three years earlier.

As somebody who joined the SWP in 1967, I was taught that Bert Cochran, the Dollingers and everybody else involved with the Socialist Union were basically "sellouts" who decided to put radical politics behind them and enjoy the good life as prosperous auto workers. Supposedly, the fact that the Dollingers bought a house in the mid-1950s served as proof of their lack of revolutionary fiber. When I brought this charge to Sol's attention, he informed me:

Three decades later, I am amused by the explanations made by Frank Lovell [SWP trade union leader] that you heard as a new member of the SWP. He contended that the members of the auto faction had become embourgeoisified by high wages in the industry. My position as a Chevrolet worker is not much different than other autoworker members of the party. We rented in Flint and when I quit after seven years my wages were under five thousand dollars a year. When Genora's father died of a heart attack in front of the Buick gate where he worked as a janitor, he left his four children $700 each. Genora rushed out to make a down payment on a house with a $3800 dollar mortgage with monthly payments of $35.

From the mid-1950s until her death, Genora remained politically active even if not on such dramatic terms as the 1937 Women's Emergency Brigade. Like most people trying to find ways to oppose capitalist injustice today, the Dollingers had to operate within the bounds of what was objectively possible and not burn themselves out. This meant learning how to balance one's personal and political lives, something that they both did skillfully. Although the events of the 1930s were obviously the most exciting parts of Carlton Jackson's biography, I found myself even more moved by the later chapters since they struck home with my own experience and those of my peers, I am sure.

Genora Dollinger was active with the ACLU for many years, an organization that was especially needed during the 1950s and early 1960s. She also was very involved with the civil rights movement that was led by the NAACP during that period. Genora pitched in to defend Robert F. Williams in 1961 in one of the earliest confrontations between racists and the new movement in the South. After attempting to integrate a public swimming pool in Monroe, North Carolina, the KKK attacked local NAACP activists, including Robert F. Williams, the chapter chairman. As a WWII veteran, Williams knew how to defend himself. He organized an armed defense guard that put the Klan on the defensive. Clearly, he had absorbed the lessons of earlier struggles of the trade union movement that were on display in places like Flint.

Not everything in Child of the Sit-Downs is about politics.

Among the most compelling parts are Genora's efforts to have a meaningful life in the face of declining health, a reality now for baby boomers who took part in the 1960s struggles. The concluding paragraph of chapter seven indicates the toll that life began to take on her:

As the 1980s opened, Genora, for the most part, was a happy woman. Feminism became, at last, recognized and appreciated; even male historians seemed intent on correcting past omissions and inaccuracies. Her health problems continued: arthritis, heart (three pacemakers altogether), and then Meniere's syndrome, an inner ear condition that caused sudden spells of vertigo. Nevertheless, she coped, fully savoring the arrival of a new day of reform. She remained widely admired throughout the country and continued to receive correspondence from individuals in the countries she and Sol had visited, primarily Mexico, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands. She cherished the encomia, but none more than the one she received from her old friend and WEB comrade in arms, Nellie Besson, who told Genora that "all my life you have been my model. Everything that I do is as close to you as I can get." This letter, plus all the others, was a fine way, Genora thought, to start out the 1980s, the last full decade of her life.

Although my interest in Child of the Sit-Downs was obviously heightened by my friendship with Sol Dollinger that began in 1998 and lasted until his death three years later, I cannot recommend this biography highly enough for the general reading public. Written with grace and intelligence, it is a model of how to tell the story of what it means to be a leftist over the long haul. Genora Dollinger surely understood at a certain point in the post-WWII period that socialism was only a remote possibility in the short or medium term. Despite that knowledge, she acted as if everything she did -- no matter how modest -- must hasten that eventuality. In the final analysis, the world we confront today is not that much different than the one she faced. It requires great courage and patience to meet the obstacles of a powerful and relentless enemy without giving up and it is an inspiration to see how a radical from an earlier generation rose to the occasion.


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Published October 6, 2008