As the title of Sam's book relates, he was a fighter all his life, as were many other people of his generation, but he also became politically active, as a militant black worker, and as a representative of his whole class.
That book not only gives an account of Sam's decades of militant activity, but also of the time period through which he has lived, first in Alabama, under Jim Crow, then in Los Angeles, during the 1960s, and finally in Detroit, starting just before the big rebellion of 1967, all the way up until today.
We reprint below short segments from each of these periods in his life, to give a better idea of who this man is, how he has always carried himself and and what his militant activity has been.
From Alabama: two brief anecdotes showing a child's view of Jim Crow, an account of a confrontation between his family and the KKK, and his remembrance of his mother's decision to send him away from the South.
From Los Angeles: a young man's life in the streets of LA.
From Detroit: an account of his early activity within the union, and an account of fighting for the next generation after he retired from the plants, nearly thirty years later.
ONE DAY, I WAS downtown shopping with my mother, and we were in the 5 and 10 Cent Store. They had signs on the water fountain saying "White Only." Ma'Dear told me that I couldn't drink the water out of it. But when she went around to the other side of the store, I went up to the water fountain and drank some of that water. I had to drink this water because I wanted to know what white people's water tasted like. I wasn't any more than five years old at the time.
WE USED TO SWIM at Tuxedo Park, which was in Ensley in the Birmingham district, about eight or nine miles away from Bessemer. I was a kid, I guess about seven or eight, and we had to take the bus over there. The pool there was the only one around that we could swim in at that time.
We used to go swimming in every little swimming area around there. One time we were at West Lake, a little lake on the west side of Bessemer. My brother Jesse and his friend Sammy Lee were there. Sammy Lee couldn’t swim. A lot of times, you look at water, you can see the bottom, and it doesn’t look that deep. Sammy Lee was just messing around. He knew he couldn’t swim, but he didn’t think the water was over his head. He jumped in and thought he was going to stand up. But the water came over his head. It was deeper than he thought it was. He came up, his eyes bugging, and then he went down again. So then we knew he couldn’t swim.
My cousin James Ware hollered, “Jesse, you better get that boy, Jesse.”
Jesse was the best swimmer of the bunch. Jesse came in behind Sammy Lee, and when he came up the second time Jesse grabbed around him from the back and just pushed him to the shallow water. Then they stood up and walked on out.
There was a pool nearby in Bessemer – it had been there for years, but it wasn’t for blacks. It was one mile away from us, supposed to be public, our taxes paid on it, but it was only for whites. Up into the 1950s, it still was like that. Then in the ’50s, protests against discrimination began. Rosa Parks in Montgomery – we heard she refused to give up her seat. After the big march in 1963, and then when the riots jumped off in Birmingham and Harlem, they started integrating some places. The Bessemer pool was integrated, maybe in 1964 or ’65. But they shut the pool down once they integrated it. They said the whites refused to swim with the blacks, and I guess they decided they weren’t going to keep it going just for blacks. All these years it had been just a white pool, black taxes paid for it, and blacks couldn’t swim in it. Now when whites refused to swim in it with blacks, they just shut the pool down. That’s what they did.
MY FATHER'S SISTER, Aunt Ella Jane, used to have fish fries and parties on the week-end at her house in Pipe Shop, like my mother did. My auntie had this jukesbox, that's what they called it, where you could put money in to play music.
When I was nine or ten, the KKK came through one night and told her, "You're gonna stop these parties and take that jukesbox out of the house."
My auntie told them right away she was not taking the jukesbox out.
"When we come back you better have it out."
She said, "Well, come on back. I'm not taking my jukesbox out of my house. This box ain't going nowhere."
The KKK burned a cross in front of her house. They said they were coming back, and they set a date to come back. She told the family and her friends about it. My family got together, and friends of my family got together. They had a hundred and some people out there on that date, waiting on the KKK. It would have been something, it really would have been history if the KKK had shown up. Waiting on the KKK, they all had their rifles and shotguns and pistols. They were all in the grass, ringed around a two-block, three-block area. The KKK would have been surrounded if they'd come back up in there. All those people were in the grass where the KKK couldn't see them, wouldn't know they were there.
I know my father, he was like a lot of black men in that time period, he was afraid of the cops and of what white people could do to his family. But he was ready to throw down. This was his sister. So he was down there with his gun. The family was prepared, waiting on them, waiting on them to come back. People were mad anyway. This was in the late 1940s.
The KKK didn't show. And they never did come back. They probably got the message. A black person could have informed the cops, and the cops would have told the KKK. If it was a black person who told the cops, they probably knew my family and knew they would fight.
TWICE WE TALKED about going to California – my brother Ocie, my cousin Carlos, who was the son of my mother's sister Patience, plus a friend Big Sonny, and me. But something came up and we put it off. Finally, in December 1959 we were supposed to go.
We were sitting there, in the house, talking. Ocie and Carlos said they were ready. But I didn't have the money. I told them to go on, I wasn't ready to go.
Sadie B. heard us talking, and she said, "Unh-uh. No. You go. You take this money and you go now." She wanted me to leave. She didn't want Ocie going out there alone, only with Carlos. She gave me $40.
She was thinking about all the things I had been into with the cops since I was seventeen. And just ten miles away in Birmingham, they killed three young boys just before I left Bessemer.
Sadie B. said, "Them boys ain't hardly did nothing. They just spoke out and said something, that's it. The KKK and police killed those boys."
My mother saw that. And she knew me. The police were stopping me, coming by the house. She knew if they came at me, I wasn't going to just lay down. I spoke out, and when you do that, they're coming after you, the lynchers, the KKK, and a lot of the KKK were cops.
We left for California, January 1960. I was twenty.
After I was gone awhile, my mother said the cops came by, asking "Where's Sam?"
"Why? What you want him for?"
"Ain't no problem, just haven't saw him. Wanted to know if he was still here."
"No, he's not here. Why you want to know now? When he was here, you was messing with him."
WE WERE AT THE ALL NATION BAR on Broadway about 84th Street in L.A., a few blocks from Manchester, on a Friday night in April of 1962. Somebody came by and said the cops had gone in and shot up the Muslim temple. The temple was at 54th Street and Broadway, about three miles north of the All Nation. I used to live on 45th, one block west of Broadway, not too far from that temple. The cops killed one person, and I think they wounded six or seven others, and one guy wound up paralyzed.
After the temple was shot up, Malcolm X was talking about organizing Muslims from across the country, coming out to face down the L.A. police department. This is probably when Elijah Muhammad decided to push Malcolm out. I already had some contact with Muslims out there then, but they didn't ever talk about Malcolm. I didn't hear about Malcolm until I came out to Detroit. About a year and a half after the shooting, Malcolm was suspended when he made that statement about "chickens coming home to roost" after Kennedy was assassinated. And Malcolm started to build up his own organization. I'm quite sure there were Muslims that stayed with Malcolm out in Los Angeles but I was never in contact with those Muslims. At that time I didn't know about any of that.
But when the cops shot up the temple, I was down there on Broadway about three miles from where the temple was. I heard more about it the next day, people really talking about cops shooting the place up.
RIGHT AFTER THE SHOOT-OUT in the Muslim temple, I was stopped by the cops. A friend of mine was driving my car because I didn't have my license with me. Some guys were trying to get a ride, and they came across the street and wanted to know were we going north, could we give them a ride. As soon as these guys got in the car, the cops pulled us over and searched the car. They found a knife down in the back seat, but since it was my car it was supposed to be my knife.
Probably it was one of those guys we picked up who stuck it there. But I said, "I don't know what's in the back seat, I just bought this car, I never had that seat open. That knife could have been in there when I bought it."
"It's your car, so it's your knife."
The cops took me and my friend who was driving to the Tenth Precinct. That was my first time in the Tenth Precinct.
My man was talking to them, telling them, "What you want to do this for, I make more money than you do."
They didn't like the way he was talking, so they put us in the round-up, trying to find something on us. Finally, they let us out, didn't charge us with anything. Just harassment.
I had already noticed, any time more than two of us were out in a car, they would definitely pull us over. Just like that. You ain't did nothing, but they were checking you out. They stop you for nothing, then they run your name through the system, trying to find a ticket or a warrant or something else to put on you.
I WAS WITH SOME GUYS from Alabama, two I didn't know before, but met in L.A. We got in a car and went down Manchester from the All Nation Bar. We made a right and here come the cops. I don't know where they came from, but there they were, right along beside us, looking in the damn car. So we went on down toward Hoover, fixing to go north to drop somebody off. We got to Hoover, we made a right and the cops went across into a service station and got right behind us and pulled us over. Just like that.
"Get out of the car."
We hadn't done nothing. We had just left the bar. The guy who was driving, he didn't drink that much. We'd all had something but he hadn't. Didn't have time to do anything.
I asked them, "Why you pull us over? I know my friend driving didn't make any bad driving act. Did you pull us over because you saw four black faces in the car?"
"We can pull you over for suspicion or anything."
I said, "For anything? For nothing? Just messing with us?"
He didn't like the way I was talking. So he patted me down, and I had a knife in my pocket. He pulled out that big switchblade knife, and said, "Didn't you know this knife is illegal?"
"Illegal? I just was stopped last week and the officer didn't say anything, he gave the knife right back to me." That was a lie.
"Well this is illegal, over three and a half inches long." He asked me, "Have you ever been to the Tenth Precinct?"
I had, but I told him no.
"Well you ask someone what we do to smart ones like you." Just like that, smart ones like me.
So I asked him, "Are you from Alabama?"
"No, I was born and raised right here in L.A."
"Reason I asked you, when I left Alabama, I thought I was getting away from all that – all I was going through in Alabama."
I think that kind of backed him off a little bit. He took the knife and opened the trunk of the car and threw it into the trunk. He started trying to act like he wasn't prejudiced or anything. He didn't write a ticket, and they let us go. So we went on.
After we were elected [at Dodge Main in 1973], we discussed with people that they should have their own line steward to keep track of the problems, get people together to handle them if they could. One line steward for each foreman. "When the steward's not around," we said, "you can talk to the line steward, give him that information. It's not just the top, the workers themselves can run things. We're all involved in this here. That's what makes a strong union." We met with each group and told them, "You decide who would be the best person." And they did that. We elected those line stewards in the meetings. We had a line steward in just about every area. In some of those areas, we had two, in case one of them was off work.
They started keeping track of things the foremen were doing. They didn't have to wait for the steward to come. They collected all the information themselves for what needed to be done.
That shocked the foremen. They'd do something, and the same day, they'd have a grievance coming at them. The line steward gave me what they wrote up, I would talk to John, and he'd write that grievance on his break. I'd take it in that same day that something happened. And workers would see that.
We put out leaflets to everyone in the district, telling them what all their rights were.
If nobody in the union said anything different, supervisors would say, "We don't have no gloves now, we'll get you some tomorrow." So people would think they had to work like that. The foreman would tell them they had to do someone else's job, or get their own stock, or fix their own tools. He'd tell them to go out of their areas to catch jobs, or wait until break time to go to the toilet or medical. He'd put them on a job that violated their medical restrictions. And people wouldn't know. We were trying to let people know these things, what they had to do, and what they didn't have to do.
Someone would ask a question, so we knew a lot of other people would have these same questions. Like with SUB pay or overtime. Someone would ask a question, we would put something out about it. Workers could have something in their hands, information about what the rules are. Not like the usual union language that no one can understand, put out in small print, so no one understands what it means. That's what the union does, just like the company. We made it understandable and readable. And we put things on the board workers could find to check up on questions they had.
Getting that information out made people more ready to stand up for themselves.
Some of the union officials were speaking out against our lunch time meetings. One of the union committeemen stopped us, told us, “You can’t be having meetings on company property. That’s a big problem.”
“What do you mean? You’re telling us we can’t talk at lunch time? It’s our lunch time. Yes, we can talk.”
AT ONE OF THOSE lunch time meetings, we found out that some workers had problems with their paychecks. Chrysler owed people all this back money. They had worked overtime hours, and the company owed them for those hours, but it just went along not paying them. Some of those people had been owed for as long as a year, and they’d never got their money.
So we said, “Come on, let’s go down to the superintendent’s office and talk about this money. We’ll go down and have lunch with the superintendent.” We didn’t walk off the job, it was lunch time. “We’ll have lunch down there today.”
I told some of the people when we were getting ready to go down there, “I don’t care if it was five years ago, if they owed it, they owed it. They owe you, and they should pay you.”
So we got down there. We had about twenty-five or thirty people come down there. Not all of them were owed money. But they wanted to know, “What’s going to happen when y’all go down there?” They were up there for those other workers, going to see what the company was going to do. When all those people got up there, they were a force. Their numbers sent a bigger message to the company than a steward ever could. The workers saw that, because they had their money the next day. They saw what happened when workers stand together.
I talked to a few of them before we got in there. “Now, when you get in there, let that superintendent know how you feel about your money they owe you.” I told them, “Let him know.”
The workers thought they were going to stand outside, and John and me would go inside. But I said, “Uhn-uh! Come on in, here’s the man you want to talk to.”
The superintendent’s office was full. And some of those workers were loud. That superintendent was scared. He didn’t know we were coming down, we didn’t tell him. And there were all those workers. He didn’t know what they were going to do.
When we got in there, this guy named Pasmo got around behind the superintendent. He was right there behind him, and he got loud, “I’m getting tired of this shit, they been owing me for this money, and they know they owe me, and they still ain’t paid me. I want my money.”
The superintendent called Labor Relations and said, “There’s all these people here.” They must have told him, “Get the steward,” because we heard him say, “Well, he’s down here with them!”
So then he called Joe Davis to come settle the workers down. Joe was a committeeman then, but he was campaigning for Local president. He had to come all the way from the other side of the plant.
He got there, out of breath, and he said, “What’s going on, man?” He told me, “Come on outside the office, I want to talk to you.”
One of the workers said, “What you got to say? You can say it right here.” That’s what one of the workers told him.
So Joe Davis told those people, “You know we got procedures to go by.”
I said, “We done been through that, and they still haven’t given these people their money. That’s why they’re down here. We done went through your procedures, so let’s see what these people can do.”
Then Joe Davis told us, “You have to come out of here.”
And I said, “Let me tell you something, either you with us or you with them. If you with us, then come on and stop backpedaling then.”
Finally, the superintendent told the workers, “We’re going to deal with it. You’ll get your money.”
OK, so we said, “We’ll wait and see.”
Then we were out of there. We all went back together to where they worked. They talked to the people they worked with, told them what happened up there. Everyone was talking about it.
The next day, people came in, and they got their checks. But the company gave the checks to Joe Davis for four or five of these people. He went around and said, “See, you didn’t have to go through all that; you didn’t have to go down to the office, I went up there and got y’all’s checks.”
The workers just looked at him. They saw the game. One of the Arab workers came straight out and said to him, “Why give checks to you? You do nothing. They should have give the checks to Sam, the steward. You do nothing.”
But that’s what the company did, gave the checks to the committeeman to make it seem like the workers didn’t have to do anything. But why did they get their checks then, after all that time? Because of what they did.
So that was that, and a lot of people saw that, saw that when you bring together a lot of workers and make a force, it makes a difference. The very next day they had the checks. Not everybody because, with some of them, the old steward didn’t write a grievance about the missing money, so we had to write the grievance first before they got them. But the others, they had their checks the next day.
IN 2007, THE UAW pushed through a contract that dumped retiree health care into what they called a VEBA, and it cut wages in half for everyone that Ford, GM and Chrysler would hire. This was the UAW’s "Two-Tier" system. I went up with another Chrysler retiree Larry Christensen to the Truck Plant in Warren to talk to workers and pass out a leaflet against that contract. And we went to the Stamping Plant on Mound Road where we both knew people.
When we talked to workers at the gates, we’d say this: "We and you have worked all our lives, and they’re trying to tear up the retirement they promised us. Don’t approve this contract." And we’d talk about that Two-Tier. We’d say: "If you have family, a daughter or son or friend, the ones coming behind you, the companies want to push them backwards. They should be further ahead than we are, not behind. Even if you aren’t thinking about other people, at least think about your family."
The older workers were afraid of losing their medical care with the VEBA, but many of them didn’t think there was anything that they could do. And some workers said, "Two-Tier, it’s better than minimum wage." That’s the lie union officials pushed.
Better than minimum wage? Yeah, maybe, but you can’t live on it. We are being driven backwards. That’s not better for the working class today.
There were militants in other auto plants who were trying to stop this contract. The vote was close at Chrysler. But it did pass.
IN 2010, LAKE ORION workers from GM called for a demonstration at Solidarity House. GM laid off those workers, then reopened the plant, saying that the whole plant was going to be Two-Tier. The International agreed with that. The only way Lake Orion workers could keep their wages was to transfer to other plants, and a lot of them were sent to Lordstown, Ohio – two hundred and some miles away. Workers had their family, their house, their kids in school in Michigan, but they had to move. If they wanted to stay at Lake Orion, where they’d worked, they’d be bumped down to Two-Tier wages.
There were workers from different places at that demonstration. I remember one man, a ninety-year-old man who had been in the Flint sit-down strike. He was standing out there on Jefferson, shaking his fist at the bureaucrats sitting inside Solidarity House, telling them, "Shame on you!"
New hires had been getting Two-Tier wages, but Lake Orion showed that the auto companies wanted everyone in that second tier. And if workers let the bosses keep going, they’ll finally make everyone Two-Tier. Not just in auto. Everyone’s wages are going down.
WHEN TWO-TIER first came in, a lot of auto workers believed what the bureaucrats said, that it was only for the new hires.
Even if that was true, it’s wrong. It’s your son, it’s your daughter coming in, getting that much lower wage. If you had a decent wage, they should be going past where you are. You don’t want to take them backwards. But that’s what the unions’ policies are doing, taking us all backwards.
What’s happening today? The young people can’t make enough. They try to buy a house and they can’t. They get kicked out of an apartment, and they have to depend on their parents and their grandparents. So you’re still caught in that same trap if you accept Two-Tier.
And what happens when they bump you down? That’s what GM did to the Lake Orion workers and to all those workers in the former parts plants. How are you going to live on half the wages with all your bills? You can’t live on that. How do you pay for your house? You won’t have the money. You’re still paying on the car, because you need that for transportation.
But a lot of the older workers went along with Two-Tier. And that’s why so many younger workers think the older workers don’t matter today: "That’s them, man, that ain’t us."
You definitely have got to stand up. If you don’t stand up for other workers, why should they stand up for you?
The bosses are always creating divisions. And those divisions have gotten much worse over the last years. We’re being pushed backwards. If we don’t stand together, we won’t have anything.