Requiem for a Black Trotskyist
— Alan Wald
NEWS OF THE death of former United Auto Workers staff member Ernie Dillard came by way of a phone call on Bastille Day 2016. The subsequent silence about his passing in the radical and mainstream press is an accusatory reminder of the extent to which the memory of the Left has been confiscated from those who require it most.
Dillard’s political career reverberates with markers of a vital era of revolutionary internationalism and interracial proletarian solidarity that cries out to be understood and assimilated by activists of the new millennium. Yet the man and what he represented are little known today.
In brief, Ernest C. Dillard (1915-2016) was among a hundred African Americans, mostly auto workers, recruited to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) toward the end of World War II. As Trotskyists, they contested the Stalinist Communist Party (CP) as a disfigurement of the socialist movement — not due to ill will or lack of commitment of CP members but because that party’s politics depended on the Soviet caricature of what a liberated society was supposed to be.
Resistance to capitalism and imperialism took priority. Even in the excruciatingly complicated era of the war against fascism, Trotskyists distinguished themselves from Communists by supporting the civil liberties of Japanese Americans, backing strikes against the wishes of labor bureaucrats, refusing to support the exploitation of the West’s colonies as cannon fodder for the Europeans, and declining to put domestic anti-racist struggles on the back burner.
This militancy, especially in the auto plants, was the basis for the attraction of Dillard and many more Black proletarians to the SWP in Detroit. Attendance of Black SWP members tended to be higher and more regular at meetings of “fractions” (members working in an industry) than at the party meetings themselves.
Along with his wife, born Jessie May Dawson (?-1990), Dillard (who used the party name “Ernest Drake”) was among the outstanding Trotskyist political activists of the period. Others who can be identified as part of this development in the 1940s and early 1950s include men and women with a fascinating variety of relationships to the Detroit Black labor Left.
This roster includes Edgar B. Keemer (1913-1980), a medical doctor who wrote a column for the SWP’s Militant newspaper as “Charles Jackson;”(1) Horace Sheffield, Jr. (1916-1995), eventually president of the Detroit Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and a founder of the Trade Union Leadership Council;(2) James Boggs (1919-1992), a leader of Correspondence Publishing Committee and other revolutionary groups;(3) Simon P. Owens (who used the names “Charles Denby” and “Matthew Ward,” 1907-83), author of Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal (1978);(4) and Effie Owens (who used the name “Ethel Dunbar,” 1912-93), who after 1955 was a columnist for the Marxist-Humanist publication News & Letters.
Through the World War II and Cold War years, Dillard stood out as a Marxist phenom, an African-American organic intellectual trained by fellow activists in the Trotskyist movement. With his unforgettable toothy smile, Dillard was a humorous and dynamic public orator. He was also an indefatigable editor, writer and organizer, speaking for the interests of the multinational working population of Detroit and elsewhere.
Although educated by his comrades in political theory, he was mainly an agitator who articulated the feelings and experiences that the excluded sections of the Detroit population could not always express for themselves. This record mostly survives in articles and speeches in hard-to-get publications; the notes and documents in his archives at the Walter Reuther P. Library at Wayne State University; a few passages in academic books about race and labor in Detroit; and in the memories of a handful of individuals who knew Dillard back in the day.
UAW Militant, Anti-racist Activist
Born in Montgomery, Alabama, Dillard was the fourth of seven children in a poor family. When Ernie was in the sixth grade, his father died and he was forced to go to work to support the family. After employment as a chauffeur, he met Jessie, with whom he would have two children.
Married on Christmas Eve 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression, Dillard moved to Detroit in search of work in 1937 and his family joined him a year later. In 1942 he was hired at General Motors Fisher Body Fleetwood plant as a welder. There he became an active member of UAW Local 15 and encountered the SWP.
Dillard was invited to attend meetings of the party fraction and soon he and Jessie became SWPers. Among his most important new relationships was with a Jewish graduate student in philosophy at the University of Michigan, Irving Malimar Copilovitch (1917-2002).
Earlier, Copi (the name he legally assumed in the 1950s) had been the prize pupil of Bertrand Russell at the University of Chicago, but became a Trotskyist while in Ann Arbor. When the war began he entered the auto factories to become a shop steward and union organizer.
Copi helped Dillard acquire the technical skills to edit the union newspaper, but Dillard also attended a course of study at the SWP’s “Trotsky School” held at Grass Lake Summer Camp near Detroit. This was a property owned by a friend of Dr. Keemer, one of the few interracial venues available.
Joining Dillard in a session devoted to studying Marxist classics was Ernest Mazey (1919-79). Mazey, an SWP UAW activist from 1938 to 1953, was the brother of Emil Mazey (1913-83), Secretary-Treasurer of the UAW for 33 years.
Part of Dillard’s exemplary life is that he came to operate in multiple overlapping subcultures that comprised the Detroit Left. As members of the SWP, Ernie and Jessie were widely known for attention-grabbing anti-racist activities. This began with successful interracial sit-ins in the 1940s under the auspices of the NAACP to integrate restaurants in downtown Detroit that refused to serve African Americans.
In 1956 the Committee to Communicate Truth to Mississippi, for which Dillard served as executive secretary, published his pamphlet “An Open Letter of Truth to the White People of Mississippi.” Not only did Dillard become a member of the Board of Directors of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, he also became Educational Director of the Trade Union Leadership Council (TULC), a Black caucus in the UAW formed in the late 1940s with Sheffield and Robert “Buddy” Battle (1917-1989), and edited its organ, The Vanguard.
The Grim 1950s and After
In 1953, there was a major division in the SWP. Dillard was a leader of a minority that favored the formation of a propaganda group over a self-proclaimed revolutionary vanguard party, and also proposed a closer collaboration with the Communist Party.
After their expulsion from the SWP in 1954, the minority formed the Socialist Union of America and published the journal American Socialist. The best-known figure in the group was Bert Cochran (born Alexander Goldfarb, 1913?-84), who later wrote the classic Labor and Communism: The Conflict That Shaped American Unions (1974).
In Detroit the highly successful “Labor Forum” was organized by the Socialist Union. It held large public meetings at Wayne State University’s McGregor Hall and the Detroit Institute of the Arts that featured a range of Cold War dissidents including Pete Seeger, I. F. Stone, Linus Pauling and Owen Lattimore. But the organization began to fragment after 1957 with leaders drifting toward Monthly Review, the National Guardian and eventually New Politics. When it disbanded in 1959, the Dillards’ association with the organized Marxist Left came to an end.
Over the years, the multi-talented Ernie Dillard had been the first African American elected to a succession of leadership posts in his UAW local. Between 1942 and 1964, when he finally joined the staff of the International UAW, he served as its shop steward, shop committeeman, executive board member, Fair Employment Practices Committee chairman, editor of the Fleetwood Organizer, vice-president, shop chairman and recording secretary.
Then, while on the staff of the International, he served in the umpire section of the General Motors Department (1964-67), as Citizenship Department coordinator (1968-69), Education Department assistant director (1970-72), Community Action Program (CAP) coordinator (1973-76), and CAP assistant director (1976-79). Dillard retired in 1980, subsequently serving as president of the Michigan chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.
Jessie Dillard was a political activist in her own right, noted for a fiery personality, quick wit and sharp tongue. One of Detroit’s leading block club organizers, she played prominent roles in the Detroit NAACP and a variety of civil rights struggles. In 1969 she was appointed to the Detroit Commission on Community Relations and later served as assistant to Detroit City Council President Erma Henderson.
Both Ernie and Jessie held leadership positions in the Michigan Democratic Party spanning several decades. Alumni of the Wayne State University Labor School, they also remained active in adult education activities. Following Jessie’s death, Ernie moved to Los Angeles for his final years.
Redemption of Unfinished Hopes
After the 1950s, the Black Trotskyist presence of Dillard’s generation mostly disappeared, although a handful of figures associated with News & Letters and Correspondence (which suffered splits in 1955 and 1962) persisted for decades.
Dillard maintained an ecumenical friendship with union activists from the Socialist Union and Independent Socialist League (the successor to Max Shachtman’s Workers Party), including Erwin Baur (known as “Al Adler,” b. 1915), B. J. Widick (known as “Jack Wilson,” 1910-2008),(5) Martin Seldon (1923-2007) and Blanche Yancey Seldon (1927-95),(6) and Oscar Paskal (b. 1920). But he mostly focused his own activities within the confines of the UAW and Democratic Party.
Copi left his UAW activism to resume an academic career at the University of Hawaii where he became world-famous as a logician. Sheffield moved to the right and was known as a confidant of Henry Ford and Hubert Humphrey. When the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was formed in 1969, Sheffield was a bitter antagonist.
The world of the union movement is burdened with this ambiguous and often heartbreaking past. Ernie Dillard’s story is at the center of several critical decades of great effort to build a class-conscious movement to end class society, one that ultimately resulted in a failure haunting the movement for socialism in the 21st century.
More recent unanticipated events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, catastrophic political boomerangs such as the crisis of the Arab Spring, and novel forms of resistance such as Occupy and Black Lives Matter have demanded that activists rethink strategy and remake organizations. But a richer acquaintance with the earlier accomplishments can stimulate effective proposals, while familiarity with significant defeats can forge a sharpness of critical insight.
Those who aspire to redeem the unaccomplished hopes of the generations of activists who preceded us cannot allow our mourning to become the twilight melancholy of a lost past.
- Keemer later published an autobiography, Confessions of a Pro-Life Abortionist (Detroit: Vinco Press, 1980) and several of his articles were collected in the important volume Fighting Racism in World War II (New York: Pathfinder, 1980).
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- To my knowledge, Sheffield never went on record acknowledging SWP membership. However, in an 18 August 2000 letter from Erwin Baur to Wald, Baur states that Sheffield was recruited to the SWP by Keemer, and worked most closely with SWP branch organizer Arthur Burch (1897-1979), Ernest Mazey and Baur. He remembers Sheffield attending dinners and dances at halls rented by the SWP, and believes Sheffield was also present at public political events of the Socialist Union in the 1950s.
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- A dual biography by Stephen Ward has been announced for late 2016 by University of North Carolina Press, In Love and Struggle: The Revolutionary Lives of James and Grace Lee Boggs.
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- Jacqueline Jones’ A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America (New York: Basic Books, 2013) devotes its concluding chapter to Owens, “Simon P. Owens: A Detroit Wildcatter at the Point of Production,” 239-288.
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- A biographical obituary for Widick by Alan Wald appears in Against the Current #136 (September-October 2008) and can be found online at: http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/1893.
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- See the obituary by Christopher Phelps for Martin Seldon in Against the Current 129 (July-August 2007): http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/585.
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September-October 2016, ATC 184