John Watson, the South End and the Elite Ruling Class

John Watson understood the power of the printing press. As a member of the Detroit Black Panthers and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Watson used First Amendment protections to fight for social and political change.

In 1968, Watson became editor of the South End— Wayne State University’s student newspaper— and temporarily transformed it into a voice for “oppressed and exploited victims of a racist society.”

Watson used the media outlet in his attempt to overthrow Detroit’s elite ruling class and break the political, social and economic shackles placed on American society. His activism as part of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) ignited a backlash from the power structure, as the South End’s editorial content began to influence labor relations and promote anti-establishment political movements.

OPERATOR’S DISCLAIMER: Although THE LAST COLUMNIST is an anti-communist, this research paper written at Wayne State University in Detroit is presented for historical and educational purposes only. Its publication is not meant to endorse any persons, activities or ideologies revealed in its contents. 

Different schools of thought

Some revolutionary movements during the 1960s used violence and property destruction to initiate social and political change, which rarely wins over the average citizen, but Watson used the “free press.”

An examination of Watson’s strategic goals reveals why those in power painted him as a notorious figure during a turbulent time in Detroit’s history.

In a book titled, “Detroit: I Do Mind Dying,” authors Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin compared John Watson’s constitutionally protected attempt to overthrow the establishment vs. violent methods taken by others:

“Revolutionary groups such as the Weathermen faction of ‘Students for a Democratic Society’ dreamed of bombs to open a military front within the borders of the United States…. (But) the revolutionaries of the “Inner City Voice” and the “Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement” were thinking in far more practical terms. Through adroit electioneering and persuasion, they managed to capture a majority on the student committee responsible for selecting the editor of the ‘South End.’”[1]

When Watson took control of the South End in 1968, he used a state-funded student newspaper to promote revolution against the same state that funded his actions. His method ran contrary to revolutionaries who believed violence was the solution. But Watson’s method was more effective in reaching working-class citizens who only wanted to do their job and go home every night.

He began to distribute his message on and off campus [2] to reach all members of the population.

The South End’s (former) mission

According to Heather Ann Thompson in her book, “Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor and Race in an American City,” Watson never hid his plans to turn Wayne State University’s newspaper into a voice for revolution.

As the elected editor, and with the First Amendment protecting South End content, Watson believed he “was on pretty safe ground with the liberal administration at Wayne State University: Surely, it would not tread on the democratic process and the sacred American principle of freedom of the press.”[3]

Watson’s approach was summed up in the first editorial, which appeared on September 26, 1968. It is proof he never hid his mission:

“The South End returns to Wayne State with the intention of promoting the interests of impoverished, oppressed, exploited, and powerless victims of white, racist monopoly capitalism and imperialism….We will take the hard line….Our position in each case will be demonstrated to be logical, just, and concrete, and we will always be prepared to defend any position we take….Our only enemies will be those who would further impoverish the poor, exploit the exploited, and take advantage of the powerless.”[4]

The newspaper became the voice of cultural, social and political revolution. Watson’s editorials challenged a powerful machine of local, national and international oppression, and he did it with taxpayer money. The use of taxpayer and alumni funding for revolution would come back to haunt Watson. Detroit’s power structure eventually used the issue of public funding as one of the reasons to remove the South End staff.

Reach every corner in Detroit and every mind

During Watson’s short time as editor (1968-69) he exemplified how a “1960s black revolutionary” could organize and lead others against overwhelming odds, especially against a state-run educational institution controlled by Detroit’s elite ruling class.

He believed the South End did not belong to the school or just its students but the entire population, since the school newspaper received funding from taxpayers. If the university sent personnel into the surrounding community to promote ideas based on taxpayer-funded research, then the school newspaper could also go off campus to influence residents.[5]

Luke Tripp, who worked with Watson at the South End and the Inner City Voice, believed they should reject the so-called objectiveness that the mainstream mass media claimed to have when it came to reporting, or not reporting, news.

They believed the “mass media was only a pretext for perpetuating the viewpoint of the system…and they would be advocates for all insurgent groups that challenged the power of the old white men who ruled American society.”[6]

Watson believed it was his duty to inform and liberate the population from oppressive living and working conditions. The South End became a place to discuss local and international oppression. The South End staff wrote articles attacking unequal and unhealthy working conditions at factories and hospitals, and exposed the deterioration of Detroit’s public schools.

To spread the word beyond campus, the staff would pick up newspaper bundles after “legitimate” personnel stocked newsstands. They took copies directly to the people to inform them about issues not covered by mass media outlets.

“Some days, less than a thousand copies of the South End wound up on campus, and several thousands of copies went to schools, hospitals and factories…A special issue about the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement was delivered directly to thousands of workers at factories around the city.”[7] The South End became an alternative source of information for Detroit residents. Before Watson came along, people had little choice but to read newspapers or watch television stations controlled by elitists, who suppressed or manipulated information to control the public.

The South End’s new mission to report local and international movements has been described as an arm of a “radical front” of a revolutionary element: “The South End quickly became the voice of a de facto radical united front. Although articles on the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, Detroit’s Black Panthers, Third World guerrilla movements, women’s liberation and anti-war activities dominated the newspaper, every progressive topic in Detroit could find a place in the newspaper.”[8]

Watson focused on spreading information to autoworkers to organize them for better representation. Union officials viewed such tactics as a way to infiltrate the workplace and eventually overthrow the American social and political system. Their concerns led to a counter-revolution by union leaders and other members of Detroit’s elite ruling class.

The UAW and the elite ruling class strike back

Former UAW President Walter Reuther

Before Watson took over the South End in the fall of 1968, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther warned local union leaders what they faced from elements of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. During a special union meeting held on July 15, 1968, Reuther said, “This is a group of black nationalists and they are tied in with Chinese Commies at Wayne State University. We are going to see more of this activism.”[9]

During an interview in 1969, United Auto Workers leader George Merrelli said, “The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement was carrying out the mandates of Communist China…They worm themselves into positions of leadership and then out comes the program… This is an Old Commie trick.”[10]

Articles about working conditions, the lack of advancement possibilities and inadequate representation in the auto factories led to rank-and-file union members questioning their status. Detroit’s power structure realized articles in the South End could disrupt the system.

Local leaders took notice of Walter Reuther and George Merrelli’s comments and reflected on the situation: “Regardless of what they could prove, as students interviewing union officials in 1969 noted, ‘There appears to be widespread consensus attributing the Wayne State University South End newspaper as being a main instigator’ in stirring up shop-floor dissent.”[11]

Detroit’s elite ruling class proved to be a formidable opponent and fought back once they knew what they faced with Watson as editor.

After several months of distributing the South End to working class members of society, especially autoworkers, Watson’s tactics began to come under intense scrutiny from Wayne State University officials. The school was under pressure from corporate, government and union officials to do something about the newspaper’s content.

Suburban newspapers controlled by Detroit’s elite ruling class published attacks on Watson. Members of the Wayne State Fund— a group of alumni donors— were unhappy about the content of the student newspaper: “These people [members of the Wayne State Fund] knew very well that tens of thousands of copies of “special agitation issues” were being used to undermine the Detroit power structure…and the state had been put into the position of supporting a newspaper that called for revolution against that very state.”[12]

Beyond Detroit and an excuse

The South End became known for exposing deplorable working conditions in the auto industry, collusion between union leaders and management, and the deterioration of Detroit’s public schools. But it also discussed revolutionary guerrilla movements around the world. These editorial stances made by Watson became a rallying cry for university and UAW officials to label Watson and the South End as racist.

In January 1969, the paper published a pro-Palestinian article about the Al Fatah guerrilla organization. It began a firestorm of controversy for the editorial staff because of remarks made about Israel. Wayne State University President William Keast labeled the South End as “anti-Semitic and reminiscent of Hitler’s Germany.”[13]

During public proceedings held by Wayne State University’s Board of Governors on February 13, 1969, member Arthur Greenstone said, “The newspaper has been inflammatory…racist…and anti-Semitic. There is no other word for it. Goebbels would be proud.”[14]

Watson’s detractors claimed racism motivated editorials. The editorial staff said their motivation was purely political against Israel. In the stance taken by Watson, the South End said that approximately thirty percent of the power structure at Wayne State University consisted of persons of Jewish descent. He added that they, along with suburban whites in power at the university, must give up their power. These opinions infuriated Jewish students and others at Wayne State University, but Arab students came out in support of the stance taken by the South End.[15]

Watson noted the hypocrisy in the charges of racism, since the paper regularly printed all opposing viewpoints and did similar articles on African guerrilla movements with little reaction from the same critics of the Al Fatah piece. He also said the people now charging racist anti-Semitism “never spoke out against the institutionalized racial and religious discrimination found in Detroit and its suburbs, especially when it came to a point system that excluded Jews, blacks and other ‘undesirables’ from living in Grosse Pointe communities.”[16]

Conspiracy to bring down Watson

Ken Cockrel Sr., attorney for John Watson

When Watson faced assault charges for an altercation with Detroit television newscaster Joe Weaver, South End writer Mike Hamlin wrote about the incident: “The attack on the paper opened the closet and let loose all the Detroit power-structure ghosts…The university and the United Auto Workers entered into a conspiracy with Chrysler and the media to destroy the school newspaper.”[17]

Although eyewitnesses gave conflicting versions of the “Joe Weaver assault,” the consensus held that Joe Weaver, a television newsman employed by, and subservient to, the elite ruling class, was dispatched on a mission to provoke Watson (and Weaver began the physical altercation and Watson defended himself).

Hamlin believed Detroit’s power structure used the Joe Weaver assault and Palestinian issue as a cover in its attempt to remove Watson and his staff. The real problem was that articles about the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement could upset the balance of power held by auto companies and union leaders.

It’s difficult not to reach the same conclusion as Hamlin when compared with the lack of interest Watson’s accusers had for the institutionalized racism accepted or perpetrated by Detroit’s elite ruling class.

Revolutionary’s last stand or lasting influence?

As stated, Watson’s tenure at the South End was short lived. He was removed as editor in early 1969— but not by the student committee that elected him. In 1968, a student committee selected the editor, who could serve for multiple years (if re-elected by the students). After Watson’s rise to power, the elite ruling class instituted a rule change that required WSU’s administration to oversee selection of the editor-in-chief. Now, the editor-in-chief has a one-year term limit and faces content reviews made by the school administration. Students, not the elite ruling class, should have control of the school newspaper’s content, otherwise, it’s not a “free press.”

It must be made clear the freedom of expression practiced by Watson would not exist under the political system advocated by Watson. But the problem with this argument is that America’s elite ruling class conspired to seize back “its” printing press, which actually belonged to the students, and stopped an American from practicing his First Amendment right to express himself in the United States.

Conclusion

The importance of John Watson’s role in Detroit’s political history cannot be denied. He didn’t use bombs or promote violent uprisings to change society. He tried to change the system with peaceful methods he believed were protected by the U.S. Constitution.

While some people say Watson failed, others argue his influence contributed to successful long-term changes. But any perceived success is deceptive. The implosion of one elite ruling class and its power base during the 1970s gave way to a new group of political elitists. They control Detroit and the UAW today through soft tyranny, deception and class warfare. And many Detroit residents are routinely subjected to one of the ugliest crimes that can be perpetrated against humanity: institutionalized poverty for population control.

Today’s elite ruling class takes away ten basic freedoms or collective bargaining rights and gives back one to make the public believe they “won a small battle.” Elitists ship jobs out of Michigan and pass out government subsistence checks to the unemployed for population control and to secure votes to retain power. When viewed from this perspective, it’s easy to see who’s winning the war. It’s the oldest trick in the “manifesto.”

Regardless of his political ideology, Watson made the South End relevant. But the elite ruling class slammed down its massive iron fist, and the South End never returned to its days as a place to find thought-provoking content. Once an open forum to discuss problems facing the human condition (in the true essence of a learning experience), Wayne State University’s South End newspaper soon became riddled with irrelevancy and littered with meaningless non-news stories.

The elite ruling class fought back and regained control. Post-Watson journalism students don’t have a chance to print something significant or controversial due to the rule changes, which led to the elimination of free speech, free expression, creativity and critical thinking— unless it benefits the new elite ruling class’ agenda.

In the world of geopolitics, you must remember the Lessons of Munich— you can’t appease an aggressor like Hitler. In the world of free speech and freedom of expression, you must remember the Lessons of Watson— you are only allowed to practice your constitutional rights as long as you appease, please or entertain the elite ruling class. 

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*Research paper attributions are below the video. The following movie link (found on YouTube) is titled, “Finally Got the News,” which documents the history of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. John Watson, Mike Hamlin and Ken Cockrel appear in this movie produced in 1970. It explores the human condition in Detroit during the late 1960s. It is offered in a historical context to promote debate but not to endorse or rebuke any activities or arguments made by the participants.

FINALLY GOT THE NEWS:

 

For information on Detroit’s Revolutionary Movements of the 1960s, visit this link to a vast amount of historical records held at Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Library.

For information contained in the “Ken Cockrel papers” at WSU’s Reuther libary and the founding of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, please visit this Walter P. Reuther Library link.

   Works Cited

  1. Georgakas, Dan; Surkin, Marvin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975. Pages 55-56
  2. Ibid., 51
  3. Thompson, Heather Ann, Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor and Race in a Modern American City. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001.Pages 101-102.
  4. Georgakas,56
  5. Ibid.,55
  6. Ibid.,56
  7. Ibid.,58
  8. Ibid.,57
  9. Thompson,121
  10. Ibid.,120-121
  11. Ibid.,122
  12. Georgakas,59
  13. Ibid.,63
  14. Thompson,102
  15. Ibid.,254
  16. Georgakas,64
  17. Ibid.,66

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