|Killing the Goose...|
Chapter 1: Loyalty
The Detroit News ran this headline on page-one of the July 16, 2002 Metro Edition: "Ford execs sign pledge of loyalty."
This extraordinary request came right from the top. It had to come from the top because Ford's brain drain, which began with a salary cap on it's administrative assistants had grown to put some of it's most talented employees throughout the company at risk of arbitrary downgrading and forced retirement. The giant automaker had lost track of who their most valuable employees were. It lost the fundamental tools and techniques essential to making low-cost, high-quality vehicles and therefore the key elements in making the large profits it earned in the first half of the 1990s. It lost nearly five and a half billion dollars in one year.
Loyalty means a lot.
You don't need a Masters degree in Business Administration to know that loyal employees are worth more to the organization they work for than people are who merely put in their time for a paycheck. Common sense and common experience tells you that men and women who proudly wave the corporate banner see themselves as valued members of a corporate community.
People who identify themselves this way can be trusted to do their jobs to the best of their abilities without supervision and to go the extra mile whenever the need arises. They can be counted on to make personal sacrifices when necessary in the interest of the company and to stay the course through thick and thin. When a company looses the loyalty of its most talented and productive employees, these are the assets it loses.
But where does loyalty begin? I can tell you where it began with me.
Throughout the 1950s Ford Motor Company sponsored seasonal events that gave everyone who worked for Ford a sense of community. Every summer my Father's Ford Rouge badge was his family's ticket to free ice cream, cake, toys and entertainment at a picnic area called Jefferson Beach and a local amusement park called Edgewater. I recall seeing my first magic show during one of our annual Christmas season trips to the fabulous Ford Rotunda.
From the Edsel Ford expressway at night you could see "FORD" spelled out across the south face of Ford's Word Headquarters building with the lights left on in strategically selected windows like placards at a college football game. Before the eerie golden light of the nearby Rotunda first came on in 1956, the World Headquarters display marked the halfway point for me between my family's home in Detroit and the home of my Uncle Ernest and Aunt May. When my Cousin Luther's mother died he went to live with them and their kids. His Sister Sara, whom I think of as my sister, came to live with us. Therefore, we visited Inkster frequently.
The Rotunda was designed by the famous architect Albert Kahn to resemble a thick, fluted gear several stories high with four flatter gears stacked on tip of it. One of Buckminister Fuller's most celebrated geodesic domes spanned the center courtyard. During the day, the off-white, fiberglass structure looked to me as though it was made out of an exotic combination of stone and steel. At night, its unique radium lighting system created the illusion that the building was emitting an arresting golden glow like noting else on earth.
Everything about the Rotunda was a marvel, from the way it glowed in the dark on the outside to the way it seemed to light up the future on the inside with its wondrous displays. If my parents had allowed me to, I would have spent all day looking at the full-sized "cars of tomorrow" on the floor and the miniature city of tomorrow with flying cars under glass.
Displays like this made it easy to imagine the future. They made it possible for me to imagine creating the future with Ford just because I saw myself as a member of the extended Ford Family. This, of course, was not a realistic dream for a black kid in the 1950s, considering the well-known fact that black people were not hired by Ford, Chrysler or GM to do any kind of technical or creative work.
On the other hand, I wasn't dreaming of the 1950s. I was dreaming of a time yet to come where all sorts of fantastic things, like flying cars and black people working in creative areas for the Big Three automakers, were possible.
The slick magazines we got at the Rotunda for free showing how Fords were built from concept to assembly were as precious to me as my baseball cards and comic books. Here, I thought, was a look at how big things in the world got done that only Ford employees like my father and their immediate families were privy too. I was particularly enthralled with pictures of Ford's wizards in smocks who handcrafted the cars in clay. In my dreams I could see myself as one of them, just as I could see myself as Batman sitting at the round table of the Justice League of America with the other superheroes. Surely it took superpowers to make clay cars look so much like real ones.
News about the fire that destroyed the Rotunda in 1962 came as a terrible shock to everyone I knew. It never entered my mind that a structure like that could burn. The subsequent news of Henry Ford II's decision not to rebuild it was even more shocking. I thought at the time that it was a short-sighted mistake no less devastating in its long-term effects than the electrical spark on the roof of the building that touched off the fire and the choice of construction materials that allowed it to burn to the ground. Whatever the rebuilding cost in 1962 dollars, I was certain that the company would have gotten it back many times over.
As I type these words, the future of Ford's decision not to rebuild the Rotunda is over forty years old. The young kids who were deciding what to do with their lives when they grew up are now thinking about retirement from whatever they chose to do if they haven't already retired or died. I chose to become a wizard in a smock who made clay model cars of the future.
Contrary to popular belief, the future always comes first.
I learned long ago that the essence of creativity is foresight and experimentation, just as the essence of time is movement through space. Before anything can move, it has to have somewhere to go. That "somewhere" is the future. Before there was anything to move, there was the idea that something could be brought into existence with the proper resources and a determined creative force to give it the desired form.
That concept came to life in a TV ad for Ford Motor Co. in 1967
A Toastmaster oven drawer opens to a formless, brown mass of clay. The hand of a nameless black man reaches into the muck and pulls out a big gob of the stuff. As the hand turns the clay palm up to the camera, a voiceover says, "This is where it all begins."
That wasn't quite true. I know because the hand in the commercial holding the magic muck was mine. For me, it all started in 1949 or '50 at a Ford-sponsored picnic on Jefferson Beach followed by annual trips to Edgewater Park and the Ford Rotunda. It started with a strong sense of identity as a valued member of a wonderful extended family called Ford.
My father and my Uncle Jasper, who shared a duplex with us in Detroit, began at Ford in the hellish foundry were black workers in the 40s were given the dirtiest and most dangerous assignments. In the 50s they worked on the cleaner, safer and more racially integrated assembly lines.
My father's last job before he died in 1966 was his best job. John Arthur Garrison was the first black man in the history of Ford Motor Co. who was considered intelligent enough to mask cars for painting. I'm sure that his college degree helped him.
I wasn't old enough to pick up on all the important subtleties of the conversations my father had with his two brothers who also worked in Ford assembly plants. One thing that stood out, though, was the idea that doing the best job they were capable of was their first priority. They complained that the speed of the assembly line contributed to mistakes. They also complained that some of the mistakes they saw coming down the line were unacceptable to them because loyalty to the family name didn't allow Garrisons to do shoddy work. If they had to sabotaging the line to fix the problems they did at great risk to themselves.
If Ford's supervisors had known that they had people like this working on the assembly lines they would have fired them.
The older I got the more I came to understand that my father and my uncles didn't tell these stories to pat themselves on the back. It was a kind of therapy to keep them going in an alien environment where the Garrison work ethic wasn't appreciated. Consequently, they were as hard on the workers who stopped the line just to get a beak as they were on the foremen who cared more about "production" than quality. For reasons that didn't become clear to me until I was a teenager, they were especially hard on the "colored" guys who didn't pull their weight.
In the 1950s, when I was between four and fourteen, most descendants of American slaves preferred being called colored because black was often synonymous with "nigger." A light-to-dark social distance scale existed among lighter slave descendants and darker ones. So, being colored meant that you were not necessarily closer to being a nigger if your skin color tended toward the dark side like my father's did and mine. One could therefore be a light-skinned nigger as well as a black nigger. A black nigger was the worst thing a human being could be. There was no such thing as a colored nigger in black or white America. There was no such thing as an American nigger, either. A nigger was a nigger, period.
Like the ancient multi-colored Egyptians, who saw themselves as a race apart from the other peoples of the world, Americans came in all colors. Unlike ancient Egypt, America saw race as a dividing line between its people. Indeed, American citizenship for black people was once an issue of color that wasn't formally settled until 1865. First class citizenship was a another challenge
To be a first class American citizen in the 1800s with equal rights under the law on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, you had to be a white man. White women and the descendants of black African slaves had to wait for the next century to have first class citizenship bestowed upon them by law and custom. It took black people another 99 years. The laws changed before the customs did.
Getting the laws to work was a struggle all the way, both socially and economically. It still is. In some cases black men succeed where white women couldn't simply because they were men. In other cases white women made advances where black men and women could not even show their faces simply because they were white.
On the political side of things, the struggle for equal rights in America took a giant leap forward in the 1930s with the rise of Nazism in Germany and the victories over Nazi athletes by Jessie Owens and Joe Lewis. When Lewis knocked out Max Schmelling in 1936, the same year that Jessie Owens won three gold medals in the Berlin Olympics, he recalled that it was the first time had been referred to as an American.
With the American Armed Forces actively engaged in war with Nazi Germany, the inefficiency, the hypocrisy and the downright absurdity of our racially segregated military became too obvious to ignore. Led by the tireless efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, the separate black and white Armed Forces of the United States were integrated. There was no more official distinction between white and black enlisted men and officers. A soldier was a soldier. A sailor was a sailor and a marine was a marine. The cream of these combined forces was now free to rise to the top and eventually it did.
The success of this "experiment" provided a model for civilian industry that our industrial leaders were slow to follow. Professional baseball and football changed a long time before they did.
None of this ever made good economic sense for the country as a whole.
Then again, the men who made the decisions about what kind of people would be allowed to do what kind of work weren't looking at the population as a whole as a pool of potentially valuable human resources. They had predetermined ideas about the meaning of color, race, sex and religion in job performance a place for everyone and a determination to keep everyone in their preassigned place.
A place for exceptionally gifted or well-connected white, male Christians was reserved at the top of the social and economic ladder. A place for black people in general was reserved at the bottom. People of color from other ethnic backgrounds as well as white people in certain social or religious groups fell somewhere in between. Sometimes they could choose to take sides with the white majority and sometimes they were involuntarily lumped together with black people as "minorities."
For better or worse, the power to grant or to deny equal status to women and blacks in the courts, the schools and the workplace was almost exclusively in the hands of a minority of white men.
Fortunately for the country there was never such a thing as "the white man." The men who made the political and economic decisions that everyone else lived and died by from the inception of the United States were like everyone else when it came to their capacity for good or evil, wisdom or foolishness, bigotry or tolerance. They had loyalties to opposing social, political and economic interests.
The grandchildren of the founding fathers even fought each other in a bloody civil war. The issue then was their loyalty to their individual states or their loyalty to the United States. Some of them even went to war to free American slaves because the institution of slavery was a moral affront to them and the aggressive expansion of slavery from sea to shining sea in their sweet land of liberty was something that they couldn't live with. To be loyal to one side or the other they first had to be loyal to their conscience.
Loyalty again. And race.
The men who directed both sides in the American Civil War had one thing in common. They all belonged to a privileged class of white males. Whether they were born to it or worked their way into it, they were there. They were free from birth to pursue their dreams as far as their talent, enterprise or ruthlessness could take them just because they were white males. They didn't have to pass any special tests of gender or race to enjoy the protections of the Constitution because the Constitution was written for them.
Winners or losers in that great struggle, these men as well as their white, male descendants, enterprising white, male immigrants and their white male descendants, still had the power to pursue their dreams. Those who rose to positions of influence also had the power to decide whether white women and blacks could rise to the level of their dreams and abilities if they proved themselves worthy of taking the tests.
White women had to prove themselves to be the equal of white men in spite of their inferior sex. Black men and women had to prove themselves to be a credit to their inferior race. If you look hard enough you can always find an exception to the rule. American history is speckled with those exceptions from Fredric Douglas to Congalisa Rice. Exceptions don't change the rules.
When I was a child, it was common knowledge that black men were not allowed to become Detroit Police officers. Yet, there seems to have been at least one of them as far back as the 1920. He had a name, Two-Gun Pete, a picture in uniform that came with the name and a notorious reputation for harassing, beating and killing black people.
Other black cops had to have been on the job somewhere in the city before the mid-'50s, although I had never seen one in person, because I can remember the radio news story announcing the first integrated patrol cars. It happened in the summer of my eighth year.
I'd seen plenty of white cops downtown and in the neighborhood, including the friendly officer who visited our mostly white kindergarten class at Hanneman Elementary School. But the first time I ever saw a black cop was in a squad car with a white cop in 1953.
One sunny afternoon my 11-year-old sister Sara and I were on the last leg of a trip to the Granada Theater, three short blocks from our house on North Campbell. The Granada Theater stood next to the Granada Bar, which was located on the corner of McGraw and Junction. Sara and I were crossing a lot that put us on Junction when a black man with an enormous belly stumbled out of the bar and staggered aimlessly before steadying himself with one hand on the brick wall of the bar. From were we stood, it looked like he was undoing his belt buckle. He wasn't.
Our young eyes bulged when we saw a stream of urine arch from his crotch to the wall. It was one of the funniest things we had ever seen. We pointed and laughed and crossed the street for a better look when the two-lane traffic cleared. Seeing a drunk stumbling around was funny all by itself but a drunk peeing on a wall outside in the middle of the day was hilarious. This had to be a better show than whatever was playing at the Granada. We couldn't wait to see what the guy did next.
The pot-bellied drunk fumbled with his zipper for a long time, then turned and tottered some more before drifting out to the middle of Junction and falling flat on his back, spread-eagle. We could tell by his heaving gut that he was fast asleep. That was funny, too, until the cars going past him started coming too close.
Sara and I were now afraid that the man was in danger and hoped that an adult would call the police to save him from himself. He was clearly in no condition to make rational decisions and it looked like it was going to take a couple of big, strong men to drag him to safety. No one in the growing crowd of black adults made a move to get involved in anything but conversation with each other about the man's disgusting and outrageous behavior. They used the n-word quite a bit to describe it.
Only minutes later, Sara and I sighed in relief as a black and white squad car arrived. When the two uniformed officers got out of their car I was filled with pride to see that one of them was as black as I was.
What I saw next turned relief and pride into confusion and horror.
Both cops whipped out their nightsticks and proceeded to beat the man in turn like they were two hands of a maniacal drummer beating out a tune. I lost my interest in the color of each cop's skin. All that mattered here was the color of their uniforms. This was a team effort and these guys looked like a well-practiced team. I couldn't even tell which one was in charge. I don't think the question ever entered my mind.
The black drunk never said a word as he stirred to consciousness and tried to ward off the blows from the wooden batons. Then, with one cop, yelling at him and jerking him upward by the back of his collar with is free hand while his stick-hand kept rhythm with his partner's, they got him to his feet. They slammed him against the wall that he'd peed on and beat him some more. They struck the man until blood from his split scalp and the cops' bloody nightsticks left a huge red splatter and red streaks on the wall. Blood from the big splatter on the wall ran down all the way to the sidewalk. The black and white cop kept beating the black drunk until he was again lying spread-eagle in the street. This time blood oozed from his head. This time his big belly didn't move.
In the eyes of the white cop, his black partner was undoubtedly a credit to his race.
For an African-American to be a credit to his race in the 1950s he had to put distance between himself and people like the drunk in the Junction Street incident. He had to demonstrate his allegiance to the values of the white people he wanted to impress. These things made him the exception to the rule and therefore more worthy of trust to meet the performance standards in the roles previously reserved for white people.
Adopting white values meant that you could be a great entertainer if you had the talent, a great athlete (as long as you didn't excel as a quarterback), a successful doctor, lawyer or businessperson in the black community, etc Actually, there weren't many etceteras. If you were black and your talents lay in architecture, art or automotive design, you were screwed. And those are just some of the prohibited fields that start with the letter A. It literally took an act of Congress to break the locks on those doors of opportunity for black people.
It took Ford Motor Co. decades to learn how easy it was to get around the law which was modified in 1991to make it even easier. Ford learned by its experience with devaluing its black salaried workers and winning a class action lawsuit against them that it could squeeze out all of its undesirable groups the same way. Thus, Ford lost loyal employees with the technical expertise to really make money for the company. Ford also lost people it did value, people who saw no future in being loyal to a company that no longer understood the meaning of the word loyalty.