The Fight for Justice

HUNGER MARCHERS head toward Dearborn and a fatal confrontation with police and Ford security men on March 7, 1932. Photo: Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University

The very first Buck Dinner cause was unemployment, both in its financial support and the efforts of the participants. Times being what they were, employment, hunger and workers organizing were high in the hearts of activists during the 1930s. As the labor movement developed Maurice Sugar and younger lawyers such as Ernest Goodman and George Crockett developed the emerging specialties of labor law, workers compensation and civil liberties.

These skills were sorely needed. In the 1930s and extending into the 1950s, the Dies Committee (which became the House Un-American Activities Committee) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation intensified their harassment of civil libertarians.
These pioneering legal minds also pursued defending African-Americans from unjust, racist charges, and eventually became strong legal supporters of the Civil Rights and peace movements during the 1950s and 1960s. The Buck Dinner distinguished itself by also being a financial supporter of these causes.

But back in the late 1930s, the rise of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy were also on the minds of many in the Buck Dinner community. When those countries supported Franco rebels in Spain, several of our own Detroit progressives volunteered to fight on the loyalist side. When 11 Detroiters were arrested and charged with conspiracy to recruit Americans for a foreign army in 1940, the NLG through Sugar and Goodman led the legal team that freed them.
As the cold war years came on, elements within the U.S. government used the specter of communism as an excuse to quell dissent, labor organizing, social protest and civil rights.

UAW organizer and Polish community activist Stanley Nowak.

An early target was Buck Dinner stalwart, UAW organizer and Polish community activist Stanley Nowak. He had been elected to the Michigan Senate in 1938 but was harassed for his progressive efforts and in 1942 charged with concealing his membership in the communist party when obtaining American citizenship. Public outrage led to dropping the charge, but in 1948 it was revived and Nowak was threatened with deportation. The long legal battle went all the way to the Supreme Court where attorneys Goodman and Crockett prevailed to save Nowak from deportation. 

The escalation of the Cold War in the 1950s led to the legendary excesses of McCarthyism. Hundreds of Detroiters were subjected to humiliation and harassment including many Buck Dinner participants. Though they mostly stood strong, it was prudent to maintain secrecy as to their involvement with the event. Some participants would solicit rides to the dinner from friends so the FBI would not record their car license plates. Their fears turned out to be well founded. Decades later when the Red Files were released, many found that their Buck Dinner participation had been noted as evidence of their “guilt.” 

As the McCarthy hysteria waned one of America’s oldest and most pernicious wrongs was more directly addressed by progressives: racism. Buck Dinner contributions went to a number of Civil Rights causes, including the Southern Conference Education Fund, the Tallahassee Bus Appeal, CORE, the NAACP and the Martin Luther King Vote Campaign.

A letter from Dr. King to the Buck Dinner reported that: “Our dedicated people are continuing to penetrate the remote backwaters of the south, organizing classes in literacy and citizenship for thousands who are braving every form of terror to practice democratic responsibility where even the federal government is largely powerless to aid them. Your aid keeps our workers in the field and symbolizes the unity of decent minded Americans with the deprived and oppressed.”

Peace efforts during the Vietnam War picked up in the 1960s. Students protested, draftees resisted, and people of goodwill answered the call to oppose the war. The ACLU and NLG were particularly active in this growing resistance. The ACLU funding application in 1965 stated: “Battles of national importance are shaping up. Selective Service Act violators need help … first amendment rights are being threatened … we intervened at Cass Technical High School to end the suspension of students for wearing black armbands in protest of our Vietnam policy.”

From the Vietnam War to wars against people’s movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador to the Nuclear Freeze movement in the 1980s, the Buck Dinner continued to support those who fight the just fight. Beyond war, in recent decades issues such as a clean environment and the rights of women and the aging have risen among progressive activists. 

Labor and civil liberties remain among the strong commitments of the Buck Dinner. The 1995 Detroit Newspapers strike, which ripped the community apart, was a point of solidarity for our community as the newspaper monopoly attempted to break the union. The Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions received direct aid in addition to the work of NLG lawyers who represented victims of police violence and those arrested at demonstrations.

In the beginning of the 21st century, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there was an all out attack on democracy. President Bush and his cronies used the attacks as an excuse for everything from the war in Iraq to the suspension of civil liberties, and from racist policies to denial of workers’ right to organize. 

Now as much as any time during the existence of the Buck Dinner, the community of those willing to fight for civil liberties, economic and social justice, and the rights of common people is needed.