The Battle of the Overpass




May 27,1937. Richard T. Frankensteen, U.A.W. organizational director, with coat pulled over his head, was brutally beaten at the gate of the Ford River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. The clash came three months after the UAW achieved its first landmark victory at Ford, when they had forced the company to negotiate a policy toward organized labor by staging a lengthy sit-down strike at the Rouge complex. Succeded largely because of Michigan Governor Frank Murphy, who protected the strikers’ right to bargain collectively, the labor agreement did little to change the day-to-day life of Ford workers. Henry Ford remained a vehement enemy of organized labor, and he began to build an increasingly muscular force of Ford officials charged with the job of maintaining discipline in the workplace.

The May 27th incident followed an attempt of the United Auto Workers Union to distribute leaflets to the workers leaving the plant and marked the first outbreak of violence in which 16 were injured including four leafleteers (Walter Reuther, Bob Kanter, J.J. Kennedy, and Frankensteen). Beating of Frankensteen occurred around 2:00 pm when Reuther and Frankensteen were asked by a Detroit News photographer, James E. (Scotty) Kilpatrick, to pose for a picture on the overpass, with the Ford sign in the background. The news photographers were the next target; many had their cameras, plates and holders broken, and others forced to flee beyond the city limits.

Kilpatrick was lucky. He hid the photographic plates under the back seat of his car, and surrendered useless plates he had on his front seat. The next day, news and photos of the brutal attack, the so-called ‘Battle of the Overpass’,  made headlines in newspapers across the country. All of America was witness to the primitive tactics with which Henry Ford subdued organized laborers. This publicity didn’t end Ford’s opposition to organized labor, but it made his eventual acquiescence inevitable. On the journalistic end, Kilpatrick’s photographs inspired the Pulitzer committee to institute a prize for photography.

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