A Labor of Love


By Herb Gunn

Editor, The Record

Episcopal Diocese of Michigan



Ministry--whether engaged in by clergy or the laity--should be defined less in terms of what people do inside of the church and more in terms of what the church does inside of them. Whether on the street or the factory floor, ministry is how Christians live out their faith and at what point they respond to an injunction to put their lives on the line for other people.


It is sometimes, but not necessarily, heroic. And it is too often and too easily forgotten.


One such story will surface again in September in the form of a jazz opera and it is must-see theater for anyone who wants to understand Detroit and the high costs of high principles.


This is the story of Methodist Pastor Lewis Bradford who associated himself with Central Methodist Church as well as the plight of the Depression-era urban poor of Detroit. But it was long before that vocation when Bradford was imbued with a conviction for justice.


His abolitionist parents met while working in Mississippi with the Methodist Church Freedman's Aid Society. They were teaching freed slaves to read and the Ku Klux Klan once surrounded his mother's school for two weeks and didn't allowing anyone to leave.


For four years in the mid-1930s, Bradford lived in Detroit where he  worked with the Howard Street Mission along with a close friend and social activist named Allen Brett. Brett's father-in-law, Bishop Charles D. Williams of the Diocese of Michigan and St. Paul's Cathedral, was often called the "Red Bishop" due to his support of labor and the autoworkers. Williams was also a close friend and pastor to Henry and Clara Ford.


Bradford anchored a radio broadcast in the era of Father Charles Coughlin, the Detroit-based "Radio Priest" whose populist-turned-anti-communist crusade incited an audience in the tens of millions. Attracting far less public attention, Bradford's weekly radio program called "The Forgotten Man's Hour" featured interviews with the unemployed and dispossessed of Detroit.


Bradford also called for racial harmony in an era when the challenge was considered subversive.


Long before the auto-workers formed a union, Bradford took a specific plan to the Ford Motor Company for a rapprochement between labor and management. Reportedly, Henry Ford himself suggested that before he could consider the initiative, called the Detroit Institute for Human Relations, Bradford should work in Dearborn's Rouge plant for a year. By the end of a year, in February 1937, the workers at the General Motors plant in Flint had won the right to form a union.


In September of that year, 75,000 workers--or 85 percent of the work force--at the Ford Rouge plant were laid off, an act seen by many as an attempt to crush union organizing.


In November, the political atmosphere was charged and a tide of pro-labor sentiment was turned back in local elections. Bradford became an even more outspoken advocate for the poor and homeless of the city. He organized the League of a Thousand Men, the purpose of which, according to news clips at the time, was "to mobilize the Christian men in the automotive industry for Christ."


That same month, Bradford attempted to arrange a face-to-face meeting between Henry Ford and Muriel Lester, a socialist from England and the founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Lester was an outspoken critic of the close relationship U.S. industrialists like Henry Ford maintained with the Japanese and German governments.


Two days later, on November 27, Bradford sustained a fatal head injury while working inside the Rouge plant.


When the unconscious Methodist minister died a few days later in the Henry Ford Hospital, some wondered what couldn't be asked out loud at the time; was it an accident or murder?


Bradford's great-nephew Steve Jones, a jazz musician, has set the story--and the question--to music. Sponsored by the Michigan Labor History Society, "Forgotten: The Murder at the Ford Rouge Plant" will show on September 9-11 at the Millennium Centre in Southfield. The proceeds from the tickets will support the Michigan Labor Legacy Project and can be purchased through the theatre box office at 248/796-5198.


Come learn a little history of the city and what a labor of love cost one minister who spoke out for social change.