James Johnson - A Prologue

James Johnson on his way to arraignment in Recorder's Court.

On July 15, 1970, one of those midsummer days when the most important thing in town is the baseball game, a black auto worker named James Johnson entered the Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle plant of Chrysler Corporation with an M-1 carbine hidden in the pant leg of his overalls. The factory had been the scene of a series of bitter wildcat strikes for most of the year, and during a two-week period one female and one male worker had been killed from on-the-job accidents. The noise, oil pools, and defective machinery that characterized the plant were all around Johnson when he spotted one of the foremen who had been involved in his dismissal earlier that day. He took out his carbine, and before he was finished shooting, one black foreman, one white foreman, and one white job setter lay dead on the factory floor.

Few of the Eldon workers knew much about James Johnson. He was not identified with the militants of the Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement (ELRUM), the Wildcat group, or the Safety Committee. James Johnson didn’t even go to union meetings. He was one of those thousands of anonymous workers who spoke little and laughed less. He did not drink in the bars near the factory, and he was not a ladies’ man. James Johnson was a Bible reader, and his biggest source of pride was the small house he was buying for himself and his sister.

Some days later, word got around the factory that Johnson’s attorney would be Kenneth Cockrel. A few of the workers knew that Cockrel was on the seven-man Executive Committee of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; more had heard of him because of the New Bethel case, in which he had successfully defended members of the Republic of New Africa accused of shooting two policemen. Sympathy for James Johnson grew at the plant when workers learned that he had received a suspension the morning of the shooting after he had refused to participate in a work speed-up. Later, Eldon workers learned of other disputes involving lost pay and lost vacation time in which Johnson had been treated unfairly.

A few days after the shooting, ELRUM published a leaflet with the headline “Hail James Johnson.” The leaflet gave a brief biography of Johnson and went into detail about the various incidents leading to the fatal events of July 15. ELRUM blamed the deaths squarely on working conditions at Chrysler and on Johnson’s lifetime experience as a victim of racism. ELRUM argued that Chrysler had pulled the trigger and the United Auto Workers (UAW) was an accessory after the fact. Similar leaflets favorable to Johnson appeared as far away as the General Motors plant in Fremont, California, and the Ford plant at Mahwah, New Jersey.

The judge for the James Johnson murder trial was Robert Colombo, formerly an attorney for the Detroit Police Officers Association. The preceding year, Ken Cockrel, assisted by Justin Ravitz, one of his law partners, had challenged the jury selection which had resulted in an all-white jury for the New Bethel case. Cockrel and Ravitz had argued that given that the New Bethel case involved racial violence in a city with a black majority, the defendants, who were all black, were being denied a jury of their peers as guaranteed in the constitution. In the Johnson case, Cockrel, again assisted by Ravitz, argued that the criteria for a jury of Johnson’s peers involved class as well as color. The final jury was just what Cockrel wanted. It was sexually and racially integrated. Ten of the twelve jurors had had direct work experience in the city of Detroit, two were auto workers themselves, and three were married to auto workers.

The defense's presentation was complex. Johnson's relatives and friends came from Mississippi to testify about his boyhood in one of the backwater regions of America. They told all the familiar Southland horror tales. These included an account of how a five-year-old James Johnson had seen the dismembered body of his cousin on a highway following a lynching. The jury learned that Johnson had enlisted in the Army, only to be discharged for psychological problems. They learned the details of a work history in which an inferior education and racism led from one poor job to another in a pattern characterized by emotional outbursts and threats from both Johnson and various employers. They learned, too, that Johnson had finally found a steady job at Eldon, where he had worked for three years, supporting members of his family as well as himself. His attorneys presented evidence that Eldon was one of the most dangerous plants in the United States and that the UAW was unable or unwilling to protect workers on the shop floor. As a climax to the defense, Cockrel took the entire jury to the scene of the crime so they could judge conditions for themselves.

When the jury found James Johnson not responsible for his acts, an irate Judge Colombo called a press conference at which he released a letter he was sending to the Ionia State Hospital. The letter recommended most vehemently that Johnson he kept in custody for the rest of his natural life. Judge Colombo stated that it was his opinion that if Johnson were ever released he would kill again.

On November 2, 1972, Justin Ravitz was elected to a ten-year term as a judge of Recorder's Court, Detroit ’s criminal court, thus becoming a colleague of Judge Colombo. His election indicated popular support for the legal principles advanced in the New Bethel case, the Johnson case, and other well-publicized judicial battles involving Cockrel and Ravitz.

On May 12, 1973, James Johnson, represented by Ron Glotta, a white lawyer who was a member of the radical Motor City Labor League, was awarded workman's compensation for the injuries done to him by Chrysler. The courts ordered Chrysler to pay Johnson at the rate of $75 a week, retroactive to the day of the killing.

At the end of 1970, the year in which James Johnson had reached his breaking point, the huge Goodyear computer, located where the Chrysler Expressway intersects the Ford Expressway, indicated that car production for the year reached a total of 6,546,817. In Solidarity House, the international headquarters of the UAW, the research department records showed that injuries in the auto factories that year exceeded 15,000 with an unknown number of deaths. The Detroit Tigers had completed their 1970 season with 79 games won and 83 lost to finish fourth in the Eastern Division of the American League.