John Watson: Sought to better black workers' lives
November 21, 2001
BY BILL MCGRAW
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
John Watson lived quietly as a program analyst for the past 20 years, but
three decades ago, when Detroit was at its most turbulent, he was seldom far
from the action.
Mr. Watson, who died Friday of a heart attack at age 57, was a founder of
the legendary League of Revolutionary Black Workers; an editor of Wayne
State University's then-radical newspaper, the South End, and a promoter of
black economic development.
"John was an institution builder for African Americans at a time when it was
really needed," said Ron Scott, a longtime community activist.
In 1969, Mr. Watson and other militants, including the late Ken Cockrel,
founded the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. The umbrella organization
united the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) at Dodge Main and the
so-called RUMs at other plants. The group protested plant conditions and
racism within the auto companies and the UAW.
The league had a radical agenda, a global outlook and a flair for getting
attention. During protests, marchers chanted: "UAW means you ain't white."
Members advocated black power and worker control of factories. As a
journalist, Mr. Watson pushed the league to spread its message through the
media. He also helped to produce "Finally Got the News," a documentary on
Detroit's radical black workers that today is considered a classic from that
"I want to emphasize that education and knowledge are the most powerful
tools that we have available in engaging in the struggle to make a better
world," he told a gathering in 1971. "It is through the control of knowledge
that the ruling class maintains its power."
With Mr. Watson at the helm in 1968-69, the South End's radicalism often put
it at odds with the Wayne State administration. The newspaper's masthead
carried the images of two black panthers and the slogan: "One
class-conscious worker is worth 100 students."
The first editorial under Mr. Watson's direction declared: "The South End
returns to Wayne State with the intention of promoting the interests of
impoverished, oppressed, exploited and powerless victims of white, racist
monopoly capitalism and imperialism. . . . We will take the hard line."
In the 1975 book "Detroit: I Do Mind Dying," authors Dan Georgakas and
Marvin Surkin wrote: "His term as editor proved to be one of the most
successful examples in the late sixties of how a black could lead a
principled coalition of black and white forces struggling with a major
Although Mr. Watson in recent years was no longer the activist of his youth,
his wife, Paula Watson, said he remained interested in politics and black
affairs. Shortly before he died, Mr. Watson was analyzing the situation in
"He was a fighter. He definitely left a legacy," Paula Watson said.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Watson is survived by three children,
Christopher, Kendra and Nadja; a stepson, Steven; his mother, Carol Ann; a
sister, and a brother.
A funeral service will be at 11 a.m. today at the Barksdale Funeral Home,
1120 E. State Fair, Detroit. Burial will be in Detroit Memorial Park East.
Contact BILL McGRAW at 313-223-4781 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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