WSW: When the Red Scare Came to Kalamazoo

May 2, 2018

Workers machine parts for reels at the Shakespeare Company in this 1936 photo.
Credit Kalamazoo Public Library Local History Room

Workers at Kalamazoo's Shakespeare Company walked off the job in September 1948, but a couple of months later, the sporting-goods maker had made no concessions. That's when a "flying squadron" of strike supporters arrived from Detroit.

"They ransacked the company offices," says historian Tom Dietz. They also overturned cars downtown and got into scuffles. 

One lawmaker saw the disturbance as much more than one day of unrest. He saw it as proof that communism had come to the Paper City, and he demanded that Congress investigate.

Dietz will tell the story of "Red Terror in Kalamazoo," Thursday May 10 at 7 p.m. at the Kalamazoo Public Library downtown. He previewed the talk in an interview with West Southwest.

Kalamazoo's relationship with the labor movement

Kalamazoo was not a particularly strong union town, Dietz says.

"Part of it had to do with its size, part of it had to do with kind of a longstanding - this is my opinion - a longstanding tradition of kind of a benevolent paternalism, 'we take care of our workers here,'" he said.

Some paper mill workers belonged to American Federation of Labor Unions, which "tended to be far less militant" than those organized by the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The AFL and CIO did not merge until the 1950s.)

The "flying squadron"

The steelworkers who came from Detroit to support the strike would have had a three-to-four hour journey on the roads at the time, according to Dietz. They assembled in Galesburg, then launched their action in Kalamazoo early in the morning.

"They proceed to overturn cars, ransack offices, there's scuffles and some injuries and then they disappear," Dietz said.

"Of course that action alone is terrifying to a lot of people, because by the time this is happening of course, the Red Scare is starting to pick up, the fear that communism is everywhere, the Cold War has kicked in."

"Red Terror"

U.S. Representative Clare Hoffman of Allegan saw the incident in Kalamazoo as proof of a communist presence in Kalamazoo. Politically, Dietz says Hoffman was "at the very least, on the far fringe" of the Republican Party. 

"He's the one who saw the 'communist conspiracy' and promised that he was going to hold hearings," Dietz said.