At 35,000 feet, northbound up the Mississippi River Valley, the roads below appear as footpaths running beyond the eye's reach. They are paved, of course, but many of them served as migratory trails that carried millions of southerners north of the Mason-Dixon to work in the car factories and steel plants of the Post World War II automotive boom.
The Dixie Diaspora was composed of African-Americans and low income whites leaving the uncertainty of farming for a regular paycheck on assembly lines in factory towns like Flint, Detroit, Saginaw, and countless other Midwest cities now derisively referred to as The Rust Belt. African-Americans, of course, were motivated by both the economic considerations of farm labor and the additional aspiration of less racism.
The car industry made America the planet's economic power and the people who stood the line and bolted on tires and dropped engines onto chassis and snapped on fancy trim are the workers who carried the country on their back. After fighting to save the world from oppression, they took up the fight for fair wages, health care, and retirement pensions and built history's greatest labor movement.
My parents, a sharecropper father from Mississippi and an immigrant mother from Newfoundland, were forced to abandon the land of the South for the line of the North. Daddy came home from the war hoping to farm but sharecropping was a modern form of indentured servitude and indoor plumbing and electricity had great appeal for my Ma. When a boyhood pal rolled into the cotton patch in a new Buick he bought with his wages from a job at Fisher Body in Flint, my parents destinies were altered.
Daddy had about $680 after the last season's cotton had been sold and he bought four bus tickets to Flint after getting a promise that our family could sleep on the floor of a friend's apartment. They arrived on a Saturday and Monday morning Daddy went and stood in a line outside of the Buick Motor Division Plant #36 and his farm boy muscles got him a job doing heavy lifting. He had dreamed of growing long rows of cotton and corn and riding horses and fishing in Mississippi but he was going indoors away from the sun.
"We all did what we had to do, buddy boy," he told me. "They was good jobs and it was how I'd could take care a y'all."
He still had a great struggle. There was never enough money to make the mortgage payment, buy school clothes and groceries, or pay for a broken down old car. Ma took a job as a waitress at burger joint. Her dreams of America came from the handsome soldier in uniform on the street in front of her house in St. John's, Newfoundland. She had seen Gone with the Wind and thought she was going to the South to live on a grand plantation where waiters would serve her cool drinks and she would glide around in hoop skirts and her gallant husband would command his far estate on horseback. Instead, she lay in bed at night and watched the stars roll through the roof cracks in their sharecropper's shack and worried she had made the most important decision of her life at age seventeen and it was irredeemably wrong.
Waiting tables was better than sharecropping. But not much. They had six kids now and the car plant took care of them in a way that was not possible on the farm. But the work broke Daddy. He missed the land and the sky and animals. The noise of the line and the greasy windows of the factory were not an adequate substitute for the life he had dreamed. But he joined the union and walked the picket lines in the brutal Michigan winter for health care and better wages. He watched other people driving around in new cars he had helped to build but he could never afford to own. A million little worries and a dozen big troubles in a cold, gray place without family nearby caused him to fall to pieces. He spent time in an institution and when he was cured he had nothing to look forward to other than going back on the line. But the automobile industry gave him possibilities he was not able to find anywhere else with his tenth grade education.
He would not know what to make of what happened to the car and truck business. The idea that GM and Ford or any of the big names might be on the verge of bankruptcy would be incomprehensible to my father. How could that happen when the UAW built the cars that were designed and the American public gladly purchased them? Consumers wanted SUVs and they came off the line, until the price of gas hit $4.00 a gallon and suddenly Detroit was left with shining, glorious dinosaurs. Is that the workers' fault?
There are an estimated three million supply jobs connected to auto manufacturing in the U.S. and they will disappear if Michigan takes another financial hit. The executives have money in the bank and they will be okay but the men and women who stood the line and built the vehicles have fewer resources. Their unions have protected them some and provided benefits and pensions and good wages but the second and third generations of autoworkers may witness the collapse of what their parents and grandparents built. There will be a rush to blame this on the unions and the workers on the line but they did not make the strategic business and marketing and design decisions. They simply did their jobs and tried to get their share of a fat pie.
Things are quite bad, though. There is little left of my hometown of Flint. The city looks even grimmer than it does in Michael Moore's documentaries. Unemployment in Michigan is about ten percent officially but almost everyone seems to be looking for work and no one knows how many have simply given up and left. As much of this city seems to be deserted as it does occupied. The car and truck plants are hardly operating and many are simply shutting down. Residential neighborhoods, once bright with new paint and well-kept lawns, are rundown and weedy. People wonder what is going to happen and if anyone will be smart enough to know how to correct what has gone wrong.
In the little coffee shop where my mother used to work near the Chevrolet Truck Plant, three teenagers were sipping coffee in the early afternoon. The stools and tables were otherwise empty. The tiny restaurant used to bristle with business as the shifts changed at the factories and people came by from the businesses that thrived in the shadows of the factory walls. The 25 year old who owns the coffee shop now is displaying a kind of forced optimism.
"We're doing okay," he said. "We just don't know what comes next."
Nobody does, I thought. But once this grim place was the most alluring in America and led the country with ideas and jobs and technology and people gave up their old lives and family histories to come here and be a part of the boom. The engine of the world was built here.
And it is hard to believe we are simply going to let it run out of gas.