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- Remembering 'Gen' - General Gordon Baker, Jr.
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What is your relationship to General Baker?
Gen is my dear cousin. My father’s mother was Gen’s father’s sister. Both families came to Detroit from Georgia, as Gen would say, from sharecropper stock, and settled in “Black Bottom” in Detroit in the 1940s. Throughout my life, Gen has been a mixture of cousin, brother, mentor, and friend and has always been deeply treasured and a guiding inspiration for my life.
Tell us a little bit about General, who he was and what he was about.
General was one of the most significant revolutionary to emerge in the 1960s. He was at the forefront of those Blacks who came to the industrial north--That first generation that was not subjected to Jim Crow. [They came] in search of a better life in the automobile capital. At an early age, he evidenced a high level of inquisitiveness and search for knowledge. The educational system underserved him. That became the key catalyst for him to seek out knowledge of his history and the struggles that came before him. At an early age he became an activist fighting to make his environment a better place. Some of his initial struggles focused on alleviating racism, particularly as it related to housing. He emerged as a youth leader in Detroit working with principal groups called UHURU (Swahili for "freedom"). General worked through organizations for most of his life and assumed a pivotal role in those organizations as a leader.
Early in his development he had an inclination to understand what was taking place globally. As an apprentice to James and Grace Boggs, he gained access to important international literature which allowed him to see similarities that existed throughout the world among those oppressed and seeking to acquire their full human rights. In “Detroit, I Do Mind Dying”, it is referenced that General was the soul of DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement). Here we have a man who worked in the pit of the auto plants, working in the blast furnace, an area of intense heat. Witnessing the brutal working conditions in the automotive plants, he began to organize workers [leading] to a Wildcat Strike in May of 1968 at Dodge Main, the Hamtramck assembly plant for Chrysler. Through his organizational acumen and charisma, 4,000 workers participated in the Wild Cat Strike that shut down Dodge Main and in doing so, 5 other plants around the country. General emerged on the world stage as a leader to be reckoned with. DRUM later amalgamated into a larger organization called the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in 1969.
In your own words, what are the defining qualities of General that you would look for in scholarship applicants?
It is very important to evidence a deep desire for research and continuous study about the history of struggle, globally, but particularly for the working class in Detroit. These individuals should have an inclination towards activism and social responsibility. They should think outside the box, and to have a deep concern for the other, and a selfless sacrifice for freedom, justice, and equality. Part of why General became an activist was because it bothered him to see things in the world that he did not learn in school. That is the kind of student that Gen would want.
Why do you see this scholarship as important?
There is no other scholarship honoring an agent of social change that exists in this country of the likes of the General Baker Memorial Scholarship. The life of General Baker, particularly his commitment to Detroit and Highland Park is a seamless fit with the mission of the University of Michigan Semester in Detroit. I think it’s very unique. I’m thrilled. The scholarship emerged from the call of students, it’s youth focused in terms of its origins.
What would you say to encourage others to give to the scholarship fund?
In these times, there is no better investment, no better use of resources than investing in the education of youth who desire to make this world a better place. It is an opportunity to continue to expand the legacy of General Gordon Baker Jr. who gave his heart and soul to the human rights struggle.