Biographer of UAW labor leader to appear at BookFest

Ken Morris barely hung on to his life after a beating

Ken Morris barely hung on to his life after a beating

What better time to showcase the impact of organized labor on society than Labor Day 2014. Next week the Kerrytown BookFest will host Bob Morris who will talk about his recent book “Built in Detroit: A Story of the UAW, a Company, and a Gangster”. The legendary folk singer Pete Seeger performed and helped write the classic union organizing song “Talking Union” for men and women just like Ken Morris of Detroit. Seeger who died recently understood the hazards, the glories and frustrating paths followed by union organizers and his song was almost a primer for local organizers.

United Auto Worker (UAW) leader Ken Morris pretty much followed the song’s advice and the lyrics “they’ll raid your meeting hit you on the head” were almost prophetic for Morris who died in 2008. The elder Morris’ personal story is told by his son, Bob Morris, in the new book “Built in Detroit: A Story of the UAW, a Company, and a Gangster”.

The book tells the dramatic history of the formation of the UAW through the eyes of one worker, Ken Morris, who rose through the union ranks at Briggs Manufacturing in Detroit to become the President of Local 212 for seven years beginning in the late 1940s before being elected co-director of UAW Region 1 in 1955, a position he held for 28 years until his retirement. Region 1 was considered one of the largest and most influential UAW Regions in the country since it encompassed Detroit.

Kefauver hearings

Kefauver hearings

In his book, which was impeccably researched using the resources of the Walter Reuther Library in Detroit, the younger Morris also tells the story of how his father became very involved in Democratic Party politics which for the longest time was intertwined closely with the UAW.

Using stories his father told him and his brother older Greg growing up, Bob Morris is able to show how one man working for labor unity and equality could make a difference in the lives of everyday workers.  Since the elder Morris would work from sunrise to sunset six days a week, Bob and Greg’s mother insisted he spend time with them on Sunday so they would accompany their father on his day “off” to UAW meetings and political gatherings where as young boys were able to take in the operations of the union and its political ties. Along the way they would be introduced to men like the Brothers Reuther (Walter, Roy and Vic), Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, Martin Luther King and G. Mennen Williams..

Although they heard many stories about the early days of UAW organizing one story they didn’t hear was the day their father was beaten for his union activities by gangsters who were  for-hire corporate thugs in the tradition of Harry Bennett, Henry Ford’s anti-union enforcer at Ford Motor Company.

Ken Morris introducing John F. Kennedy

Ken Morris introducing John F. Kennedy

“As little kids you pick up things, but he never told Greg and I what happened,” Bob Morris said.

What happened is a vicious attack with a pipe or iron bar that left the elder Morris fighting for his life with two skull fractures, a broken wrist, arm and nose. It would take a long painful recovery. Morris’ beating was the fifth attack on Briggs union members in little over a year in 1946 and the Detroit newspapers began referring to the attacks as “The Terror.”

One particular grisly photo shows the grievously wounded Ken Morris in a hospital bed, his head swollen beyond recognition. If anyone is doubt the commitment of the early leaders of the UAW this photo, shot on-the-sly by a newspaper photographer provides ample proof of the brutality waged against unions.

Shortly after the attack on Morris, Walter Reuther was the victim of an attempted assassination which left him wounded. A year later Walter Reuther’s brother, Victor, was also targeted for an assassination and was seriously wounded by a shotgun blast.

Bob Morris said he spent a “year of his life” at the Walter Reuther Library researching details for the book.

“It is a gift to researchers,” he said.

After doing his research he would visit his father who at that time was in an extended care facility.

“I think he was pleased,” Morris said.

Morris like many of us didn’t really know much about his father‘s early life and that six oral histories his father completed before his death along with his father’s high school yearbooks helped provide him insight into who his father was as a young man.

“He was very active in everything at school and the inscriptions (in the yearbooks) helped form who he was,” he said.

One thing that Bob Morris learned, but not until he was in his forties, was his father had changed his name from Katz to Morris.

“He was not a religious guy and we had no idea he had a Jewish background,” Bob Morris said.

While still in his twenties Ken Morris had moved from Pittsburg to Detroit looking for work as door-to-door salesman. He soon found that a Wasp name resulted in more sales and he changed his name without ever looking back.

While researching the book, Bob Morris the extensive report issued by the Kefauver crime fighting committee fascinating helped put the era in perspective.

Few, today, except Labor historians remember Kefauver, but In 1951 Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee held hearings in 14 major U.S. cities including Detroit in order to ferret out the connections he believed existed between organized crime and business.  Among other things, the committee wanted to explore the relationship to gambling in auto plants some related to Harry Bennett and also the violence that had been perpetrated on labor leaders.

What the committee didn’t know at the time the hearings were scheduled was that a Grand Jury had investigated the “Briggs” beatings, but nothing had come from those investigations since the Judge had become convinced he would be “safer” in Florida.

The Grand Jury investigation had turned up connections between organized crime and Briggs and how organized crime had cut lucrative deals with Briggs and other companies in exchange for keeping “industrial peace” a euphemism for eliminating labor unions. In Detroit the hearings were televised live and Morris said if you watch those hearings closely they look like a scene from the gangster movie “On the Waterfront.”

The Kefauver findings would turn up the heat on the investigations of the attempted killings of the Reuthers, but as Bob Morris points out in the book the UAW through its involvement in paying a key witness muddied the investigation.

At the end of the book Bob Morris gives some details on his father’s efforts to build a progressive Democratic Party in Michigan and how he became an expert on unemployment compensation. One young politician who Morris supported was Jim Blanchard who went on to become a congressman and governor of Michigan. Both of the Morris sons later worked for Blanchard.

Bob Morris saved one of what he calls “his father’s proudest moments” for last: a photograph of Ken Morris introducing presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960, naturally on Labor Day.

Bob Morris, 62, works for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), and lives in Canton.

Ann Arbor Public Library hosts reception for exhibit on the Book Jacket competition

Book Jacket contest entry

Book Jacket contest entry

Join the Ann Arbor Public Library for a pre-BookFest reception for the upcoming 12th annual Kerrytown BookFest, 7 P.M.-8 P.m., Friday, September 5 at the downtown branch library, 3rd floor. The event includes elegant refreshments and exquisite music by harpist Deborah Gabrion. The reception marks the grand opening of The Art Of The Book, Kerrytown BookFest Exhibit at the Library which showcases entries from the BookFest’s 7th annual Book Cover Design contest for high school students. The exhibit and will be on display on the 3rd Floor of the Downtown Library through October 12. The contest, which was open to all Michigan High School students and was sponsored in part by the Michigan Humanities Council, asked the students to re-imagine a cover for a chosen book and give a visual interpretation of the written word. This year’s book was “Paddle-to-the-Sea, a Caldecott medal winning book by Holling C. Holling who was raised in Leslie Michigan.  This year’s BookFest features three modern-day Caldecott winners: Chris Raschka, Brian Floca and Eric Stead. Read more about the Book Cover contest here and here. Check out the covers of all the entries here. The program includes remarks by John Hilton, editor of the Ann Arbor Observer, who will discuss the 12th annual Kerrytown BookFest and provide an overview of the exhibit and the book design contest.  Robin Agnew, co-owner of Aunt Agatha’s and president of the Kerrytown BookFest will announce the contest winners. She will be joined by Nancy Shaw, local children’s author, and contest judge. The 12th annual Kerrytown BookFest, (, which will be held on Sunday, September 7,is an event celebrating those who create books and those who read them. The primary goal is to highlight the area’s rich heritage in the book and printing arts while showcasing local and regional individuals, businesses, and organizations. Since 2003, the BookFest has been growing, sharing, and discovering more and more about the rich book culture in this region. For more information on this event, call the Library at 734-327-4555 or visit our website at

12 reasons to attend the 12th annual Kerrytown BookFest

 kerrytown art

1. One “Baddass” writer from Traverse City (Mardi Jo Link, “From Broke to Badass”)

2. Free parking and free admission

3. Three Caldecott winners talk about illustrating children’s books

4. Four Graphic novelists make words jump from the page

5. Five Historical Romantic Suspense writers to keep you up at night

6. 100 vendors in the literary marketplace

7. Hands-on book making, drawing workshops and letterpress printing demos

8. Eight writers explore the deadly art of mystery

9. Four unusual memoir writers

10. Biographers, short story writers and an architect join Mother Goose in telling great stories

11. Eleven panels of authors and illustrators

12. Lots of free stuff


Panel discussion will explore Detroit’s past and its future

detroit resurgentThis year’s Kerrytown BookFest will feature a panel discussion on “The Art of the Comeback” about the city of Detroit’s remarkable path to what will become a new American city totally reinvented by its people.

Panel members include Yui Allen, Janet Webster Jones and Gary Wozniak (all featured in the new book “Detroit Resurgent” published by MSU Press. They will be joined by Bob Morris who has written “Built in Detroit” an amazing story of his dad’s leadership in the early days of the UAW. The panel will be moderated by MSU labor professor John Beck who also is one of the editors of “Detroit Resurgent”.

Not all summer reading necessitates a whisking away to exotic locales. “Detroit Resurgent” is a photography book by Parisian photographer Gilles Perrin and documentarian-interviewer Nicole Ewenczyk. The book showcases the portraits of more than 60 Detroiters taken by the world-class portrait photographer accompanied by poignant interviews by his partner.

The behind-the-scenes development of this book makes for a wonderful story all its own. Both Howard Bossen, an MSU photography professor, and John Beck, associate professor in the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations, had a hand in making this book a reality. They provided point-of-view essays, but what isn’t said is how they worked diligently to make an idea become a book.

The journey started in 1988 when Bossen met Perrin and Ewenczyk at the Rencontres d’Arles, an international photo show in France. Perrin does documentary photography cycles that are intimately associated with occupations. He uses a largeformat camera. His shoots are complex, requiring long setups. When Bossen ran into Perrin again in 2008 at the Houston FotoFest, he suggested Perrin and Ewenczyk visit Michigan for their next project. Bossen enlisted Beck, who coordinates the Our Daily Work, Our Daily Life program at MSU, to bring Perrin to Detroit to photograph Detroiters at work. But once the idea was laid out and the project unfolded, a new facet was added.

“This is too good — it has to be a book,” he said. That’s when MSU Press stepped up to be the publisher. The photographer spent three weeks shooting in Detroit in the summer of 2012.

“You just don’t walk into a General Motors plant and start shooting,” Bossen said. Although much of the shoot was planned, Bossen said Perrin likes to see “where the shoot goes.” The city may be bankrupt, but the book’s photos seem to say, its people aren’t. The people who will remake the city are among those in this book: Artists, musicians, small business owners, poets and those involved in the local food movement.

Beck contacted his old MSU friends Larry Gabriel and W. Kim Herron, former editor of Detroit Metro Times, to serve as guides, helping the editors identify potential photo subjects. The approach seems to have worked: The book’s photos represent an incredible cross section of Detroiters without resorting to boosterism — this is no Chamber of Commerce poobah hustle.

Gabriel, a journalist, writer and musician, was also enlisted to write an essay on Detroit for the book, jazzily titled “detroit dreams: no rust belt scene.” Herron was one of the subjects. The book, and its collection of stunning portraits of Detroiters is in a sense a modern-day adventure spanning two continents, two languages and a city that in everyone’s imagination says is on the brink of Armageddon. Not so, says Beck.

“The book is about the power of the people of Detroit and the power of their ideas and their passion for getting stuff done,” Beck said. “Everyone thinks there is a monolithic answer to Detroit’s problems, but the interviews and essays in the book show that the future of Detroit is being invented person by person.”

It can also be easily used as a travel guide for Detroit providing for a grand summer adventure. Bossen sees the book as unusual since it is not just an exquisite collection of portraits. They are paired with interviews, an essay and a poem. He also offers in his essay an intriguing look at documentary photography and the mind of a photographer.

“It really doesn’t fit any category (of photo book), but it does show an awful lot of people doing pretty amazing things at all levels of society,” Bossen said. “It clearly shows that the perception of Detroit does not extend to its people.”

All the 60-plus photographs in the book can be viewed at MSU’s Detroit Center in Midtown Detroit and the editors plan on a map detailing locations of the public places used in the book. The recently published book “Canvas Detroit” (Wayne State Press) offers up another way to look at Detroit and not just through the popular lens of ruin-porn photography. Editors Julie Pincus and Nichole Christian teamed up to explore more than 300 works of art in the city ranging from murals to a Banksy installation that was cut out of the Packard plant.

Perhaps stencil artist Nicole MacDonald describes the overall feeling of the book best when she says, “I’m really driven by an old Italian anarchist idea: Let your voice be heard and do it out on the street.”

And speaking of street art, world famous Detroit artist Tyree Guyton has been recreating abandoned homes into spectacular works of art for 27 years. In 2013, arsonists destroyed three of his homes, leaving only four of the original seven homes. But Guyton will not be hindered. He writes in the book, “My art is a medicine for the community.”

Expect something to rise from the ashes of Detroit.


Mystery writers will shine at this year’s Kerrytown BookFest

estlemanestlemanThe Kerrytown BookFest is like a magnet and each year, mystery writers from all over the country visit the BookFest to speak on panels, meet fans, and sign books.   This year the Bookfest is hosting two mystery panels with suspense and thriller writers and one with authors who write romantic suspense.

The suspense panel features Michigan treasure Loren D. Estleman.  The creator of the long-lived Amos Walker private eye series set in mostly in Detroit,  Estleman also is an award winning writer of Westerns, stand alone historical mysteries, and many other novels, more than 70 in all.

Estleman will be joined by Michael Harvey, whose private eye novels featuring Michael Kelley (The Chicago Way) are set in Chicago; and another Chicago based-author, Theresa Schwegel, who won the Edgar award for her first novel, Officer Down.  Her latest novel is The Good Boy.  Rounding out the panel is Michigan newcomer Elizabeth Heiter, whose first novel, Hunted, was published this winter.

The panel will be moderated by Detroit Noir editor E.J. Olsen.

The Romantic Suspense panel features New York Times Bestselling authors Tasha Alexander, who writes the Lady Emily Victorian mysteries (Behind the Shattered Glass) and Lauren Willig, whose series beginning with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is a fan favorite.

Joining these two veterans are newcomers  New Yorker Susan Elia MacNeal and Toronto based Simone St. James.  Ms. MacNeal writes the Maggie Hope series set during WWII (The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent) and St. James writes historical ghost stories (Silence of the Dead). Both writers have been nominated or have won several major mystery industry awards, including the Edgar for Ms. MacNeal and the Arthur Ellis for Ms. St. James.

The panel is moderated by historical mystery writer Anna Lee Huber (A Grave Matter) whose novels are set in 19th century Scotland.

Also if you get the opportunity extend congratulations to Jamie and Robin Agnew, proprietors of Aunt Agatha’s mystery bookstore. This past spring the Agnew’s were awarded The Raven by the Mystery Writers of America. The award is annually given to a non-writer who contributes the most to the genre.