07/03/2011 04:47 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2011

Memories of Flint, Part 1

I am from Flint, Michigan and am proud of it. I would not have wanted to grow up anywhere else.

Founded in 1855 as a lumber-milling town, Flint had a population of over 200,000 by the time my family moved there in 1963, when I was ten. In 1977, the year that I left, close to 80,000 of its citizens worked for General Motors. It was where GM was founded. Our small but feisty community in the heart of Michigan, surrounded by forests and lakes, manufactured the cars in which Americans traveled and the appliances that made life easier.

Flint created livelihoods for many thousands of people while being the most important manufacturing center in the world, the Flint River making it easy to transport supplies. During the 1940s, many people from the South -- black and white both -- moved to Flint, and it grew to cover almost 40 square miles. Factories replaced farms until, in the early 70s, there were dozens of enormous plants.

Most of the facilities were dirty and loud and, until the 1970s, hazardous as well. Weekdays at 3 p.m., sirens would sound and thousands of men would stream out from fortress-like walls and drive home in newly-bought cars -- almost all Buicks or Chevrolets -- while the next shift would pass them from the other direction on their way to work. Our homes were neat and clean -- two or three bedrooms -- with multiple cars and a snowmobile out front. The General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) was one of the top engineering and management schools in the country, and every student put in a period of work-study at a local GM plant. The public schools were training grounds for the factories, and were tough and disciplined, with some of the best classroom teachers I ever saw, and the worst.

My father would visit the plants once a month, looking for safety violations. Tagging along with him was a highlight of my life. Flint meant character; you were either strong or you were defeated. We would stand and watch the cars come down the assembly line, being washed and buffed over that last ten yards. I remember my father saying: "Look what we build here -- cars and trucks for the world!" We would pretend to monitor the line's progress with a stop watch and the men would laugh and cheer at us, as they kept bending the metal and installing the windows -- assembling the cars that made us all money. Being given a Chevrolet T-shirt signed by the workers as we were leaving was a wonderful and memorable moment for me.

The schools were assembly lines for the factories. In our Career class, the teacher hung a large organizational chart, entitled Buick Factory, reflecting his 15 years there in mid-level management. If we did poorly in class, he would send us up to the chart with a piece of green tape and we would have to put it on "the factory floor": "And that is where you are going to end up, Steve!" he would shout. When someone did well in record keeping, he would go up and put a piece of red tape on the "accounting" section of the diagram. "You did great Josh. You will make a great accountant!" This teacher would put his class pets in upper management, symbolized by gold stars. Then we would play a game, in which all the Greens (the workers, like myself) would negotiate against the Golds, with the Reds acting as the judges. It was a great lesson on corporate America.

Hard work was the glue that held our community together. Socially, it was divided into three fairly distinct groups: the well-to-do families that lived on Parkside Avenue and in the suburbs of Davidson and Grand Blanc; the working-class people of Flint, who lived everywhere else (but always near the factories); and the small business owners who ran the restaurants, tool-and-die shops, operated lawn-care services, and who lived through-out the community. Blacks and whites lived near each other but not in the same neighborhoods.

My town also played a significant role in the labor union movement. The 43-day sit-down strike of December 30, 1936 to February 11, 1937 took place only a mile from where I grew up. This episode has been documented in the film, With Babes and Banners. The eventual victory of the strikers insured the unionization of American auto manufacturing, and provided inspiration to workers in other industries. The fledgling United Auto Workers union knew that GM management had spies in their ranks and so occupied Fisher plant #1 without warning, sat down on the floor and refused to leave, making operations impossible. This facility made crucial dies for most lines of GM cars.

The local police acted for management and tried several times to remove the strikers, with bloody consequences. In one famous element of the conflict, strikers' wives broke factory windows so that police tear gas would escape and lose its effectiveness. The newly elected governor of Michigan, Frank Murphy (later appointed to the Supreme Court), deployed the National Guard -- to protect the workers from the violence of the police and company strikebreakers. He refused to use the soldiers to remove the strikers.

On February 1, strikers also occupied Chevrolet plant #4, and this crippled GM's production. On the 11th, capitulated in a terse, one-page document. Within six months, the UAW had a hundred thousand members. The result of this violent interlude was a management-labor partnership that soon made Flint one of the wealthiest cities in America. At one time, all Chevrolets and Buicks were made in Flint. Along with Detroit and Dearborn, Flint ruled the American auto industry, which was foremost in the world.

My mother was a special education teacher at Flint Northern and taught a year-long course on the sit-down strike of 1936-37. It was her specialty. She would travel all over the city making her presentation, using slides from newspapers and other visuals to explain to working-class kids their heritage. She had a unique moral to the story: Start your own business; be the employer, not the employee -- you can better help the working class that way. And remember: your always in business for yourself.Those lessons were to stay with me.

She taught me about fairness, too. My boyhood hero was Mark Whitaker, whose father was a big executive in town. Mark was perfect -- straight A's in school; the state champion in the pole vault, and charismatic. He was wrestling for the city championship against one of my mother's students -- a Deshaun Smith, a kid from foster care. I was rooting for Mark at the dinner table. My mother looked at me and said: "Oh, and if Mark wins, what does Deshaun have?" I never forgot that cheering on a child that never had anything was noble.

This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two here.