By BILL McGRAW
Riddle sitting on steps: Daymon J. Hartley.
At various times
in his life Dave Riddle taught American history at Wayne State
University, drove car-hauling trucks from coast to coast,
wrote books, belonged to the Teamsters, played classical piano,
assembled truck motors, marched, picketed, rode a motorcycle,
tried to organize the working class and, with a sardonic sense
of humor, described himself as “a self-indulgent Leninist.”
life ended Saturday night, when Mr. Riddle, who had battled
Parkinson’s Disease for many years, died after a short illness.
He was 69 and lived in Detroit.
Mr. Riddle came to Detroit in 1969 with a master’s degree
from Berkley, a young intellectual firebrand interested in
a workers’ revolution. His life, not to mention his ideology,
evolved greatly over the years.
But no matter what
he was doing, he never stopped studying American society,
especially Detroit labor history, politics and culture, with
an eye toward making life more equal for poor and working
“This is not a
fair society and most people know that,” he told an interviewer
in the early 1990s. “And it has a lot to do with the way the
economy runs and the way people are divided from one another.”
Mr. Riddle’s interests
came together in his 2010 book, “The Color of Law: Ernie Goodman,
Detroit, and the Struggle for Labor and Civil Rights,” a meticulously
researched biography of the legendary Detroit labor lawyer
that Mr. Riddle wrote with two friends, Steve Babson and David
The title comes
from Goodman’s belief that police and other authority figures,
whether in Detroit or Mississippi, applied the “color of law”
to trample the rights of poor people and minorities.
“We’re really going
to miss him,” said George Corsetti, a friend and fellow activist
who accompanied Mr. Riddle to both demonstrations and the
Cadieux Café, where Mr. Riddle enjoyed black-and-tans
and the Tuesday night music. “He was a thoughtful person who
always had the assessment of the situation, whether in Detroit
Friends say Mr.
Riddle refused to let Parkinson's cramp his life. He remained
active in local causes until his recent illness, including
Occupy Wall Street and the fight against foreclosure evictions.
Richard David Riddle
was born in 1942 in Paris, Texas, and was raised in a middle-class
family in Kansas City, where his father owned a small civil
His first taste
of protest came at DePauw University in Indiana, when he and
fellow students picketed segregated fraternities during rush
“We nearly got
our asses kicked,” Mr. Riddle told Robert H. Mast, who included
an interview with Mr. Riddle in his 1994 book on local activists,
Mr. Riddle came
into contact with Karl Marx’s works while at DePauw, when
he wrote a paper about the confrontation between Marx and
Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist. He told Mast he read
Marx’s writings about the alienation of labor and how man
is an appendage of machines while he was tethered to a cattle-feed
processer in a corn-products factory, breaking up jams with
a high-pressured hose.
“I felt like there
was something to this guy Marx,” Mr. Riddle said.
Mr. Riddle received
an M.A. in Early Modern European History at the University
of California at Berkeley in 1966, just after the campus had
been roiled by the Free Speech Movement. He lived in what
had been an all-Asian rooming house and became radicalized
by fellow students who questioned the United States’ involvement
Burned out on California,
Mr. Riddle came to Detroit in 1969. Like many other well-educated
radicals who saw the city as a center for labor activism and
black liberation, Mr. Riddle perceived a role for himself
in helping to spark a revolution. He believed big labor was
as evil as big capital, and black leaders could do no wrong,
even if their actions appeared ill-founded and even corrupt.
Thirty years later, he acknowledged “there was real intellectual
arrogance” among activists like him at the time.
Mr. Riddle lived
in a commune on Avery Street, wrote for and delivered the
Fifth Estate weekly newspaper and worked for 18 months at
the Dodge Truck Plant in Warren, one of the many Detroit area
auto factories in the early 1970s buffeted by racial change
and radicalized young workers. He contributed to a newsletter
that attacked both the UAW and Chrysler Corporation, and was
fired for insubordination.
“He dropped a washer
on the floor and refused a foreman’s order to pick it up,”
recalled Millard Berry, a Dearborn-based photojournalist who
lived with Riddle at the time and also worked at the truck
At the commune,
Berry said, Mr. Riddle was much more accommodating. He was
perhaps the most principled of the many residents.
“Dave was always
into making it work politically and philosophically,” Berry
said. “He was very supportive of the women’s movement.”
for a few years in local community colleges, Mr. Riddle eventually
attended truck-driving school and in 1977 began driving car
haulers around the country. He became involved in the Teamsters
for a Democratic Union, which challenged the union’s notorious
By the early 1990s
Mr. Riddle was back in school, studying for a Ph.D in history
at Wayne State University and working as an administrator
for a program charged with distributing so-called “Red Squad”
files to people who had been placed under surveillance by
police for supposed Communist activity before and after World
To complete his
studies, Mr. Riddle wrote a 386-page dissertation that delved
into Warren and the phenomenon of “Reagan Democrats,” working
class voters who by 1980 had defected in large numbers from
Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson to Republicans. He investigated
the effects of the HUD controversy, the busing crisis and
Vietnam protests, among other issues.
the rise of the "Reagan Democrat" in Warren, Michigan?”
Mr. Riddle asked in his dissertation.
“Part of the answer
is the racial anxiety and resentment stemming from a long
and bitter history of competition over jobs and neighborhoods
with Detroit's black population. But race was not the only
factor. Liberalism was partly responsible for its own defeat
in Warren. Motivated by an idealistic vision, it dictated
social reform ‘from above.’ It also tended to preach.”
By 1995, Mr. Riddle
was teaching survey classes in modern American history at
WSU. He was a resourceful and provocative instructor, blending
recorded music and videos into his lectures. When discussing
the 1950s, he played scenes from “The Honeymooners,” Jackie
Gleason’s popular TV show, and asked the young students to
notice that the Kramdens and Nortons were both childless.
He then asked whether they thought their lack of progeny had
anything to suggest about the impotence of the American working
class of that era.
In the end, Mr.
Riddle said he wasn’t really a revolutionary, and he acknowledged
that he was mostly an observer, but, speaking to Mast, Mr.
Riddle described himself as an optimist, at least politically.
“I don’t feel weird
about my life,” he said. “As a mater if fact, that’s the source
of my political optimism. I don’t feel the least bit strange.
I figure if someone can come up the way I came up and end
up thinking what I think it must be possible because I’m not
Mr. Riddle is survived
by a daughter, Katie, to whom friends say he was deeply devoted.
He will be remembered at a memorial service at a future date.
be one of the few left who knew Dave when we were both rank
& file organizing in IBT Local 299 in the late 70's. He
hauled cars for Boutell, I did so for ATI. That was as members
of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) ( still thriving!).
Later Katie was a child in the WSU Merrill-Palmer outfit along
with our grandchild, Wilder. We would see him as we delivered
and dropped off kids.
We almost got in a fist-fight once at some kind of a dinner
at UAW Local 600.
Greetings from China (the East is (capitalist) Red),
I didn't know Dave very well during the years that I lived
in Detroit, but I did talk to him at a few of the parties
that we both attended. He struck me as a gentle and principled
soul with a crystal clear understanding of the world and how
it works. After each conversation with Dave, I always felt
that my understanding of the world had been remarkably enhanced.
May he rest in peace.
the values, the principles, and the vision of this gentle
warrior in your obit.
I didn’t know Dave in his early
years in Detroit, but in the last couple of decades I grew
to appreciate his
commitment and courage as I saw him refuse to let his Parkinson’s
get in the way of taking a stand at so many marches and demonstrations.
We will miss him.
Thanks for this, Bill. Dave was simply a great guy. I encourage
people to get a hold of the book Detroit Lives that you reference,
and to read the full interview with Dave. I had opportunity
to re-read it back in May and while it is some 20 years old
it still reverberates with Dave's principles, beliefs, and
a sense of self and humor about himself rather than self-importance.
I didn't say that as well as Dave Riddle could, but you get
the picture. Dave Riddle Presente!
Daymon J. Hartley
Thanks, Bill, for this great Obit....Dave will be missed....here
are several photos I have of Dave over the last several years.
eulogies about David, please place them here.