Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Michigan Homegrown Terrorism of the 1930s--The Black Legion

I like to think I am well-versed in Michigan and Detroit history, but it wasn't until I recently read Tom Stanton's Terror in the City of Champions that I learned of the Black Legion, a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan. The original group called the Black Guard was founded in the mid-1920's as a security force for Ohio Klan officers.

After being kicked out of the Klan for establishing a fiefdom, Dr. Billy Shephard from Lima, Ohio, further radicalized the group. They became the Black Legion, an even more ruthless and reckless organization than the Klan. In 1931, a Michigan regiment was established by Arthur Lupp of Highland Park.

From there, Virgil "Bert" Effinger began to reorganize the group throughout the Midwest and became the group's spokesperson. Every new member had to repeat an oath "In the name of God and the Devil." They were given a .38 caliber bullet cartridge and told another one had their name on it if they violated their vow of secrecy.

Some people were tricked into joining by friends or family and soon discovered they were in over their heads. High-ranking officers wore black capes with gold trim and brandished weapons openly. The legion expanded aggressively through deception, threats, and brutality. Beatings and torture were used to keep errant members in line.
Policemen display captured Black Legion vestments and the tools of their trade.

The Black Legion boasted having over one million members nationwide. At its height in Michigan, there were 5 brigades, 16 regiments, 64 battalions, and 256 companies. Law enforcement estimated membership at 20,000 to 30,000 statewide. The Detroit area had 10,000 members. Michigan State Police investigator Ira Holloway Marmon discovered Black Legion strongholds in Highland Park, Ecorse, Wyandotte, Lincoln Park, Saline, Monroe, Irish Hills, Pontiac, Flint, Saginaw, and of course, Detroit. Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio had active chapters also.

Their members were primarily angry, white, Anglo-Saxon males who were transplants from the South during the boom years of the auto industry in what history marks as the Great Migration. Whites and blacks with little or no industrial skills flooded into Detroit heeding Henry Ford's clarion call, "Jobs at $5 a day." Competition for work was fierce in the 1920s, but during the Great Depression, people were killed over jobs.

The legion was frustrated by the economic and social instability of the 1930s. They felt alienated by Detroit's industrial landscape. One of their core beliefs was that Anglo-Saxon Protestants were being pushed aside in America because foreigners [Catholic and Jewish immigrants] and blacks were taking their jobs--jobs they believed they were entitled to.

Being in the legion made members feel connected with something larger than themselves. Membership for many people increased their self-esteem and sense of white supremacy. They absolutely believed race mixing was destabilizing the American way of life leading to social degeneracy.

Legionnaires widened the scope of their wrath to include terrorizing and often murdering welfare recipients, labor union organizers, and political opponents. Probably more than anything else, the Black Legion hated socialists and communists. The legionnaires were an early Let's make America great again! movement. But theirs was a secret terrorist society.

Using fronts like the Wayne County Rifle and Pistol Club [members honed their shooting skills in the club's backroom firing range] and the Wolverine Republican Club [where thinly disguised rallies and gatherings were staged], Legion-approved speakers would rail against their perceived enemies and rally the faithful. New recruits would hear lengthy diatribes whipping the crowd to a frenzy of hatred.

The legion provided easy answers to the complex questions of their day. One of their political fliers read, "We will fight political Romanism [Catholics], Judaism [Jews], Communism [Socialists], and all 'isms' which our forefathers came to this country to avoid," all the while wrapping themselves in the American flag. 

Charles Poole
Works Progress organizer Charles Poole [22 year old Catholic] was shot five times at point blank range in Dearborn Township on May 13th, 1936. A number of key Legion members were arrested and convicted.

Investigators uncovered the organization's propaganda, their enrollment records, some Black Legion robes and hoods including the tools of their trade--guns, bludgeons, blackjacks, and whips. Dayton Dean was convicted of being the trigger-man in Poole's death. Once on the stand, Dean sang like a canary.

For more details on the Black Legion, view this link: http://www.veteranstoday.com/2012/11/28/history-the-black-legion-where-vets-and-the-klan-met/

In 1937, Warner Bros. Pictures made a movie about the Black Legion starring Humphrey Bogart. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0027367/