Black Legion (political movement)
The Black Legion was a secret vigilante white supremacist organization in the Midwest of the United States that splintered from the Ku Klux Klan and operated during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The white paramilitary group was founded in the 1920s by William Shepard in east central Ohio in the Appalachian region, as a security force known as the Black Guard to protect Ku Klux Klan officers. The Legion became active in chapters throughout Ohio. One of its self-described leaders, Virgil "Bert" Effinger, lived and worked in Lima, Ohio.
In 1931 a chapter was formed in Highland Park, Michigan, expanding to an estimated total membership in the state estimated between 20,000 and 30,000 by the mid-1930s during the Great Depression. Its members were generally native-born Protestant men, many who had migrated from the South. One third of the members lived in Detroit, which had also been a strong center of KKK activity in the 1920s. In May 1936 Charles A. Poole, a Works Progress Administration organizer, was kidnapped from home by a gang of the Black Legion and murdered in southwest Detroit. Authorities arrested and prosecuted a gang of twelve men affiliated with the Legion. Dayton Dean pleaded guilty and testified against numerous other members; ten others were convicted of the murder. Dean and the others were all sentenced to life in prison. One man was acquitted.
At the time of Poole's murder, the Associated Press described the organization as "A group of loosely federated night-riding bands operating in several States without central discipline or common purpose beyond the enforcement by lash and pistol of individual leaders' notions of 'Americanism'."
Dean's testimony and other evidence stimulated investigations and indictments into a series of other murders and attempted murders during the previous three years. Another 37 men of the Legion were prosecuted for related crimes, convicted and sentenced to prison terms. The trials revealed the wide network of Black Legion members in local governments, particularly in Highland Park, Michigan. Members included a former mayor, chief of police, and city councilman, in addition to persons in civil service jobs. Following the convictions, membership in the Legion dropped quickly; its reign of terror ended in the Detroit area.
The Black Legion was founded in the 1920s as a security force known as the Black Guard for Ku Klux Klan officers in eastern Ohio, and expanded to other areas. In 1931 a unit was founded in Michigan by Arthur F. Lupp, Sr. of Highland Park, who styled himself as its major general. The Michigan Legion was organized along military lines, with 5 brigades, 16 regiments, 64 battalions, and 256 companies. Its members boasted of one million Legionnaires in Michigan, but observers estimated it had between 20,000 and 30,000 members in the state in the 1930s. One third were located in Detroit, with many in Highland Park.
Like the KKK, the Black Legion was made up largely of native-born white men in the Midwest, many originally from the South, who had few skills to deal with industrial society and felt dispossessed. They resented having to compete with white immigrants and black migrants for jobs and housing in major cities such as Detroit. Their enemies list "included all immigrants, Catholics, Jews and blacks, nontraditional Protestant faiths, labor unions, farm cooperatives and various fraternal groups." Membership was concentrated in Michigan and Ohio. In the early 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan had undergone revival, with extensive membership in the Midwest urban areas by the 1920s, including Detroit, Cleveland and Indianapolis. A national leadership scandal in the mid-1920s resulted in membership dropping rapidly.
Black Legion members created a network for jobs and influence. In addition, as a secret vigilante group, the Black Legion members operated in gangs to enforce their view of society, sometimes attacking immigrants to intimidate them at work, for instance, or to enforce their idea of moral behavior. They generally opposed socialism and union organizing, and had a reputation for frequent violence against alleged enemies, whether political or social. From 1933 to 1936, they were rumored to be responsible for some unsolved deaths, which had been officially attributed to suicide or unknown perpetrators.
Murder of Charles Poole
On May 12, 1936, Charles A. Poole, a Works Progress Administration organizer, was kidnapped by a gang of the Black Legion, to be punished as an alleged wife beater. An ethnic French Catholic married to a Protestant woman, he was shot and killed that night by Dayton Dean. Wayne County Prosecutor Duncan McRea, who had been outed by the Detroit Times as a member of group, vowed to bring the killers of Poole to justice.
McRea prosecuted twelve men on charges of murdering Poole; Dean pleaded guilty and testified against his comrades. Ten other men were convicted, nine by a jury and one in a bench trial. One man was acquitted. Dean and the others convicted were sentenced to life in prison. Dean provided considerable testimony to authorities about other activities of the Black Legion. Prejudiced against Catholics and immigrants, he and his collaborators had never learned that Becky Poole, a blue-eyed blonde, had a great-grandfather who was African American.
Indictments of the Legion
Dean's testimony led the Prosecutor's Office to additional investigations, revealing numerous incidents of murder, violence and intimidation over a three-year period. They uncovered the far-reaching network of Black Legion members in local governments (for instance, N. Ray Markland was a former mayor of Highland Park), businesses and public organizations, including law enforcement. The Prosecutor indicted Black Legion members for the murder of Silas Coleman of Detroit. He was a black man found killed outside Putnam Township, Michigan on May 26, 1935. He was murdered nearly a year before Poole's abduction and murder.
Members were also indicted for a conspiracy to murder Arthur Kingsley, a Highland Park publisher of a community paper and candidate for mayor of the suburb in 1934. They planned to shoot him in 1933 because he ran against Markland, a Legionnaire politician. Sixteen Black Legion members were indicted in Kingsley's case, including "two factory policemen, a police officer, and several Highland Park city employees. At the time of his arrest Markland was employed as an investigator in the office of Wayne County Prosecutor McCrea." Nine members were convicted in this case, including Markland and Arthur F. Lupp, Sr., then a milk inspector for the Detroit Board of Health, and founder of the Legion in Michigan. According to testimony, the extensive network of Black Legion members in Highland Park included the chief of police and a city councilman.
It was learned that Mayor William Voisine of Ecorse, Michigan was a target; members of the organization resented his hiring blacks for city jobs. McRae prosecuted and gained convictions of 37 Legion members on these and related charges, beyond those charged in the Poole case. All received prison terms, markedly reducing the power of the Black Legion in Detroit and Michigan.
Other murders linked to the Black Legion were of labor organizers:
- George Marchuk, Secretary of the Auto Workers Union in Lincoln Park, was found dead on December 22, 1933, with a bullet in his head.
- John Bielak, an A. F. of L. organizer in the Hudson Motor Car Company plant who had led a drive for a wage increase, "was found riddled with bullets on March 15, 1934, on a road about ten miles from Monroe, Michigan."
The "arson squad" of the Black Legion confessed to the August 1934 burning of the farm of labor organizer William Mollenhauer, which was located in Oakland County (Pontiac). Members also described numerous plans to disrupt legitimate political meetings and similar activities.
The cases received international media coverage. For instance, an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on May 25, 1936, reported that the Black Legion were a secret society whose members practiced ritual murder:
A secret society that practices ritual murder, and is known as the Black Legion, has been discovered in Detroit. A number of its members are to be charged with murder. It ls believed by the police to be an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan, and to have more than 10,000 members. Its aim is to oppose negroes, Roman Catholics, and Jews.
Representation in other media
Hollywood, radio and the press responded to the lurid nature of the Legion with works that referred to it.
- Legion of Terror (1936) starred Ward Bond and Bruce Cabot, and was based on this group.
- Black Legion (1937), a feature film, starred Humphrey Bogart.
- True Detective Mysteries, a radio show based on the magazine of the same title, broadcast an episode on April 1, 1937 that referred directly to the Black Legion and Poole's murder.
- The radio show The Shadow, with Orson Welles in the title role, broadcast an episode on March 20, 1938, entitled "The White Legion"; it was based loosely on the Black Legion.
- Malcolm X and Alex Haley collaborated on the leader's The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965); he noted the Legion as being active in Lansing, Michigan where his family lived. Malcolm X was six when his father died in 1931; he believed the father was killed by the Black Legion.
- The TV series History's Mysteries presented an episode about the group entitled "Terror in the Heartland: The Black Legion" (1998).
- "The Murder that Brought Down the Black Legion", Detroit News, 5 August 1997, accessed 15 September 2015
- Rudolph Lewis (28 December 2011). "Black Legion: American Terrorists – FBI Investigation Files". ChickenBones: A Journal.
- AP, "Black Legion", 31 May 1936
- David J. Krajicek, "Wrongful murder in 1936 led Black Legion leader Dayton Dean's confession", New York Daily News, 29 May 2010, accessed 16 September 2015
- George Morris, "The Black Legion Rides", New York: Workers Library Publishers, August 1936, Internet Archive, accessed 16 September 2015
- Richard Bak, "The Dark Days of the Black Legion", Hour Detroit Magazine, March 2009, accessed 16 September 2015
- THe Black Legion Rides pp.18-19
- Michigan death records
- (AP) Associated Press, "Black Legion Heads Guilty", Cornell Daily Sun, Volume 57, Number 109, 3 March 1937, accessed 16 September 2015
- "SUMMARY. OVERSEA NEWS.". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 25 May 1936. p. 1. Retrieved 25 September 2013.
- "The Murder that Brought Down the Black Legion", Detroit News, 5 August 1997
- Richard Bak, "The Dark Days of the Black Legion", Hour Detroit Magazine, March 2009
- FBI FOIA page on the Black Legion, FBI, 23 June 2006
- George Morris, "The Black Legion Rides", New York: Workers Library Publishers, August 1936, Internet Archive, Communist pamphlet about the Black Legion in Detroit and Michigan