Black Legion (political movement)
The Black Legion was a Militia group and a white supremacist organization in the Midwestern United States that splintered from the Ku Klux Klan. It operated during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and according to historian Rick Perlstein, the FBI estimated its membership "at 135,000, including a large number of public officials, possibly including Detroit’s police chief." In 1936 the group was suspected of assassinating as many as 50 people, according to the Associated Press, including Charles Poole, an organizer for the Works Progress Administration. 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'."
In 1915, the release of D. W. Griffith's film, "The Birth of a Nation," spurred a revival of the Ku Klux Klan, but unlike the 19th century Klan, the new organization found followers nationwide. In particular, it expanded its influence into the industrial regions of the urban Midwest. Throughout the 1920s, cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Indianapolis saw a rise in Klan membership and activity, until a scandal in the national leadership caused membership to drop rapidly.
Initially, the Black Legion was part of the Klan. It was founded in the 1920s, in the Appalachian region of East Central Ohio, by William Shepard, who formed a paramilitary force called the Black Guard. Its original mission was to protect regional officers of the Ku Klux Klan. The Black Legion formed chapters all across Ohio, and it expanded into other areas of the Midwestern United States. One of its self-described leaders, Virgil "Bert" Effinger, lived and worked in Lima, Ohio.
Like the KKK, the Black Legion was largely made up of native-born white men in the Midwest, many of whom were originally from the South. Having been displaced from the culture and economy of the rural South, these men felt increasingly alienated as they were consigned to unskilled labor on the lower rungs of the industrial economy of major cities such as Detroit. They resented having to compete for jobs and housing with black migrants and Jewish and Catholic immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. 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.
Black Legion members created a network for jobs and influence. In addition, as a secret vigilante group, the Black Legion members operated in gangs in order to enforce their view of society, sometimes attacking immigrants to intimidate them at work, 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.
In 1931, a chapter of the Black Legion formed in Highland Park, Michigan by Arthur F. Lupp, Sr. of Highland Park who styled himself its major general. Throughout and perhaps fueled by the economic and social upheaval of Great Depression, the Black Legion continued to expand across Michigan until the mid-1930s, when its estimated membership peaked at between 20,000 and 30,000. In general, Black Legion members were native-born Protestant men, many of whom had previously migrated from the South. One-third of its members lived in the city of Detroit, which had also been a strong center of KKK activity in the 1920s. The Michigan Legion was organized along military lines, with 5 brigades, 16 regiments, 64 battalions, and 256 companies. It boasted a membership of one million Legionnaires in Michigan, but observers estimated that it only had between 20,000 and 30,000 members. One-third of them were located in Detroit, with many of them living in Highland Park.
Murder of Charles Poole
On May 12, 1936, Charles A. Poole, a Works Progress Administration organizer, was kidnapped from his home by a gang of Black Legion members. They claimed that Poole, a French Catholic married to a Protestant woman, beat his wife, and that they intended to punish him for it. Instead, he was shot and killed that night by Dayton Dean. Wayne County Prosecutor Duncan McRae, who had been outed by the Detroit Times as a member of the Black Legion, vowed to bring the killers of Poole to justice. 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'."
McRae 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.
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.
Other murders and indictments
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 was 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 is 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, starring Humphrey Bogart, was based on the events of the Charles Poole murder, though names and details of the case were changed for the film. It depicted the devastating impact of terrorist groups like the Black Legion on an ordinary American man, his family, his neighbors, and his coworkers. The National Board of Review named Black Legion as the best film of 1937, and Humphrey Bogart as the best actor for his work in the film.
- 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 his 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 TV series “Damnation” (2017) features the group.
- Perlstein, Rick (2017-04-11). "I Thought I Understood the American Right. Trump Proved Me Wrong". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-04-12.
- 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
- "The Murder that Brought Down the Black Legion", Detroit News, 5 August 1997, accessed 15 September 2015
- George Morris, "The Black Legion Rides", New York: Workers Library Publishers, August 1936, Internet Archive, accessed 16 September 2015
- AP, "Black Legion", 31 May 1936
- Richard Bak, "The Dark Days of the Black Legion", Hour Detroit Magazine, March 2009, accessed 16 September 2015
- Rudolph Lewis (28 December 2011). "Black Legion: American Terrorists – FBI Investigation Files". ChickenBones: A Journal.
- 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