Because in retrospect we know that fascism never took in the United States, we are likely to overlook aspects of the American experience that nurtured what might well be described as protofascist proclivities: our hardy nativist tradition, from the Know-Nothings to the second Ku Klux Klan, cultivated attitudes that strikingly paralleled many of the characteristics of European fascism during the interwar period.
The goal of this article is to explore the relationship of American nativism to would-be fascism by examining the dynamics of the failure of the one sizeable nativist organization that made the transition to something approaching fascism. (Amann, 1983, p. 490)
Amann, P. H. (1983). Vigilante Fascism: The Black Legion as an American hybrid. Society for Comparative Study of Society and History, 25(3), 490-524.
Thus begins Amann’s analysis of the Black Legion during the 1930s. What brought me to examine this topic was a chance finding in a 1936 paper:
Who, or what, was the Black Legion? What did the words White Legion mean under the line? Why was it sent to the Detroit police? What I would find bears a strong resemblance to an article in the Washington Post, September 5, 2020: White House directs federal agencies to cancel race-related training sessions it calls ‘un-American propaganda’: Administration seeks lists of contracts for those that refer to ‘white privilege,’ according to memo (Dawsey & Stein). The recent release of Trump’s Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping issued September 22, 2020 only further reinforces the ignorance of history and long-standing efforts to combat racism, discrimination, sexism, and all the other isms that have been part and parcel of history–not just in the United States but in countries and nations world wide.
The 1936 letter “printed in human blood” was mailed from New York to the Detroit police, warning them in letters “half an inch high” and signed the White Legion (White Legion now warns while ‘Cult’ is on run, May 30, 1936, The Mercury, p. 2). The Black Legion was exposed when 13 members were arrested on charges of kidnapping and murder. The Michigan governor stated:
“This assault upon the rights of free citizens is the more abominable because it seeks to wrap itself in the American flag and to hide its crimes behind the Constitution of the United States” (Black Legion Members Give Hoods to Fire: Michigan Terrorists Reported on Run as Governor Denounces Society, May 30, 1936, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, the Evening News, Wilkes-Barre Record, p. 1 ).
It took delving into the scholarly literature to understand who the Black Legion was, although the identity of the White Legion was never clear, at least, not from what I have discovered thus far. This is clearly a topic that deserves more than a simple summary. I have thus far spent many hours looking at newspaper archives, federal documents, and the scholarly research literature, and concluded that I will address this important and timely topic through a series of posts, relying as much as possible on allowing the words published in newspapers across the nation to speak to the issue.
Amann documented that the group was formed in late 1924 or early 1925 in Bellaire, Ohio as a “direct offshoot from the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan”, and was initially called the Klan Guard (p. 493). The founder was Dr. William Jacob Shepard, a physician and Grand Cyclops of the Bellaire Klan. Their first appearance at a Klan activity was in summer of 1925 as guards for the barrels in which Klansmen deposited their dues at the annual meeting. The new organization had grown rapidly after the Bellaire Klan’s charter was revoked due to “the Black Guard’s popularity” among members who wanted to “trade their white robes for black” (p. 494).
The news of the Black Legion hit in early April 1935 when the Pontiac Police faced a hearing before the Police and Fire Trial Board on charges that two police sergeants were members of the Black Legion’s Bullet Club. Much more would follow after the murder of Charles A. Poole in May 1936.