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The Black Legion and beyond.

The (less and less) hidden history of the Michigan far right

The history of far-right violence in Michigan, and the history of the organizing efforts of the Left and the labor movement to defeat them have again become relevant. Last years’ kidnapping attempt of the Governor of tMichigan, the arrests of more than a dozen of the state’s right-wing activists in the after-math of the January 6 Capitol putsch, and ongoing anti-lock down mobilizing—despite another brutal COVID-19 wave this spring— provide the current context.

The far right movement in the state of Michigan is not new. Despite the widespread horrified reactions to violent acts of intimidation and militarized threats to officers of the state, as well as the storming of the Capitol in Lansing, these anti-democratic nationalist movements have existed in the state for decades, resurfacing  during times of economic and social unrest. Comparisons of today’s racist far right leaders to Hitler, Mussolini, and their ilk are less illuminating than the comparisons that can be made to groups closer to home.

With their black robes and prominent skull and crossbones, the Detroit area Black Legion looked like villains out of pre-war pulp novels. But to “all immigrants, Catholics, Jews and blacks, nontraditional Protestant faiths, labor unions, farm cooperatives and various fraternal groups” the horror it engendered was all too real. From the 1920s until 1936, the Legion, a spin off from the Ku Klux Klan, claimed between 20,000 to 30,000 members and the Associated Press blamed them for at least fifty murders.

Michigan police in the 1930s show off confiscated Ku Klux Klan and Black Legion weapons and uniforms.

Malcolm X hypothesized that his father had been a Legion victim. The group also attempted to murder Arthur Kinglsey, a newspaper publisher and candidate for mayor of Highland Park. Labor and civil rights attorney Maurice Sugar’s socialist campaign for Detroit City Council was subjected to dirty tricks and sabotage from the Legion. The mayor of Detroit suburb Ecorse, William Voisine, was also a Legion target for hiring Black workers for city jobs.

In the period before World War Two, many prominent elected officials were Legion members, including Wayne County prosecutor Duncan McRae, who was fingered by the Detroit News as a Legionnaire. The suburb of Highland Park was a particular hub of Legion activity with the mayor, a city councilman, and the Chief of Police all being members. Even Mickey Cochrane, player-manager for the Detroit Tigers, was approached as a possible recruit to the Legion’s cause. While Henry Ford was never officially a Legion member he notably refused a request by Detroit Police to drain Ford Mill Pond to search for the body of a Legion victim.

Although the Communist Party (CP) issued a lengthy pamphlet on the Legion and its activities, neither it nor any other organized left force brought it down. The CP’s main tactic to stop the Legion was to ensure that President Roosevelt would be reelected. Rather, the Legion’s downfall came in the wake of its murder of Charles Poole, a federal employee of the Works Progress Administration, whom the Legion targeted for being a Catholic married to a Protestant. Public pressure mounted for the killers of a federal employee to be found and eventually 37 Legion members would be convicted for the Poole murder among other crimes.

While far right and racist sentiment certainly never disappeared from the Michigan political scene, as an organized political movement there was a long dormancy between the end of World War II and the 1990s. This is not to say that racist sentiment disappeared entirely from the political scene during that time. For example, in 1949 Albert Cobo won the race for mayor in Detroit by campaigning against the “Negro invasions” he believed were caused by public housing. Additionally, five Klansman were charged for the 1971 bombings of school buses in Pontiac to protest integrated busing. However, with the growing postwar economic boom and the recent defeat of European fascism, the fertile ground for far right movements that existed in the 1930s disappeared.

This changed when the Michigan Militia formed in the early 1990s—attracting future Oklahoma City Federal Building bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Even more radical than the Michigan Militia is the Adrian-based Hutaree, an explicitly white supremacist and theocratic group that gained brief infamy when seven members went on trial, charged with conspiracy to murder police officers to spark a war against the US government, although only three were convicted on lesser weapons charges.

More recently the Wolverine Watchmen garnered national attention for their attempt to kidnap and execute Michigan’s Democratic governor over her COVID-19 restrictions. The Michigan Militia has attempted to draw distinctions between themselves and various smaller more violent right wing formations, but the groups have overlapped and constitute a milieu if not a mass movement.

The history of the far right in Michigan is a troubling one, and it is necessary for socialists to develop a strategy for how to fight them. Relying on law enforcement and the courts to combat these groups is not a viable strategy for the socialist movement. Neither is simply voting for Democratic or Republican politicians. The political will of the State to enact prosecutions against white nationalists cannot be relied upon. So long as the State remains an instrument of class rule, it cannot also be a reliable ally nor the basis of our strategy. One manifestation of this is the systematic infiltration of U.S. law enforcement by the far right. The protection of Black Legion murders by elected representatives in the 1930s provides yet another example.  We need not look further than Kenosha, Wisconsin to see more recent concrete evidence of this connection.

The struggle of Minneapolis-based  Teamster Local 544 against the Silver Shirts in the 1930s is also illustrative. The Silver Shirts, a Christian fascist group inspired by the Italian Blackshirts and German Brownshirts were militantly anti-socialist, anti- Semitic, and anti-trade union. Roy Zachary, Field Marshal of the Silver Shirts, declared that “the time for the ballot was passed and the only way to deal with the unions was to raid their headquarters and destroy them.”

Teamsters 544 were led by revolutionary socialists with experience fighting back against anti-labor violence. They knew they could not rely on the police or the courts for protection, and instead acted quickly to organize a Union Defense Guard. They announced publicly in the Northwest Organizer, a radical Teamster newspaper, that the new organization stood in defense of peaceful union activity. Membership in the Guard was open to any union member and activities were democratically decided. These included educational lectures, drilling, and the purchase of .22 caliber pistols and rifles for sharpshooting practice.

When the Silver Shirts national leader, William Dudley Pelley, attempted to hold a rally in Minneapolis, he was met by three hundred members of the Union Defense Guard. The rally was never held and Pelley fled.

In looking at methods to combat far right violence it is useful to draw lessons from the Minnesota example As the words of the “Internationale” have it:

We want no condescending saviors/
To rule us from their judgement hall/
We workers ask not for their favors/
Let us consult for all.

As history has amply demonstrated, we must build our own fighting organizations capable of handling the fascist threat and develop our confidence and capacities for the greater struggle ahead.

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Hank Kennedy View All

Hank Kennedy is a Detroit area socialist, educator, and longtime comic book fan.