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The Black Legion and the Wolverine Republican League

Black Legion – Part II, The Wolverine Republican League

By David Siwik – Præteritum Michigan Editor

The previous post covered the rise of the Black Legion, a Ku Klux Klan-type, right-wing, white-supremacist group that rose to prominence in Michigan in the 1930s.  The Legion were feared by many who had the unfortunate occasion of crossing their path, as the case of Charles Poole (discussed in the previous post) shows.  Yet, the ranks of “Legionaries” included more than secretive men who rode out at night to commit their dirty deeds.  Indeed, they had a more “respectable” front organization that held its meetings relatively out in the open.  The Wolverine Republican League, or Wolverine Republicans, functioned much like one would expect of a politically minded sodality.  They had membership, held meetings, raised money, and most importantly, recruited or advocated for political candidates and issues.

As it turns out, through the Wolverine Republicans, the Black Legion had a surprisingly substantial influence on Michigan politics.  And, while they mostly supported Republicans, a few prominent Democrats appeared to have ties to the Legion through the Wolverine Republican League as well.  Holding their meetings in a former Masonic Temple turned banquet hall on the corner of Waterman and West Lafayette in southwest Detroit, the Wolverine Republicans recruited members, discussed the pressing issues of the day and held candidate screenings and political rallies.  Further legitimized by a mailing address in the Guardian Building office suite of one of Detroit’s most prominent attorneys, Wolverine Republican meetings had the appearance of benign legitimacy.  This is something the Black Legion, with its secretive nature and far-from-legal activities could never have enjoyed.

Two Michigan governors, both Republicans, Wilbur Brucker and Frank Fitzgerald had ties to the Legion through the Wolverine Republicans.

Brucker was a decorated veteran, serving in the France during the First World War, including the bloody Meuse-Argonne operation, as part of the 42nd division of the National Guard.  Despite being the son of a rather prominent Democratic congressman, after the war, Brucker became a Republican and entered office as Michigan’s 32nd Governor in 1931.  Things did not go well for his political career, as the Great Depression, already well underway, only grew worse.  The auto industry shed nearly three quarters of its workforce and the state’s unemployment rate soared to nearly 50 percent by the time he left office in 1933.  Out of this economic angst, he failed to win re-election in 1932.

This did not mean the end to Brucker’s political ambitions though, and this is where his ties to the Legion developed.  The 1932 Presidential and 1934 Mid-term elections had been utterly devastating for the national Republican Party.  Although he had no more or less to do with the economic downturn than any other President, Herbert Hoover, and eventually his Republican Party took the brunt of the blame for the collapse of the American economy.  Industrial states like Michigan were hit hardest of them all.  The Democrats swept into power among Franklin Roosevelt’s promise of a New Deal.  By 1936, however, Republicans hoped for a renewed show of force.

Clara Helen Hantel and Wilbur Brucker, Image Source: Library of Congress

In 1936, Brucker sought his return to politics and eyed the seat of fellow Republican, Senator James Couzen, as his potential inroad.  Brucker’s challenge to Couzen would begin at a meeting of the Wolverine Republicans in southwest Detroit.  In launching his campaign, Brucker expressed some of the same racialist, anti-immigrant and anti-New Deal sentiments rife among the Legion and their front organization, the League.  Brucker went on to defeat Couzens in the primary, but lost to Democrat Prentiss M. Brown in November.  His decision to launch his campaign at a Legion meeting and continued association with the organization throughout the campaign is something that few know about.  Perhaps this was all overshadowed by his more admirable appointments in the 1950s as a member of the General Counsel for the Department of Defense during the Army-McCarthy hearings, and as Secretary of the Army during the Eisenhower Administration.  Nonetheless, it is a part of his past, and a part of Michigan’s.

Frank Fitzgerald is certainly one of the most well-known Grand Ledge residents of the 20th century, having served as Governor of Michigan from 1935-37, and for two-and-a-half months of a (non-consecutive) second term before he died in office on March 16, 1939.  Fitzgerald had his links to the Legion and the League.  Anecdotally, the brother of his chief of staff was a member of the Legion.  However, much more seriously was the appointment by Fitzgerald of Harry Bennett, yes the Harry Bennett of Ford Motor Company’s “Service Department,” to the position of Commissioner of Prisons (precursor to the Department of Corrections).  Bennett, with ties to the Legion, used his position to parole men straight into the Ford Service Department.

(For readers unaware, the Ford Service Department were a group of union busting thugs whose preferred tactics included violent assaults on workers attempting to organize.  Upon becoming Ford Motor Company President, Henry Ford II sought to fire Bennett.  He gave the potentially dangerous job to Vice President John Bugas; wherein, upon delivering the notice of dismissal, he and Bennett supposedly drew pistols at one another).

The ties of these men and others, including Detroit Police Commissioner Heinrich Pickert, and Oakland County Prosecutor David C. Pence, certainly shows how prominent an organization the Black Legion were in Michigan.  Wayne County Prosecutor Duncan McCrea, a Democrat, was also believed to have had ties to Legion members, though he vehemently denied membership.  It is worth noting however that McCrea was later convicted in a bribery scandal.

Through their front organization, the Wolverine Republican League, the Legion gained support at the highest levels of local and state government.  The 1930s produced a lot of angst in America.  Experimental solutions to deep-seated economic and social problems can be seen throughout the decade.  Yet when it comes to the rise and eventual dissipation of the Black Legion, the same nativism and racism that had already long been a part of American history seems not so different from the previous decades.

Listen to David Siwik interviewed on Stateside, with Lester Graham on Michigan Radio.