by David Siwik, Præteritum Editor
Taking the long view of American history, the decade of the 1930s looks different than those that preceded or followed. In a nation historically stubbornly resistant to change, in the 1930s, Americans experimented with new ideas and new possibilities of doing things in ways they had not done before. Some of these experiments were grand, so much so, many are still with us, including Social Security, millions of acres of forests planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and bridges, hydroelectric dams, post offices and schools, built by men and women and financed by the Federal government. Scorned by many at the time (and a not insubstantial portion of the populace to this day), nonetheless a consensus developed among the majority of Americans for a more useful expenditure of tax payer dollars, ushering in a different relationship for many with their government.
There were however other experiments, including a more sinister and ultimately deadly form of nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment that had long formed an important part of the American narrative. In Michigan, one form this took was the development of a Ku Klux Klan type secretive terrorist group with fascist sympathies known as the Black Legion. Telling their prospective recruits that the threat the working class were immigrants and union organizers, competitors for the precious few jobs remaining (bear in mind, the unemployment rate in Michigan in the 1930s was as high as 49%), the Legion drew in the disaffected and appealed in a similar way fascist political parties and leaders did to many in Europe.
It’s difficult to tell just how many men counted themselves among the Black Legion, secretive as the organization was by its nature. However, estimates run into the tens of thousands, and whatever their numbers, they made their presence known, often times in deadly ways. Armed with pistols and cloaked in black hooded robes with masks looking like something out of a 1930s pirate movie, the Legion terrorized those who it deemed a threat to the “American way.”
A list of men murdered reveals who the Legionnaires targeted. One of their first victims was George Marchuk, a communist and union organizer at Ford Motor Company, gunned down by Legionnaire thugs in 1933. John Bielak, also a union man, who attempted to organize workers at Hudson, was killed in 1934. Silas Coleman, a black construction worker was murdered by one account, because Black Legion members wanted to know what it “felt like to kill” a black man. Ultimately, the murder of Charles Poole, a Catholic who had earlier been driven out of Kentucky by the Klan, brought the group into the public knowledge, as during the trial held to hold those who killed him responsible for the crime, dozens of Legion members were named, and ultimately implemented in a slue of crimes across southeast Michigan.
Nativism, what we usually refer to nowadays as xenophobia or anti-immigrant attitudes, has long been a part of American history. Going back to outbreaks of violence against Catholics in the decades before the Civil War, and culminating in the restrictive immigration quotas passed into law in the 1910s and 1920s, America has had a history of immigrants living juxtaposed to those who would just as well see them elsewhere. Sometimes these attitudes took on deadly forms, as in the case of the Black Legion. Political parties have taken up the cloak of nativist sentiment as well. And at times, the different reactions to immigrants have blended into a difficult to distinguish amalgamation of underground terrorist organizations and overt political action.
Indeed, many of the names of Black Legionnaires brought to the attention of authorities in the case of the murder of Charles Poole included men who worked in local government positions in places such as Detroit, Pontiac, Royal Oak, Highland Park and Ecorse. The Black Legion also had more “legitimate” political connections, including through a front organization that shared many members called the Wolverine Republicans.