Michigan Feels Repercussions Of It’s Deadly History Of Violent Racism
White, Christian America’s enduring propensity for denying or rewriting the history of racism in the U.S. was in full force with a relatively unknown outbranch of the Ku Klux Klan that committed deadly, violent acts against African Americans in the midwest.
They were a Michigan-based group called the Black Legion and they were secretive, anti-union, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant and anti-African American. Legion members feared immigration, they feared their Second Amendment rights were under attack by the government and they lambasted President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for being a socialist and un-American. Many of the same issues drive current hate groups.
The Black Legion was a violent force in the 1930s and 1940s but their beliefs describe current day hate groups.
In 2021, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported there were 25 hate groups active in Michigan. Repercussions of Michigan’s violent, nativist past were on full view in 2020 when the FBI reported arrests of four far right militia members who allegedly planned to kidnap Michigan Democratic, governor, Gretchen Whitmer.
In 2021, a handful of armed protesters affiliated with right-wing militias gathered outside the Michigan statehouse in Lansing to protest President trump’s re-election loss.
During its brief but brutal lifetime, the Guard was variously known as the Black Legion, Black Night Riders, Blacks, Twenty and Club, Bullet Club, Searchlight, Malteka, Alpha and Omega, and, in Michigan, the Wolverine Republican Club.
Newspapers estimated the Black Legion had up to 5 million members. Other reports said the Black Legion had as many as 100,000 members across four states but authorities said there were more likely a few thousand members, although there were many other sympathizers.
Current-day, efforts to white wash the violent history of racism have been growing in a number of states that have prohibited teaching critical race theory, an interdisciplinary academic field devoted to analyzing how laws, social and political movements, and media shape, and are shaped by, social conceptions of race and ethnicity. The theory considers racism to be systemic in various laws and rules, and not only based on individuals’ prejudices. Teachers in various states also have been barred from from teaching subjects that might cause discomfort among students or imply that racism is endemic.
Robert P. Jones, author of “The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy: And the Path to a Shared American Future,” commented on the suppression of history, in a recent interview in the Washington Post.
“It is a testimony to the power of white supremacy that such histories could remain suppressed with the evidence of the crimes kept so close at hand,” Jones said.
Jones said that after the election of the nation’s first African American president and the Black Lives Matter movement, “We’re experiencing another desperate wave of willful amnesia and historical denial.”
Jones, the chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, said that “centuries of complicity in violence and oppression, followed by denial and repression, have taken their toll.”
“The day is past when White Christians can expect their institutions to endure while sitting comfortably and hypocritically behind what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called ‘the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows,’” Jones said.
In May of 1936, the depression was ravaging the nation. Unemployment was high in Michigan and Detroit resident Charles Poole was an unemployed auto worker. On the night of May 12, 1936, Poole was offered a ride in a car with Dayton Dean, Ervin Lee and Harvey Davis. He got in, thinking he was going to a meeting to organize a factory baseball team, which would have assured him a job at the sponsoring plant.
Poole, 22, and his wife, Becky, had been married for three years and had a toddler daughter and were expecting a second child. Poole had previously been chased out of Kentucky by the local KKK chapter. The Michigan vigilantes had become livid when they heard third-hand, from a friend of an in-law, that Poole, a Catholic, had beaten his pregnant, Baptist wife, causing a miscarriage. Mrs. Poole had not been beaten, nor had she miscarried. In fact, she was in labor at the time of her husband’s murder. One of the killers, Dean, 36, had violated the Legion’s own tenet, having been divorced on the grounds of physical abuse and cruelty and who later lived with a woman who chased him away after he raped his 14-year-old stepdaughter.
Dean, Lee and Davis drove Poole to an unpopulated area outside of Dearborn, and shot him to death. Poole had become the victim of a poor cousin to the KKK whose members held their dark ceremonies while wearing black hooded robes and pirate hats, complete with skull and crossbones.
The murder led to Dean, Lee and Davis and the arrests marked the beginning of the end of the Black Legion but not until Legion members had committed around 50 murders in the Detroit area. Dean plead guilty in the Poole killing and told authorities of plots to poison the food being delivered to Jewish neighborhoods and to assassinate a labor attorney, a mayor and a newspaper publisher.
Dean’s testimony in a series of trials in 1936 and 1937 led to 46 convictions in four separate cases. More than a dozen men were given life sentences in prison while Dean died in 1960 after 24 years behind bars. The prosecutor in the cases, Duncan McCrea, was later convicted of corruption in office after he was found to have taken bribes to protect gambling and prostitution operations.
Dean also testified about a second, racially motivated “thrill killing” of Silas Coleman, a 42-year-old Army veteran. According to Dean, Harvey Davis, a legion member, “wanted to see how it felt to shoot a Negro.”
In 1952, the Michigan Supreme Court rejected an appeal of the sentences of Ervin Lee and John Bannerman, two of the men who were convicted in 1936 of killing Coleman.
The court record noted that in the week of May 25, 1935, three men, Dayton Dean (who was not a defendant), Harvey Davis and Charles Rouse hatched a plot to lure Coleman to Rush Lake in Livingston County, Mich., on a promise to have a party “with some of the boys in his (Army) outfit.”
Dean claimed that Davis wanted to shoot an African American “to have a little target practice and have a little excitement out there.” Rouse said Coleman would be a good target as they had worked together.
On the night of the murder, Rouse and Dean picked up Coleman and they drove to the swamp, followed by a car with Davis, Lorance and Lee. The cars stopped and Coleman got out but it was tool late when he realized his danger. Lorance, Lee and Bannerman fired at Coleman who ran and jumped in a swamp. The three emptied their guns and killed Coleman. They then drove back to a cottage, had a drink, and divvied up Coleman’s money, a total of $10.
Among those with connections to the Black Legion was Wilber Brucker, the governor of Michigan from 1931 to 1933 and the U.S. Secretary of the Army between July 21, 1955 and Jan. 19, 1961. Other members included dozens of police officers, a Michigan legislator and Wayne County prosecutor Duncan McRea who said that he had “accidentally” signed a membership card. The Detroit Tigers player/manager and future Hall of Famer, Mickey Cochrane, also was believed to be a member.
Another victim of Black Legion violence was 34-year-old Edward Armour, who was seriously injured after a legion member shot him on Feb. 16, 1935. Armour, an African American, was in the wrong place at the right time. He was walking down a street in Ecorse, Mich., at a time when legion members were stalking another black, Clarence Oliver. Davis and Dean were going to Oliver’s home when they saw Armour and one of the legion members called out, “I want to kill a nigger.” They stopped the car and fired one shot at Armour, who survived but sustained serious injuries.
Three days later, James Bailey, an African American political worker for Ecorse, Mich., Mayor William W. Voisine, died in a mysterious fire at his home. Voisine believed the Black Legion had started the fire because of their opposition to Voisine.
Jews and Catholics were also targeted by the Black Legion. One month after the Poole murder, Major Gen. Virgil F. Effinger, a former Klansman and electrician from Lima, Ohio, and leader of the Black Legion from 1932 to 1936, plotted to plant small boxes with tubes of hydro-cyanic gas and clocks that acted as a timing devices in synagogues across the country. Effinger claimed the poison gas devises were manufactured by Black Legion members at a poison gas factory in Edgewood, Md.
During the 1920s, Michigan reportedly had more Klansmen than any state in the country, with an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 members, half of whom lived in Detroit.
In his 1993 book, “UNDER THE STAR OF THE GUARD” “The Story of the Black Legion,” Mark S. English wrote that Klan membership rapidly eroded after news of the death of Madge Oberholtzer filtered throughout its ranks. The woman had been coerced into meeting Imperial Wizard David Curtis Stephenson on March 15, 1925. While in a drunken state, Stephenson tortured and raped Madge. She feared the Grand Wizard would rape and torture her again so she swallowed six tablets of mercuric chloride hoping Stephenson would take her to the hospital where she could be safe.
A few days before her death she wanted to expose the crimes committed by Stephenson and asked that her doctor and two lawyers to take her final testimony. Her deposition proved damaging to Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan.
Stephenson was sentenced to life in prison and in an act of revenge, he went on to implicate several public officials. The testimony along with extensive newspaper coverage, caused the Klan’s membership to fall precipitously to about 30,000 after a peak of 6 million in the mid-1920s.
During the period when the Klan’s membership was falling, William Shepard, a former Grand Cyclops in the Klan and doctor in the small town of Bellaire, Ohio, created the Black Legion. Like the Klan, Shepard and his followers believed the country was slowly being taken over by “aliens.” The Legion’s enemies remained the same as the Klan’s: Catholics, Jews, immigrants, blacks, Communists, and labor activists.
The Black Legion expanded and became more violent after Effinger, assumed leadership in the early 1930s. Effinger helped recruit large numbers of members in Michigan.
The Black Legion may have had one victim whose son went on to be a major African American leader.
One evening in 1931, the Rev. Earl Little, a Detroit resident, was run over by a streetcar in Lansing. Authorities considered the death either an accident or a suicide. Little’s young son, Malcolm later believed his father had been executed. Malcolm Little later changed his name to Malcolm X and rose to worldwide prominence with the Nation of Islam.
Earl Little was a Baptist minister from Reynolds, Ga. Little and his wife were long-standing members of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey was a black nationalist and Pan-Africanist. Little worked as an organizer for the movement during the 1920s and at one time served as the president of the Omaha, Neb., branch.
In addition to its racism, the Black Legion was violently against organized labor, fearing it was funded by communism. English wrote that no criminal charges were ever brought against the Black Legion or the automotive giants in their symbiotic association with each other.
“However, it can be said that Michigan and Ohio auto manufacturers encouraged the Black Legion by turning their heads whenever crimes were committed against groups or individuals who opposed the company’s agenda.” English wrote.
The Black Legion had unofficial friends in high places throughout the auto industry, such as automotive titan, Henry Ford. Ford’s anti-Semitic, nativistic views were highly respected by the Black Legion.