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How a 1936 murder exposed and destroyed a notorious Michigan hate group

Feb 28, 2017

In May of 1936, when Detroit resident Charles Poole climbed into a car with Dayton Dean and Ervin Lee, he thought he was going to a meeting that might land him a position at an axle factory and a spot on the factory’s baseball team.

Unemployment in Michigan was high and Poole did not have a full-time job. Any opportunity for work was worth pursuing.

What Poole did not know was that Dean and Lee were members of an organization called the Black Legion. After driving to an unpopulated area outside of Dearborn, they took Poole out of the car and shot him.

“The Black Legion had the philosophy of white supremacy, as well as what we nowadays might call far-right politics,” says David Siwik, a professor of history at Lansing Community College. “They were very strongly anti-union, and they were anti-Catholic, they were anti-Jewish, they were anti-black. They had some of the similar ideological beliefs as the Ku Klux Klan.”

The FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C. Hate groups like the Black Legion took advantage of the era's economic hardship to amplify their white supremacist message.
Credit kevinwburkett / FLICKR - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

They were also violent.

Poole, a Catholic, had been targeted for assassination because of a false rumor that he had abused his wife, a Baptist. His murder was not the first committed by the Black Legion, but it would turn out to be one of the last. The investigation into Poole’s murder led quickly to Dean and Lee, who then exposed much of the organization.

Siwik said when the Black Legion itself fell apart, many of its members simply faded back into society.

Former Michigan governor Wilber Brucker, a politician associated with the organization, was later appointed to Secretary of the Army.

And the white supremacist ideology that energized the organization has not been erased.

Siwik said it shows itself in the flood of hate crimes that has washed across the country in recent months, and in the rise of xenophobic policy and speech.

“Anti-immigrant sentiment was a major issue in the political campaign we just went through," Siwik says. "It’s a major issue still, with some of the executive orders that the current administration has issued. And I think that struggle, if you will, for a defined American culture and what role that immigrants play in it is certainly something that we can recognize to this day."

Listen to our full interview with David Siwik above.

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