253: White Nationalism Black Legion

Archival Spaces 253

White Nationalist Terrorism is nothing new in America: Re-Viewing The Black Legion (1937)

Uploaded 9 October 2020

White Nationalist Terrorist i n Kenosha

Last week at the first presidential debate, Donald Trump refused to condemn the white nationalist and racist organization, “The Proud Boys,” just as he has encouraged other racist groups, like the American Nazis, whom he characterized as “good people” after Charlotte. In Kenosha, a 17-year-old white nationalist calmly shot two BLM protesters dead and walked merrily past police; he is now a “blood hero” of the Right. Only yesterday, thirteen Michigan “militia” men were arrested for conspiring to kidnap the Michigan Governor, because she defied Trump, who verbally abused Gretchen Whitmar as the murder plot hit the news.

Radical right-wing groups have always been a part of the American fabric, just as racism runs deep throughout American society, but until this President, they have remained splinter groups. The Guardian recently quoted Southern Poverty Law statistics that noted a 55% increase in such hate groups, exerting enormous influence online, since Donald Trump became president. During the Great Depression, the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations thrived. Economic stress fueled hatred then as now, but white nationalists under Franklin D. Roosevelt could not count on covert support from the highest level of government, as they do today.  In the Warner Brothers’ film, The Black Legion (1937, Archie L. Mayo), white, racist terrorists are successfully prosecuted.

Lobby Card for The BVlack Legion (1937)

The film is based on the actual “Black Legion,” a white nationalist group in the 1930s Midwest, especially in Michigan(!), a Ku Klux Klan splinter group that numbered as many as 135,000 members. The film fictionalized the actual kidnapping and murder of Charles A. Poole in May 1935 in Detroit, a Works Progress Administration organizer, for which the government prosecuted 49 members of the Black Legion, of which eleven were convicted of murder, thanks to the testimony of Dean Dayton, a former Legionnaire.

Dean Dayton at 1937 Detroit Trial

In the film, Humphrey Bogart plays factory worker Frank Taylor (a fictionalized Dayton) who is passed over for promotion to foreman in his factory and becomes embittered by the “foreigners who are taking away jobs from red-blooded Americans.” He joins the Black Legion, which burns down the farm of foreman Joe Dombrowski allowing Taylor to get the job. However, he is quickly demoted for not handling a machine malfunction on the floor, because he was in the lavatory recruiting for the Legion. The next foreman is also tortured, but he doesn’t get the job back. Taylor alienates his wife and slips into drunkenness, finally killing his friend, Ed Jackson, who threatened to expose the Black Legion. Like Trump and his white nationalist followers, Taylor articulates grievances and rage against nebulous scapegoats, because he believes that “native-born Americans,” i.e. white people, experience economic hardship at the hands of the other.  

Black Legionaires
Klu Kllux Klan, n.d.

In a speech to the Legion, Alf Hargrave claims that foreigners who have enriched themselves with American jobs, hold an alien, un-American doctrine, “and are plotting to seize our government and overthrow the republic.” He states further that the Legion will purge the land of traitorous aliens, creating a “free, white, 100% America.” Like the dog whistles used today, the American fascists in the 1930s used code words to stoke racial fear and hatred. But like the Nazis and Communists of the 1930s, the Black Legion also terrorized its own members into silence and submission: In a midnight initiation ceremony in the woods, the gathering garbed in black KKK robes, Taylor swears an oath that binds him to undying loyalty, demanding damnation of his eternal soul, if he betrays the organization. To further undergird the oath, Hargrave gives Taylor a shell casing, saying the bullet will find him or his family, if he betrays his oath. When he is arrested, a Black Legionnaire posing as a lawyer appears in Taylor’s cell to remind him of the bullet waiting for his family if he talks. Interestingly, in a scene added by Warner Brothers after production was completed, Taylor’s lawyer states to the judge in private chambers, he was unaware of Taylor’s murderous activity. The Academy’s MPAA files would probably tell us why the after-shoot, but I suspect it has to do with absolving the legal profession of any culpability as fascist collaborators.

Humphrey Bogart

Warner Brothers became interested in the case as early as the Black Legion trial in 1936, sending a staff member to observe the trial and come up with story ideas. The original story was written by Robert Lord, who also produced the film and insisted on casting Bogart (at the time a supporting player), because he felt Edward G. Robinson, who was originally cast, looked too much like a foreigner, i.e. Jewish. The Black Legion maintained KKK secrecy protocols from hoods to humiliation, leading the Clan to sue Warner Brothers for patent infringement; the suit was thrown out of court. Like the KKK, the Black Legionnaires hated all foreigners, as well as Jews, Catholics, and other minorities, although no African-Americans or other people of color actually appear in the film. That is surprising, given that Detroit was already heavily black, just as it was a Black Legion stronghold, but Warner Brothers, like other Hollywood studios, still practiced – by a process of exclusion – a different form of racism. The film was praised by the critics and earned Robert Lord an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, while the National Board of Review named Black Legion Best Film of 1937.

In the movie trial, — true to WB’s support of Roosevelt’s administration, —  the judge reaffirms American ideals, grounded in Democracy, as he scolds the accused white nationalist terrorists: “Your idea of patriotism and Americanism is hideous to all decent citizens. It violates every protection guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, contained in our Constitution. The Bill of Rights, assuring us all religious freedom and the right to person and property, is the cornerstone of American patriotism…  We cannot afford to have racial or religious hatred stirred up, so that innocent citizens become the victims of accusations brought in secrecy or of terrorists who inflict their vigilante judgment.”

I used to see Black Legion as a melodramatic treatment of an isolated historical moment, but, in the age of Trumpism, I realize that, like Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949), it is a warning that American Democracy and our liberty have to be actively protected, even when the terrorist is our own president.    

Trade Periodical Advertisement for The Black Legion

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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