By Cassandra Devereaux
By 1913, the Klan had a vocal supporter in the White House in Woodrow Wilson. Wilson screened the detestable Klan “origin” film Birth Of A Nation. This was the film which directly inspired the rise of the second iteration of the organization. The film, which he compared to “writing history with lightning,” owed much to Wilson. The filmmaker admired Wilson as well. He used several quotes from the President’s text A History of the American People on title cards, including:“The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation—until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”
Wilson (re)segregated a federal government that Blacks were making employment gains in. He fired most Blacks in supervisory positions and many more lost their jobs. Unlike his predecessors, he did not appoint Black diplomats to Haiti and Santo Domingo (today’s Dominican Republic). While presiding over the Versailles Convention of 1919, he declared a Japanese resolution recognizing racial equality defeated because it passed with a simple majority, despite the fact that the governing rules did not require unanimity in a vote. Wilson’s racism was considered beyond the pale even for the day, and journalist Oswald Garrison Villard wrote that the Wilson Administration “allied itself with the forces of reaction, and put itself on the side of every torturer, of every oppressor, of every perpetrator of racial injustice in the South or the North.”
In the wake of the First World War wherein the European Imperialists threw their working-class soldiers at each other in the conflagration, and in light of the success of the Bolsheviks in overthrowing the Tsar and establishing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the U.S. labor movement became a waking titan, rapidly growing in strength. It was a time when the U.S. was transitioning between an economy of war production to a so-called “peacetime economy”, and in that flux, employment was uncertain. Into this reality, in 1919 four million U.S. workers went on strike, winning many of their struggles. Their valor was remarkable; this happened a mere five years after the National Guard fired their machine guns into a colony of workers in John D. Rockefeller’s Ludlow, Colorado mine killing 21. They came together, united in solidarity and rising into their power.
But 1919 wasn’t just a year of labor victory. Where some workers won by forging solidarity across lines that might otherwise divide them, others turned upon each other with scapegoating and violence. Riots broke out in over 30 U.S cities as white workers turned against Blacks. In Chicago, the bloodiest of all of the riots, whites destroyed the homes and businesses of Blacks, leaving approximately 1000 homeless, 500 injured, and 50 killed over the course of 13 days.
In August 1919, J. Edgar Hoover, the nefarious future FBI director, was tasked by the Justice department with heading the new General Intelligence Division in order to destroy leftist organizations which organized workers and oppressed peoples against Wall Street and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Such was their fear of the proletarian power of the Bolsheviks that they chose the second anniversary of that socialist revolution to tighten their noose. On November 7th the GID and local police conducted heinously violent raids against the Union of Russian Workers in 12 cities. The net cast was a wide one, with many apprehended merely for walking by and speaking Russian. Newspapers remarked upon law enforcement’s brutality, and many working class people reported being beaten during interrogation. 650 people were arrested in New York City, 43 deported, and a message to the left was sent.
Forced to work under the supervision of the Department of Labor, Hoover managed to be granted permission to delay informing arrestees of their rights and interpreted his permission to operate against the Communist Party specifically to include all communist organizations. Hoover had a talent of slithering through loopholes and ignoring the rules to get what he wanted.
The 1920s dawned with a violent targeting of migrants and an ironfisted assault on the left when on January 2, Hoover directed a series of brutal raids. These were much like those from the previous November but broadly expanded. Smaller raids followed up over the next six weeks. People were arrested, premises searched, property seized in over 30 municipalities, often without warrants. Masses of migrants were detained in filthy, overcrowded detention facilities. They were denied human rights, basic dignity, and access to sanitation. Many of the raids were conducted merely to make the sweeps seem larger and to invoke fear upon all those who worked in the interest of the worker. Anyone found on the premises of a targeted organization would be taken in, regardless of their membership in said organizations or reasons for being there. Hoover himself would admit to “clear cases of brutality” in these operations. Approximately 10,000 were arrested, 556 were deported, and the Red Scare was well afoot.
Of note during this period was the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which was put in place to curtail migration from outside northwest Europe, in particular targeting Asia and the Philippines. However, also excluded would be those nations from which the majority of American Jews migrated, which would lead to the United States denying sanctuary to European Jews fleeing the Nazi holocaust that was rapidly approaching its historical moment like distant thunder.
Meanwhile, the KKK continues to grow exponentially. Estimates of membership range from three to eight million klansmen by mid-decade. Despite popular perception of being a Southern institution, Ohio’s Klan membership numbers were in the 300,000 range, and Pennsylvania’s around 200,000. Detroit, Cleveland, and Indianapolis had large, active chapters. Although clandestine, this “invisible empire” would dominate many elections from coast to coast, from local to state races. In 1925, over 30,000 robed Klansmen proudly marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C. in the light of day, carrying the flag of the republic.
Two years later in 1927, Fred Trump, father of the 45th U.S. President, was arrested at a KKK rally for disobeying the police’s order to disperse.
With the coming of the Great Depression, certain elements further radicalized. Klan membership had been in decline due to a sex scandal in the leadership and also an intrepid opposition’s efforts to reveal the identities of Klan members. However, in the Appalachian region of East Central Ohio, a paramilitary formation within the Klan called the Black Guard was born, originally to protect Klan leaders. Soon, it came to be known as the Black Legion, and spread outward from Ohio throughout the Midwest, with a third residing in Detroit alone. It is believed by many that the Chief of Police of the City of Detroit was a member. At any rate many in the ranks were police officers. The organization claimed they were a million members strong in Michigan alone, but are estimated to have actually had 20,000 to 30,000. The group was organized in military fashion, with brigades, regiments, battalions, companies. They would kidnap people, force them to join, initiate them at gunpoint, beat them if they tried to leave, and threatened to murder them if they revealed the secrets of the organization. Initiates were made to swear that they were white, U.S. born Protestants and would take up arms against their enemies if called to do so. They targeted migrants, Blacks, Jews, Catholics, non-mainline Protestants, communists, socialists, labor unions, farm cooperatives, and more. The leader was a man named Virgil Effinger who hoped to win a fascist revolution in the United States. Toward this end, legionnaires committed a series of floggings in ’35, and murdered a man named Charles Poole in ’36. Poole was an organizer in the Works Progress Administration. Poole was white, and U.S. born, but he was a Catholic married to a Protestant woman. This was reason enough for a dozen legionnaires to take him on a long drive and put a bullet in him, leaving the corpse to be discovered. They were linked to many other deaths, and in his biography, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz a.k.a. Malcolm X noted that they were an active threat when he was growing up in Lansing.
Some imagine that reactionary activities are confined to blue collar workers, but hate has ever known the presence of the bourgeoisie. The capitalist class and fascism go hand in glove. In 1933 Major General Smedley Butler claimed that wealthy businessmen were plotting to create a fascist veterans’ organization and use it in a coup d’état to overthrow President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt. This came to be known as the Business Plot. In 1934, Butler testified to the Special Committee on Un-American Activities (the “McCormack–Dickstein Committee”) about this claim. Newspapers pilloried Butler for the allegations; nevertheless, in the opinion of the committee, these allegations were deemed to be credible.
Butler, who is still studied by military tacticians, was no stranger to the violent depravity of American capitalists. In his book War Is A Racket, he compared his military career to being a “gangster for capitalism,” and shamefully admitted:
“I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested.”
A direct line can be drawn between the use of military force described here by Butler and today’s asylum seekers who are being caged by ICE.
Other explicitly fascist groups in the 1930s were the Silver Legion, a.k.a. Silver Shirts and the German American Bund. The former took inspiration from Germany’s brownshirts, but the latter was tied directly to the Nazi Party hierarchy. Rudolf Hess, Deputy Führer of the Nazi Party gave Heinz Spanknöbel, a German-American Nazi, the authority to found an ‘American Nazi Party’. Established as Friends of New Germany, it evolved into the explicitly Nazi German American Bund. They formed training and youth camps and held immense rallies. In 1939, 20,000 Americans packed Madison Square Garden, and threw Nazi salutes toward a stage festooned with U.S. flags, swastika banners, and an enormous portrait of George Washington. The crowd cheered and a young boy in uniform danced in glee as uniformed Bund members beat a Jewish protestor on stage. They recited the Pledge of Allegiance, applauded to the Star Spangled Banner, and cheered speeches by uniformed Nazis furiously spouting Jewish conspiracies, denouncing Roosevelt, and railing against communism. It is important to note, however, that over 100,000 anti-Nazi counter-protesters filled the streets outside Madison Square Garden that night.