Part of a native fascist movement that grew to menacing proportions in the United States in the midst of the economic crisis occasioned by the Great Depression, the Black Legion stood out as an American counterpart to the rise of Nazism and fascism in Europe. Probably started in Ohio in 1931 by a group of former Ku Klux Klan members who dyed their robes black after their expulsion from that group, the organization experienced its greatest success in the industrialized regions of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. Its influence spread to a dozen or more other states. Though claiming as many as six million adherents, it is more likely that around forty thousand different individuals joined the Black Legion over time before legal investigations and prosecutions led to its collapse in 1939.
Having attracted publicity for a series of floggings during 1935, the terrorist group became headline news after the ritual murder of a 32-year-old Detroit relief worker by a dozen of its members in May 1936. The Black Legion was an authoritarian, quasi-military organization, which forced discipline upon its heavily-armed members by initiating them at the point of a gun and threatening death if they ever disclosed the secrets of the group to outsiders. To join the organization, a person had to swear that he was a white, native-born, Protestant American citizen and agree to take up arms, when called upon, against the group's enemies.
Racial prejudice, religious bigotry, union-bashing, and red-baiting characterized the organization. Murder, intimidation, and violence were its calling cards. Many of its members were former rural residents who felt alienated in unfamiliar conditions in northern cities. A typical member, according to one journalistic account, was a southern-born male, in his mid-thirties, and Anglo-Saxon in background. While composed mostly of poorer, marginalized, working-class whites, the Black Legion also attracted a considerable number of middle-class businessmen and white-collar workers to its banner. Politicians and even law-enforcement officials sometimes became members.
Like the Ku Klux Klan and other similar groups, which provided a fertile recruiting ground for the Black Legion, its members spouted anti-black, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic rhetoric. Religious symbolism stood out prominently, and members acted in authoritarian fashion to try to impose their morality on others. Exposure of the organization in news articles, along with legal investigations and prosecutions, led to its precipitate decline during the late 1930s. The Black Legion's rapid demise resulted from its heavy dependence on violence, as opposed to voluntary support, to attract members. Afterwards, many of its adherents drifted into other similar native fascist groups.
Janowitz, Morris. "Black Legions on the March." In America in Crisis: Fourteen Crucial Episodes in American History, edited by Daniel Aaron. 1952.
John E. Miller