The Black Legion
The Black Legion was born in the Great Migration-era midwest. Founded in 1924 by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Cyclops Dr. William J. Shepard in Bellaire, Ohio, this racist fraternal organization represented an even more violent and secretive evolution of the KKK and its white-supremacist aims (Amann, 13). A 1935 Federal Bureau of Investigation report on the Black Legion indicates that Shepard formed the group of “native-born, white, gentile, protestant citizens” to bring the violent vigilante justice of “Lynch law” to their growing number of enemies (defined as anyone that did not fit their induction criteria or supported those that did not fit) in the industrial midwest. Shepard believed that the KKK had become “too commonplace” and that its public, daytime rallies strayed too far from what he perceived as its goal–terror and intimidation (Amann, 13).
The Black Legion corrected this perceived deviation by organizing its members into raiding bands of masked, armed “Night Riders” that sought to threaten, terrorize, and often kill those it characterized as its enemies. Nowhere was this campaign more active than the midwest. Though the Legion’s tens of thousands of members by the 1930s could be found nationwide, the organization’s “heartland” was undoubtedly the industrial cities of Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois (Amann, 14).
Close links with factory workers’ organizations such as the Ford Motor Company-promoted “Citizen’s Committees” provided eager recruits for the Legion’s attacks on the black, Jewish, and Catholic workers that whites thought threatened their jobs and ensured that “every sizeable city” within these three states had major Legion units (Amann, 14). The well-publicized 1935 Dsetroit murders of black industrial laborer Silas Coleman and Catholic Works Progress administration organizer Charles Poole made it clear that these Night Rider units’ commitment to protect their perceived “American” way of life was far from an empty threat.
The Black Legion’s desire to strengthen itself by breaking from the Ku Klux Klan’s increasingly “commonplace” and public nature extended to its extensive embrace of secret rituals and symbols. Shepard believed that “you have to have mystery in a fraternal thing to keep it alive” and eagerly guarded the group’s claims to exclusive truths and practices (Amann, 14).
The photo of two armed Black Legion members demonstrates the public face of this symbols and rituals the 1935 FBI report on the group’s practices worked so hard to uncover. The two members’ ceremonial black robes and prominent skull-and-crossbones logo sought to distinguish them from the white-robed KKK and signaled their acceptance into the Legion’s secret society. The FBI report (collected through information from an undercover source within the Black Legion) tells of a theatrical ritual initiation that includes a blood oath in the “name of God and the Devil...under the black arch of heaven’s avenging symbol.” Commitment to the group’s secrets in so important that those who betray it are promised a terrible death followed by their soul “given unto torment...submerged in a molten metal and stifled in the flames of Hell...through all eternity.” While leaking the Legion’s secret’s was the worst possible crime, keeping them gave members access to exclusive knowledge portrayed as more valuable than their own life.