The Dark Days of the Black Legion

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Illustration by Arthur Giron

White supremacists of the 1930s maintained there was one sure way to identify a fellow member of the “master race” — blushing. It was thought that only a true pureblood Aryan could display a noticeable change of color in their skin upon an episode of shyness, shame, or modesty. That Charley Poole was a non-Aryan was not the real issue with the Black Legion, which saw to it that his cheeks were eternally blanched for a different, more powerful reason: the sanctity of Protestant womanhood. On the night of May 12, 1936, the young unemployed autoworker was taken into the countryside west of Detroit and shot five times at point-blank range, an honor killing that was the latest in a long string of atrocities committed by the black-robed vigilantes.

“Nobody could hate Charley,” cried Becky Poole, after being told by detectives that her husband’s body had been found near Gulley Road in what is now Dearborn Heights. “He never hurt anyone in his whole life.”

That wasn’t what the local chapter of the Legion — which included Becky’s brother-in-law, Lowell Rushing — believed. Rushing had gotten wind of Charley’s occasional arguments with Becky and reported back to his friends at the Wolverine Republican Club, one of various fronts the Legion used to mask its activities. He exaggerated the Pooles’ discord, which typically centered on Charley’s inability to find a steady job. At a secret meeting inside a rented hall, “Colonel” Harvey Davis helped stir Legionnaires into a frenzy by describing Charley as an abusive husband who had beaten his pregnant wife so badly she had miscarried. “What shall we do about such a man?” he asked. “Whip him!” members yelled. “Kill him!”

The following evening, as Becky lay in her bed at Detroit’s Herman Kiefer Hospital, Rushing lured Charley into a car filled with Legion members. Charley, a talented sandlot ball player, thought he had been invited to the organizational meeting of a factory baseball team, which would have assured him a job at the sponsoring plant. But, in the hard-boiled vernacular of the day, this was a one-way ride. “You’ve beaten your wife for the last time,” he was told before being shot and dumped into a ditch.

As unremarkable as Poole’s life had been up to that point, in death he wound up extracting an extraordinary price from his killers. His murder caused the previously unknown Black Legion to explode into the headlines, resulting in most of its leaders being sent to prison and exposing the clandestine brotherhood of bullies to ridicule. “Hooey may look like romance and adventure in the moonlight,” The Detroit News editorialized toward the end of the Legion’s brief but spectacular appearance on the public stage, “but it always looks like hooey when you bring it out in the daylight.”

Despite its similarities with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the Black Legion wasn’t a direct descendant of that right-wing organization, but more like a sinister stepbrother. Many Legionnaires were former or concurrent members of the Klan, originally a vigilante group active in the former Confederacy for several years following the Civil War. In 1915, the Klan was jolted out of its decades-long dormancy by D. W. Griffith’s controversial film, The Birth of a Nation. Hollywood’s first blockbuster sentimentalized the KKK and provided a new generation of extremists with a template for ritualistic terrorism, right down to the cross-burnings and standardized white costumes — dramatic devices Griffith had invented for the movie. The flood of immigrants and Southern blacks to America’s big cities brought made-to-order targets, allowing the resurgent Klan to expand from its rural Southern roots and become a truly national political movement, agitating for such reforms as immigration control. The “Invisible Empire” soon controlled state governments in Indiana, Colorado, and Oregon.

During the 1920s, the KKK’s heyday, Michigan reportedly had more Klansmen than any state in the country — as many as 800,000, according to some estimates, though historians today believe a figure in the range of 80,000 to 120,000 is more plausible. Roughly half lived in metro Detroit. Prospective mem-bers — many of whom were white factory workers originally from the South — had to swear to be a “native born, true, and loyal citizen … a white male Gentile person … a believer in the tenets of the Christian religion, the maintenance of White Supremacy, and principles of pure Americanism.”

In 1925, the Klan movement was stopped dead in its tracks by a sensational sex scandal involving its most prominent leader. David Curtis Stephenson, the Grand Wizard of Indiana and 22 other states, including Michigan, was convicted of rape and murder in the case of a woman whose body bore so many bite marks she was described by a witness as looking as if she had been “chewed by a cannibal.” Upset over not receiving clemency or a commutation of his life sentence from the Klan-backed governor of Indiana, the vengeful Stephenson took several public officials down with him. The series of exposés caused a meltdown in membership, from an estimated peak of 6 million in the mid-1920s to about 30,000 a few years later.

During this period, a small-town physician in Bellaire, Ohio, named William Shepard — a former Grand Cyclops in the Klan — fiddled with the Klan’s formula and came up with his own version of hooded Americanism. He called the secret fraternity the Black Legion. (An alternative account says the Legion was originally formed as the Black Guards in about 1925 to provide security for officers of the Ohio KKK.) Shepard’s followers wore black-silk robes sporting a skull-and-crossbones insignia; a black hood topped by a high-horned headpiece also bearing the “Jolly Roger” completed the ensemble.

As Protestant nativists who were convinced that “their” country was slowly being taken over by “aliens,” the Legion’s professed enemies were the same as the Klan’s: Catholics, Jews, immigrants, blacks, Communists, and labor activists. Unlike the Klan, however, the Legion eschewed publicity. They operated in deep secrecy, with any member foolish enough to mention the Legion’s existence to an outsider subject to a bullwhipping. During the day “Dr. Billy” made house calls with a .45-caliber pistol packed inside his satchel; at night, he presided over elaborate initiation ceremonies and the occasional tar-and-feathering of a local deemed to be “un-American.”

The Black Legion expanded and grew lethal after another ex-Klansman, Virgil Effinger, an electrician from Lima, Ohio, assumed leadership in the early 1930s. Effinger, described as a “dour, humorless fanatic,” helped recruit large numbers of members in Michigan. He was capably assisted by an ex-Detroit cop named Isaac “Peg Leg” White. Ultimately, there were tens of thousands of members in the state. While many regarded the Legion as a secret lodge and an outlet for mild adventure, a fanatical few used it as an excuse for night riding that often was more personal than ideological in nature. Their victims may have included the father of a future famous black-nationalist leader.

One evening in 1931, Earl Little was run over by a streetcar in Lansing. Local authorities considered the preacher’s death either an accident or, improbably, a suicide. However, Little’s young son, Malcolm, grew up believing that it had been an execution — a chilling message delivered by the Black Legion to intimidate “uppity” blacks. Malcolm Little, who later would change his name to Malcolm X as he rose to prominence with the Nation of Islam, doubted that his father could “bash himself in the head, then get down across the streetcar tracks to be run over.”
Other beatings, bombings, and murders involving left-wing political and labor organizations occurred over the years. Authorities never seemed able to solve them. Then came the killing of Charley Poole.

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