History in black and white

Film screening revisits local nationalist group

Five years before starring in the iconic “Casablanca,” Humphrey Bogart played the lead role in a darker, lesser-known Warner Bros. film, “Black Legion,” which also explored the relationship between the United States and European émigrés.
A movie poster for the 1937 film “Black Legion” features a menacing figure in black robes. The film was inspired by the real-life Black Legion, a white supremacist group that had strong ties to Michigan in the 1930s.
Courtesy Photo

“Casablanca” allowed Bogart to metaphorically redeem himself from his dark role in “Black Legion,” where he played a nativist and white supremacist who rails against immigration. The film noir-inspired techniques of Hal B. Wallis, the producer and creative force behind “Casablanca” and “Black Legion,” are pervasive in both films.

In “Black Legion,” Frank Taylor (Bogart) joins the Black Legion, a Ku Klux Klan-like group, after losing a promotion to an Eastern European immigrant. He then is implicated in a murder and becomes the key witness for the prosecution. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay (where it lost to “A Star is Born”) and was named by the National Board of Review as the best film the year.

The film is based on actual events that occurred in Detroit in 1935, when members of the Black Legion, a white supremacist group that targeted Jews, blacks, Catholics, Communists and Eastern Europeans, were charged with crimes ranging from murder to arson. Ultimately, 48 members were convicted of crimes, including 11 for murder.

Newspapers and newsreels across the country covered the trial, garnering the attention of Warner Bros., which became known for its anti-fascist movies. When the movie opened at Lansing’s Capitol Theatre in January 1937, dark, garish movie posters depicted a black-hooded man holding a whip with the headline below it, “Death to squealers.”

The Black Legion had arisen out of the Ku Klux Klan, switching out white robes and hoods for black outfits that included piratelike hats and black robes. The group, which was estimated to have a membership of more than 10,000, had members in Detroit, Pontiac and several other Michigan cities, including Lansing. It was rumored that the Black Legion was responsible for the death of Earl Little, the father of Malcolm X, who was killed in a 1931 streetcar accident in Lansing.

Michigan State University English Professor Ann Larabee, who has written extensively about radical groups, said there is always potential for a nativist movement.

“The thread is always there,” she said. “It usually relates to some kind of cultural upheaval, with followers believing the nation is in some kind of chaos — that is not necessarily verifiable — that needs fixing.”

Larabee said she sees some of the same precursors in today’s political climate.

“There is conspiracy thinking on both sides, and it is a plague on political discourse,” she said.

Early in “Black Legion,” Bogart’s character is seen listening to a firebrand radio host who warns against threat of foreigners. It is believed that the scene is based on the rantings of Father Charles Coughlin, a noted anti-Semite and fascist apologist who hosted a weekly radio show from his parish in Royal Oak in the 1930s until he was forced off the air in 1939. It is estimated he had 30 million listeners.

A Feb. 23 of viewing “Black Legion” is part of a year-long look at the events and people of the year 1937 sponsored by the Historical Society of Greater Lansing and a Commemoration Committee of several area historians and union members. Following the free screening, Lansing Community College history Professor David Siwik will facilitate a discussion on the themes of the movie.

The year 1937 also saw spectacular events at the international level, including the Hindenburg disaster, the ongoing Spanish Civil War and the rise of Hitler. These, as well as local happenings like the REO Motor Car Co. sit-down strike and numerous architectural, religious and political occurrences, will be highlighted in a series of events, including historical lectures and an exhibit on 1937 opening at Lansing City Hall in May.

The inspiration for the in-depth look at 1937 was inspired by Lansing’s June 7, 1937, “Labor Holiday” which saw thousands of union members stream into the streets, parking vehicles across major streets, virtually shutting the city down for a day.

“The Lansing Labor Holiday was overshadowed by the Flint sit-down strike and the Battle of the Overpass,” said John Beck, chairman of the Commemoration Committee. “We want to bring this significant labor event out of the historical shadows.”

The catalyst for the Labor Holiday was the arrest of several union members for picketing the Capitol City Wrecking Company. The Historical Society will recreate the Labor Holiday as part of the June 3 Be a Tourist in Your Own Town event.

“Community-wide general strikes of this nature are rare in the 20th century,” Beck said. “It is time for the holiday to get the recognition it deserves.”

“Black Legion” 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 23, FREE Dart Auditorium 500 N. Capitol Ave, Lansing (517) 282-0671, lansinghistory.org


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