A veteran journalist uses a variety of lenses to illuminate the dark story of the Black Legion, an association of murderous (white) domestic terrorists who briefly thrived in the upper Midwest.
Stanton (Journalism/Univ. of Detroit; Ty and the Babe: Baseball’s Fiercest Rivals, 2007) unfolds the history of the Legion gradually, always keeping it in the social, cultural, and economic context of the area where it was born and grew: the territory around western Lake Erie. Although the author tells us about the horrors perpetrated by the Legion (whippings, intimidations, murders), he follows other stories closely: the rise of boxer Joe Louis and the phenomenal year of 1935 for Detroit’s professional athletic teams—the Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings all won championships. Stanton gives the Tigers the most attention, especially their player-manager, catcher Mickey Cochrane, a ferocious competitor who eventually crumbled into a nervous breakdown. Hank Greenberg, the first Jewish baseball star, also is often front and center. And there are cameos for a couple of future U.S. presidents (football star Gerald Ford, courted by the Lions, and Ronald Reagan, a broadcaster at the time). It’s evident throughout that the author assiduously researched his project; he seems to have read every newspaper and magazine account of the events and to have walked the blood-soaked ground (he ends with a visit to a relevant cemetery). Stanton is also quite clear about the corrosive political and law enforcement corruption that enabled the Black Legion to commit their atrocities without much blowback. “Numerous city figures and their followers belonged,” he writes, “including a councilman, police officers, and fire officials. Their biases spread along a spiteful scale from serious…to silly.” In 1936, however, a group of diligent cops began investigating and arresting, and the whole house of cards toppled very quickly—though, as Stanton points out, many murders remain unsolved and crime scenes uninvestigated.
First-rate reporting and a seminar in how to employ context in investigative and historical journalism.