Photo: Getty Images
The Rev. Charles E. Coughlin launches his Union of Social Justice at Madison Square Garden, May 22, 1935Photo: Getty Images
Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Social Justice in Detroit

In 1935, Father Charles Coughlin and other anti-Semites and white supremacists reached a peak of popularity in America. At the same time, the Motor City’s sports teams excelled. What’s not to be proud of?

Robert Rockaway
January 02, 2020
Photo: Getty Images
The Rev. Charles E. Coughlin launches his Union of Social Justice at Madison Square Garden, May 22, 1935Photo: Getty Images

In the early 1920s, the automobile magnate Henry Ford began publishing a series of articles in his newspaper the Dearborn Independent titled “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem.” This was called the “most systematic campaign of hatred against a people in American history.” Although Ford issued a retraction and an apology in 1927, he kept his interest in the Jews alive by supporting the radio priest Charles Coughlin and his National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ).

Charles Coughlin was born in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1891. He started out as a small-town Canadian parochial school teacher before he was granted his own parish in Michigan during the 1920s. In 1926 he was assigned to the Royal Oak parish just outside of Detroit. His church there became known as the Shrine of the Little Flower. When a local radio station gave him broadcast time on Sunday evenings to boost church attendance, it became the start of his hugely successful career in radio, the new media of the Roaring ’20s.

Coughlin’s populist style and Irish brogue were a hit in the new medium. Soon his show had many listeners and he made sufficient money to purchase radio time in other cities. He called his show the Radio League of the Little Flower. In no time, he became a national figure, broadcasting to 16 stations over the CBS radio network. At the outset, his shows were aimed at children, and featured lessons in religion with rudimentary politics and economics. However, as his fame increased, he began to assail bankers, communists, and capitalist greed.

During the first years of the Roosevelt administration Coughlin supported the president, labeling the New Deal “God’s Deal.” But he soon turned on Roosevelt, becoming convinced that Jews controlled the White House. By 1935 Coughlin’s network, extreme views, and influence reached an audience of 20 million listeners. Detroiter Grant Silverfarb remembered listening to Coughlin’s Sunday night radio broadcasts. “He scared the hell out of me,” he said. “He sounded like Hitler in his attacks on the Jews. I worried that what happened in Germany might also happen in the United States. After his broadcasts, I always found it hard to fall asleep.”

Coughlin claimed that capitalism was doomed and not worth saving. He believed that Roosevelt, who he privately referred to as “Rosenfeld,” was secretly a Jew. He began to speak out against the New Deal and proposed a set of controls that he labeled “Social Justice.” In order to spread his views, he created a monthly magazine under the title Social Justice. The magazine eventually achieved a circulation of more than a million copies. After his split from Roosevelt, and with the rise of fascism and National Socialism in Europe, Coughlin attacked Jews explicitly in his radio broadcasts. From early attacks on Jewish bankers, he moved on to attacking Jewish communists.

‘Social Justice,’ founded by Father Coughlin, sold on important street corners and intersections. New York City, 1939. (Photo: Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress)
‘Social Justice,’ founded by Father Coughlin, sold on important street corners and intersections. New York City, 1939. (Photo: Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress)

Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler had been born into Catholic families, and many Catholic clergymen viewed Hitler and Nazism as a bulwark against communism. Coughlin therefore muted his attacks on Hitler, noting that “the atrocities committed by the Communists against Christians were exceedingly more serious than those suffered by the Jews at the hands of the Nazi.” And “not one Jew was put to death officially for his race or religion, while more than 20 million Christians have been done to death under the Trotskys and Bela Kuhns of Communism, both of whom were Jews.”

In one of his radio addresses he claimed, falsely, that Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin were Jews, that all but three members of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Control Commission were Jewish, and those three were married to Jewish women (also false).

Coughlin opposed any notion that the resources of America and other nations should be employed against the Hitler government “to settle an internal problem in Germany.” He accused the Jews of being war mongers, pushing America and Britain to go to war in Europe to serve their own interests. And he asked, “Is it for the ‘owners of the world’ that we will be asked to fight?” Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, noted in his diary that “rich people in the country who are said to include Henry Ford and other automobile manufacturers are helping to finance Father Coughlin.”

By 1935, observers noted that many of Coughlin’s quotes came directly from Nazi propaganda material. On Sept. 13, 1935, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels spoke before the Seventh National Socialist Congress at Nuremberg in which he furiously attacked Jews. The speech was reprinted in English and ran in Social Justice under Coughlin’s byline.

The Depression and unending unemployment, which reached 20% of the labor force in 1935, frustrated and angered Americans, making them vulnerable to Coughlin’s arguments and tirades. By 1935, Detroit had the highest unemployment rate of any city in the country. It was estimated that half the city’s wage earners were idle, and many others worked part-time.

On April 25, 1935, more than 15,000 people packed Detroit’s Olympia Auditorium to hear Coughlin explain the NUSJ platform. A month later, as part of same NUSJ tour, 20,000 people paid to hear him elaborate on his social justice plan. At the end of 1935, he was attacking Roosevelt as “The great betrayer and liar. Franklin D. Roosevelt who promised to drive the money changers from the temple had succeeded in driving the farmers from their homesteads and citizens from their homes in the cities. I ask you to purge the man who claims to be a Democrat, from the Democratic Party, and I mean Franklin Double-Crossing Roosevelt.” A new post office was constructed in Royal Oak just to process the 80,000 letters he received each week. Coughlin supporters included Joseph Kennedy, Clare Booth Luce, Eddie Rickenbacker, Douglas MacArthur, and Bing Crosby.

Coughlin held a rally of the National Union in Cleveland where 25,000 turned up, and a rally in New York at a packed Madison Square Garden, where he tore into the press for siding with financiers while suppressing “the voice of the people.” These rallies upset some Catholic leaders. Boston Cardinal William O’Connell complained: “All these disturbing voices, the shouting, yelling and screaming are so unbecoming. They are hysterical. And no priest of God, no teacher of the Christian Church ever permits himself to be hysterical.”

In his 1935 talks, Coughlin shaded his words. Without directly saying “Jews” he spoke of international bankers and money changers, and chastised various figures whose names—Morgenthau, Warburg, Rothschild, Kuhn, Loeb—left little doubt as to who he was referring. Jewish communal leader, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, publicly appealed to Coughlin “to choose words that would not feed and fan the flames of anti-Jewish feeling.” At a large Los Angeles B’nai B’rith meeting, the entertainer Eddie Cantor said that free speech was a wonderful thing, “but we are living in precarious times. You know the situation in Europe, as far as Jews are concerned. But I doubt if any of you know how close to the same situation we are here in America. We must recognize the facts. We must stand united.”

‘The Detroit Jewish Chronicle and The Legal Chronicle,’ March 8, 1935 (The Detroit Jewish News Archive)
‘The Detroit Jewish Chronicle and The Legal Chronicle,’ March 8, 1935 (The Detroit Jewish News Archive)

Philip Slomovitz, publisher and editor of the Detroit Jewish Chronicle (later Jewish News) was a persistent critic of Coughlin. He recalled that period as being “a frightening time. Coughlin attacked me on the radio. I met him twice, and I found him to be a very dynamic person filled with ideas marked with bigotry and hate.” Slomovitz kept up his monitoring of Coughlin and published numerous editorials about Coughlin’s hatred for Jews. Slomovitz invited Coughlin to debate him, an invitation that was not accepted.

Coughlin’s attacks on the Jews and pro-Nazi sympathy even merited attention in popular culture. The folksong composer and singer Woody Guthrie mentioned him in his pro-interventionist song “Lindbergh.” The lyric reads, “Yonder comes Father Coughlin wearin’ the silver chain/Cash on the stomach and Hitler on the brain.” And the author Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist coup in the United States, features a “Bishop Prang,” an extremely successful pro-fascist radio host who is modeled on Father Coughlin. Cole Porter referenced and rhymed Coughlin in his 1935 song “A Picture of Me Without You.” The fourth refrain says “Picture City Hall without boondogglin’/Picture Sunday tea minus Father Coughlin.”

The other major anti-Semitic group in Detroit during the 1930s was the Black Legion, an overtly white supremacist militia based in the Midwestern United States. It was based in Michigan and Ohio, was anti-Jewish, anti-black, and anti-Catholic. It conducted a campaign of clandestine activities with midnight raids on homes, destruction of newspaper offices, attacks on individuals, cross burnings, and murders. The legion numbered some 200,000 members, including a minimum of 24,000 so-called night riders in Michigan. It conducted a secretive campaign of violence and murder that continued through 1935. One third of its members lived in Detroit and included the Royal Oak police chief, the mayor of Highland Park, Detroit’s police commissioner, and other political figures in the Detroit metropolitan area.

The Black Legion began as the elite “Black Guard” of the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1920s, it split away from the klan and went off on its own. Despite breaking away from the klan, it maintained the same agenda of hate, nativism, anti-Catholicism, anti-communism, racism, and anti-Semitism. It brazenly publicized regular lectures on subjects such as, “The Jews are Wrecking America.” Its advertisements ran under the banner, “For God and Country.” In 1935, Michigan’s Black Legion commander concocted a grandiose plot to murder 1 million Jews by planting bombs in every synagogue across America on Yom Kippur. Another plot was to poison Jews by injecting typhoid germs into milk delivered to Detroit’s heavily populated Jewish neighborhoods. An investigator also uncovered their plan to release cyanide gas in local synagogues during Hanukkah in 1935.

The Black Legion’s crimes were often winked at or quietly acquiesced to because police officers, prison guards, and other men in public service were members of the organization. Nonetheless, by the end of 1936, members had received prison sentences for murder and plots to kill public officials and journalists. On the whole, however, most of those tied to the organization were never fully investigated or prosecuted. Thousands of Black Legionnaires went on with their lives, their secrets safe and their identities hidden.

The notoriety of the Black Legion motivated Warner Bros. in 1937 to produce a feature film titled The Black Legion, starring Humphrey Bogart, which depicted the devastating effect this domestic terrorist group had on an ordinary man, his family, his neighbors, and his coworkers. The National Board of Review named The Black Legion the best film of 1937, and Humphrey Bogart as the best actor. But the group was already in decline. In 1936, The New York Times had published 84 stories about the group, but wrote only 10 the following year. By then, 50 of its members were in prison for murders and other crimes.


But there was another side to life in Detroit during the ’30s. In 1935, Detroit had the distinction of being the only city in American history to have three world champion professional sports teams in the same year: the Detroit Tigers baseball team; the Detroit Lions football team; and the Detroit Red Wings hockey team. The Detroit Tigers’ first baseman was the 6-foot-3-inch, 22-year-old “hammerin” Hank Greenberg. In 1935, Greenberg batted .328 and led the American League with 36 home runs and 170 runs batted in, and won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award.

Greenberg grew up in the Bronx, where 90% of the families and three-quarters of his high school classmates were Jewish. But from his early years in the minor leagues playing in Beaumont, Texas, Greenberg endured constant verbal abuse from opposing players. At every game he heard, “Kike, hook-nose, hymie, sheeny, mockie, pants presser, and Christ killer,” yelled at him from opposing players and fans, and insults continued throughout his career in the major leagues.

Greenberg became even more of a hero to Detroit’s and the nation’s Jews because he refused to play on Yom Kippur. He was the first Jewish ball player to do so. Although he had played on Rosh Hashanah, he announced days ahead that he would not be playing on Yom Kippur. “This time it’s different. It’s serious business with me.” He spent part of the day in Detroit’s Congregation Shaarey Zedek.

A ‘Detroit Free Press’ from 1935, when the Tigers won the World Series
A ‘Detroit Free Press’ from 1935, when the Tigers won the World Series

Greenberg remembered that “I was a hero around town, particularly among the Jewish people, and I was proud of it.” His decision merited a poem by Edgar A. Guest, who was known as “the people’s poet.” The last lines of the poem read, “We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat, but he’s true to his religion, and I honor him for that.”

In his autobiography, Greenberg recalled what happened when he entered the synagogue. “The place was jammed. The rabbi was davening. Right in the middle of everything, everything seemed to stop. The rabbi looked up, he didn’t know what was going on. And suddenly everybody was applauding. I was embarrassed; I didn’t know what to do. It was a tremendous ovation for a kid who was only 23 years old, and in a synagogue, no less.” In later years, Greenberg recalled: “People remember that I didn’t play on Yom Kippur. They remember it as every year, but in fact the situation arose only once.”

This event stood out in his mind for another reason as well. “It’s a strange thing,” he said. “When I was playing I used to resent being singled out as a Jewish ballplayer, period. I’m not sure why or when I changed, because I’m still not a particularly religious person. Lately, though, I find myself wanting to be remembered not only as a great ballplayer, but even more as a great Jewish ballplayer. I realize now, more than I used to, how important a part I played in the lives of a generation of Jewish kids who grew up in the thirties.”

The 1935 Detroit Tigers won the World Series for the first time in the city’s history. When the final game ended, the city went wild. Thousands of people flocked to the downtown area. Nearly 500,000 people joined in the celebration. They blocked avenues, clogged sidewalks, packed bars, and halted streetcars and automobiles. They sang and drank, blew car horns, and banged on trash cans. People on the top floors of downtown buildings dropped streamers and sometimes water bags on the crowds below. In some places, rowdier elements broke store windows, set fires and tried to tip over trolley cars.

I was taken to my first baseball game as a child by an aunt and uncle who were avid Tiger fans. I heard a great deal about Hank Greenberg, because that’s all Detroit’s Jewish fans would talk about during baseball season. The year was 1946, and Greenberg was playing his last year as a Tiger. During the game I ignored the pitcher and batter; all I did was watch Hank Greenberg.


You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.

Robert Rockaway is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, and the author of But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters.