by William Trollinger
Near the end of Black Reconstruction, that brilliant 1935 historical study that was decades ahead of books written by white historians, W. E. B. DuBois eloquently observed that
nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things . . . And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable? (714)
But the mayor of Dearborn, Michigan would beg to differ with DuBois.
100 years ago, in January 1919, automobile mogul and world-famous celebrity Henry Ford purchased the Dearborn Independent. Within a few months, and as heralded with the headline, “The International Jew: The World’s Problem,” Ford turned this little paper over to the most vicious sort of anti-Semitism. Over the next few years, articles in the Independent blamed the “Jewish menace” for any and all problems in American life (even problems in major league baseball), and again and again attacked an alleged Jewish cabal for its manipulation of the world’s finances and culture for its own nefarious purposes. In this vein Ford also publicized The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery which purported to provide the details of how, since the time of Christ, a covert Jewish conspiracy was at work in an effort to control the globe.
It turns out that there was an audience for anti-Semitic hate speech, as the Dearborn Independent soon had nearly one million subscribers. More than this, Ford’s publishing company took many of these articles, reprinted them in four books (collectively known as The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem), and sold them across the globe.
None of this is news to historians. But it is also true that dark stories from America’s past are all-too-conveniently forgotten, and so they must be retold. So on the 100th anniversary of Henry Ford purchasing the Dearborn Independent, esteemed Michigan journalist Bill McGraw told the above story in The Dearborn Historian, a tiny quarterly magazine published by the city’s historical commission and co-edited by McGraw.
Or, I should say, McGraw was going to tell the story in The Dearborn Historian, of which he was the co-editor. The mayor squelched the issue and had McGraw removed from his post, explaining that
We want Dearborn to be understood as it is today – a community that works hard at fostering positive relationships . . . This edition of The Historian could become a distraction from our continuing messages of inclusion and respect.
Fostering inclusion and respect requires pretending that exclusion and hate never happened? It seems likely that Dearborn’s mayor was much more concerned about protecting the image of Dearborn’s favorite son. (Of course, the mayor failed to take into account that squelching the article meant it would come out elsewhere).
As suggested by the Dearborn Independent’s circulation numbers, Henry Ford’s campaign of anti-Semitism had a significant impact here in the United States. For one thing, it is thanks to Ford’s newspaper and books that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion became very popular in certain corners of American culture. To give just one example, in the early 1930s William Bell Riley – the organizing genius behind American fundamentalism – turned to the Protocols for his guide to world affairs. As I noted in God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism, Riley (who was not alone among American fundamentalists in his vicious anti-Semitism) found in the Protocols the evidence that Jews were determined to establish a “king despot of Zion” who
would have absolute control of the world’s finances, education, press, and courts, and would establish a uniform atheistic religion to which all people would be required to adhere. (72)
But Ford’s campaign of anti-Semitism also had a horrific global impact. The International Jew – which was first published in German in 1922 – was very popular in Germany, and proved to be an ideological inspiration for the Nazi Party. In 1931 Adolf Hitler gave an interview to a Detroit News reporter from his office, which had on the wall a huge portrait of Henry Ford. Asked about the portrait, Hitler replied that “I owe my inspiration to Henry Ford.” Ford was rewarded in 1938 – just after the German Army invaded Austria – with the Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, the highest award given to foreigners by the Third Reich.
And Ford’s legacy continues to this day, as Bill McGraw discovered in his research on The Dearborn Independent. As journalist Anna Clark noted in her Columbia Journalism Review article on the squelching of McGraw’s article,
McGraw ties Ford’s legacy to the present-day hate that has been exposed in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and beyond. “I was totally blown away by how active Ford is” in online white supremacist forums, Mc Graw says. The industrialist is mentioned “hundreds of thousands of times.” McGraw noticed that people who appeared to be “new to the movement” were encouraged by Ford’s status, which they saw as giving legitimacy to their views. “Hey, look at this incredible American, this global celebrity: he thinks like us,” is how McGraw summarizes the posts.
Pretending that “hideous mistakes” and “frightful wrongs” did not happen does not eliminate the hideous and frightful from our past. Especially when it turns out that the past is not even past.
(Thanks to my colleague and friend John Inglis for pointing me to the Dearborn story.)