By Dr. Edward Lorenz
The recent violence by a mob in Washington trying to overturn the election makes clear we have an urgent need in the country and in Gratiot County to consider institutional/educational changes to confront authoritarian, anti-democratic behaviors. Historically, we have not always made the right choices. We live in a county that had a strong Ku Klux Klan that targeted the Catholic population. The Klan focused on Catholics because here they had few of their other favorite targets - African-Americans and Jews. However, we live in a community with a long positive history to guide us.
We live in a community with people who led confrontation with racism and hate. In the Civil War, 258 Gratiot County residents died for the Union, while Alma founder Ralph Ely served as both a distinguished military commander and, after the war, led the Freedman’s Bureau in South Carolina helping protect the rights of former slaves.
With the current rise of domestic anti-democratic terrorism, we should remember another locally groomed model of leadership, Frank Knox and his wife, Annie Reid, both Alma College graduates. You may know those names simply because they gave millions of dollars to fund the College’s administration building and to support a professorship in history. While I happened to have been the Reid-Knox Professor for two decades, I initially knew little of the couple’s importance.
It was easy to find out that Frank Knox quit Alma a few weeks before commencement in 1898 to join Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Rough Riders.’ His future wife Annie stayed to graduate with their class of 1898. Beyond that act, Knox showed up in the back of my history books in lists about presidential elections and presidential cabinets. He happened to have been the losing Republican nominee for Vice President in 1936 and then Secretary of the Navy during World War II. Some investigation also showed Knox was a journalist, first in Sault St. Marie, later in New Hampshire and finally owner of the Chicago Daily News. None of that background would make the couple more than the ‘footnote’ they usually get in our history.
In May 2009, I had a shocking revelation about Knox. I was with a class of Alma students visiting the Nazi Documentation Center in Nuremberg, Germany. Why were we there? Nuremberg had been a hotbed of Nazism, which is why after the war the German government established the Documentation Center there. The Center is not a ‘holocaust museum.’ Instead, it is a center for exploring how and why the people of Germany – which had the “best” education system in the world at the time - could "fall for Hitler." The Center runs training programs in understanding propaganda. Also, it has a set of exhibits on the rise of fascism.
As we looked at one of the displays that showed the two exceptional newspapers in the world to warn early-on of the dangers of Nazism, my students and I were amazed that one of the two was Knox's Chicago Daily News! A little investigation after we returned home revealed that in the 1930s Knox had built the Daily News into a foreign policy reporting rival to the New York Times and, as the Germans knew, one of the few papers to pay attention to the dangers of Nazism.
The Daily News employed as its German correspondent Edgar Mowrer, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1933 for his pioneering accounts of the dangers of Hitler. Knox fully supported Mowrer’s reporting, even when warned his correspondent’s life was in danger. Because Mowrer’s reporting so offended Hitler, he was one of the first correspondents ordered out of the country. The German official who escorted him to the train station in Berlin to assure he left, asked if Mowrer ever thought of returning. Mowrer answered, prophetically (and defiantly), "[W]hen I come back [it will be] with about two million of my countrymen."
Throughout the mid-1930s, while most Americans dreamt of isolation from growing fascist threats, Knox maintained his focus on fascism’s dangers. His commitment to this struggle became clear after he and Alf Landon lost in a landslide to Franklin Roosevelt. During the 1936 campaign, as has often been the role, VP candidate Knox was the ‘attack dog,’ especially criticizing Franklin Roosevelt for Social Security.
However, after the defeat, Knox resumed his focus on the dangers of fascism. This was not always popular. There was a large U.S. homegrown fascist movement. Until his assassination, Huey Long in Louisiana had been one of the leaders of that movement. Charles Coughlin of Royal Oak was another, personalizing a link of Christian-nationalism to fascism. There was a 20,000 strong German-American Bund that celebrated Hitler’s achievements. In 1937, to test support for confronting the fascist threat, President Roosevelt went to Chicago and delivered the ‘Quarantine Speech’ calling for the U.S. to confront fascist lawlessness. Virtually all of the nation’s press condemned the speech, except for Knox.
Then in 1940, a presidential election year, Hitler’s armies overran most of Europe. Roosevelt knew he had to do the highly unpopular step of instituting a peacetime draft. Knox agreed. In a bipartisan show of support, Knox agreed to come into the administration as Secretary of the Navy. He would die on the job in 1944 from overwork.
Everyone in Gratiot County should not only be proud of Frank Knox and Annie Reid but also learn from their bipartisan commitment to the country. As we saw on January 6, fascism is a danger here. Opposing it is not merely personally to reject fear and hate. It means being determined to find ways to work across partisan divisions to undermine it and its hyper-partisanship.
For the last three years, there has been a movement in the region to join together in Reid-Knox Forums to promote dialogue on important community issues. The forums have largely been supported by the Gratiot Democrats. While we appreciate that support, the forums should not be an event for only one party. We need Republicans locally to adopt the model of Frank Knox, Annie Reid, and Ralph Ely. We urgently need to model for our state and nation, coming together in dialogue to resolve the issues we confront - regardless of party.
Campaigns for elections are the time for partisanship. After we elect people to fill positions in government, we need to come together as humans who live in a community and discuss openly and without threats our thoughts on what are our problems and how can we resolve them. If we disagree with the reception our ideas receive from the people we elected, there always is another election when we can try to replace the current elected officials. We have a common community to serve. Knox knew that. He never became a Democrat. He served with a Democrat as a patriot.