PART THREE

Chicago

Get in there and fight, you punk.

—DAVEY MILLER

CHAPTER TEN

Father Coughlin, Radio Priest

Anti-Semitism was nothing new in Depression-era Chicago. According to Irving Cutler—a professor emeritus at Chicago State University and also author of the book The Jews of Chicago—anti-Semitism in the Windy City dated back to the turn of the century, a time when Jews had to daily face vicious hatred. Kids would run up to aged Jews and pull their beards or throw their chewing gum at them. (Gum in a beard couldn’t be removed without pain, and often a scissors.) The Jewish community stood out and made easy targets because they looked different and tended to wear Old Country–style clothes.

But by the late 1930s in Chicago, anti-Semitism was not confined to the insults of street bullies or the ignorant proclamations of juiced-up bigots. Hate talk was in the very air, in the airwaves, coming out of every radio in the city. One spewer of the sewage was a Catholic priest named Father Charles Edward Coughlin, who gave his sermons over the radio on Sunday afternoons, right between the Rhythmic Ramblings program and Design For Dancing. They called Coughlin “the Radio Priest.” Coughlin had a velvety soft voice and tenderly wrapped his hate speech in a warm security blanket of tone and comfort. He wore small, round glasses, and when he smiled, he emanated a shallow kindness, one that dissipated if you examined his eyes. The guy was nuts.

Father Coughlin was born in Canada in 1891 and attended seminary school in Toronto. He was a star pupil. After he was ordained, he taught for a few years before being assigned to the Detroit diocese.

His first flirtation with the public eye came in 1926, when he was thirty-five years old. He arranged for the construction of a Catholic shrine in a Detroit suburb where there were only a handful of Catholics but an active KKK. To keep the shrine from being smashed, Coughlin recruited sports stars, including Babe Ruth, to make personal appearances at the shrine. After the Shrine of the Little Flower was built, Coughlin had cleared ten thousand dollars on the deal and frequently had his name in the newspapers.

In September 1926, Coughlin asked a Detroit radio station for free airtime so he could “raise awareness of his church.” The station agreed. Coughlin and radio turned out to be a perfect match. His baritone voice with perfect enunciation made him a pleasure to listen to—as long as you paid no attention to what he was saying.

The first sign that Coughlin was special came in the form of pilgrims, people from all over who journeyed to visit the Shrine of the Little Flower. He had built it, and they were coming, and once they got there, they discovered Coughlin’s offertory basket was always out.

He created the Radio League of the Little Flower, and anyone could become a member by sending Father Coughlin one dollar. Since Coughlin considered himself a charity, it was all tax free.

In 1928, he met with New York architects to build a new church at the corner of Woodward and Twelve Mile Road in Royal Oak, Michigan, a combination place of worship and headquarters for Coughlin’s syndicated radio network.

His popularity grew. He was an influential broadcaster in Detroit, then Chicago, then from New York to Los Angeles. His program was carried on forty-six stations across the United States, without the benefit of a major radio network. His first shift from the religious to the political came after the stock market crashed and the nation plummeted into despair. He advocated, on the air, a fresh printing of money at the US mints, which he claimed would cause inflation and give the economy a boost. FDR thought the idea ridiculous and said so, at which point Coughlin began a never-ending rant about FDR being un-American.

The US Treasury Department responded by investigating the Radio Priest, then publicizing their findings. They’d discovered that the private citizen in Michigan who owned the most silver (a half-million ounces) was Coughlin’s secretary. You know, in case anyone was wondering where all of those dollar bills were going. Coughlin responded by calling FDR a “tool of Wall Street.”

In 1936, Coughlin exploited his media clout to launch his own political party, designed to run a candidate for president against FDR. It was called the Union Party, but it wasn’t all that pro-union. He couldn’t find a candidate who wasn’t Catholic, and the common wisdom at the time was that Americans wouldn’t vote for a Catholic for president. (There have only been two Catholic presidents—John Kennedy, who was assassinated, and Joe Biden.) He finally found a body to fill the ticket in William Lemke, a North Dakota Republican. Coughlin didn’t really think Lemke would win, but he had hopes of deadlocking the Electoral College, which might have resulted in FDR’s ousting. The reality was that Lemke drew fewer than a million votes and FDR beat Republican Alf Landon in a landslide.

So Coughlin returned to his radio microphone. His themes tended to repeat, and one concerned Jews.

There were indications that the radio was becoming more powerful than newspapers ever were or could be. On October 30, 1938, the night before Halloween, America had listened to Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds on the radio, a theatrical piece about a Martian invasion of Earth set in New Jersey, and many people had panicked because they thought it was real.

Just a few weeks later, the Radio Priest broadcasted a strong defense of Nazi Germany. In particular, he praised the way Nazis dealt with Jews. The priest said that he was against all forms of religious persecution, of course, but the Germans’ treatment of the Jews was a natural reaction to the communist threat that the Jews represented.

It is unclear whether Coughlin was aware of the genocide underway when he said this, but he certainly knew about Kristallnacht, the night of November 9 and into November 10, 1938, in which Jewish neighborhoods were smashed and many of their residents killed. Coughlin told America that he wasn’t pro-Nazi; he was anti-communist. He named the names of two dozen Jewish men who were involved in the “Russian revolution.” The Jews had money and were backing the communists. The Jewish religion and communism, in fact, had become synonymous, and the power of that combo was making Germany sick, like a cancer. Was it any wonder they wanted to cut it out? Without any sense of irony, he said that many Jews in Germany had become powerful by using their talents to acquire positions in radio, on newspapers, and in international banking. The Jews, he said, were dangerous because of their solidarity. It was one-for-all with those people, so that when they wanted to be aggressive, they could hurt Germany. He pleaded with FDR to pull American ambassadors out of all communist countries.

Coughlin’s ratings were through the roof. The show was called Golden Hour of the Shrine of the Little Flower, and the Gallup poll said twenty-two million listened in—which could have been a record for that time. Many Americans took it all very seriously. How could Father Coughlin be wrong? He was a priest! He made the sign of the cross before and after his sermons. He threw in a Latin phrase now and again, and when he wasn’t calling for the extermination of a race of people, he led the nation in prayer. He was keenly aware that his audience was poor and had been poor for close to a decade. They were immigrants and sons and daughters of immigrants, not just German but also Irish and Italian and Polish. When he discussed the impending war in Europe, he naturally thought the United States was best to stay out of it. The conflict, he opined, was over money, capitalists fighting over a bigger piece of the pie. The subject of the barbarism of Nazi domination never came up. He prayed for the poor masses, he said, prayed that they would remain safe from the greedy interests of FDR and global banking. He was, he said again and again, vox populi, the voice of the people. That message, oddly, melded into another: he questioned why elections were necessary and called for a halt to the two-party political system.

WMCA, the radio station that carried Coughlin’s program in New York, had asked for and received an advance copy of Coughlin’s sermons, so the instant he went off the air, they had a speaker ready, not only with a disclaimer that those opinions did not represent those of the station but also with a rebuttal from a silver-throated member of the Anti-Nazi League, refuting just about everything Coughlin had said.

Eventually, Coughlin went too far, and WMCA announced they were dropping Coughlin’s program. The reason: “Unfortunately, Father Coughlin has uttered certain mistakes of fact.”

That caused Coughlin’s fans, carrying anti-Semitic signs, to picket on the street in front of the radio station’s studios.

“We want Coughlin!” one chanted.

“Send the Jews back where they came from—in leaky boats!” called out another.

“Jews are going to be sorry when Hitler comes over here,” cried a third.

WJR in Detroit received a deluge of complaints, and the Roman Catholic diocese in Detroit made it clear that Coughlin’s worldview was his own. WJJD in Chicago and WIND in Gary, Indiana, stopped broadcasting the show, but wouldn’t publicly state why.

“It no longer appears on our program sheets,” was the company line.

Coughlin persisted, however: “By their failure to use the press to fight communism as vigorously as they fight Nazism, the Jews invite the charge of being supporters of communism.”

Coughlin was an entrenched tile in the 1938 zeitgeist mosaic, mentioned in the lyrics of tunes by Cole Porter (1935’s “A Picture of Me Without You” from Broadway’s Jubilee) and Woody Guthrie (the scathing but unreleased “Mister Charlie Lindbergh”), but he was not a rallying point for other groups that shared his anti-Semitism. To a certain extent, he remained a loner out there on the airwaves because he was Catholic, and to a lot of Jew-haters, Catholics were almost as bad. Coughlin was the subject of an angry Ku Klux Klan rally, after which they burned a cross on his lawn. That said, Coughlin remained more popular than the Protestant ministers who sermonized anti-Semitic messages on the radio at that time, guys like the Reverend Gerald B. Winrod, who also denounced the Jews from coast to coast, but he couldn’t match Coughlin’s charisma, his media savvy. The only radio voice of hate that could compete with Coughlin was that of Gerald L. K. Smith, a Louisiana political organizer who took over where Huey Long left off after Long’s 1935 assassination. But Smith was not a man of the cloth.

As Judge Perlman picked up the phone and said, “Long distance operator, get me Chicago,” anti-Semitism was in the air.

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