DEARBORN, Mich. — He was one of America's most successful entrepreneurs, but Henry Ford was also one of its most virulent anti-Semites, and an attempt by a suburban Detroit mayor to censor an article detailing Ford's hatred of Jews in a little-read local historical magazine is drawing national attention.
Most Americans are likely to think of Ford Motor Co.'s founder as the man who put the country on wheels, rolling out the Model T by the millions off his breakthrough assembly lines in the early half of the 20th century. But "he was also a man who mass produced hate," said Bill McGraw, former editor of the Dearborn Historian. Dearborn Mayor John B. "Jack" O'Reilly late last month ordered all the copies of the Autumn 2018 issue, Volume 55, No. 3 confiscated and, days later, fired McGraw.
A former reporter from the Detroit Free Press, McGraw wrote the issue's cover story for the city-owned magazine: "A Special Report: Henry Ford and 'The International Jew.'"
There are no indications that Ford or its executives had any knowledge of the mayor's actions, and the company has taken great pains over the years to distance itself from its founder's dark legacy.
Admired by Hitler
Ford used the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper he took over in 1918, as a mouthpiece for his personal views — everything from business to history. But it was Ford's racist screeds that, until it was shut down in December 1927, promoted anti-Semitism here and abroad and that some say is helping to shape anti-Jewish vitriol today.
Ford, for instance, paid to print and distribute 500,000 copies of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which has renewed popularity in America among today's neo-Nazi and white supremacists. Historians say the book — a hoax first printed in Russia in 1903 that claimed to reveal Jewish plans for global domination — would have likely been forgotten, but for Ford's reprint in English.
Adolf Hitler himself called Ford an inspiration and kept a photo of the automaker behind his desk. In a 1923 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Hitler said he considered "Heinrich Ford as the leader of the growing Fascisti movement in America" and "admire(d) particularly his anti-Jewish policy," adding that he wished he could send some of his "shock troops to America" to help Ford get elected president. Historians say Hitler distributed Ford's books and articles throughout Germany, stoking the hatred that helped fuel the Holocaust.
During an interview at the Dearborn Historical Museum before being fired last week, McGraw said Ford "used the Dearborn Independent to spread his message all over the world."
Many of the Independent's articles were eventually compiled in a book, "The International Jew," that Hitler said was translated, reprinted and circulated throughout Germany, according to the 1923 article in the Chicago Tribune.
The original cover of the Dearborn Historian features a quote from one of the Independent's articles declaring: "The Jew is a race that has no civilization to point to, no aspiring religion, no great achievement in any form."
In explaining O'Reilly's decision to pull the magazine, Dearborn city spokeswoman Mary Laundroche said, "the mayor is very focused that all our messages, through all our outlets (including) his publication work to help people understand what Dearborn is today." Laundroche added that the Democratic mayor "decided this was not beneficial for our community."
With the story now reprinted in a local news site, DeadlineDetroit.com, and word of the mayor's move starting to go viral, the attempt to bury the report is gaining far more attention than it ever would have originally.
And it is putting back in the spotlight a town that has had to deal with the legacy of not only Henry Ford but long-time Mayor Orville Liscum Hubbard, an avowed racist who helped keep most blacks out of the city during a 36-year reign that ended in 1978. Dearborn now has one of the country's largest populations of Lebanese and other Middle Easterners.
O'Reilly won re-election by a wide margin, many crediting his efforts to cope with Dearborn's dark history. Among other things, O'Reilly moved a statue of Hubbard off a main thoroughfare and into the historical museum's back lot. Some residents now question whether his decision to censor the Ford issue was motivated by other concerns.
Headquartered in the suburb just outside of Detroit, Ford is Dearborn's biggest employer. Some 4,100 work at the sprawling Rouge Assembly Plant complex alone with thousands more at Ford's world headquarters, technical center and other facilities within city limits.
The presence of the automaker and the family that still controls it can be felt everywhere in civic life, as well. There's the massive Henry Ford Museum, the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center, even Fordson High School.
Laundroche insisted that the mayor "made (his) decision in the interest of Dearborn and without discussing it with the Ford Motor Co. or Ford family."
The company has, in fact, worked hard to separate itself from the legacy of its founder, starting with Henry Ford II, who effectively forced out his grandfather at the end of World War II. Commonly known as "The Deuce," he became a strong benefactor of Israel, refusing to engage in a boycott of the fledgling nation after its founding in 1948. William Clay Ford Jr., Henry's great-grandson and today Ford Motor Co. chairman, was honored in 2015 by Steven Spielberg's USC Shoah Foundation Institute with the Ambassador for Humanity Award for his leadership in education and the community.
While the company wouldn't address the mayor's actions or comment on the Dearborn Historian's article, it released a statement condemning discrimination:
"Ford Motor Company has a long and rich history as a company that supports equality and fairness to all people, and condemns any form of discrimination. Ford Motor Company's position on any form of discrimination is well documented and the company remains committed to the advancement of understanding and goodwill among all races, religions and cultures."
Few would question the automaker's efforts to right the wrongs of its founder. And McGraw and others on the Historical Commission appear convinced that the company was not involved in the censorship of the Historian. But whatever the reasoning behind the move, there remains deep concern about the implications.
The Dearborn Historical Commission called an emergency meeting Thursday to vote on a resolution calling on the mayor to distribute the magazine. It may have been 14 below zero outside, but things were getting heated inside the old city building. The majority of those gathered at the meeting offered strong praise for McGraw's work, calling it a much-needed look at the dark side of Dearborn's most famous son.
Though invited to attend the meeting, O'Reilly and his staff were no-shows.
Not everyone was sorry to see the distribution of the magazine halted. Ford was "a multifaceted person," argued Commissioner Mary Buegeia, insisting Ford "had a good relationship with some Jewish people."
In fact, he did. Most of his factories were designed by Albert Kahn, a renowned Detroit architect who was Jewish. And for years, Ford gave a car each year to Rabbi Leo Franklin, once a neighbor when the businessman lived in Detroit's upscale Boston-Edison neighborhood — though the rabbi stopped accepting the gifts in 1920.
'Bad for the mayor'
Although Buegeia argued, "we of today's population do not agree to" what Ford wrote a century ago, she questioned why the Dearborn Historian published the Ford article.
"I think it's bad for the mayor. I think he made an unfortunate decision," William Hackett, an emeritus member of the Historical Commission, said as it prepared to vote on its emergency resolution. With only Buegeia abstaining, the commission board voted unanimously for the resolution.
Author McGraw was fired shortly before the meeting. Although Laundroche insisted that decision was made by Jack Tate, the head of the Dearborn Museum, Tate told the commission Thursday that O'Reilly "ordered" him to fire McGraw.
Many historians and civil rights groups contend that Ford's hate-filled words are fueling violence today with anti-Semitic acts on the rise, including the murder of 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October, The Southern Poverty Law Center has cited Ford as a strong influence on growing neo-Nazi and other white supremacist groups.
"Henry Ford was the most famous, most wealthy and most successful man in the United States at the time," said Michael Rose, a historian and documentarian now working on a book and film exploring Ford's anti-Semitic legacy. "This is someone people aspired to be and be like. His book and his newspaper influenced people all over the world."