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Opinion | Fired Dearborn editor on why Henry Ford bigotry story matters

Editor’s note: This column was printed in the issue of The Dearborn Historian that Mayor John O’Reilly last week ordered scrapped because it contained a report on Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism that O’Reilly said would hurt the city’s efforts at inclusion. The column has not been published elsewhere. It was written by Bill McGraw, the Historian’s part-time editor whose contract with the city of Dearborn was terminated after O’Reilly killed the issue.

McGraw wrote the column to explain to readers why the quarterly magazine was addressing the subject. In the past few days, media around the world have reported on O’Reilly’s decision and tens of thousands of people have read the original story. The magazine normally goes to libraries and some 230 museum members.

With its growing African-American community, a large Middle-Eastern population and immigrants from a variety of countries, Dearborn is growing increasingly diverse. The Dearborn of today is almost unimaginable from, say, the Dearborn of 1980.

Related: Henry Ford and the Jews: the story Dearborn didn’t want told

Such diversity is reflected in the public officials who represent all or large parts of the city: State Sen. Sylvia Santana is an African-American woman. State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud and Wayne County Commissioner Sam Baydoun are Arab Americans. Mayor John O’Reilly is a white man and U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell is a white woman.

It’s a varied cast of characters, and a reflection of an evolving America in which women and minorities are increasingly visible in public life. The trend is further illustrated by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, from next door in Detroit, a person well known in Dearborn and one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. Her 13th Congressional District is next to Dingell’s 12th District.

The emergence of minorities taking their rightful place has come with a price, and part of that price is fear of demographic change among some white Americans and a nationalistic backlash around the world. And a big part of that backlash is a rise in anti-Semitism.

The Anti-Defamation League recorded a 57-percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017, compared to the previous year — including assaults, vandalism, bomb threats and anti-Semitic literature on college campuses.

In 2017, neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and one anti-Nazi protester died. In October, a gunman killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue. “Growing Anti-Semitism Stuns American Jews,” read a headline in the New York Times.

That brings us to Henry Ford.

In this issue, The Dearborn Historian carries a special report on Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism. I wrote it. It’s not a happy story.  

The magazine is running the report because of the current climate of anti-Semitism and because January marks the 100th anniversary of Ford buying the Dearborn Independent weekly newspaper, the platform for his attacks. We’re also publishing the report because we believe local history publications should strive to tell the whole truth about our past, no matter how unpleasant, and connect local events to what’s happening in the greater world.

While many people know vaguely that Ford had anti-Semitic beliefs, I think it’s fair to say most people have no idea that, as the article details, his anti-Semitic publishing effort was so vast in scope and had such a powerful impact, or that his publications from the 1920s are enjoying a renaissance today among extremist websites and online forums.

In general, metro Detroit and its institutions tend to treat Ford gently when it comes to his dark sides. But historians and other experts have delved into Ford’s anti-Jewish campaign and published books and articles, and my story seeks to pull together the important findings of their research.

We’ve also provided a guide so readers can do their own reading. It should start, ironically, in the excellent Ford Collection of Dearborn’s Henry Ford Centennial Library. Among many other things, the collection carries a number of books and other media that contain information on the Dearborn Independent and “The International Jew,” the books Ford published that were collections of the paper’s anti-Semitic articles.

The Dearborn library approaches this dark side of Ford in an honest manner. On another sensitive subject, the city’s longtime mayor, Orville Hubbard, Dearborn in general has become more open to dealing with his segregationist side in recent years. City hall gradually downgraded the prominence of Hubbard’s statue and the Dearborn Historical Commission and The Dearborn Historian (under previous editor David Good) explored the issue forthrightly.

Re-examining dreadful corners of institutional histories has become a trend over the past two decades. Numerous banks, insurance companies, Ivy League colleges, media outlets, cities and religious denominations have studied their actions during the eras of slavery and Jim Crow, published their findings and, in some cases, issued apologies. The city of East Lansing apologized last year for the way it treated black citizens for much of the 20th Century. Proponents of such transparency believe it contributes to racial healing.

Henry Ford is legendary in his native Dearborn and around the world for good reasons, as the article makes clear. His legacy continues to loom large in the lives of residents of metro Detroit.

But his anti-Semitism is much more than a personal failing. Ford’s attacks on Jews were distributed around the world before and after World War II and, alarmingly, they influence budding neo-Nazis today. It’s a subject worth talking about in Dearborn.

Let the discussion begin.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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