“You probably won’t believe this story,” future CBS correspondent Eric Sevareid wrote in the Sept. 11, 1936, evening edition of the Minneapolis Journal.
Sevareid told readers about the Silver Shirts, a fascist group that was holding secret meetings and whispering “dark plots against the nation.” After sitting in on a meeting, he walked away “wondering if he still lives in America.”
The story by Sevareid (still known then by his birth name Arnold) is on page 3 of “Legends and Myths of Ancient Minnesota,” a 32-page print section about Minnesota’s forgotten history of fascism in the 1930s. Minneapolis artist Brooks Turner put together the section, and paid to have it inserted in the Oct. 25 Star Tribune. About 36,000 subscribers in the metro area received it. Another 5,000 copies are available for free in a single, towering stack at the Weisman Art Museum.
As a Weisman artist-in-residence, Turner spent nearly two years riffling through Minnesota Historical Society archives, discovering disturbing information about the Silver Legion of America, or Silver Shirts, America’s first Nazi organization, founded in 1933 in North Carolina, just as Hitler got elected, and shut down in 1941. The Jewish Anti-Defamation Council and the Teamsters Union Local 544 ultimately drove the group out of Minnesota.
Although the state was known as a bastion of progressive thinking, it also harbored fascist ideologies. Turner and curator Boris Oicherman scheduled the insert before the election to give people a context for contemplating history.
We caught up with Turner to talk about Minnesota’s dark past and its connection to the rise of populist ideologies today. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Q: What fascinates you about the history of fascism in America?
A: My interest is in trying to understand a particular American fascism through aesthetic analysis.
Americanism is really kind of proto-fascist. The institution of slavery is proto-fascist. Manifest Destiny as an ideology is proto-fascist. Hitler was inspired by the genocide of Indigenous people in America. It shows that fascism was not a European-born ideology — it borrowed from Americanism and restructured it into this format.
I discussed with scholars at the U the possibility of re-centering fascism in an American context. I felt I could contribute as an artist best through aesthetics, not theory or history.
Q: Why did it feel important to investigate Minnesota’s fascist history now?
A: Locally and nationally, there is a documented rise in hate groups, specifically those of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Fascist literature and sentiments have been openly shared and supported on social media by state politicians, and further the president and his administration have used rhetoric and enacted policies that mimic historic fascism.
This artwork is meant to draw a direct line from past manifestations of fascism to its reemergence in politics today. Trumpism is a form of fascism connected to an American history and that of the greater white, Western world. It needs to be identified as such in order to be effectively countered.
Q: How did you connect the past and the present of fascism in Minnesota?
A: When I started this in December 2018, [a similar project called] “A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anticommunists, Racism and Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota 1930-1942” had just happened.Professor emerita Riv-Ellen Prell was going through old files in Coffman Union and found an anti-Semitic exchange between two directors of student unions in 1941. She kept digging and found more, ultimately assembling a robust exhibition about racism and anti-Semitism at the U in the 1930s. It led to a series of hearings on the names of buildings at the U, and a reckoning with the institution’s history.
I teach at St. Cloud State University and a year ago there was a panel on hate crimes and hate speech that got canceled because of threats to the panelists. The first semester I taught at St. Cloud in 2017, I encountered white supremacist propaganda posters anonymously posted around campus.
Minneapolis feels very liberal but I think we take for granted this progressive attitude when so much of the city is structurally racist with housing segregation, wage disparity, and racism in the Minneapolis Police Department. Part of me making this project was speaking to the white population of Minnesota to provoke reflection and contemplation on the whiteness and fascism that exists in plain sight. It made me contemplate my relationship to Minnesota and ask why I had never heard of this.