The ‘Jayhawk Nazi’ used religion to stoke hate. Let’s not fall for it again.
A 1953 photo of the headquarters of Defenders of the Christian Faith building at 2502 E. Douglas Ave., Wichita. The founder of the fundamentalist Christian organization, Gerald Winrod, is standing just to the left of the street sign with arms folded. (Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives)
Fremont Park in Emporia is one of those old-fashioned places that remind me of how the past is always present. One of the city’s oldest parks, it’s named for the 19th Century explorer of the American West who became the first Republican presidential candidate. It has a bandstand that looks like a setting out of “The Music Man” and, near the railway tracks at the south end of the park, there’s a steam locomotive and caboose on static display. The locomotive, Santa Fe No. 1015, was built in 1901.
But the bandstand and locomotive and the rest, including a monument to Civil War veterans, are just the mute trappings of history and not history itself. When I was a kid there was a Civil War cannon outside the city hall in my hometown of Baxter Springs. Being a budding history buff, I was obsessed with that cannon, and if my memory isn’t failing it was a Confederate piece. Touching a finger to the inside of the bore was a thrill, but it wasn’t touching history. If experience could be transmitted that easily, we would never fight another war.
History isn’t the objects left behind. It’s not a collection of old maps or a list of important dates or even the names of the people associated with those dates. No, history is the collective and individual factual experiences of those who came before us, and to which we add our stories every day. The study of history is the gathering of those facts, those relics of the unreachable past, into a meaningful and truthful pattern.
“It’s all we’ve got,” says Yale historian Timothy Snyder about history. “Everything you think you know is historical. Everything you think you know comes from past experience.”
The question, he says, is what we do with this knowledge.
Sometimes this knowledge leads to war monuments being erected, or antique cannons and locomotives being put on display, or statues commissioned of the celebrated but long dead. A 20-foot-tall statue of “Pathfinder” John C. Fremont, who was the 1856 Republican nominee for president, was dedicated in 2013 near Florence, Colorado.
At other times, this knowledge leads to less ostentation and more introspection. Sometimes historians like Snyder write big books, such as “Bloodlands,” in an attempt to understand how 14 million people could be fatally crushed between Hitler and Stalin. It’s the kind of knowledge that doesn’t come from the base of a pedestal, but from close readings of letters and diaries left by the dead.
It is easy now to recognize the evil perpetrated by the Nazis. The death camps leave no doubt. To call someone a Nazi is a brickbat that used to be considered so over the top as to be forbidden in civil debate, at least until Charlottesville made it clear there were truly new Nazis and other “very fine people” among us. But of course we knew that already. Not quite 10 years ago, and closer to home, a white supremacist killed three at the Jewish Community Center at Overland Park.
But 80 to 90 years ago, in those somber days leading up to World War II in Europe, it was unclear to a large swath of Americans that Nazism was evil. In fact, there were many who admired Hitler’s “strong man” persona. Some of them, including famous admirers like aviator Charles Lindbergh and automobile magnate Henry Ford, agreed that Jewish persons and Communists represented an existential global threat.
And that is what brings me back to Fremont Park in Emporia.
Let me take you back to the evening of Monday, June 27, 1938, when a crowd of 450 jostled around the bandstand to hear Gerald Winrod speak. Winrod was a 38-year-old preacher from Wichita who was running for the Republican nomination for Senate. By most accounts, Winrod was a skilled orator who could connect with his audience, whether in person or over one of his many radio broadcasts.
Kansans found a lot to like in him, especially a backstory that included being raised by a hard-drinking Wichita saloon owner who turned to religion after Carrie Nation hacked up his establishment. Gerald’s mother was stricken with breast cancer and became a morphine addict to cope with the pain but was saved from both sickness and vice by prayer and divine intervention. From that time, according to author Bradley W. Hart, the Winrod family was suspicious of doctors and never allowed medicine in their home. Whether these stories were true or not, they served to burnish the young Winrod’s religious bona fides.
At the age of 25, Winrod and a group of other fundamentalist preachers formed “Defenders of the Christian Faith,” a nod to the original “Defender” and anti-evolutionist, William Jennings Bryan. The group had an official newspaper, the “Defender,” which reached a circulation of 60,000 by 1932.
About this time, Winrod discovered a book called “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.” It alleged a vast Jewish conspiracy for world domination through control of politics, banking, and the press. Although it has since been thoroughly discredited as one of the biggest and most hateful literary hoaxes of all time, to Winrod it was a revelation. To him it was proof that Jews were responsible for the Great Depression and that the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt was all part of the Jewish plot.
“Winrod’s discovery of the ‘Protocols’ started him down the road to becoming one of Hitler’s key American friends,” writes Hart in his 2018 book. “By the mid-1930s he was expressing admiration for the Fuhrer in print and proclaimed the Nazi regime was protecting Christian churches from Jewish and communist threats.”
In 1935, Winrod spent three months in Germany, meeting Nazi party leaders and propagandists. When he got home, he went on a national speaking tour and the “Defender” assumed a decidedly pro-German slant, sometimes running in translation Nazi propaganda.
Winrod had become one of the three leading American voices that whipped nationalism, isolationism, religion and bigotry into a toxic political brew. The other two were Father Charles E. Coughlin, a Canadian-American Catholic priest with pro-Nazi views, and Gerald L.K. Smith, a fascist and antisemite associate of Louisiana governor Huey Long. After his moment in the spotlight of national politics faded, Smith moved to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where in 1964 he began raising funds for a religious theme park that would include the seven-story “Christ of the Ozarks” statue.
But Winrod had something that neither Coughlin nor Smith could ever manage: a chance to become an elected U.S. senator. In Kansas, incumbent Democrat George McGill was suffering from a rural anti-New Deal backlash, and Winrod saw a chance to win the seat. Winrod threw his hat into the ring and was soon doing two radio addresses a day and barnstorming across the state, according to Hart’s book, “Hitler’s American Friends.”
He held back on his most virulent antisemitic views during his campaign speeches, but because of his writings in the “Defender” (which eventually reached a circulation of more than 100,000) practically everyone knew where he stood. In 1937, Unitarian minister Leon M. Birkhead, of Kansas City, founded “Friends of Democracy” to fight fascism and soon found himself sparring ideologically with Winrod. The Wichita preacher was dubbed the “Jayhawk Nazi” by detractors, a nickname that was soon picked up by the wire services. Winrod fought back and, during his campaign for the primary nomination, sought to reach as many Kansans as possible.
So in late June 1938, Winrod came to Fremont Park.
He walked onstage to the music of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” according to a contemporary account in the Emporia Gazette. Winrod made a plea for “Americanism” and claimed to reject fascism and Nazism. His most ardent supporters, the Gazette reported, appeared to include those who had previously supported John R. Brinkley (the Kansas goat doctor) for governor, some “members and leaders of the old Klan,” and followers of Coughlin.
The Kansas GOP, which had finally awakened to the threat to democracy posed by Winrod, ran former governor and Parsons newspaper publisher Clyde M. Reed against him in the primary. Reed won the nomination and defeated McGill in the general for the Senate seat. McGill was the last of only three Democrats ever to serve as a senator from Kansas.
Winrod, who came in third in the primary, blamed his loss on a conspiracy.
In 1942, the Justice Department indicted Winrod for sedition, alleging a conspiracy against the United States. The trial for Winrod and 29 other alleged Nazi collaborators ended with a mistrial after seven months, when the judge died of a heart attack. The government declined to prosecute again.
Winrod died of untreated pneumonia in 1957.
His son, Gordon, continued his father’s anti-Jewish message, becoming a leader of the virulent Christian Identity movement in the 1980s. Gordon Winrod was sentenced to 30 years in prison after kidnapping six of his grandchildren and holding them in a compound in the Missouri Ozarks, where they were indoctrinated in antisemitism. He served 10 years of the sentence.
Now in his late 90s, Gordon Winrod may have relocated to North Dakota.
David, a grandson of Gerald Winrod, was reported by the Associated Press to have established a church in Alaska in the 1990s and continued the family ministry.
“For more than 60 years covering three generations, (the three Winrods) have produced some of the most vicious and hate filled anti-Semitic propaganda to be found on the American scene,” the Jewish advocacy group Anti-Defamation League said in a 2000 report.
The Winrod campaign rally at Fremont Park may seem distant now, but it exploited two things which are sure to get rural Americans fired up: religion and patriotism. It worked for Williams Jennings Bryan, who helped prosecute John T. Scopes for teaching evolution in Tennessee, it worked to catapult young Wichita preacher Gerald Winrod to the national stage in 1938, and it continues to work for politicians today.
The delusion that America was founded as a Christian nation is threatening the foundational separation of church and state. The idea of “Christian nationalism” is favored by many Americans, according to a recent Pew survey, even if the concept is a slippery one to define. Is it belonging to a specific denomination, being a follower of Christ, or just having a general belief in one God? But the point of flag-waving and cross-wielding is not that it makes you think, but about how it makes you feel.
And those who would exploit us for political gain know that.
Once they have our trust, it’s easy to sell us the lie that others are responsible for our current troubles. The great lie of the “Protocols” is never far from the lips of those who would trick us into deceiving ourselves. It isn’t far from believing we’re a “Christian nation” to throwing rocks through the windows of homes and shops of those who may believe a bit differently from us, or who may not believe at all.
As in 1938, we are again at a crossroads. There is no Hitler any longer, but we have no shortage of home-grown authoritarians to wave flags and clutch Bibles and tell us our only problem are those that are other.
But we don’t have to fall for it.
As we add the stories of our lives to the shared history of America, we have a choice. We can choose fact over feeling and empathy over intolerance. It is our fingers now tracing the muzzle of eternity, and future generations will judge us on what we do with the knowledge we have now, whether we use it to spill blood in hate or shed tears of loving joy.
Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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