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Professor JoEllen Vinyard puts political extremism into historical context

A photo of JoEllen Vinyard.
A photo of JoEllen Vinyard.


Following the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, last August, EMU historian JoEllen Vinyard shared her expertise on extremist political groups with several news organizations including the Detroit Free Press, television station WWMT, and Michigan Radio. The author of Right in Michigan's Grassroots: From the KKK to the Michigan Militia (2011), Dr. Vinyard argues that today’s white nationalists have antecedents in racist groups like the KKK and the Black Legion, which were active in Michigan in the 1920s and 1930s. However, she also wants people to understand that right-wing groups are varied and complex, and that “Michigan is not a ‘cauldron of hate’ as it is sometimes represented.” Dr. Vinyard observes, “Michigan was home to nearly every political movement in America that emerged from the grassroots in the twentieth century, not only from the right but also a focal point for every important ‘left wing’ or progressive reform group from the labor activists on through the anti-war and civil rights efforts. By looking at all of the movements in historical perspective, from the right or left, we can see people who had absorbed the message to ‘take responsibility’ and viewed themselves not as radical departures from American values but as last-ditch efforts to preserve their birthright. Although often represented as ‘extremists,’ these groups in Michigan were an exaggerated reflection of the hopes, fears, passions, and disappointments common across the nation.”

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