Opinion: Frances Sweeney’s fight against fascism in Boston

Traffic along Boston’s “Newspaper Row” on Washington Street in the downtown hub section on June 22, 1942. Old South Church is in the background.

Traffic along Boston’s “Newspaper Row” on Washington Street in the downtown hub section on June 22, 1942. Old South Church is in the background. AP file


Published: 12-04-2023 6:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

For anyone concerned about the advance of authoritarianism in America, there has been plenty to worry about. In spite of his multiple criminal prosecutions, the Republican presidential front-runner appears to be running neck and neck with President Biden.

With his vermin comment and his talk about the nation’s blood being poisoned, Trump has been sounding more fascist-like. He explicitly calls for the jailing of his political opponents. Last year on his social media he advocated termination of the Constitution. It is an open question whether American democracy would survive another Trump presidency.

The Democratic response to this fascist threat has been tepid at best. Where are the full-throated opponents of American-style fascism?

Almost no one knows the 1940s story of Frances Sweeney, an incredibly brave anti-fascist organizer and writer from Boston. The journalist I.F. Stone described her: “Fran Sweeney could not be discouraged, could not be beaten down, could not be frightened, could not be put in her place. She was a one-man crusade. She burned with some of the hottest and most inextinguishable passion for social justice that I have ever seen.”

Sweeney’s example offers hope and inspiration for all who are concerned about saving our democracy and moving America forward in a progressive direction. Out of her creativity and initiative, Sweeney played a pivotal role in crippling the far right in Boston. Activists today could learn from this history. Her story should be much more widely known.

Most people probably think of Boston as a liberal cosmopolitan city. There is no more reliably blue metropolitan area. So it might be surprising for readers to learn that in 1940 Boston was a fascist stronghold.

In the period leading up to World War II, there was a powerful far-right movement in America. One leader of the movement was the Detroit-based radio priest Father Charles Coughlin who was enormously popular. Coughlin’s weekly show on Sunday had over 30 million listeners, almost one-quarter of the entire American population.

Massachusetts governor and four-time mayor of Boston James Michael Curley called Boston “the most Coughlinite city in America.” Curley said, “Politicians tripped over one another to be seen with him.”

Coughlin was much more than a radio personality. He inspired the organization of the Christian Front, a far-right organization with particularly strong chapters in Boston and New York. Toeing the German Nazi line, Coughlin called for the United States to stay out of any European war. Before World War II, that seemingly anti-war position was widely popular.

The Christian Front blamed hostilities in Europe on the Jews. Coughlin equated Jews with communists and he reprinted the fraudulent antisemitic screed, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in his magazine.

Supporters of the Christian Front sold the magazine, ironically named Social Justice, after Mass in many Catholic parishes in Boston. Boston Cardinal William O’Connell was silent about the Christian Front and its vicious antisemitism while many Catholic priests soft-pedaled the far-right politics. From 1939-1942, the Christian Front was highly visible with its offices located downtown on the second floor of the Copley Square Hotel.

In the early 1940s, Jews in Boston were getting physically assaulted. Gangs of Catholic teens entered Jewish neighborhoods with blackjacks and brass knuckles. The gangs beat up Jewish residents and vandalized stores. They rampaged through Jewish parts of Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan.

As an Irish Catholic with universalistic values, Sweeney was appalled by Coughlin and the Christian Front. She was disgusted that Catholics who themselves had been victims of discrimination would turn around and discriminate against Jews. She organized an American-Irish Defense Association to create a countervoice and launched her own offensive against the Christian Front.

Sweeney turned to journalism as her primary vehicle to expose the Christian Front and as a way to motivate Irish Catholics to stand against fascism. She pushed the Boston Herald to cover the Christian Front and she herself had a weekly column, Rumor Clinic, that she used to correct misinformation.

Her hard-hitting articles led to her being pushed out of the conservative Herald. She launched a new publication in late 1942, the Boston City Reporter. It was a four-page mimeographed newsletter that came out monthly. She exposed Christian Front leaders’ ties to Nazis and showed how they cloaked antisemitism behind attacks on globalists and international bankers. She quickly built a paid subscriber base and got the newsletter mailed to thousands in Irish neighborhoods in Boston.

Sweeney exposed the talented leader of the Boston Christian Front, Francis Moran, as a paid Nazi propagandist. Moran was, in fact, an agent of the Nazis, recruited by a Nazi SS officer and consul, Herbert Scholz. This was like early day Michael Flynn, where you had an unregistered lobbyist working without disclosing his connections.

Sweeney’s efforts led to the Boston police intervening and actually shutting down the Christian Front. About the mission of the Boston City Reporter, Sweeney wrote: “The object of the Boston City Reporter is and always has been to tell the public who is using prejudice against entire races and religions for undemocratic purposes - and how.”

Sweeney organized young people to be reporters, including Nat Hentoff, who later became a writer for the Village Voice. Hentoff dedicated his memoir “Boston Boy” to Fran Sweeney. Hentoff was among the young Jews who had gotten beat up by the antisemitic gangs. Sweeney gathered 14 affidavits from Jews who had been beaten and got the story publicized. Her efforts helped to stop the physical assaults on Jews in Boston.

Cardinal O’Connell threatened to excommunicate her from the church if she kept writing but she never did. Sweeney died of heart problems at age 38 in 1944. Her story is told in Charles Gallagher’s fascinating book, “Nazis of Copley Square.”

Fran Sweeney shows the difference one person can make.