Sewell Avery (1874-1955)

By Richard Sanders, Editor, Press for Conversion!

Avery was a financier of the American Liberty League and a National Advisor for one of its front groups, the Crusaders.

Sewell Avery, a precocious darling of the right-wing anti-New Deal movement, came from a wealthy Michigan family of lumber barons. Avery was president of Montgomery Ward, America’s first mail-order business. Created in 1872, its first store opened in 1926. By 1929, it was the world’s top retailer, with 530 outlets. He was a director of J.P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel Corp. In 1931, Avery was president of U.S. Gypsum, America’s top supplier of plaster.

Avery was a National Advisor of the Crusaders, a fascist front group of the American Liberty League. He was also a University of Chicago trustee “where an anti-radical drive took a sudden spurt after the Crusaders went into active anti-labor activity” (John Spivak, New Masses, Feb.5, 1935). Avery gave generously to the Church League of America (CLA). Formed in 1937 to oppose the New Deal, it was “an information clearinghouse for industrial and business security agents” and gave employers blacklists of “unionists and subversives” (Public Eye Political Research Associates). The CLA, “one of the oldest private spy networks in the U.S., [created]… computerized files on U.S. citizens” and spearheaded religious propaganda to link communism with Satan and the Antichrist. Senator Joe McCarthy described the CLA as a “militant anti-Communist, Protestant group usefully serving the interests of America and God” (GroupWatch). More recently, it has helped homophobic crusades of the Christian Right.

Avery defied FDR’s New Deal by refusing to pay $30,000, as prescribed by the National Recovery Act. Despite this defiance, his vice president at Montgomery Ward (Frank Folsom) was appointed to FDR’s National Defense Advisory Commission (1940-1941). During WWII, Avery would not comply with government orders to allow unionization efforts. As a result, National Guardsmen carried him from his office in 1944. “To hell with the government,” he blurted out at the Attorney General, “You... New Dealer!”

In 1955, Sewell retired with a fortune of $327 million.

Although Montgomery Ward was a leading retailer of clothing made in Third World sweatshops, this reliance on virtual slave labour did not save it from bankruptcy in 2000.

U.S. Gypsum is now a $3 billion Fortune 500 company.

U.S. Steel recently reported a loss of $463 million on revenue of $9.3 billion for 2003.


Dr. Burton W. Folsom, "Michigan Resists the New Deal"

"1872 Montgomery Ward-First Mail-Order House," Chicago Timeline

U.S. Gypsum

Thomas Sowell, "The End of Montgomery Ward," Capitalism Magazine, Dec. 30, 2000.

Church League of America

Source: Press for Conversion! magazine, Issue # 53, "Facing the Corporate Roots of American Fascism," March 2004. Published by the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade.

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