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Readorama: Biography describes KC pastor Leon Birkhead, who fought fascism

The U.S. Senate censured Joseph McCarthy on Dec. 2, 1954, for behavior “contrary to senatorial traditions.”

The previous day, Leon Birkhead, former Kansas City Unitarian pastor, had been found dead in his New York City hotel room.

Birkhead, who had been receiving treatment for cancer, long had battled those he considered enemies of tolerance and free thought.

McCarthy, the red-baiting Wisconsin senator, had been Birkhead’s latest adversary.

Others, during and after Birkhead’s 22-year career leading what is now All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, had included Kansas City machine politicians, those who opposed the instruction of evolution in public schools and members of the America First Committee, who opposed American intervention in what became World War II.

Friends included attorney Clarence Darrow, whom Birkhead had assisted during the 1925 “Scopes” evolution trial in Tennessee; journalist H.L. Mencken, who had covered that trial; and Merrill Otis, a federal judge.

Otis, a congregation member, in 1939 sentenced machine boss Tom Pendergast to 15 months in Leavenworth for income tax evasion.

Then there was Sinclair Lewis, who came to Kansas City in 1926 to meet local ministers while preparing the novel “Elmer Gantry.”

Birkhead became Lewis’ closest Kansas City confidant and, after the novel chronicling a controversial evangelist appeared in 1927, defended Lewis.

“‘I had always heard about this very colorful minister,” said Jim Grebe of Roeland Park, an All Souls member. Birkhead served as the church’s pastor from 1914 through 1939, when he left to form the Friends of Democracy, an anti-propaganda organization later based in New York.

Years ago Grebe began going through Birkhead’s papers, donated in 1993 to the State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center-Kansas City. He now has chronicled Birkhead’s life in “Democracy’s Defender: The Life of L.M. Birkhead.”

In 1935, Birkhead traveled to Germany to examine the rise of the Nazis. His description of Berlin street thugs shattering the store windows of Jewish shopkeepers appeared in a 1935 dispatch printed by The Star.

“Visiting Germany was a career-changing experience for Birkhead,” Grebe said. “After that, he was battling fascists on a national stage.”

“Democracy’s Defender” is available on Amazon.com.

A service featuring excerpts from several of Birkhead’s 1920s sermons will be April 12 at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, at 4501 Walnut St.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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