How not to fight Nazis: Skokie, Greensboro, and the left in the US in the 1970s

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(The following material is an extract from my new book about free speech and fascism. It’s worth reading alongside other historical pieces I’ve published looking at, for example, No Platform in the 30s and 40s, or the way the first Amendment was employed by the Supreme Court in the States in the 1920s)

The Rock Against Racism campaign in late 1970s Britain was such a clear success that there is the danger of assuming that every other comparable country must have witnessed a broadly similar movement. Surely anti-fascists everywhere responded to the same conjuncture with broadly similar tactics? Actually, they didn’t. In many places, the late 1970s saw anti-fascists either co-operating with the state, or making tactical errors on a scale to guarantee their own defeat. It is worth knowing this history, if only to understand other political traditions – for example – the US “free speech” tradition, which comes from a specific moment and a dramatic mistake.

In the United States, the best-known anti-fascist struggle concerned a proposed neo-Nazi march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie in 1977-8, where many Holocaust survivors lived. Frank Collin of the National Socialist Party of America (NSP) approached David Goldberger, legal director of the Illinois ACLU, asking for his support in challenging a decision of the Skokie Park District that the NSP could march only if it first posted a bond against disorder in the sum of $350,000. Collin explained that his supporters would march in full Nazi uniform: brown shirts, brown tie and swastika pin, black belts with buckles, dark brown trousers, and black engineer boots. Despite Goldberger’s misgivings, the ACLU agreed to represent Collin.

The decision to support fascists’ right to march was controversial within the American Civil Liberties Union, for the ACLU’s roots were in reaction to the anti-Communist campaigns of the 1920, during which the ACLU had principally defended revolutionary trade unionists, conscientious objectors and other left-wing protesters against a paranoid state.

Of Skokie’s 26 houses of worship, 9 were synagogues. Perhaps as many as 40 percent of the local population, or 30,000 people, were Jews. Among those demanding that the march be blocked were a number of Holocaust survivors. Anger with the decision was felt far beyond Illinois. The union’s membership fell from 270,000 in the early 1970s to just 185,000 after its public support for the right of Collin’s National Socialists to march.

The ACLU was successful in obtaining an order that city laws requiring permission for marches, prohibiting the dissemination of material which incited racial hatred, and preventing the National Socialists from marching in paramilitary uniforms were unlawful. By a 6-1 majority decision, the Illinois Supreme Court approved both the right of the NSP to march and in particular their right to carry pins, armbands and banners with swastikas on them: “We do not doubt that the sight of this symbol is abhorrent to the Jewish citizens of Skokie, and that the survivors of the Nazi persecution, tormented by their recollections, may have strong feelings regarding its display. Yet it is entirely clear that this factor does not justify enjoining defendants’ speech.”

The task of ACLU officials was to compel a sullen and angry generation of elderly Holocaust survivors into accepting, against their better judgment, that it would be good for them if they were compelled to endure the sight of Nazis marching through their home town, with all the memories that would bring of their treatment in the Holocaust.

At the crux of the Skokie case was an issue which remains unresolved in US politics. The purpose of the First Amendment is to prevent the American government (i.e. both the legislature and the executive) from limiting speech. This can be seen from the Amendment’s language, with its prohibition against limitation of speech by Congress and its guarantee of the rights of the people to assemble and to speak freely, and to petition the Government: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or … the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” What should the courts do, however, if the opponents of fascist speech are not the government but people – an anti-fascist crowd?

This battle ended with a legal defeat; the courts struck down the insurance requirement as unlawful. The ACLU’s advocates triumphed in court. But the Union’s membership list was diminished, the organisation was friendless, and a third of its local staff removed from their posts.

One moment in popular culture reflects the events at Skokie: Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s film The Blues Brothers (1980). Elwood and Jake are driving through rural Illinois when they come across rival fascist and anti-fascist demonstrations. They see members of the American Socialist White People’s Party pledging their allegiance to Hitler. “Those bums won their court case so they’re marching today,” a police officer says. “I hate Illinois Nazis,” Zee answers. Elwood drives their car towards the Nazi march, sending its members leaping into a nearby stream.

The politics of Skokie continue: the 1970s era ACLU is celebrated by libertarians of the right and the left. At the Charlottesville protests in 2017, the ACLU provided free legal representation to Jason Kessler, the main organiser of the far-right march. The city wanted to move the Unite the Right event away from Emancipation Park, which held a statute of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general whose future was the underlying source of the conflict. Taking Kessler’s side, the ACLU argued that free speech required that the right should be entitled to assemble in Emancipation Park. “The First Amendment guarantees political speech, including protest, the highest level of protection,” lawyers for the ACLU argued, “and the right to speak out is the most robust in traditional public fora, including public parks and streets.”

In the forty years since Skokie, the ACLU has played a crucial role in persuading the public that free speech should have the totemic role that it plays within United States politics, as no longer merely a constitutional principle but the constitutional principle (the country’s “First” Amendment) taking precedence over everything else.

Greensboro

There is a second but different way in which the protests in the United States in 1977-79 point away from developments in Britain. Events at Skokie were followed in November 1979 by protests in Greensboro, North Carolina, at which a left-wing demonstration titled “Death to the Klan rally”, ended in Klansmen shooting anti-fascist protesters. Five of the latter were killed, four white men and one black woman, by neo-Nazis. As the historian of these struggles Kathleen Belew shows in her book Bring the War Home, the Greensboro shootings came at the end of two years of conflicts between fascists and anti-fascists, after a run of incomplete victories for each side. In July 1979, 100 members of the Communist Workers Party (CWP), attacked a community centre in China Grove at which members of the Klan had been watching Birth of a Nation, and successfully disrupted the viewing. Five months later at Greensboro, a camera caught American fascist Milano Caudle whispering, “China Grove”, moments before the shooting began.

Klan supporters and their allies from neo-Nazi and other groups prepared for the events in November by covering Greensboro with posters of a lynched black body and the slogan. “It’s time for old-fashioned justice”. Members of the CWP brought hard hats and clubs to the battle. Their opponents carried shotguns, nunchuks, hunting knives, tear gas and mace, three semi-automatic handguns and two rifles, one of them an AR-180 semi-automatic. Prominent neo-Nazis among the shooters included Green Berets who had served in Vietnam.

In Britain in 1978-79, the death of a single left-wing protester, Blair Peach, was politicised by left-wing campaigners who drew on their support in the local black (Sikh Punjabi) community of Southall, and worked with the Labour Party, the unions and other mainstream figures to win an argument as to who had caused the violence – not anti-fascists but the state.

At Greensboro, and despite the overwhelming force employed by the right, the latter had much greater success in portraying themselves as the victims of outside agitators. Klansman Virgil Griffin declared, “I think every time a senator or a congressman walks by the Vietnam Wall, they ought to hang their damn heads in shame for allowing the Communist Party to be in this country.” In the case that followed, an anti-Communist Cuban exile was selected as foreman of the jury, while afterwards other jurors praised the Klan.

Meanwhile, the CWP played up to Cold War fantasies about them, marching to commemorate the dead with rifles and shotguns, inverting the reality of what had happened in November when minimally armed left-wing protesters had been gunned down. Members of the CWP refused to testify, even emptied skunk oil in court. Two criminal trials ended in acquittals. Only in a third, civil trial, was one of the killings recorded as unlawful, after a jury found the City of Greensboro liable for the death of Michael Nathan (he, unlike the other antifascists, had not been a member of the CWP). The City of Greensboro, not the killers, paid the damages.

The Greensboro massacre took place at a dark time for the American far left. In the late 1960s, the example of leftist advance in China, Vietnam and Cuba had been attractive, far more so than in Britain (not least because the United States was in actual military contest with the second of these states – and losing). Through the 1970s such politics became less compelling. The countries concerned were now in conflict with each other, and one of them (China) was in alliance with the US. The jailing and murder of activists by the state encouraged burn-out and demoralisation and caused a rapid lurching between moderate and extreme forms of leftism. The space to demand everything, and to be both principled and popular, was shrinking.

(If you enjoyed this post, my book No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge on 23 June).

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