Arlington's Uneasy Relationship With Nazi Party Founder (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Arlington's Uneasy Relationship With Nazi Party Founder

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." This week our theme is Fame. And in just a bit we'll visit a celebrated island in the Chesapeake Bay and here why some residents fear their community is being wiped off the map. First though, we'll bring you a story that's really more about infamy than fame.

MR. GEORGE LINCOLN ROCKWELL

00:00:27
This is George Lincoln Rockwell, here on behalf of the white Christian majority of Americans.

MR. JOE PINE

00:00:32
What he meant to say was he's a Nazi. Mr. Rockwell, you are a Nazi, aren't you?

ROCKWELL

00:00:36
I am.

SHEIR

00:00:37
That's Arlington, Va. resident, George Lincoln Rockwell, along with talk radio host, Joe Pine. Rockwell founded the American Nazi Party in the last 1950s, giving birth to the modern neo-Nazi movement. He was part of a racist backlash, as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum 50 years ago. Rockwell and a few dozen so-called storm troopers took up residence in Arlington, in a prominent house they covered with an enormous swastika. In 1963, while civil rights workers were preparing for the March on Washington, Rockwell was touring Virginia, drumming up support for a counter demonstration. Jacob Fenston has the story.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

00:01:19
Just eight days before the March on Washington, George Rockwell spoke to a white crowd in Lynchburg, Va.

ROCKWELL

00:01:25
Now the purpose of this March on Washington -- there is only one reason for it, and that reason is to terrorize your Congress.

FENSTON

00:01:35
He rails against the Civil Rights Act Congress was debating.

ROCKWELL

00:01:38
This is the vilest law that has ever been presented.

FENSTON

00:01:41
And with each racist joke or diatribe, the audience is right there with him.

ROCKWELL

00:01:45
Do you know that the police department of Washington, D.C. is seriously concerned about the sanitation problem with all these black people marching all over our parks?

FENSTON

00:01:55
Rockwell was riding high in 1963. Support for his anti-Semitic and racist message seemed to be growing. He thought he'd see 10,000 supporters on the National Mall on August 28th.

MR. MICHAEL RICE

00:02:06
Reporting from Washington Police Headquarters, this is Michael Rice. I have just talked with Major Carl Allen of the American Nazi Party.

FENSTON

00:02:14
This is from live coverage of the March on Washington by the Educational Radio Network, after one of Rockwell's men was arrested.

RICE

00:02:21
Allen was disappointed with the small number of his sympathizers assembled today. About 125, he claimed. "Most white people must be showing their disapproval," Ellen speculated, "by staying away."

FENSTON

00:02:32
Rockwell's racism wasn't unusual in 1963. But in post-World-War II America, his admiration for Adolf Hitler was unheard of.

MS. HEIDI BEIRICH

00:02:41
He was the first person after World War II and, you know, sort of the knowledge of the holocaust became known, and the horrors that had happened under Hitler's regime, to take an overtly pro-Hitler position.

FENSTON

00:02:54
Heidi Beirich tracks hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Without Rockwell, she says, there might not be neo-Nazis today.

BEIRICH

00:03:02
Really, you know, he's responsible for creating neo-Nazism in the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1

00:03:08
What's your view on the way that Hitler dealt with the Jews in Germany?

FENSTON

00:03:11
This is from a Canadian television interview in the 1960s.

ROCKWELL

00:03:14
I think Hitler dealt with the Jews of Germany the same way he dealt with all traitors, the same way we will.

FENSTON

00:03:18
Rockwell's statements were shocking, and meant to be so. He said traitors should be executed, and he claimed 80 percent of Jews in America were traitors.

#1

00:03:27
Do you model yourself on Hitler?

ROCKWELL

00:03:28
No. It's impossible. I look upon Hitler -- if I were religious, I would say Hitler was the second coming of Christ. I think that he was…

FENSTON

00:03:34
Rockwell gravitated to the D.C. area in the late 1950s because he wanted to be close to the center of power. That also put him at odds with the liberal local community, says Herman Obermayer, who published the Northern Virginia Sun.

MR. HERMAN OBERMAYER

00:03:48
Arlington probably had the most liberal government in the state of Virginia at the time, and very likely the most liberal government in metropolitan Washington.

FENSTON

00:03:55
County officials were in constant clashes with Rockwell. He was arrested, his house was searched, two of his troopers went to jail for attaching a 13-year-old boy.

OBERMAYER

00:04:03
It was almost impossible to be involved in public life in Arlington, Va. in 1963 and not be aware of him. His headquarters, on Randolph Street, was right in the middle of what is now Ballston, and so everybody passed and he had a big sign, a swastika and then, "White man fight, stop the black revolution."

FENSTON

00:04:25
Arlington didn't want Rockwell, but he presented liberals with a conundrum, how to shut him up, but not trample on the ideals of free speech. The consensus among Jewish leaders was that the best option was to ignore Rockwell. If the media didn't cover his antics, it would starve him of publicity and funding. It was called the quarantine.

MR. FRED SIMONELLI

00:04:43
It drove him crazy.

FENSTON

00:04:45
Fred Simonelli, a history professor, and wrote a book about Rockwell.

SIMONELLI

00:04:48
It was impoverishing his movement. One of the things he depended on were the basket-loads of letters he'd get after some particularly outrageous demonstration, where he'd open up a letter and $5 or $10 would fall out of the envelope. And that's what his party survived on.

OBERMAYER

00:05:07
You can't and shouldn't sweep it under the rug, if you could walk down Randolph Street, or walk down Wilson Boulevard and see this, in the city where I lived, and I made my living.

FENSTON

00:05:18
Herman Obermayer is Jewish. He fought in Europe in World War II. And so seeing swastikas in his town got under his skin. His paper was one of the few media outlets to consistently defy the quarantine policy.

OBERMAYER

00:05:30
I was a particularly difficult problem. I was a Jewish publisher and I was defying their policy, when the highly respected people at The Washington Post were buying into their policies.

FENSTON

00:05:45
For more than 20 years, Obermayer's paper closely covered the Nazis' activities, from school board meetings, to their marching in the local bicentennial parade in 1976. Rockwell's presence may have galled Arlingtonians, but it was also a testament to free speech, says Fred Simonelli.

SIMONELLI

00:06:02
Many of the things he said were advocating killing people, replicating the horrors of the holocaust here in the United States. And he was allowed to say that, I think and rightfully so, as hateful as that is. That's the price we pay for free speech in this country.

FENSTON

00:06:21
Rockwell's end came in 1967, in a strip-mall parking lot. He was shot from a Laundromat roof by an enraged former follower.

SIMONELLI

00:06:29
And Rockwell was dead within seconds.

FENSTON

00:06:31
Rockwell's storm troopers splintered, forming some of the main neo-Nazi groups around today. Some stayed in Arlington through the mid-1980s. Heidi Beirich, with the Southern Poverty Law Center, says it's important history, even if the American Nazi Party never had more than a few hundred card-carrying members.

BEIRICH

00:06:48
Our country, from its inception, until the 1960s, was a white-supremacist country, and that is not that long ago. And we have to be really, really vigilant of not returning to those kinds of views.

FENSTON

00:07:02
Her organization has tracked a dramatic rise in the number of hate groups nationwide over the past decade, sparked in part by fear of the country's growing immigrant and non-white population. I'm Jacob Fenston.
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