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Fifty years ago, as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, the nation was also witnessing a racist backlash. While hundreds of thousands peacefully rallied for the March on Washington in 1963, there was a tiny counter protest by the American Nazi Party, based in Arlington, Va. The party's leader had no more than a few hundred followers during his lifetime, but he has had a lasting impact: many of today's neo-Nazi and other hate groups trace their roots directly to George Lincoln Rockwell.
Rockwell, and a handful of supporters he called "storm troopers," took up residence in Arlington in the late 1950s, in a prominent house they covered with an enormous swastika. In 1963, while civil rights workers prepared for the March on Washington, Rockwell was touring Virginia, drumming up support for his demonstration.
Just eight days before the March on Washington, George Rockwell spoke to a receptive white crowd in Lynchburg.
"Now the purpose of this March on Washington — there is only one reason for it, and that reason is to terrorize your Congress," Rockwell told the crowd. He railed against the Civil Rights Act Congress was debating.
"It is the vilest law that has ever been presented, with a straight face, to the United States Congress."
And with each racist joke or diatribe, the audience is right there with him, laughing or cheering.
"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?"
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 28. Only about 100 showed up.
Rockwell's racism wasn't unusual in 1963. But in post-World-War II America, his open anti-Semitism and his admiration for Adolf Hitler was unheard of.
Heidi Beirich tracks hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"He was the first person after World War II and the knowledge of the holocaust became known, and the horrors that had happened under Hitler's regime, to take an overtly pro-Hitler position," says Beirich.
Without Rockwell, she says, there might not be neo-Nazis today.
"Really, he's responsible for creating neo-Nazism in the United States."
Rockwell's rhetoric was shocking, and meant to be so. He said traitors should be executed, and he claimed 80 percent of Jews in America were traitors.
But when asked by one interviewer whether he modeled himself on Hitler, he said no.
"It's impossible," said Rockwell. "I look upon Hitler — If I were religious, I would say Hitler was the second coming of Christ. I think he was a gift from Providence."
Rockwell clashes with Arlington
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.
"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. Why did this guy locate here? How did he locate here?"
County officials were in constant clashes with Rockwell. He and his supporters were arrested 36 times in the course of three years, according to an Anti-Defamation League report in 1962. Many arrests were for disorderly conduct, but charges also included arson, rape, possession of narcotics, position of explosives, vagrancy, and assault and battery. Two of Rockwell's "troopers" went to jail for attacking a 13-year-old boy.
"It was almost impossible to be involved in public life in Arlington, Va. in 1963 and not be aware of him," says Obermayer. "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."
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.
"It drove him crazy," says Fred Simonelli, a history professor who wrote a biography of Rockwell.
"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, he called them atta-boy letters, 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."
But Obermayer didn't believe in the quarantine.
"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 made my living."
Obermayer is Jewish, he fought in Europe in World War II. He took it personally when he saw swastikas on the street, and he didn't think the media should ignore it.
"The fact that there are people in my city that want to put that kind of sign in the front of their house, I should know."
The Northern Virginia Sun was one of the few media outlets to regularly defy the quarantine policy.
"I was a particularly difficult problem," says Obermayer. "I was a Jewish publisher and I was defying their policy, when the highly respected people at The Washington Post were following their policy."
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 galled Arlingtonians, but was also a testament to free speech, says Fred Simonelli.
"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 and rightfully so, I think, as hateful as that is. That's the price we pay for free speech in this country."
Rockwell's end came in 1967, in strip-mall parking lot, shot from a Laundromat roof by an enraged former follower.
Rockwell's "storm troopers" splintered, forming some of the main neo-Nazi groups around today. Some stayed in Arlington through the mid-'80s.
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.
"Our country, from its inception, until the 1960s, was a white-supremacist country, and that was not that long ago. So we have to be really, really vigilant of not returning to those kinds of views."
Her group has tracked a dramatic rise in the number of hate groups nationwide over the past decade, from around 600 in the year 2000, to more than 1,000 in 2012. In the year 2000, the Census Bureau for the first time predicted the year when whites would be a minority in the nation.
"It just really scared people who were segregationists, or white supremacists, neo-Nazis."
[Music: Gymnopedie #3 by Erik Satie from Best of Satie]
Photos: Nazi Party Founder