"Racist Made the Most of Free Speech
The strength of a democracy can often be measured by its tolerance for those professing beliefs that conflict with the norms of the society.
The extreme views held by George Lincoln Rockwell pushed this tenet of forbearance to the absolute limits and, at times, beyond. The self-proclaimed head of the American Nazi Party was an expert at spouting racist and anti-Semitic remarks that shocked and infuriated.
During the 1960s Rockwell's rhetoric had become so inflammatory that even the Ku Klux Klan distanced itself from his organization. As outrageous as Rockwell was, he was able to rant his venomous verbiage simply because most Americans held freedom of speech in high esteem.
An invite to UVa
When the John Randolph Society, a conservative student group at the University of Virginia, invited Rockwell to speak on Feb. 14, 1963, a lot of people disagreed with its choice. School officials made it known that they disapproved of the invitation, but didn't try to stop the group from bringing in the rabble-rouser.
The university did present a list of 'special regulations to ensure that order and decorum will prevail.' The school wasn't going to keep Rockwell from speaking his mind, but it certainly had something to say about what he could wear while doing so.
The school would not allow Rockwell or any of his followers to wear Nazi uniforms during the speech. The only uniformed personnel who would be allowed on the school property were police and those in the U.S. military.
UVa also nixed the wearing of any military-style hats, arm bands or insignia identifying political, religious or racial groups. When Rockwell and three of his storm troopers arrived at Cabell Hall, they were dressed in black, three-buttoned conventional suits.
During a pre-speech press conference, Rockwell smoked his trademark corn cob pipe. Then during the speech he said he neither smoked nor drank.
That was only one obvious contradiction. In nearly the same breath he said he was a protector of the U.S. Constitution and that he thought non-whites should be sent back to their countries of origin.
Rockwell went on to say that America had lost its belief in fighting and had become a nation of 'beatniks and peace creeps.' He also said the Jews thought they were the chosen people and were seeking world domination.
These who made up the capacity crowd mostly jeered, hissed and laughed at Rockwell's remarks. Those who knew something about his background might have wondered how he had turned into such a rabid hatemonger.
Some saw Rockwell's behavior as the manifestation of mental illness. But like Adolf Hitler, who Rockwell said was the greatest mind to come along in 2,000 years, the truth was probably much more complicated than that.
Rockwell was born in rural Illinois on March 9, 1918. His father was a vaudeville comedian who was friendly with well-known entertainers such as Fred Allen, Groucho Marx and Jack Benny.
Rockwell's parents divorced when he was young. He spent his formative years bouncing back and forth between Illinois and his father's home in Maine.
The future Nazi enrolled in Brown University in 1938 and studied there for two years, After completing his sophomore year, he dropped out of school and joined the Navy.
Rockwell went to fighter pilot school and graduated just as World War II started. Before shipping out for duty in the South Pacific, he married a woman he met in college.
When the war ended, Rockwell was commanding a Navy attack squadron in Hawaii. After being discharged in late 1945, he moved back to Maine and started working as a sign painter and free-lance photographer.
Rockwell had artistic talent and decided to pursue a career as a commercial artist. He moved with his wife to Now York and enrolled at Pratt Institute.
In 1948 the struggling artist got a big break, A poster he had drawn for the American Cancer Society was selected as the winner in the National Society of Illustrators' annual contest. The award included a $1,000 prize.
The monetary windfall would have served as a motivation for many artists, but not Rockwell.
For no apparent reason he gave up artist aspirations and returned to Maine. He tried his hand at running an ad agency, but soon went broke.
The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 solved Rockwell's career problems for awhile. He was recalled to active duty and assigned to a naval base in San Diego, Calif.
One day the aviator was picking through the volumes in a used bookstore when he came across a copy of Hitler's 'Mein Kempf.' He was fascinated by it and later said he had read it no less than a dozen times.
The die was cast. By the time Rockwell was discharged again in 1954 he had become a self described apostle of Hitler. By this point in his road toward infamy, he had left his first wife and their three daughters and had remarried.
Rockwell moved with his second wife to Washington and started a magazine geared toward military wives, but it quickly went under,
Rockwell became a traveling salesman, but he didn't have any more success at this than he had as a publisher.
Now, having failed at every civilian occupation he tried, Rockwell began thinking about doing something also. In the summer of 1958, he gave his mental musings a name the American Nazi Party.
During his travels Rockwell had come across a small number of other malcontents who joined his fledgling organization. They set up their headquarters in a small building in Arlington and started spreading their message of hate.
Rockwell's second wife apparently didn't like what she was seeing and left him. Now he turned his full attention to his new role.
At every opportunity the neo-Nazis would strut around in their swastika-embossed uniforms and shout 'sieg heil.' These antics were especially offensive to those who less than 20 years before had risked their lives to keep Hitler and his cronies from ruling the world.
While former military people gnashed their teeth, blacks and Jews were particularly offended by Rockwell because he singled them out for verbal abuse. He was smart enough to know that the more outrageous he was the more attention he would likely get.
One of the great ironies was that about the only place where Rockwell could get away with such vicious verbal attacks was in a country as free as the United States. Most people who came to hear him talk did so out of a natural sense of curiosity.
During the summer of 1963 Rockwell was a frequent visitor to Central Virginia. As he drove from town to town, he got pretty much the same reactions as he had gotten from the Cabell Hall audience earlier that year.
When Rockwell showed up in Palmyra in early July to give a talk, the only people who showed up were county and state law enforcement officers. They were there to keep the peace.
Nobody was going to debate Rockwell's right to free speech, but he quickly realized he was going to have to do some serious shouting if he expected to be heard. It just so happened that the Fluvanna Volunteer Fire Company's fire drill coincided with the Nazi's speech.
Rockwell had set up on the courthouse steps, which was about 200 feet from the fire station. The din from radios and sirens made it all but impossible for anyone to hear a word the man was saying,
On July 13, 1963, Rockwell made a stop in Gordonsville, Only about 40 people were on hand to receive his remarks with 'indifference,'
The day before he had been in Louisa and had tried to speak from the courthouse lawn, Louisa officials said the lawn was off limits, but they allowed Rockwell to speak in the 'trading area' behind the courthouse. About 200 people were on hand for that diatribe.
When Rockwell barnstormed through Charlottesville on Aug, 22, about 150 people .turned up at the Old Armory to hoot and yell at him, The laughter and catcalls increased in volume when he said he thought he could be elected governor of Virginia.
Many people probably took this statement as an obvious sign that Rockwell was delusional, Be that as it may, the fiery orator at least presented the appearance of taking himself seriously.
Nearly from the outset of his campaign of hatred, Rockwell had been attacked both verbally and physically. During a 1966 interview in Playboy magazine he said he expected someone to eventually kill him.That was one Rockwell prophecy that turned out to be true.' (David Maurer, Daily Progress, August 17, 2003)
Rockwell Got Attention and a Bullet, Too
There are few symbols more despised and hated than the Nazi swastika. Just the sight of it can evoke outrage and instigate violence. At the least the twisted cross will draw attention.
George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party, often said he didn't advocate the Nazis' form of dictatorial government for the United States. Although he did admit to being a great admirer of Adolf Hitler, he said he used the Nazi trappings more as attention grabbers than anything else.
goose-stepping around while shouting 'Heil Hitler' not only got attention, but infuriated many people. Rockwell founded his hate group in 1958, and it wasn't long before his radical tactics and beliefs were outraging people and making enemies.
Among the things the Illinoisborn firebrand called for was the deportation of all non-whites back to their countries of origin. According to Rockwell, Jews were out to control the world and he claimed the Holocaust never happened.
back to their countries of origin. According to Rockwell, Jews were out to control the world and he claimed the Holocaust never happened.
Rockwell was fond of speakiiAg at colleges and universities. He spoke at the University of Virginia on Valentine's Day 1963.
During his talk to a capacity audience in Cabell Hall, he said he felt the human race differs in quality in the manner that lower forms of animals differ by breed. He said his fight was against 'race mongrelizing' and he considered himself a 'scientific racist.'
As time went on, it seemed Rockwell might have felt he needed to say more and more outrageous things to get noticed. Although his 1965 effort to become governor of Virginia failed miserably, by 1967 he was predicting he'd be elected president by 1972.
During a college speech in the summer of 1967, Rockwell made a campaign promise.
Hard to stomach
'Five minutes after I'm elected president there won't be any more problem with Red China, because I'm going to push the button,' Rockwell said, meaning he'd launch a nuclear attack.
Such remarks were disregarded by most reasonable people as foolishness. But his verbal attacks and name-calling directed at Jews and blacks were hard to stomach.
The nation was full of people of all colors who had fought and sacrificed to defeat the Nazis. To them, Rockwell's words and actions were particularly galling.
This led to virtually thousands of verbal threats against Rockwell and a number of physical attacks as well. His headquarters building in Arlington was pocked with bullet holes.
In 1966 two gasoline firebombs were thrown at an area of the building where the Nazi leader was thought to be.
Spontaneous fisticuffs erupting during his talks was not uncommon.
Rockwell and his henchmen were leading dangerous lives. The head Nazi might have had his delusions, but one of them wasn't a sense of safety.
Rockwell fully expected to be killed, but he probably didn't think his killer would come from within his own ranks. He might have hoped for a more heroic end as well.
As it was, Rockwell's last task was doing his laundry. On the morning of Aug. 25, 1967, he had just left a coin-operated laundry in Arlington near his party headquarters.
The neo-Nazi had just gotten into his aged and rusted car when two bullets were fired through the windshield. One bullet missed, but the other struck him in the chest near his heart.
The former Navy fighter pilot died almost instantly. Within the hour, John C. Patler was arrested for the killing, and ultimately was convicted.
Patler had been a high-ranking member of the American Nazi Party. He had been expelled by Rockwell the previous April for causing trouble in the organization.
After the killing, Matt Koehl - Rockwell's second in command - said Patler had been expelled for his 'Bolshevik leanings.' The slain Nazi leader had once described Patler as the party's propaganda minister.
When Rockwell's father, George 'Doc' Rockwell, was notified of his son's death, he said he wasn't surprised. The old-time vaudevillian, who had performed on the Fred Allen radio show, said, 'I've been expecting it for some time.'
For a day Rockwell's remains lay unclaimed in the morgue of a nearby hospital. When Robert K. Rockwell, a brother of the slain racist, was contacted, he said the family wouldn't stop the Nazis from making the funeral arrangements.
The brother said he was 'quite sure' no members of the family would attend the services. This gave the grieving Nazis free rein to send their dead leader off in style.
Because Rockwell was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War and honorably discharged, he qualified for burial in a national cemetery. This included full military honors, which called for an American flag being draped on the casket and the playing of 'Taps.'
To a great degree, Rockwell had been able to voice his extreme and distasteful views because he was a member of a free and tolerant society. At his death, the government he so vehemently wanted to change continued its forbearance.
When Rockwell's followers elected to bury him in Culpeper National Cemetery, the government said it would be permissible. What wouldn't be allowed was the wearing of any Nazi uniforms or insignias within the cemetery.
U.S. Army provost marshal Maj. Gen. Carl C. Turner was given the task of making sure the Nazis adhered to the rules. On the morning of Aug. 29, the general and a sizable complement of military policemen, armed with pistols and nightsticks, was dispatched to the cemetery to make sure the rules were followed.
Another small army of news reporters and photographers was on the scene to record the event. Turner stood outside the cemetery's front gate and reiterated the ground rules.
'No one will be permitted in here with Nazi uniforms and insignia. Anyone trying to will be arrested.'
The hearse bearing Rockwell's body arrived mid-morning. In attendance were about 50 mourners, many of whom were dressed in full Nazi uniforms bearing swastikas.
When the mourners tried to proceed, the VIPs closed ranks and a stare-down began.After about 15 minutes, one of the uniformed storm troopers jumped on the roof of the hearse.
'Our leader's been murdered,' the Nazi shouted. 'Are we going to bury him here today?'
When the Nazi got the affirmative answer he was looking for, he shouted, 'Then let's go.' He stomped across the hood of the hearse and flung himself against the line of MPs.
The soldiers stopped the Nazi and his friends cold and the brown-shirted men went back to glaring and swearing.
Mac 'Digger' Morris, the driver of the hearse, was none too happy about the Nazi stomping around on his shiny vehicle. But he maintained his composure, as did Turner.
When a woman who described herself as a former member of the Nazi Party start calling the general a communist and other choice words, he took it in stride. A reporter wrote that Turner merely smiled and lit a cigar.
The standoff dragged on for five hours. Finally Morris turned the hearse around and brought the body back to the Arlington funeral parlor.
The Nazis returned to their leaderless headquarters to ponder their next move. They didn't think long.
On Aug. 30, the body of George Lincoln Rockwell was cremated. For a few days his death and aborted funeral generated the high level of attention he craved in life.
However, it wasn't long before Rockwell was on his way to becoming an obscure figure in American history. Still, regardless what a person thought of him, Rockwell was clearly a powerful speaker. Some would even call him charismatic.
One might wonder what he could hr achieved if he hadn't chosen a path
of hate and discord." (David Maurer, Daily Progress, August 24,