The Skokie March That Wasn’t - Lessons for Today
Forty years later, the 1978 Swastika War in Skokie, Illinois, is both well-known and the subject of much confusion. For most, it is remembered as a story about the limits of free speech, centered on a legal battle between the ACLU-represented National Socialist Party of America and Skokie village officials who sought to defend the town’s multitude of Holocaust survivors. Anyone vaguely familiar with the incident knows the Nazis marched in Illinois; the event even inspired a famous scene in The Blues Brothers in which the duo runs a group of demonstrating “Illinois Nazis” off a bridge.
But the Nazi march at the center of the famous legal case never happened. Though the Nazis finally won the right to demonstrate in Skokie after a long legal battle, the Nazis canceled just days before the proposed demonstration. For most who know of the incident, that’s the end of the story. But the Nazis weren’t done, and the Swastika War (as it was dubbed in the Chicago Tribune) culminated in a different march altogether—and a second First Amendment case involving protestors who defied police orders to sit back and let the Nazis demonstrate.
The full story of the Swastika War can’t be reduced to any courtroom drama, nor is it confined to a conflict between neo-Nazis and the Jewish community. Archival documentation tells a more complex story of massive counter-demonstrations, black and Jewish solidarity, Holocaust survivors who vowed to confront the Nazis in the streets, and a grassroots battle between a small collective of proud, leftist Jews and the conservative institutional leadership of the Jewish community. This untold history reveals a minority of the Jewish community in revolt—clear-eyed about their allies and determined to confront the Nazis directly, despite repression on the part of both the mainstream Jewish community and the police.
“A CLOSED SOCIETY”
Seen in its full scope, the Swastika War begins like too many American stories: in the rubble of anti-black racism. In Marquette Park, the “Nazi neighborhood” on the southwest side of Chicago, the rubble was piling up, and by 1976 it would topple over into the Jewish community in the village of Skokie.
Marquette Park, the white, largely Lithuanian neighborhood that Frank Collin’s National Socialist Party of America called home, was a historic epicenter of anti-black violence. By the mid-60s, a decade after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, civil rights had still not come to Chicago. Entire neighborhoods and a public park were kept whites-only by housing discrimination, hostile white residents, and complicit police. Western Avenue divided the nearly all-white Marquette Park from all-black West Englewood.
In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. was struck by a rock in Marquette Park while protesting these racist housing policies with the Chicago Freedom Movement, in a campaign organized by his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “I have been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen—even in Mississippi and Alabama—mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I've seen in Chicago,” King said at the time. “It’s definitely a closed society,” he said of the area. “[W]e’re going to make it an open society.”
A decade later, this promise was profoundly unfulfilled. In 1976, United Press International (UPI) published a series of stories investigating racist housing practices in Marquette Park. A batch of homes on the eastern edge of Marquette Park were now black owned. The white neighbors greeted them with terror. “More than 50 black families were harassed with firebombs, broken windows, threats and abuse,” UPI reported. The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, reported that “in a year and a half of incidents, black residents have had swastikas and threatening signs painted on their property,” and many homes were subject to “fire damage by apparent arsonists.” Investigations stalled; in one case the police would not categorize the fire as arson, instead blaming electrical wires.
Meanwhile, reports in the Chicago Defender also detailed the violence that awaited black residents who found themselves on the other side of Western Avenue, too close to Marquette Park itself. One man, Robert Ellington, was dragged out of his car and stabbed 22 times by young white men just a few weeks after the firebombings of black homes. The Martin Luther King Jr. Movement and the Chicago Urban League established community patrols to put a stop to the violence, while the Nation of Islam donated food and clothing to the fire victims.
Some in the community believed Collin’s group of self-proclaimed Nazis were behind the violence, particularly the firebombings. That year, the Martin Luther King Jr. Movement Coalition declared they would march into Marquette Park in protest. The group of 100 civil rights marchers were met by a white mob of 2,500 and far less police protection than they anticipated. Phyllis Hudson, a reporter for the Chicago Defender, was struck in the back with a brick. Black people who drove by during the demonstration became targets of white violence; when Wendell Kells crashed into a stop sign, his car was pummelled by bricks and bottles, and his cousin Thornton was knocked unconscious. Kells told the reporters he thought the mob would kill his cousin. More than 30 were reported injured. Sixty-three were arrested.
Suspicions of Nazi responsibility for these attacks added to their already violent reputation. In the summer of 1976, the Chicago Park District put a stop to the Nazis’ frequent rallies in Marquette Park, citing their violent outcomes. To demonstrate in a public park, the Nazis would have to put up a $250,000 insurance bond as a liability against property damage. Unable to come up with the money, the Nazis cancelled their demonstrations and sought legal representation from the American Civil Liberties Union. They also applied for permits to demonstrate in other areas outside of Chicago’s limits.
This is how the Nazi problem in Marquette Park spread to suburbia, while the racist attacks within the city bore on. The firebombings of black homes (or, in one case, the home of a white resident who had recently sold to a black buyer) continued into the summer of 1977.
The nearby town of Skokie was in most ways a typical Chicago suburb—its development and demographics structured in part by American racism, especially white flight from the interior of the city. Skokie’s demographics were also influenced by European antisemitism. By the mid-1970s, out of a total population of 70,000, Skokie had a rapidly growing Jewish community, which Marvin Bailey, the village’s director of housing development estimated at approximately 40,000 people. Though most arrived in Skokie from communities on Chicago’s South and West sides in response to an in-migration of blacks from the South, a significant amount Skokie’s Jews—between 5,000 and 6,000 people—were refugees and survivors of the Holocaust and their families.
Frank Collin, the Nazi party leader, seized upon this migration pattern and turned it on its head. In press releases he blamed Jews for the “invasion” of black people on the city’s southwest side, connecting his racist and anti-Jewish agendas.
As the Nazis searched for march locations devoid of the city of Chicago’s large bond requirement, they fixed their eyes on Skokie. When the Village of Skokie denied the Nazis’ request for a marching permit and introduced restrictive amendments to their constitution, the ACLU famously took the village to court.
After a long legal battle, by the summer of 1978 it was likely that the Nazis would get a permit to demonstrate in Skokie. For the radicals in the Jewish community of Skokie and elsewhere, it seemed increasingly clear that if the US Constitution could not keep the Nazis out, they had to be challenged in the street.
More than a year of national media coverage of the Nazis’ legal case and the dramatic nature of the story created a whirlwind. Many Jews abandoned the ACLU in disgust over their defense of the Nazis’ right to a permit. The NAACP, Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders and organizations guaranteed their presence. A massive counter-demonstration was brewing. The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago anticipated 50,000 people in Skokie on June 25th to oppose what might amount to several dozen Nazis, and militant groups like the right-wing Jewish Defense League (JDL) promised violence. While the ACLU was defending the Nazis’ legal right to march into the Jewish suburb, they were also giving them the right to march into an incredibly dangerous situation. Alarmed by the possibility of violence, Skokie village officials, in conversation with mainstream Jewish organizations, devised a plan which would protect the Nazis if they were to march.
Their plan called for a separate counter-demonstration, far from the Nazis. Instead of confronting them directly, they proposed that approximately 100 community leaders and officials would face the Nazis at Skokie Village Hall, while a mile away the massive counter-demonstration would take place out of sight. The logic of the separate counter-demonstration was documented in the legal case that the Village of Skokie built against the Nazis. The sight of Nazis in their uniforms, they argued, would elicit an uncontrollable and even violent reaction, especially in Holocaust survivors. Separating the Nazis from the crowd wasn’t for the protection of the survivors from the Nazis, but actually the other way around.
For their part, the counter-demonstrators were split: One faction insisted that if the Nazis were going to be in Skokie, they had to confront them directly. Others, including the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, disagreed. A fascinating record of the debate over the separate march and the strategies to confront the Nazis comes from a forgotten source, the Chutzpah Jewish Liberation Collective, and their underground newspaper, Chutzpah.
Founded in 1971, this small, charismatic group of Jewish leftists demonstrated together and published a newspaper articulating a holistic vision of Jewish liberation that rejected the sectarianism of their ultra-leftist peers and the right-wing Zionism of the JDL. Unlike much of the mainstream Jewish community, Chutzpah wasn’t outraged at the ACLU. They were outraged with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the village officials in Skokie over the plan for a separate march.
They printed flyers featuring a fist smashing a swastika—an image lifted from the Jewish Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto—urging people to disobey the plan of village officials. They charged the Federation with being concerned that “the Jews look respectable for the media,” and demanded the right to confront the Nazis at Village Hall on June 25th, rather than “cower on the other side of town.” Unlike the JDL, they did not advocate violence, but rather said that confrontation was necessary to ensure that if the Nazis marched into the Jewish community, it would be a “very unpleasant experience.”
But with days to go, Nazi leader Frank Collin cancelled the Skokie march. Citing precedent, Chicago Federal District Court Judge George Leighton dismissed the insurance bond that had previously kept the Nazis from demonstrating in Chicago public parks. “We could go on for a long time with hearings on this matter,” he said, “but we know from experience in this case that the plaintiff’s argument will prevail.”
By winning back the Nazis’ right to march in Marquette Park, Collin had scored a victory: he avoided a dangerous situation in Skokie while terrorizing thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors, as well as Jews across the country who had been following the story at a distance. Most importantly, he had secured the right to demonstrate on his “home turf” without economic consequence. Trumpeting that his free speech was restored, Collin announced that instead of demonstrating in Skokie, the Nazis would go ahead with their rally in Marquette Park on July 9th. For Skokie Mayor Al Smith, this was a decisive victory, bringing the village out of the crosshairs. The Metropolitan Black Caucus called the turn of events a “conspiracy” to endanger the the black community, while ensuring safety in the Jewish community.
The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago called off the counter-demonstration in Skokie and they did not organize one for Marquette Park. For some Holocaust survivors, the fact that the Nazis were marching elsewhere was no consolation. One survivor, who preferred to remain anonymous, explained his profound disappointment with the whole affair, and especially the penning off of the counter-protest, to the Chicago Tribune:
I feel let down by the American people, the Jewish people. No one came out and said we have a right to march and face them, if we felt we must. Our stand was that we had to confront the Nazis. The officials felt the separate countermarch was easier for them. But after what we went through in the Holocaust, why did we not get some support for our feelings?
THE PEOPLE UNITED
Meanwhile, the Chutzpah Collective had used the weeks of uncertainty leading up to the would-be Nazi demonstration in Skokie to form a coalition. Chutzpah wanted people who were threatened by Nazis to unite in opposition, namely blacks, gays, socialists, and Jews. They were joined by the Tim Berry Irish Republican Clubs, the International Socialists, and the North Side chapter of the New American Movement, among others. The groups that joined Chutzpah to form the coalition agreed at the outset that they would not use the anti-Nazi demonstration in Skokie as a forum for anti-Israel politics. While Chutzpah was a non-Zionist group, their members were wary of those on the left who reduced Jewish issues to Israel and Zionism.
“Building a Coalition,” an article in the Chutzpah newspaper, described meetings where organizers ran into pushback over its Jewish context. One leftist, who was Jewish himself, argued that to root the coalition in a Jewish context was reactionary, and that instead they should choose a name from the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Chutzpah members disagreed, believing that a group which was founded to oppose Nazis in Skokie could very well call itself something Jewish. After some more arguing, the diverse and multiracial group came to an agreement. They called themselves the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Coalition.
The upcoming march put Chutzpah into relationship not just with other leftist organizations, but even with elements of the Jewish far right: the JDL was also planning on countering the Nazi march on July 9th. And while they were not part of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Coalition, the JDL was involved in a speaking event at a church in the black community of West Englewood the day before the Nazi rally in Marquette Park, and also attended the counter-demonstration itself. This is noteworthy because the JDL, ostensibly founded to protect older Jews in New York City against black crime, was known to feed off anti-black fear in the Jewish community. However, their radical opposition to Nazism brought them into solidarity with Chutzpah and other leftists who supported black community members’ struggle against the Nazis in their neighborhood.
The day of the march, 2,000 anti-Nazi demonstrators gathered, but quickly realized that the police would not allow them directly into the white community on the other side of the train tracks. So instead, they altered their path, and decided to take a longer route through the embattled West Englewood neighborhood in solidarity with its black residents. In the Chutzpah newspaper, activist Jerry Herst described the march:
It was really a heterogeneous march. Banners identified groups from all over the country. There were Blacks with signs against Nazism and anti-Semitism, young people joining from the neighborhood, older adults from the Grey Panthers and the Emma Lazarus Clubs, college students, gentiles against anti-Semitism, whites against racism. Some came from highly organized sectarian leftist organizations, while other individuals just came because they felt strongly about the issue.
People came from their houses to wave at the demonstrators, cars honked their horns in approval. Children ran into the march, eager to try out the organizers’ bullhorns. It “was the most fun we had all day,” Herst wrote.
When counter-protestors arrived at Western Avenue, where the train tracks divided West Englewood and Marquette Park, the march was halted by the police. “Free speech for anti-Nazis! Let’s go to the park!” The protestors’ shouts echoed under a viaduct. Close by, skirmishes broke out between Nazi sympathizers and the anti-Nazis. Not everyone was blocked; some managed to talk or push their way into Marquette Park. By the time Jerry Herst arrived, the rally was mostly over. He found a Holocaust survivor who was shaken by the familiar hatred he witnessed in the park. As Jerry turned back through the chaos, “past knots of white power T-shirters standing outside bars, past the Nazi storefront, past dozens of police on Western Ave.,” he reflected, “I finally felt safe again, back in the Black ghetto. That feeling of safety there is one I hope not ever to forget.”
Marian Henriquez Neudel, also a member of Chutzpah and a legal observer, wasn’t as lucky. She and her friends Andrew Klein and Theo Katzman were among the 21 people arrested that day. Neudel, Klein, and Katzman—all members of the Upstairs Minyan which met at the University of Chicago Hillel—were arrested “for their own safety” after trying to cross Western Avenue towards the Nazis a second time. In the paddy wagon they were joined by a black counter-demonstrator and a “psychotic Nazi.”
“I’m not using either of those two words loosely. He believed he was Jesus and the Jews were sent to kill him,” Neudel told me in an interview. “Then he played Harry Houdini and managed to get his handcuffed arms in front of him. He started banging his arms against the walls of the car for hours.”
Along with six other members of Chutzpah who had not been allowed into Marquette Park to protest against the Nazis, Neudel, Klein, and Katzman became the plaintiffs in a second case connected to the Swastika War involving Nazi demonstrations, Jews, and the ACLU.
The plaintiffs in Neudel vs. Pepp were represented by Steven Lubet, himself a member of Chutzpah, along with Mark Schoenfeld from the Northwestern University Law Clinic and Lois Lipton from the ACLU. Together, they sued Charles Pepp, Deputy Chief of the Chicago Police Department, as well as Captain William Woods and two commanders, for $25,000 each, claiming that their First Amendment rights had been violated by the police when they were kept from demonstrating in Marquette Park. In a fascinating inversion of the infamous Skokie case, the group made the case that as Jews, not being allowed to counter-demonstrate against the Nazis caused them emotional distress.
In a way, things had come full circle. The plaintiffs received an out-of-court settlement, for amounts ranging from $200 to $400. “Chicago Cops Support Chutzpah!” the collective announced in the Chutzpah newspaper. They reported that the plaintiffs pooled money from the settlement to donate $1,300, splitting the amount between the Simon Wiesenthal Jewish Documentation Center, the Fred Hampton Scholarship Fund, and the Chutzpah newspaper itself, to fight Nazism, racism and antisemitism.
FREEDOM FOR ALL
In 2009, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center opened in Skokie, the result of 30 years of Holocaust education advocacy fueled by the attempted Nazi march. At the very end of the museum, a modest display nods to the would-be Skokie counter-demonstration. A press release under plexiglass detailing the separate march sits alongside protest signs from the JDL. Missing are the voices of dissent who challenged the Jewish establishment in order to confront the Nazis, and the Chutzpah Jewish Liberation Collective’s unique organizing history. Most troublingly, the crucial context of anti-black violence, terrorism, segregation, and impoverishment on the southwest side of Chicago is nowhere to be found.
This story, told in its full scope, bears a lesson not about freedom of speech, but about solidarity forged through common struggle. So long as there is anti-black racism and inequality at the foundation of American society, there will also be Nazi hatred. And wherever this hatred arises it must be confronted by as many people as possible, both systemically and in the streets.
A sign from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Coalition said it best: Not in Marquette Park. Not in Skokie. Not Anywhere!
[Isaac Brosilow is a writer and Jewish educator living in Chicago.]
This piece appears in our forthcoming Fall 2018 issue. Subscribe to receive a copy in your mailbox.