Reflections on Skokie’s neo-Nazi march attempt
Updated: January 22, 2013 4:26PM
Filmmaker Todd Whitman admits that he could have made a much longer documentary on the neo-Nazis’ attempted 1977 and 1978 march in Skokie.
As it is, his documentary, “Skokie: Invaded But Not Conquered” is packed with information covering an impressive amount of ground in just under an hour. The would-be march has become a piece of Skokie’s own history and one of this country’s landmark First Amendment cases. It also served as one of the major impetuses in galvanizing Holocaust survivors to speak out.
Illinois Holocaust Museum Executive Director Rick Hirschhaut said that the Skokie march case and the TV movie, “Holocaust,” were the two major events from that era that helped remove Holocaust history from the dark.
Before the Illinois Holocaust Museum opened in 2009, the Skokie Review revisited the march case. As the documentary is released, we’ve gathered some of that reporting here again.
The museum may never have been built in Skokie had Frank Collin and his National Socialist Party of America not tried to march there more than three decades ago.
Mayor George Van Dusen remembered that he was in London when news about the march broke out.
“We were sitting in a large bar and I looked up, and on the ‘telly’ as they say in England, was (Mayor) Albert J. Smith,” Van Dusen recalled. “I thought, ‘What was going on?’”
In some ways, Skokie created a blueprint for itself in how to make lemonade out of lemons. It would face different adversity in later years from the 1984 desecration of a statue commemorating the Holocaust to the 2000 Ku Klux Klan march in Skokie. In 1999, a member of a white separatist hate group gunned down Northwestern basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong in Skokie.
In each of these cases, the village responded by trying to counter the hate with celebrations of peace, harmony and unity — just as the community came together when the National Socialist Party of America tried to march.
Collin’s permit application had the effect of pouring gasoline on a quiet fire for the 7,000 Holocaust survivors who lived in the village.
The Skokie Village Board tried to get an injunction against Collin and then passed three ordinances making it virtually impossible for his group to march.
“The thinking at the time was that you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater,” said Frank McCabe, a young village trustee in 1977.
“There was a big hullabaloo. There were people who said we should let them come and there were people who said we shouldn’t allow them to march.”
McCabe remembered one Village Board meeting where a local pastor was irate that trustees were considering allowing the march.
“He was angry not because he thought there were any First Amendment rights or we were doing anything to discriminate,” McCabe said. “He was worried that if there was a confrontation, his church windows would be broken. He was pounding his fists he was so angry.”
Many Jewish residents, including survivors, spoke to trustees, McCabe remembers, united in sending the message, “Never again.”
“We had very big crowds at our meetings,” he said. “The vast majority said you can’t let them come. We all felt we should keep them out.”
The march never came off, but the village was as ready as possible in June 1978.
McCabe remembers arriving at Mayor Smith’s office by 7 a.m. that day. The location provided an easy view of downtown’s Oakton Street where the march was to occur.
“People started organizing and forming out there by 7 a.m.,” McCabe said.
McCabe said village officials were, ironically, concerned about protecting the Nazis.
“There were people showing up with two-by-fours and baseball bats,” he said. “We didn’t want to be in the position of having to arrest our own citizens or defend these lousy Nazis. It was a terrible situation.”
Few people knew that the National Guard alongside police personnel was posted in the library that day. For former Police Chief Barry Silverberg, who was a young patrol officer at the time, there was palpable tension in the air.
“We were not initially prepared to handle an event that would have brought such large crowds to Skokie,” he said about Collin’s initial effort to march there. “Crowd control or riot control was nonexistent. Nor were we equipped with proper riot control equipment.”
Village police went right to training, Silverberg recalled. That Collin was turned away in his first effort to march allowed police the time to extensively train.
Silverberg on that day was stationed with others in a village dump truck near village hall. Although Collin finally agreed to call off the march in exchange for being allowed to march in Chicago, there were still incidents in Skokie, he said.
At least a couple of thousand people came out including survivors who participated in counter demonstrations. Nazi supporters with T-shirts, swastikas and German army helmets also came down from Wisconsin.
“Emotions were high,” Silverberg said. “It was a cornucopia of people with different viewpoints.” There were a handful of minor arrests that day.
Silverberg believes that had the Nazis marched, the day would have turned violent. “The emotions that I observed from that crowd that day were such that people were not going to stand for a display of Nazi values.”
The ACLU took on the village 35 years ago regarding the case. The Review also visited with the two main lawyers in 2009.
David Goldberger, legal director for the Illinois division of the ACLU then, said the Nazi demonstration was a clear-cut case of constitutionally guaranteed free speech.
But to Skokie attorney Harvey Schwartz the Nazi request to demonstrate in the village was nothing less than an assault on the village’s large population of Holocaust survivors.
“How do you explain something like this,” Goldberger said. “I didn’t see there was any option.”
“This was just an assault,” Schwartz said of the proposed Nazi demonstration. “We felt we were doing the right thing for the people who would have been hurt by it.”
Schwartz said some initially hoped people would just ignore it.
“We hoped it would simply pass without the publicity Collin was attempting to get,” he said.
Goldberger said that as legal director he took on the case, but other ACLU attorneys were not anxious to become involved.
“There were not a lot of volunteers,” he said.
In the years since the court battle, Goldberger, now a law professor at Ohio State University, has often been asked how he, as a Jew himself, could fight for a Nazi march.
“The people on the other side could have been family members,” he said. “But our role was to defend the First Amendment. There are no exceptions.”
Schwartz, however, sees it differently. He cites the traditional example of the limit of free speech, shouting fire in a crowded theater. “It’s not an absolute right; it has to do with time, manner and location.”