George Lincoln Rockwell, father of American Nazis, still in vogue for some

A flamboyant, homophobic and antisemitic showman, Rockwell’s theatrics and oratory find an echo in movements on the modern far right

The Guardian/August 27, 2017

By Lois Beckett

On 28 August 1963, the day Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the national mall, an American Nazi arrived early.

George Lincoln Rockwell, the media-savvy, pipe-smoking founder of the American Nazi Party, was blatantly racist, homophobic and antisemitic. Just 17 years after the US and its allies had defeated Nazi Germany, he had tried to hold a rally celebrating Hitler’s birthday in New York.

In the capital, Rockwell had predicted that 10,000 angry counter-demonstrators would join him to protest King’s March on Washington. He had also been spreading fears about black mobs attacking Congress. Instead, the Washington DC police department, which Rockwell assumed would be on his side, had denied him a permit to demonstrate.

More than 200,000 Americans joined King for a peaceful event that would reshape American history. Rockwell and fewer than 90 followers were surrounded by about 100 police officers, the Guardian reported. When one supporter attempted to give a speech, he was arrested.

Frederick Simonelli, author of a 1999 biography of Rockwell, American Führer, would note that the American Nazi’s tiny band of followers that day included an unknown number who were conducting undercover surveillance for law enforcement or Jewish community groups.

Nonetheless, when King marched in Chicago in 1966, he was greeted by thousands of angry white protesters, some holding signs that referenced Rockwell or carried slogans like “Join the White Rebellion” and “We Worked Hard For What We Got”, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Rockwell died in 1967, murdered by one of his own followers. American neo-Nazi groups remained, largely in obscurity.

Then, earlier this month, people around the world were shocked by footage from Charlottesville, where hundreds of young white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other far-right activistschanted “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us”.

Many of the hate groups that are attracting the most attention today – including Vanguard America, the group that James Fields, the man charged with killing Heather Heyer was photographed standing with in Charlottesville – are newly-founded. They are not part of the handful of current neo-Nazi organizations, including the National Socialist Movement and the National Alliance, that grew out of the splintering of Rockwell’s American Nazi Party, said Marilyn Mayro, senior fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

Where Rockwell used explicit Nazi iconography, many new white nationalist groups have adopted alternative fascist symbols.

“They want to rebrand white supremacy, so the swastika is not so much a part of their movement,” said Mayro, adding that with some exceptions, Rockwell “doesn’t seem to be venerated by these groups, but they use some of the tactics that he promoted”.

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However, strategies used by Rockwell to gain media attention – talks on college campuses, violent clashes without outraged opponents, debates over the freedom of speech– are replicated today.

In 1960, for example, Rockwell made headlines with his reported support for Richard Nixon’s candidacy for president. In 2016, white supremacists David Duke and Richard Spencer made headlines by endorsing Donald Trump.

“I completely repudiate him and the evil he represents,” Nixon said in 1960, according to the Associated Press.

In 2016, Trump did not immediately disavow support from Duke. After Charlottesville, he drew fire for a delayed and equivocal response.

For some leaders of extremist groups, Rockwell does remain an inspiration. Matthew Heimbach, the 26-year-old leader of the Traditionalist Worker Party, a neo-Nazi group that marched in Charlottesville, said in an interview in May that Rockwell’s writings and speeches were “the things that worked to bring me to National Socialism”.

Heimbach called Rockwell “one of the most gifted orators of the 20th century”. “We really want to be able to carry the banner of what he died doing, being a true political National Socialist,” he said.

Rockwell’s most important legacy may be the instinct for showmanship. Rockwell was tall, dimpled and “telegenic”, deploying a trademark corn cob pipe and an instinct for dramatic poses, swastikas deployed for effect, leveraging outrage into constant press attention.

In 1961, he and his followers drove a Volkswagen emblazoned with the words “hate bus” through the American South, parodying the Freedom Riders who fought for civil rights reform.

Many of his claims – among them the assertion that he would be elected president in 1972 “on the National Socialist ticket” – were clearly delusional. But he mastered the art of turning virulent racism and antisemitism into a spectacle the media could not resist.

Like many of today’s most prominent ‘alt-right’ leaders and backers, Rockwell was not a member of the white working class. The son of a vaudeville star, he attended Brown University, where he drew comics for the campus newspaper, then served in the navy in the second world war and Korea. By 1952, Simonelli wrote in his 1999 biography, one of Rockwell’s cousins was shocked by the vehemence with which he was denouncing “Jewish traitors”.

In 1963, a report from the Anti-Defamation League found that Rockwell had only 16 “troopers” in residence with him in a rickety two-story barracks in Arlington, Virginia. The plumbing was faulty and the American Nazis were subsisting on canned hash, chicken stew and even cat food, the report said.

Rockwell “remains a nuisance, but is not a menace”, the report said, calling him “a mere pimple on the American body politic”.

One of the keys to Rockwell’s failure, Simonelli wrote, was the decision of Jewish organizations to give the Nazi leader the “silent treatment”. After several years of responding to his provocations, which produced headlines regarding clashes in New York, Washington and Boston, some Jewish community organizations worked together to ignore him, a tactic they called “quarantine”.

Finally, on 25 August 1967, outside a laundromat in Arlington, Rockwell was shot dead. One of his former followers, John Patler, was convicted of his murder.

On Friday, in Arlington, NBC reported that a small group of American Nazis offered a salute to their fallen leader.

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