The Nazis in Skokie

In the fall of 1976, Frank Collin, the leader of the National Socialist Party of America (NSPA, or Nazis), was denied his request to hold a demonstration in Marquette Park. The Chicago Park District stipulated that the NSPA had to put up $250,000 in insurance—a sum they could not obtain. [1] The events that followed would stir the American legal system and the lives of thousands of Holocaust survivors. The events would pose the ultimate democratic question: is all speech free?

Collin filed a lawsuit, arguing that the Park District’s insurance requirement inhibited the NSPA’s constitutional right of free speech and assembly. He also sent out letters to surrounding suburbs requesting permits for demonstration, but they were largely ignored. The only response, from the Village of Skokie, required $350,000 in insurance: an apparent proactive attempt to keep the Nazis out of the Village. [2]

Skokie (population 66,620) is located approximately 12 miles outside of Chicago on the edge of the city. In 1977, an estimated 40,000 residents were Jewish and 5,000-7,000 were Holocaust survivors. [3] With such a demographic, it was no surprise that the city energetically sought to keep the Nazis out.

On March 20, 1977, Collin made the march official by sending Skokie a letter stating the NSPA would hold their demonstration on May 1. [4] According to Collin, the demonstration would last 30 minutes, with 30-50 people marching, single-file, on the sidewalk, wearing Nazi military uniforms complete with swastika armband. They would hold signs reading, "White Free Speech" and "Free Speech for the White Man." [5]

Jewish residents of Skokie, remembering the Holocaust, were outraged. They adopted the slogan "never again!"; they would not sit back and watch the Nazis march through their town. No one could give an assurance of peace. Now, Frank Collin had two legal battles to fight—one with Chicago, one with Skokie—thereby launching both the Village and the American Nazi Party out of the political periphery and into the limelight. Collin found an unlikely ally in David Goldberger, a Jewish attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who believed defending free speech for everyone was the only way to protect it for one’s own. [6] Together, they challenged Skokie’s insurance requirement while America watched and listened.

Skokie’s Village Attorney, Harvey Swartz, filed a petition to the Circuit Court of Cook County requesting an injunction to prevent the Nazis from parading in uniform on the grounds that the presentation of the swastika was a symbolic assault. Judge Joseph Wosik sided with the Village. The NSPA could not march. Skokie continued to fortify its defense. Over the course of 1977, the Village created three new ordinances to keep the Nazis out and Goldberger worked to lift the injunction. On January 27, 1978, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the NSPA’s march could not constitutionally be prohibited, nor could the public presentation of the swastika. The final barrier—Skokie’s ordinances—collapsed on February 23, 1978 when the District Courts ruled them unconstitutional as well. Skokie had lost. The Nazis had their freedom of speech. Collin set a date: June 25, 1978. [7]

As the date approached, tension built. Counter-demonstrations were organized, and supporters of the village residents flocked to the Chicago suburb. But Frank Collin and the NSPA never marched through Skokie. The Chicago Park District waived the $250,000 insurance requirement five days before the march, allowing the Nazis to hold their demonstration in Marquette Park as originally planned. [8]

By the 1970s, many Jewish residents of Skokie wanted to forget the horrors they had experienced. The American Nazis forced them to remember. Today, the attitude in the Village is different: they will never forget. On April 9, 2009 the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center opened in Skokie. The Museum pledges itself to the remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust and the continued education and prevention of bigotry and genocide. The Museum dedicates an exhibit to the attempted march of the Nazis in 1977, ensuring these events will never again slip into the outskirts of memory. ◊

 

 

1. Basic facts of the case appear in the evenhanded documentary, Skokie: Rights or Wrong, Videocassette. Prod. Sheila Chamovitz. New Day Films, 1987.

2. Neier, Aryeh. Defending My Enemy: American Nazis, the Skokie Case, and the Risks of Freedom. (New York: Dutton, 1979), 39.

3. Strum, Philippa. When the Nazis Came to Skokie: Freedom for Speech We Hate. (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1999), 6-7.

4. Strum, When the Nazis, 16.

5. Neier, Defending My Enemy, 39.

6. Strum, When the Nazis, 20, 24.

7. Neier, Defending My Enemy, 43, 48, 49, 54-55, 62.

8. Neier, Defending My Enemy, 66.