History lesson: The Nazis in Skokie, Illinois, 1977-78

Frank Collin, head of the National Socialist Party of America, tells the press about his organization’s plans to march in the predominantly Jewish town of Skokie, Ill., on June 22, 1978. (AP)

It has come to my attention that some readers have never heard of this event. Since I was an adult at the time, I recall hearing about it although I was living in distant Canada.

This is an excerpt from a piece written in 2009, recalling the events:

…[R]oughly thirty members of the Nazi Party of America sought to march in Skokie. The plan was for the marchers to wear uniforms reminiscent of those worn by the members of Hitler’s Nazi Party, including swastika armbands, and to carry a party banner bearing a large swastika.

At the time of the proposed march in 1977, Skokie, a northern Chicago suburb, had a population of about 70,000 persons, 40,000 of whom were Jewish. Approximately 5,000 of the Jewish residents were survivors of the Holocaust. The residents of Skokie responded with shock and outrage.

They sought a court order enjoining the march on the grounds that it would “incite or promote hatred against persons of Jewish faith or ancestry,” that is was a “deliberate and willful attempt” to inflict severe emotional harm on the Jewish population in Skokie (and especially on the survivors of the Holocaust), and that it would incite an “uncontrollably” violent response and lead to serious “bloodshed.”

The Skokie controversy triggered one of those rare but remarkable moments in American history when citizens throughout the nation vigorously debated the meaning of the United States Constitution. The arguments were often fierce, heartfelt and painful.

The American Civil Liberties Union, despite severe criticism and withdrawal of support by many its strongest supporters, represented the First Amendment rights of the Nazi.

As a young law professor at the University of Chicago, I had the played a minor role in assisting the ACLU. In the end, the Illinois Supreme Court, the United States Court of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court contributed to the conclusion that Skokie could not enjoin the Nazis from marching…

…The outcome of the Skokie controversy was one of the truly great victories for the First Amendment in American history. It proved that the rule of law must and can prevail. Because of our profound commitment to the principle of free expression even in the excruciatingly painful circumstances of Skokie more than thirty years ago, we remain today the international symbol of free speech. (Ultimately, a deal was worked out and the Nazis agreed to march in Chicago rather than in Skokie.)

Ironically, but exquisitely, it was the Skokie controversy that caused the survivors in Skokie and around the world to recognize that, in the words of the new Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, “despite their desire to leave the past behind, they could no longer remain silent”…

Things have changed greatly since then. Of course, no countries aside from the US have such strong free-speech guarantees.*

I doubt that they could be added in the present day US, with the present-day cult of victimhood and obsession with ‘micro-aggressions.’

Also note that the Jews of Skokie, while strongly disagreeing with planned march, refrained from Muslim-style violence.

The BBC writes snootily and perfectly expressing the prevailing leftist thought:

...[T]he US has been finding out that it, too, has defenders of free speech who nonetheless believe that free speech has its limits, even before it veers into hate speech.

America may be a land built on the Bible and the gun – and a place that defends, vigorously, both freedom of religion for all, and freedom of speech.

But this has been a testing week for those who care passionately about that debate, creating strange bedfellows in defence of free speech – or rather, the right to offend.

It even united the initiator of the controversial “draw the Prophet Mohammed” cartoon contest in Texas, where two gunmen were shot dead after opening fire on a security guard, with the rather more left-wing supporters of PEN, an organization that campaigns for freedom of speech for authors, writers and cartoonists wherever they may live and work…

…[W]hat is becoming clear is that the fundamentalism of this new generation of radical Islamists risks provoking an extreme reaction from some of those espousing the cause of unlimited freedom and liberty.

The danger is that tolerance and respect for our differences – and for each other – could be the loser; the very principles that many came to America and Europe to enjoy and uphold.


*I am not positive about this: there may be some small countries that do have US-style freedom. But the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have nothing of the sort, and neither do major European nations like France and Germany (somewhat more understandable in their case), or the much-admired Scandinavian countries.

Screen-shot-2012-12-06-at-1.48.53-PMPeople protest over the planned march. Source.

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