Flashback: 'Swastika war': When the neo-Nazis fought in court to march in Skokie
Four decades ago, a neo-Nazi group announced plans to march in Skokie, home to thousands of Holocaust survivors. The news set off a rhetorical firestorm that the Chicago Tribune dubbed the "Skokie swastika war."
Then and now — as the Jewish community sits on edge after a spate of bomb threats and vandalism at Jewish Community Centers, schools and cemeteries around the U.S. and Canada — the Nazi symbol was embraced by anti-Semites.
A vandal who recently broke a window of the Chicago Loop Synagogue signed his malicious handiwork with swastika stickers. Headstones were marked with swastikas at desecrated Jewish cemeteries in the St. Louis area and Philadelphia.
In 1977, the swastika became the centerpiece of a constitutional question posed by a small group of neo-Nazis who called themselves "National Socialists" — a callback to the formal name of Adolf Hitler's political party. When the group encountered pushback over its plans to march through Skokie that spring while carrying flags bearing the swastika, its leader, Frank Collin, invoked the First Amendment as his defense.
In a January 1978 letter to the Tribune, months into a court battle over the group's right to march, Collin explained: "By forcing the 'free speech for National Socialism' issue in Skokie we are fighting for our basic rights everywhere."
The leader of Skokie's Holocaust survivor community had asserted that the sight of a swastika would have a devastating effect on those who saw loved ones marched off to Nazi gas chambers. Sol Goldstein invoked a famed maxim of the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. about the limits of free speech.
"I also defend the (First) Amendment," Goldstein told the Tribune. "But this is like calling, 'Fire!' in a crowded theater."
Those positions were hotly argued and reargued in state and federal courtrooms until the U.S. Supreme Court resolved the issue. There were screaming matches between's Collin's handful of followers and protesters carrying signs that read, "Smash the Nazis" and "Never Again Treblinka," a reference to a World War II extermination camp in Poland. Collin's opponents founded a counter-organization, the Run The Nazis Out Coalition.
The bitter debate opened crevices in Chicago's Jewish community. "My interest in the Nazis' march is quite personal," George Baum wrote in the Tribune in August 1977, recalling his liberation from the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic. "That day of rejoicing and sadness haunts the graveyard of my memories."
About 15,000 children had passed through the camp. Baum was one of a hundred who survived. He explained his take on the proposed neo-Nazi march by quoting Alexander Hamilton: "Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power."
Jews are traditionally champions of free speech. They contribute generously to the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that defends First Amendment rights on a nonpartisan basis. But when the Chicago chapter took on Frank Collin as a client, Jewish members were outraged. "I feel strongly that the principle of free speech must be defended," a woman wrote in a letter to the ACLU that was quoted in a Tribune column. "But in this case, please let a non-Jew do the defending."
A Jewish lawyer who served as a volunteer attorney for the ACLU resigned, the Tribune column went on. He wanted no part of an "organization that represents individuals whose ultimate goal is the destruction of us all." Less than halfway through the 14-month controversy, the ACLU's executive director told the Tribune the organization had lost between 700 and 1,000 members. "And the number is probably higher by now," David Hamlin said.
But ACLU members weren't the only ones whose Jewishness and politics were in conflict. "It is a mystery," Collin's grandmother said of his rabid anti-Semitism. Her son-in-law, Collin's father, was Jewish.
Collin's parents steadfastly refused to be interviewed. But by his grandmother's account, her daughter, Virginia, and Max Collin lived "quietly in a Chicago suburb," and Frank was the eldest of their four children. Virginia was Catholic, and Max was a German Jew who had survived the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. Coming to America, he changed his name from Cohen to Collin.
Frank Collin went to Catholic elementary and high schools and attended Southern Illinois University before dropping out.
Somewhere along the way, Frank Collin became infatuated with George Lincoln Rockwell, a white supremacist and self-proclaimed "commandant" of the American Nazi Party. Collin became the party's Midwest director, a grandiose title considering that its membership nationally was estimated at a few hundred or less.
When Rockwell was assassinated in 1967 by a disaffected follower, Collin expected to be named his successor. But he was passed over.
Taking with him a few of Rockwell's followers, Collin founded his own group, the National Socialist Party of America. He set up headquarters at 2519 W. 71st St., thinking he'd find a receptive audience on Chicago's Southwest Side. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assaulted there while campaigning in 1966 for open housing in what was then a predominantly white neighborhood.
Many residents were of Eastern European ancestry. They, too, had relatives who had suffered under Nazi occupation. So the sight of Nazi regalia was anathema, as Julian Kulas, a Ukrainian community leader, noted. "To dismiss the appearance of swastikas, brown shirts and jackboots on American soil a scant generation after (the Holocaust) betrays willful inattention to one of the most tragic episodes of human history," Kulas wrote in a statement of solidarity with the Jewish community that was reported in the Tribune in June 1978.
While the court battles with Skokie waged on, and thinking a dramatic move would get the media's attention, Collin planned a rally in Chicago's Marquette Park, where King had been attacked. The symbolism was patent: Collin's group promised to be a bulwark against the black residents of nearby neighborhoods.
A new confrontation between blacks and whites was the last thing Chicago's leaders wanted. So the Chicago Park District put obstacles in Collin's way. His group would have to post a $350,000 insurance bond. When the ACLU objected, saying that the amount was unreasonable, a federal judge reduced it to $60,000. At a second hearing, the judge found that, because Collin's views were unpopular, brokers weren't willing to write him an insurance policy, so he was given the right to march without posting a bond.
Collin won his courtroom battles almost in spite of himself. "He told me, in effect, to go to h-e-l-l," a judge said after an especially testy session early in the fight. "He said, in effect, he doesn't care what I do — that he's got other plans."
But Collin did float his idea of a compromise. He wouldn't march in Skokie if his group was allowed to hold a rally in Marquette Park. Once the bond requirement was lifted, the neo-Nazis marched twice in the park. Each time the police cut the demonstration short, in the face of counterdemonstrations. Rallies at the Daley and Kluczynski Federal Building plazas were marked by similar clashes.
So in the end it was something of an anti-climax when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Collin's right of free speech extended to Skokie. "After bitter controversy, the courts cleared the Skokie march, but Collin called it off," the Tribune noted July 8, 1978.
Collin disappeared from the political scene but not from the news. In 1980, he was convicted of sexually molesting young boys and sent to prison. After being released, he dabbled in paganism and new-age anthropology. He abandoned National Socialism for reasons as mysterious as those that brought him into the cult of Hitler.
As his grandmother had said: "We don't know how or when it started."