Charlottesville and Skokie: What can America learn from its latest encounter with the far-right?

Charlottesville and Skokie: What can America learn from its latest encounter with the far-right?

In 1977, nearly half of the seventy thousand residents of the suburban village of Skokie, Illinois, were Jewish. While estimates vary, over one-thousand of these residents were Holocaust survivors. So naturally, when Frank Collin and his Chicago-based National Socialist Party of America (NSPA) announced their intention to hold a demonstration through the streets of Skokie, many saw this as an affront to the memory of the six million victims of the Holocaust.

In many ways Charlottesville, Virginia, has become the new Skokie. A “Unite the Right” rally was planned on the 12th of August to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The city has witnessed the latest high-profile instance of protestors who have proudly and publicly carried Swastikas, and imitated Nazi supporters with salutes and cries of “Sieg Heil” and “Heil Trump.” Others yelled slogans such as “white lives matter” and “blood and soil,” a slogan of Nazi ideology based on an idealised racially defined national body. Prior to Hurricane Harvey, American media was firmly focussed on the city, and how the nation would respond to the far-right demonstrations. What can the United States learn from Skokie as not just Nazis, but Klansmen, the alt-right, and other white supremacist groups have attempted to “Unite the Right”?

President of the NSPA, Frank Collin, informed Skokie village council that he would be holding a thirty-minute demonstration in front of the village hall on Sunday 1 May 1977. Collin expected around fifty demonstrators, some would be wearing neo-Nazi uniform. The mayor of Skokie granted this request to avoid further confrontation, and urged his community to ignore the demonstration. An ordinance banning the demonstration was obtained after a counter demonstration was planned which raised concern about the outbreak of violence. The case was taken to the Supreme Court, where it was ruled that the ordinance was unconstitutional, as it denied the NSPA their First Amendment rights.

The march in Skokie was widely and quickly condemned by political leaders. President Jimmy Carter said the following shortly after the verdict was passed by the Supreme Court: “I must respect the decision of the Supreme Court allowing this group [the NSPA] to express their views, even when those views are despicable and ugly as they are in this case. But if such views must be expressed, I am pleased they will not go unanswered. That is why I want to voice my complete solidarity with those citizens of Skokie and Chicago who will gather Sunday in a peaceful demonstration of their abhorrence of Nazism.”

Some believe this kind of strong condemnation from the nation’s leaders was lacking following the recent events in Charlottesville. Historian David Niremberg of the University of Chicago, when comparing the political reactions between Skokie and Charlottesville, stated “that strong, clear commitment to certain values of inclusion from our political leaders is not present in the same way.”

President Donald Trump did eventually condemn the events in Charlottesville, albeit two days after the initial event; two days indeed, after he initially commented on the “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.” In a press conference, Trump did condemn racism as “evil” and described groups such as the KKK and neo-Nazis as “criminals and thugs.” But with the two-day delay, and his continued criticism of the Charlottesville counter-protestors – who Trump has labelled the “alt-left” – many are left feeling he didn’t do nearly enough. With some commentators fearing that these far-right groups will feel emboldened by Trump’s hesitance about condemning them, how should Americans respond to Charlottesville?

Perhaps the great positive of the Skokie affair was the response of locals to the attempted marches of the NSPA. Holocaust survivors in Skokie and the Chicago area joined together to form the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois. Made available to the public, the Foundation was especially focussed towards children, with the aim of combatting hate with education. In 1990, the organisation successfully secured the passage of the Holocaust Education Mandate, which made Illinois the first state to make compulsory the teaching of Holocaust Education in schools. From the Skokie affair, the Foundation continues to combat hate through the promotion of education. In 2009 the Holocaust Museum and Education Center was opened. As the Foundation’s President Emeritus, Sam Harris, stated “We dreamed of creating a place that would not only serve as a memorial to our families that perished and the millions lost, but also where young minds could learn the terrible dangers of prejudice and hatred.”

While we can continue to belittle and undermine the attempts of white supremacists to ‘unite the right’ with jokes by late-night talk show hosts or internet memes, education may serve as the long-lasting solution to battling bigotry and hatred. In the case of Skokie, the rights of the First Amendment prevailed over the village’s Jewish residents. However, it should not be remembered as a victory for far-right organisations. Because of the backlash the NSPA received over their proposed march, a compromise was eventually agreed where Frank Collin and his neo-Nazi group would not march in the village. Instead, the demonstration was held in downtown Chicago, where they were met by thousands of counter demonstrators. The Jewish community of Skokie took the opportunity to go beyond the immediate struggle against the NSPA by attempting to educate young minds against the dangers of prejudice and hatred. In the words of the Holocaust Museum and Education Center, “Remember the Past, Transform the Future.” Perhaps Americans should take the same lesson in their latest struggle against far-right bigotry.

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