A crowd gathered at the Greek Bowl, an open amphitheater, to hear George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party speak, on March 8th, 1962. I was a curious Freshman, sitting about 10 rows up, in the middle of the bowl. There was an expectation that he would make incendiary remarks, and he did.
Standing on the stage, backed by a few brown shirt guards, he began making derogatory remarks about Jews. The crowd booed. He doubled down, the crowd got louder. He challenged anyone to dispute his accusations.
Ed Cherry, a student, walked up on the stage, to cheers from the crowd and tried to get to the mic. Rockwell didn’t want to let him speak. Some words were exchanged and Ed slugged Rockwell, at which point the brown shirt security stepped in.
A crowd of several hundred, were now standing and began moving toward the stage. Rockwell was shuffled off, to protect him from what was an increasingly angry situation. Shortly, Rockwell was escorted to a waiting car. The crowd followed and began egging the Nazi entourage and moving around their car. It was a tense few minutes, but Rockwell’s driver was able to get through the gathering crowd and leave.
The biggest difference between then and now is; Rockwell wasn’t a core part of the President’s (JFK at the time) base. And, although anti-Semitism and racism was as prevalent as it is today, it wasn’t well organized and certainly wasn’t backed with armed militias and networked propaganda outlets.
Beyond some cursory soul searching about 1st amendment rights, there was a general expectation that free speech came with responsibilities. The school newspaper was likely the most concerned, and even they quickly moved on to focus on routine events, an emerging manned Space Program, Louis Leakey’s fossil finds, rumors of Global Warming Theory and the school’s transition to a University. The country was in an unremarkable period of exceptional prosperity that came to be seen as the norm, and wouldn’t be interrupted until November 22nd, 1963.
With Winter all but gone, my thoughts had turned to weekends in Ensenada. Politics were nowhere on my horizon. Anyway, that’s my recollection, an odd parallel to the amplified events in Charlottesville today.
By way of comparison, here’s what the school paper reported:
Transcription of The Daily Aztec Reporting – March 1962
Self-styled American Nazi party leader George Lincoln Rockwell was slugged, hissed and booed when he spoke in the Greek Bowl March 8, as he hurled verbal blasts at minority groups to a crowd of about 3,000.
Rockwell said that he had no intention of causing trouble. “If I had wanted trouble I could have worn my uniform with my armbands and the whole works. Believe me, I know how to stir people up if I want to,” he said.
Rockwell was slugged in the face by Ed Cherry, a SDS senior physical education major, when Rockwell said that “the Jews are engaged in a great conspiracy.”
“I wanted to counteract Rockwell’s lies,” Cherry said.
A press conference followed in the Aztec office. Rockwell predicted that he will be in political power in Virginia within five years. However, he said that he has no special office to run for.
The following days found the incident receiving coverage on television and in newspapers all over the nation.
Rockwell was brought to the campus by the Committee for Student Action.