The Nazis' Neighborhood
For a decade, Chicago's Marquette Park neighborhood served as the local headquarters for the National Socialist Party of America.
Editor’s note: This story describes confrontations with hate groups and includes racist slurs and imagery.
In the 1970s, Rockwell Hall was a two-story, mostly red brick building with a wood-paneled front — the kind you might see on a tavern. The building was nondescript, except for a swastika emblem over the front door, right next to an American flag. A racist banner, large enough to see down the block, hung on the building’s west side.
Rockwell Hall was located in the southwest Chicago neighborhood of Marquette Park. (Courtesy J.R. Schmidt)
In 1978, Larry Langford pulled his motorcycle up to the building, the headquarters of the National Socialist Party of America. Langford had come to cover a neo-Nazi press conference as a reporter for WIND radio. (These days he’s a spokesman for the Chicago Fire Department.)
“Some of my fellow reporters were looking at me like, ‘What are you doing here?’” he recalls. “I realized I was the only black reporter there.”
Langford says he gathered his resolve before entering the group’s self-described “barracks.” The hosts of the press conference were dressed in their version of a Nazi uniform: brown shirts, ties, and red swastika armbands.
“They tried to put on a little show for me. They were coming out of the back with guns and military side arms, putting them on the table,” Langford says, adding that apart from a few glares, he was able to get his story without incident.
It was Langford’s first time visiting Rockwell Hall, but the building was notorious in the 1970s, and the neo-Nazis who lived there made national headlines in the latter part of that decade. The group garnered enough fame that that they were satirized in the classic Chicago-based film The Blues Brothers.
Larry Langford stands in front of the boarded up building where Rockwell Hall headquarters used to be located. (WBEZ/Jesse Dukes)
Decades later, Curious Citizen Alix Anne Shaw heard about these same neo-Nazis from a former roommate. She says this roommate had added an important detail about Chicago having once had a “Nazi neighborhood” as well. The detail was compelling enough for her to eventually ask Curious City a question along these lines:
Is it true that the city had a “Nazi neighborhood?” If so, where was it, and what was its history?
Alix says she has been thinking about her question more lately because of events she’s seen in the news: the emergence of the so-called called “alt-right,” for example, and synagogues being vandalized in Chicago.
As Langford’s story reveals, there were neo-Nazis in Chicago in the 1970s, and they had a headquarters. The story of that neo-Nazi group and their neighborhood raises questions about the extent of free speech and whether violence should be used to confront hate. The story also explores how mainstream racism in any neighborhood can encourage hate groups.
Neo-Nazis come to Chicago
That National Socialist Party of America headquarters that Larry Langford visited in the 1970s was located in Marquette Park, a portion of the Southwest Side’s broader Chicago Lawn area.
Today, Marquette Park is a black and Latino neighborhood. But before the neo-Nazis moved in, it was infamous for its hostility towards African-Americans. In the 1970s it had a mixed population of “white ethnics” including Lithuanian-, Polish-, German-, and Irish-Americans, as well as a small population of Arab-Americans.
Langford grew up nearby in Englewood, and he says Marquette Park had a reputation.
That reputation got national attention in 1966, when the Chicago Freedom Movement organized a series of marches and protests on Chicago’s Southwest Side with the goal of ending housing segregation in the city. Martin Luther King Jr. helped organized a march in Marquette Park on August 5. White residents responded violently, charging the marchers and throwing bricks and bottles. An object struck King’s head, and the Chicago Tribune quotes him saying that day: “I've been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen — even in Mississippi and Alabama — mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I've seen here in Chicago.”
A counter-demonstrator threw an object that hit Martin Luther King Jr. in the head as he was marching in Marquette Park on August 5, 1966. (Courtesy Chicago Sun Times)
News of the violent reactions to King’s march attracted George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party. Rockwell maintained a barracks with several dozen followers near Washington, D.C. They wore versions of Nazi uniforms and, since the early-’60s, had tried building a serious political movement around anti-Semitism and racism. Rockwell called desegregation a Jewish plot to weaken the white race through genetic mixing. He wanted to deport black Americans to Africa and to sterilize American Jews.
Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, studies hate groups. He says Rockwell’s American Nazi Party was “seen as a freak marginal phenomenon in society. They weren’t taken seriously at all.”
At the urging of the Anti-Defamation League and other groups, the mainstream media agreed to not cover American Nazi Party rallies, effectively denying the group a national platform. But Rockwell tried to get around this quarantine with attention-seeking tactics. He’d march with uniformed “storm troopers” on the National Mall or drive around the country in a so-called “hate bus” adorned with swastikas and anti-integration slogans.
It was this quest for attention that bought Rockwell to Chicago’s Southwest Side. Shortly after King was hit in the head, Rockwell arrived in Chicago to hand out pamphlets and “White Power” T-shirts with swastikas on them. He confronted King face-to-face at one rally, and led a so-called “White People’s March” on Sept. 10, 1966. About 150 demonstrators in “White Power” T-shirts marched with Rockwell from the majority-white Gage Park neighborhood to the predominantly African-American Englewood.
A poster promoting George Lincoln Rockwell’s “White People’s March” in Chicago. (Courtesy Chicago History Museum, ICHi-037344-A)
A poster promoting George Lincoln Rockwell’s “White People’s March” in Chicago. (Courtesy Chicago History Museum, ICHi-037344-A)
According to the New York Times, most of the marchers were not members of Rockwell’s American Nazi Party, but instead white residents of the Southwest Side. Potok says the “White People’s March” was an unusually large display of mainstream support for somebody as marginalized as Rockwell. Arguably, Rockwell’s greatest mainstream success came from tapping into segregationist sentiment not in the American South, but on Chicago’s Southwest Side.
George Lincoln Rockwell speaks to the crowd at his September 1966 “White People’s March" at the Chicago Coliseum. (Courtesy Chicago History Museum, ICHi-078056; Declan Haun, photographer)
Within a year after the march, Rockwell was assassinated by another neo-Nazi. However, he had made an impression on Marquette Park and inspired Chicago native Frank Collin to follow in his footsteps.
The Chicago Nazi Headquarters
Chicago neo-Nazi leader Frank Collin in Rockwell Hall. (Courtesy J. Ross Baughman)
Frank Collin had been a follower of Rockwell during the 1960s. By 1970, he had formed his own Chicago-based organization called the National Socialist Party of America, which eventually developed chapters in other Midwestern cities. Collin’s racist and anti-Semitic platform was similar to Rockwell’s, and it tapped into the same anti-integration sentiment that had won Rockwell local support.
Collin, along with some of his supporters, purchased a two-story building near where King had been attacked and where Rockwell subsequently organized his “White People’s March.” The building was also near ground zero for local conflicts over integration; it was just blocks away from Western Avenue, which in the 1970s formed an unofficial boundary between the South Side’s African-American and white neighborhoods.
He named the building Rockwell Hall after his former leader, and it became the notorious neo-Nazi headquarters.
According to historian Jeffrey Kaplan, Collin recruited a revolving crew of up to two dozen young men who were mostly from Marquette Park. Many of them lived with Collin in Rockwell Hall, Kaplan says.
In 1976, J. Ross Baughman, a young newspaper reporter, infiltrated an affiliated group of neo-Nazis in Cleveland. He convinced them he was an out-of-work wedding photographer and that he should serve as the group’s historian, so they allowed him to take photos. When the Cleveland group paid a visit to Rockwell Hall, Baughman came along and documented life within its walls. Collin may have called the place a “barracks,” but Baughman remembers something more like a boys’ club, something less orderly.
“They had sleeping bags and couches and a seedy upstairs,” he says. “They survived on mostly vending machine junk food.”
Baughman remembers a dozen or so core members living at Rockwell Hall, but also a lot of people who hung around, like girlfriends of the neo-Nazis and pre-adolescent boys who were organized into Collin’s own “Hitler Youth Group.”
Collin recruited several young men to his neo-Nazi group. (Courtesy J. Ross Baughman)
The neo-Nazis raised funds through a donation jar and sales of merchandise, including the same “White Power” T-shirts that Rockwell had handed out a decade earlier.
They had a printing press to churn out flyers and newspapers to promote white power, and they handed them out at marches, rallies, the streets of Marquette Park and other neighborhoods.The NSPA even had an answering machine, which played a recorded “white power broadcast” with news and announcements.
“They didn’t have a lot of leisure time comfort,” Baughman says. “No television set. They would listen to speeches Frank had given, recorded on audio tape. That was a favorite pastime. But most of what they were doing was planning for a smoother operation next time [they] make a rally in the park.”
Street Fights with Nazis
For the most part, Collin’s neo-Nazi group confined their actions to Chicago’s Southwest Side or majority-white suburbs like Cicero and Berwyn. Marches in those neighborhoods attracted the attention of Buzz Alpert, the chair of the Chicago Chapter of the Jewish Defense League.
Alpert led a group of mostly young Jewish men who would physically attack neo-Nazis during their marches or rallies. Alpert has many war stories from these street fights. He says during the first confrontation between the two groups, he physically barred Collin and his second-in-command from marching on the sidewalk in Berwyn.
“[Collin] said, ‘Who are you?’ and I said, ‘JDL,’” Alpert remembers. “I just reached out, took the two by the throat, and dove at them. We had one hell of a fight. We were outnumbered two to one, but we licked the streets with them. The Nazis were stunned that they had been beaten by Jews.”
Buzz Alpert of the Jewish Defense League (left) physically confronted neo-Nazis in the streets. (Courtesy Illinois Holocaust Museum, Buzz Alpert Collection)
This is Alpert’s account and we can’t verify the exact details. But film footage confirms Alpert fought the neo-Nazis, at least until the police break them up.
Alpert claims some of the neo-Nazis quit the group after getting beaten up by the JDL. But he says “Collin loved getting his picture taken with a little blood on his face.”
Alpert admits the spectacle of street fights may have helped the neo-Nazi’s get attention but he defends the tactic to this day:
Members of the Jewish Defense League gather in front of Rockwell Hall. (Courtesy Illinois Holocaust Museum, Buzz Alpert Collection)
Despite the marches and street fights, for the early part of the 1970s, Collin’s group struggled to gain attention. When members appeared in newspapers, they were usually the subject of ridicule in the back pages.
The Skokie Invasion
In 1977, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance requiring any demonstrator in public parks to have $250,000 in insurance in order to obtain a permit. This was widely understood as an attempt to crack down on the neo-Nazis.
But it ultimately backfired and thrust Collin into the national spotlight.
Collin could not afford the insurance, so he applied for permits in nearby suburbs, including Skokie, which had (and still has) a large Jewish population. The north suburb had an estimated 7,000 Holocaust survivors living there in the mid-1970s.
According to then-ACLU lawyer David Goldberger, most of the suburbs simply ignored Collin’s request for a permit, but Skokie rejected the request outright. Collin afterward announced he would sue Skokie for the right to march.
A poster found after a protest against the neo-Nazis planned march in Skokie. (Courtesy Illinois Holocaust Museum)
Collin approached the ACLU of Illinois for help and spoke to Goldberger, who was the legal director at the time. Goldberger is Jewish and says talking to Collin “was something nobody [in the ACLU] looked forward to.”
But Goldberger also felt that Collin’s request — the right to peaceably assemble in a public space — was guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU had made similar arguments on behalf of civil rights protesters, and Goldberger felt those free speech rights should be defended, regardless of the plaintiff.
Deciding to represent the neo-Nazi group was an unpopular decision. The ACLU lost nearly 100,000 members, about a 30 percent decline in membership, within a four year span. Goldberger says it was also personally difficult.
A Chicago Daily News clipping from June 23, 1977. Full size version here. (Courtesy Illinois Holocaust Museum)
The ensuing legal battle lasted over a year, involved three separate court cases, and made national headlines. In the end, Collin won the right to hold a demonstration in Skokie.
Many in Skokie and Chicago were concerned for the mental health of Holocaust survivors facing the prospect of men in Nazi uniforms marching through their village. People across the nation wrote sympathetic letters to Skokie and suggested creative tactics to counter the march. In the spring of 1978, there were rumors that people were planning to get violent or even bring guns to the neo-Nazi march.
The U.S. Department of Justice sought a compromise, and Collin agreed to stay out of Skokie if Chicago gave him permits to demonstrate in downtown’s Federal Plaza and in Marquette Park. He held rallies in both places in the summer of 1978.
Though the neo-Nazi march was averted in Skokie, the legal battle around it had a lasting impact on the local Jewish community, and prompted the formation of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.
Is it OK to punch a Nazi?
Hate group membership has increased sharply in the last two years, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has flagged several organizations in Chicago on its “hate map.”
Today, neo-Nazis’ ideological cousins, the so-called “white nationalists,” are out in the open. Take Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right,” and gave a speech in which members of the audience responded with the stiff-armed Nazi salute. That same white nationalist famously got punched in the face by a protester, prompting cheers, memes and criticism.
So once again, people are asking: Do hate groups have a right to free speech? How should a community respond to hate groups? Ignore them? Counter protests? Fist fights?
A June 1978 issue of the Twin Cities Reader. (Courtesy Illinois Holocaust Museum)
Today’s “anti-fascist” activists, also known as antifa activists, have a similar response to the JDL’s Buzz Alpert: Fight them in the streets, expose them on the internet, shame them in public, and don’t tolerate any hate speech in public (or private, for that matter).
Goldberger, the ACLU lawyer who represented Collin, points out that tactics used by the JDL and Antifa invite attention and might help hate groups recruit new members.
“My advice is to do the opposite of what the Village of Skokie did, and that is facilitate the speech and, from the point of view of the community, get it over with rather than making it into a cause celeb,” he says.
We put the question to somebody who might have some say over issuing a public demonstration permit to a hate group: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who showed up for counter-demonstrations against the Chicago neo-Nazis in the 1970s.
He says from a legal point of view, hate groups have a right to free speech.
“But those of us who disagree with them have a responsibility to confront that hatred,” he says. “I think with confrontation and exposure, we will win people’s hearts and minds because [the neo-Nazis’] views, even in our worst moments, don’t speak to who we are.”
So if Emanuel thinks people who disagree with hate groups have a responsibility to confront them, how does he feel about violence towards those groups? In other words, is it OK to punch a Nazi?
When he was 17, Mayor Rahm Emanuel counter-protested at a neo-Nazi rally in Marquette Park. (WBEZ/Jesse Dukes)
In the end, it wasn’t violent or non-violent confrontation that finally defeated the Marquette Park neo-Nazis. Instead, they collapsed from within.
After 1978, Collin began to fade from the public eye. He lost credibility with fellow neo-Nazis when evidence emerged that his father was Jewish and a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany.
Then, in 1980, Collin was arrested for taking “indecent liberties” with children, according to state records. According to historian Jeffrey Kaplan, his former followers tipped the police to a child pornography stash in Rockwell Hall. Collin was ridiculed in the press and served five years in prison.
He later reinvented himself as Frank Joseph, a successful New Age author who explores theories of European influence on the pre-Columbian Americas. His most recent book, Our Dolphin Ancestors, explores the intelligence of dolphins.
Curious City reached him at his home but he declined to be interviewed for this story.
Without their leader, the NSPA in Chicago faded from public view. By the mid-’80s, the neo-Nazis had left their headquarters in Marquette Park.
A young boy holds up a “White Power” sign at a counter-demonstration of a civil rights march in 1966. (Courtesy Chicago History Museum, ICHi-036901; Declan Haun, photographer)
The question of how to confront hate groups or whether they have free speech rights may be important, but it can also distract from a bigger question: What role did their neighborhood play in allowing them to become a source of fear and consternation in Skokie, and the greater Chicago area, in the late 1970s?
Of course, some Marquette Park residents weren’t so tolerant of the neo-Nazis. Film footage from 1976 shows a middle-aged man from the neighborhood getting right in the face of a neo-Nazis handing out literature, telling him, “You don’t speak for me.”
But Emanuel says he joined a counter-protest with his father in Marquette Park in July of 1978, after the neo-Nazis announced they would march there instead of Skokie. He says Collin’s supporters far outnumbered the counter-protesters. Film footage shows hundreds of people screaming slurs; most appear not to be official members of Collin’s group. Some identify themselves as residents of Marquette Park or nearby neighborhoods.
One of the men, a Marquette Park resident identified as Oliver Adams, was interviewed for the documentary Echoes of a Nightmare. In it he says, “We don’t want the neighborhood to go to shit. We don’t want rapes and robberies. That’s why I got my White Power shirt on and you’ll see a lot more today from people who aren’t Nazis.”
In a shot from another film, a white neighborhood resident is seen stuffing cash into the neo-Nazi donation jar.
This support is bizarre when you remember World War II was only around 30 years past, and many people who supported or tolerated Collin would have been veterans or known people who were killed or injured in the fight against Nazi Germany. If enough people complained or protested, Marquette Park could have evicted the neo-Nazis or at least forced them to be less visible. Why were they allowed to remain for nearly a decade?
People familiar with Marquette Park in the 1970s, including Larry Langford and Mark Potok, agree on an answer: The neo-Nazis’ opposition to African-Americans moving into the neighborhood earned them tolerance and, in some cases, support. Susan O’Halloran grew up nearby in Wrightwood and has strong memories of Marquette Park in the ‘60s and ’70s. O’Halloran says racism and fear were stoked by real estate agents who sent mailers erroneously warning white residents that their peaceful neighborhood would be plagued by crime and home values would drop.
“They felt like they were going to lose their home — that little postage-stamp lawn and little bungalow house. That was everything they had worked for for their family, and it was portrayed to them [that] it was under attack from black people.”
The Nazis may have been considered odd or extreme by many residents, but fear of integration was widespread. Without that strain of mainstream white racism, the neighborhood may not have tolerated a building with a swastika over the door or Nazi-uniformed men living inside it.
That tolerance mattered.
Without their neighborhood — without a home base where they could organize, live and raise money — Collin and his group of neo-Nazis may never have had a chance to get so much attention, and cause so much distress.
More about our questioner
Questioner Alix Anne Shaw. (WBEZ/Jesse Dukes)
Poet and sculptor Alix Anne Shaw studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has lived in Chicago for six years. A longtime progressive activist, she spent 13 years defending abortion rights as part of the Milwaukee Clinic Protection Coalition.
Addressing the question of how a community should deal with hate groups, she thinks physically assaulting hate groups is probably counterproductive, but she says, “I think taking a stand against hate groups, in a very public way, in a very strongly worded way is important. You may have the right to go out and have your protest, but we’re not going to tolerate hatred and violence coming into our communities.”
Jesse Dukes is Curious City’s Audio Producer. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Significant research by Maggie Sivit.
Video Production by Katherine Nagasawa and Maggie Sivit.