History Redux

Editors’ Note: Reprinted from an editorial in The Roanoke Times, December 15, 2018.

In 1965, Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell got 1.2% of the vote–5,730 votes (including 346 in Fairfax County, the highest total in the Commonwealth) for Governor of Virginia

Image result for george lincoln rockwell ran for VA govNazis are back in the news, unfortunately.

A year ago, so-called neo-Nazis and a bewildering array of other white supremacists groups marched through Charlottesville, some of them displaying swastikas and chanting anti-Semitic slogans.

More recently, a man interrupted a Baltimore performance of the musical “Fiddler On the Roof”— which deals with a Jewish family — by shouting “Heil Hitler, Heil Trump.” In New York, a Jewish professor at Columbia University entered her office to find it vandalized with swastikas and slurs. In Wisconsin, a group of high school boys posed for a photo while giving what sure looked like a Nazi salute. And then there was the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. The shooter there may not be a Nazi, but he certainly did what Nazis did — the mass slaughter of members of the Jewish faith.

These more high-profile incidents come against a more disturbing backdrop. The FBI recently reported that hate crimes were up 17 percent last year, with most of that increase related to crimes that targeted a victim for reasons of race or ethnicity. Not all those were committed by neo-Nazis, of course, but it’s still clear that peoplee spouting (or acting on) those abhorrent views are more visible than they once were. Why is this happening and why is it happening now? Those are good questions to be asking. For many, the answer lies with President Trump and his harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric. Trump may indeed be an accelerant, but he is not the cause. If we want to take the long view on this, it’s important to remember that there was a time not that long ago in historical terms when an avowed Nazi ran for governor of Virginia and got 1.2 percent of the vote. That may not be a large percentage if you’re talking about some other third party, but when 1.2 percent of the electorate votes for an outright Nazi, it’s worth looking deeper.

The year was 1965, which seems an eternity ago, except we’re still listening to songs from 1965 — “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, among them — so it’s a year that’s still alive in our pop culture. That year found Virginia beginning a political alignment that still shapes our politics today. It was also the first election that saw large numbers of African-Americans voting, thanks to that year’s passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Democrats controlled the state’s political structure, but they were mostly conservative Democrats who were finding themselves increasingly at odds with a newer generation of more liberal Democrats. The party’s candidate for governor was Lt. Gov. Mills Godwin, a former segregationist who was moving toward the center and turned out to be a pretty progressive governor for his day. There hadn’t been a Republican governor since Reconstruction, but that party was growing in strength in Virginia. Linwood Holton didn’t expect to win in 1965 but he saw that year as a trial run for 1969, when he eventually did win the governorship — and end one-party rule in Virginia. Republicans in those days bore little resemblance to today’s Republicans — Holton was to Godwin’s left on civil rights, for instance. However confusing that might be now, the rest of the four-man field is painfully clear. Unhappy with the changes in the Democratic Party (and society at large), a newly-formed Conservative Party sprung up and nominated William J. Story Jr., the assistant school superintendent in Chesapeake. The Associated Press described him as “one of Virginia’s most ardent segregation leaders.” Marvel at this: In the 1960s, a school system in Virginia could install such a man as assistant superintendent.

But then there was a fourth candidate: George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party. Rockwell lived in Arlington and had a following of some sort. In 1963, he drew about 400 people to hear him speak in Roanoke’s Elmwood Park, 500 more in Lynchburg, another 400 in Richmond. In Emporia, police arrested him and charged with conspiring to incite whites to violence against blacks.

In April 1965, Rockwell showed up at the State Board of Elections office to file for governor. He presented that year’s race for governor in apocalyptic terms: “By 1968 the elections will be dominated by Negroes as they are in many other parts of America. It will be impossible for white people ever again to regain the strength and unity to stop black domination of Virginia if we don’t do it now.”

He vowed that if he were elected, he’d seek to imprison Martin Luther King Jr., whom he referred to not by his name but with an epithet. He proposed to relocate blacks to “more liberal climates” in the North. And the Navy veteran of World War II said that in hindsight, he wished he’d fought for the Nazis. Some of his campaign literature listed an address for “United Klans of America.”

As shocking as Rockwell’s views were — even for 1965 — the more shocking thing is this: He polled 5,730 votes. Were there really 5,730 Nazi sympathizers in Virginia in 1965? Who were these voters? It’s not as if they were merely casting some protest vote to bring back segregation — because they could have voted for Story. And many did. Story, a more ordinary kind of segregationist, received 75,307 votes — 13 percent of the total. Story even carried 11 localities in Southside. So what kind of voter would find Story so insufficiently segregationist that they’d vote for a Nazi?

The year 1965 was just 21 years removed from the end of World War II. Voters as young as 38 would have been eligible to serve during that war, which is to say virtually all the electorate then knew what actual Nazis were. They couldn’t claim to be naïve like the Wisconsin high school boys. Yet 5,730 Virginians that year still voted for a Nazi.

Rockwell received votes in every locality in the state. In Craig, Essex and Powhatan, that was just a single vote. That was the low end. The high end was Fairfax County (346 votes) and Arlington (303). In Roanoke, 114 voters supported Rockwell. Rockwell’s second highest total in this part of the state was in Franklin County, where he got 90 votes.

On a percentage basis, Rockwell’s strongest showing was Nelson County, where he took 6.9 percent of the vote. His second strongest was Stafford County, where he polled 6 percent of the vote. His percentage in Roanoke was just 0.7 percent but that’s still 0.7 percent more than decency should permit.

All this was 53 years ago. But while we examine why Nazis are back, we should keep in mind that their repugnant views may never have really gone away.

(Rockwell was shot and killed in Arlington in 1967.)

Categories: Issues, Local, National

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