George Lincoln Rockwell, self-described “Fuehrer” of the American Nazi Party, spoke to a crowd of Lawrentians in the Memorial Chapel Feb. 8, 1967.
The Student Senate’s Speakers Committee, chaired by one James Streater, invited Rockwell to attend for $250 as part of a larger campus dialogue on political extremism.
Many of the Lawrence faculty were opposed to Rockwell’s visit and some threatened to resign.
Professor of Religious Studies John M. Stanley stated in a Jan. 14, 1967 letter to The Lawrentian that the young students responsible for the decision were “inevitably insensitive” to the impact Rockwell’s presence would have on those who lived through the trauma of World War II and Nazi Germany.
Hundreds of letters poured in from concerned parents, associations and community members. Debate in the Student Senate waxed fierce.
Gerald D. Libman ’40 wrote January 19 to then-President Curtis W. Tarr and requested that his name be stricken from the alumni rolls of Lawrence University should Rockwell be permitted to speak.
Dan LeMahieu, student senator and advocate of annulling Rockwell’s contract, argued that giving the Nazi party a forum to speak was tacitly consenting to its views as well as aiding the dissemination of a message of hate.
Eventually, Streater approved the contract, as was his prerogative as chairman, and explained his decision for inviting Rockwell in a well-reasoned statement to the student body.
He stated that the very debate surrounding Rockwell’s contract was educational and that the only way to counter the unknowing “insensitivity” of the students’ generation was for them to experience first-hand the “emotional reactions connected with Nazism.”
Tarr, who liberated concentration camps in Germany as part of the 11th Armored Division, made clear his dissatisfaction with the choice of speaker, yet allowed Rockwell to attend.
In a Jan. 25 letter to Mr. and Mrs. Armin Klug, parents of a Lawrence student opposed to the Rockwell speech, Tarr stated:
“Despite my own strong feelings, I believe that the larger issue is whether a person should be able to decide for himself what he will believe. This is a painful decision, but I hope a valid one.”
The weeks leading up to the speech were typical cold February days. Despite the chill, the campus was buzzing with activity and discourse.
The Interfraternity Council sponsored a showing of the film “Mein Kampf,” so that students could compare Germany’s Nazi movement to that of Rockwell.
Many of the faculty pooled money to place an advertisement in The Appleton Post Crescent depicting the atrocities of Nazi Germany. The John Birch Society did the same, portraying massacres committed by Communists.
Fearing escalating tensions and violence, Tarr closed the speech to the media and prohibited recordings. The Appleton Police Department reassured “peace-loving” Appletonians that they did have shotguns, revolvers and tear gas, should the demonstrations turn into a riot.
During the speech, the Jewish War Veterans group picketed on College Ave. outside of the Chapel, as did the Wisconsin Nazi Party. Students for a Democratic Society, never ones to miss a publicity opportunity, waved signs protesting the presence of a Dow Chemical representative on campus.
Inside Memorial Chapel, Rockwell, dark-haired and clenching his signature corncob pipe in his teeth, walked to the podium in silence. Lawrentians listened to him speak of Jewish conspiracies, the sacred nature of Appleton as Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s hometown and a correlation between lightness of skin and intelligence.
When the speech was finished, and before the questions section of the evening, a majority of the audience stood up and walked out of the Chapel. Weeks’ worth of debate and shouting ended in a silent procession away from extremism.
Rockwell was assassinated six months later in Virginia by an angry Nazi Party member.
Looking at such a fierce debate, I ask myself where I would stand. After some digging in the library with the much-appreciated assistance of University Archivist and Assistant Professor Erin Dix, I find that my opinion is closest to that of David Elliott ’67, who wrote in a letter to the editor:
“Nothing honors and revenges more meaningfully those persecuted as the full implementation of that liberty of expression, the absence of which cost them their lives.”
Today, the university and student groups bring interesting speakers to campus, yet their views are often in line with those of the majority of Lawrentians. Where is Gov. Walker? Where is Michelle Bachmann? Where are those that make us of liberal sensibilities uncomfortable?
As Yale’s former president, Kingman Brewster Jr., once said: “Universities should be safe havens where ruthless examination of realities will not be distorted by the aim to please or inhibited by the risk of displeasure.”
It’s high time we as budding intellectuals start braving unfamiliar and hazardous ideological waters. We would become wiser, more capable and ultimately, a stronger bulwark against extremism.