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On May 12, 2022, I had the pleasure of speaking with alumni of the class of 1967 and 1968 as part of a course I am taking on the decade. Discussion proceeded in typical fashion: what was Lawrence like back then? Women were required to wear skirts, even through the winter. Jewish and African American students were blackballed from fraternities. Appleton was a sundown town. George Lincoln Rockwell, leader (self proclaimed “fuhrer”) of the American Nazi Party, was invited to speak at convocation. At first, I thought I heard incorrectly. According to the alumni, all students were required to go to convocation or face disciplinary action. All attendees were expected to stand and applaud once the convocation was concluded, just like any other speaker.
James Streater, student chairman, said in this very newspaper that student polls placed Rockwell highest on the priority list of speakers the students wanted (top three for two years) and that the speech would have educational value “by causing the Lawrence community to re-examine the basic values of American society.” In an advisory vote, student senators – akin to our modern class representatives – voted 21-16 for Rockwell not to be invited. Shockingly, Student President Craig Harris overruled this vote. Streater hoped that by not silencing Rockwell, that they would “combat his ideology [by] fostering its analysis… I feel the mere discussion aroused by the fact that Rockwell has been invited to speak on campus more than compensates for any lack of intellectual fiber in his talk.” Instead, Streater bolstered Rockwell’s ideology by legitimizing it in front of a captive audience.
Some students chose to protest the event by organizing a silent protest. When the speech was done, they stood up and exited the chapel without applause. In their letter proclaiming their demonstration, students recognized the “systematic extermination of six million Jews and the death of countless other human beings,” but asserted that their “protest [was] not intended to discourage or prevent any students from attending the speech…” As intended, it did not discourage any attendance. In turn, it failed to provide any tangible dissent. The silent protest was little discussed in campus literature and appeared to have no effect on campus attitudes after the speech.
In contrast to today, it was the faculty and administration who were the most outraged by Rockwell’s invitation. They engaged in active protest, marching through campus with signs stating “Dachau” and “we oppose racism.” Streater observed that the faculty saw it as “one of the major moral issues to face the student body in recent years.” President Tarr, veteran of the 11th Armored Division who liberated the concentration camps of Mauthausen and Gusen, expressed dissatisfaction, but allowed Rockwell to attend.
Streater did not show sympathy for the professors who were stricken with the trauma of German Nazism in World War II. Instead, he said that “this matter is and should be open to student and faculty review and to student action” and urged that “all students… examine both sides of the question as it is presented by their fellow students and the faculty to express their opinions either through their Student Senate representative or from the Senate floor Tuesday night,” a line of rhetoric all to familiar to us today. Rockwell spoke to the campus community in Memorial Chapel on February 8, 1967. The speech was broadcast on WLFM. For the sake of this article, I reluctantly listened to the recording of his speech at the University of Washington. There, Rockwell ridiculed Jews for taking control of the country’s communications and lamented that “the queers of America” were “the most disgusting thing about our country today” and that “queerism” was the reason Rome fell. Six months later, Rockwell was assassinated in Virginia by a fellow Nazi Party member.
Listening to these words as a member of both these demographics, I was, of course, appalled. It was unbelievable. It felt like parody. It’s easy to think of this rhetoric as that of a dead generation, but that is not the case. At the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, Jewish students and their professors who had faced the Holocaust first-hand resolved to walk in solemn silence out of our chapel as their fellow students stood to applaud the Fuhrer of the American Nazi Party. Faculty resigned after being forced to face the rhetoric which brought harm to their friends and family just twenty years earlier. David Elliot ‘67 claimed in the Lawrentian that “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,” but as we have seen from the very persecuted parties he’s spoken about, nothing could be further from the truth. We simmer, but what has changed? If we are to be a community, we have to answer and respond to the unspoken question: who is being harmed right now, and what can we do to support them?