Memories 14: Illinois Nazis

Few people my age failed to see the movie The Blues Brothers. A few years would pass before that movie came out and gave my generation some repeatable lines like, “We’re on a mission from God” and “I hate Illinois Nazis.” Why Illinois Nazis?

Our suburban town, of course, was not isolated from the rest of the world. As a suburb of New York, we watched the news on New York stations and read, along with a local paper, the New York Times. The adults in our town tended to have more education than money and keeping up on, and discussing, current events was an important part of the social life of our town. A news event that dominated that year became known by the name of the town in which it took place and that town’s name has become synonymous with a prominent court case: Skokie.

For those of you who don’t know, the facts of the case are relatively simple and can be summed up quickly. The National Socialist Party of America, the Illinois Nazis of Blues Brothers fame, announced plans to march in Skokie, Illinois, a small town outside of Chicago where one sixth of the residents were holocaust survivors. The town of Skokie banned the display of swastikas and Nazi uniforms during the March. The National Socialists challenged the injunction and eventually it made its way to the Supreme Court of the United States.

As I’ve already mentioned, about one-third of the residents of our town were Jewish. However, there was a significant demographic difference between the people in our town and in Skokie. Most of my classmates’ families had come from Eastern Europe shortly before or after the beginning of the twentieth century. They owed their position in the middle class to progressive politics and the union movement of early twentieth century. For the most part, they did not have any direct family connections to the Holocaust. As it happens, in my extended family there were two Auschwitz survivors, originally from Hungary, one of whom still lives in upper Manhattan, but since our family was not Jewish I did not make the connection between our family and the events in Skokie.

The situation in Skokie attracted national attention and, given the demographics of our town, it was discussed quite frequently. I cannot remember getting into a discussion with my peers, but I do remember overhearing many discussions among adults. It was by means of this incident that I was taught to understand the principle behind the saying frequently misattributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to your death your right to say it.”

It is not uncommon, as a 1978 editorial in The New York Times noted, that civil libertarians find themselves in the “uncomfortable position of antagonizing those who consider themselves friends of freedom by supporting its enemies, such as Communists or Ku Klux Klanners.” The editorial goes on to say:

Perhaps the oldest lesson in the civil liberties primer is this: If the rights of those whom civil libertarians have most cause to despise are slighted, then everyone’s rights are placed in jeopardy.

This is not always a principle that is easy to keep, but it’s important to keep in nonetheless.

In the end, the Nazis did not march in Skokie. They marched in Chicago instead.

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