“Is it starting here, yet?”
Madison Square Garden (MSG) played host to the “Pro American Rally” on February 20, 1939. Over 20,000 people packed into MSG to take part in the rally where they recited the Pledge of Allegiance, sang the National Anthem, and listened to speeches. The rally took place to coincide with George Washington’s birthday, and a large image of America’s first president gazed down on the stage. It was flanked by American flags and Nazi party flags because you see this rally was organized by the German American Bund. During the 1930s, the Bund, and other organizations, openly supported Adolf Hitler and embraced fascism and Nazi ideas.
The speakers spewed anti-Semitic language and, as Sarah Churchwell puts it, “demanded a white gentile America.” They did this under the gaze of Washington whom they called “America’s first fascist.” Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze told the audience, “The spirit which opened the West and built our country is the spirit of the militant white man.” Kunze, who was the Bund’s public relations director, linked America’s founding to white supremacy, and in the process linked his reasoning and thoughts to individuals who painted the colonists as “civilizing” and “taming” a “savage” land and its inhabitants.
Isadore Greenbaum made his way into the rally. He was a Jew who attended to hear what the speakers were saying, and he stood in the back, watching as the crowd worked itself into a fever pitch. When Fritz Kuhn, the Bund’s leader stepped to the podium and spoke, Greenbaum muscled his way to the front. Kuhn said, “Wake up! You, Aryan, Nordic and Christians, to demand that our government be returned to the people who founded it!” Greenbaum got on stage, pulled down microphone cables, and shouted, “Down with Hitler!” Bund security tackled him and beat him up, breaking is nose and giving him a black eye before the police dragged him off the stage. Greenbaum received a $25 fine for disruption. During the war, he enlisted in the Navy and fought the Nazis.
Marshall Curry’s A Night at the Garden is a short film about that night. In the film, Curry shows American pageantry intertwined with Nazi fascism. He shows the hateful language couched in patriotism. He shows Greenbaum rushing the stage, getting beaten, and getting taken off stage by police as his pants fall down. It is this moment that stands out, not for the Bund’s violence against Greenbaum. Not for the language they spew. Even though those things make my stomach turn and my blood boil, what stands out is the group of youth that stand behind the speakers on the stage, standing at attention as Kuhn and the others hurl their racism out into the air for the crowd to gobble up into their mouths.
These youth take in the words as well. As the officers wrestle with Bund security to get Greenbaum off the stage, the youth on stage, all either about ten years old and into their teens, look on at the scene. Some look on with bemused grins crossing their faces. One boy dances joyfully, clapping his hands at the “excitement” taking place immediately in front of him. The boy leans to his neighbor and says something in his ear. The venom spewed from the podium has seeped into the boy’s psyche, causing him to take pleasure in the scene that plays out right in front of his eyes on stage. The atmosphere has whipped him up into a frenzy, and who knows what happened to him after this night.
The young boy caught my attention because of his expression, because of jubilance in his countenance. He caught my attention because his impressionable mind has taken in the vitriol. He has ingested the hate wrapped in patriotism. He has been injected with the white supremacy, and he dances in delight. I saw this and thought about Frank Yerby’s “Land of the Pilgrim’s Pride,” a story that was unpublished during Yerby’s lifetime. Veronica Watson includes it in her collection The Short Stories of Frank Yerby.
The story centers around Dr. Henry Morrison, a professor of English at a New England college. Henry’s wife served during the war as a nurse, and even though the war has ended she remains in Europe. She promises a dying woman that she will take care of the woman’s son Emil and raise him in his Jewish heritage and culture. So, she sends Emil to Henry, and Henry takes him in, providing him with music lessons and studies at the synagogue. The college’s groundskeeper, Karl (who appears to be German) is anti-Semitic and tells Henry that about “the trouble and misery that the Jews have cost the world.”
Henry tells Karl to shut up and that if one of his “filthy ex-bundists” does anything to Emil he will hurt them. Karl responds, “No Germans, Doktor. Good Catholics like Herr Doktor himself. Italian boys, and Irish. Not one German. You see, Doktor, other people are waking up . . .” Karl tells the doctor that the Nazi’s ideas are not limited to Germany. He tells him that other ethnicities hold the same thoughts, the same white supremacist ideologies. Emil comes into the room, Karl looks at him, smiles, and leaves.
Emil asks, “Here . . . is it starting here, yet? I will go away. I would not endanger you, Herr Uncle Doktor.” Henry comforts Emil, telling the boy, “No, Emil, . . . it’s not starting here. It never can start here, praise be to God.” Yet, it has started here. Mobs attack the Jewish part of town, destroying H street in a manner reminiscent of Kristallnacht, and when Henry hears about this, he rushes home to make sure Emil is safe. Henry barges into the house, screaming for Emil. He enters the attic and sees the fallen chair and Emil dangling from the rafters. He cuts the young boy down, crying as he cradles Emil’s lifeless body in his arms.
Emil commits suicide to protect Henry and to escape the torture and violence that the mob would enact upon him. In his note, Emil writes, “Now again it begins. If you are caught sheltering me, it will go hard with you. And that, never, will I permit. Forgive me this, but it is better so. Pray for me.”
It can never happen here. That’s what we hear, right? The rhetoric swirling around us is just a joke, right? The words we hear. The words our children hear. These words mean nothing? They do. These words have power. These words carry weight. These words have consequences. We hear the exact same rhetoric today.
After Hurricane Dorian in 2019, Trump said, “I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers” as they sought temporary protected status (TPS) in the aftermath of the storm. Bahama’s population is 90% black.
What needs to be acknowledged with the above statement is the effect that those behind the scenes, specifically Trump’s senior policy advisor Stephen Miller, have on the rhetoric that Trump uses and the policies he enacts. Last year, some of Millers emails were released which showed his, as the SPLC puts it, “affinity for white nationalism.”
In emails between Breitbart reporter Katie McHugh and Miller during Hurricane Patricia in 2015, a storm that battered Central America, Mexico, and Texas, McHugh asked, “This being the worst hurricane ever recorded, what are the chances it wreaks destruction on Mexico and drives a mass migration to the U.S. border?”
Miller replied, “100 percent. And they will all get TPS. And all the ones here will get TPS too. That needs to be the weekend’s BIG story. TPS is everything.”
Leading up to the 2016 election, Miller “promoted white nationalist literature, pushed racist immigration stories and obsessed over the loss of Confederate symbols after Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage.” This is the same person who now is making policy at the highest levels. The same person who just capped the number of refugees enter the country for fiscal year 2021 to 15,000. That is the lowest number ever.
Trump and the administration mince no words when they talk about their goals. They talks about making America “great” again. What that means, of course, is “white.” Is it any coincidence that one of Trump’s most ardent supporters, Lindsey Graham asked Amy Coney Barrett during her confirmation hearing, “One of the reasons you can say with confidence that you think Brown v. Board of Education is superprecident is that you’re not aware of any effort to go back to the good old days of segregation by a legislative body — is that correct?” The “good old days of segregation.”
Graham claimed it was joke, but just a few days earlier during an event with his political rival Jaime Harrison, Graham said,
Do I believe our cops are systemically racist? No. Do I believe South Carolina is a racist state? No. Let me tell you why. To young people out there, young people of color, young immigrants, this is a great state, but one thing I can say without any doubt, you can be an African American and go to the Senate but you just have to share our values. . . . If you’re a young, African American or an immigrant, you can go anywhere in this state, you just need to be conservative, not liberal.
So, if one does not share the same values as Graham, Miller, or Trump, does that mean that South Carolina or elsewhere is not safe? That is the message that comes across, not just from Graham but from the top as well.
We must remember that the Nazis based a lot of their laws off of the Jim Crow South, but they felt that the South went too far in some of its laws. This alone should give anyone pause when Emil asks, “Is it starting here, yet?”
At the end of Now is the Time, a short book that Lillian Smith wrote in response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, she concludes with twenty-five questions. She introduces the questions by pointing to the rhetoric that “no race agitator can do without” from Hitler in his speeches and Mein Kampf to Theodore G. Bilbo in Mississippi. These weapons, as Smith put it, “grew slowly, one by one, out of a deep need to defend the morally indefensible, and flourished on the people’s ignorance until they became thick walls in the minds, shutting out what many people do not want to see.”