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Cities: Savannah

The Nazis Protest Busing

On September 10, 1971, Matt Koehl, leader of the National Socialist White People’s Party (NSWPP), attempted to join the opposition to federally mandated busing in Savannah. Along with eight other men dressed in Nazi uniforms, Koehl traveled from Arlington, Virginia, in a school bus adorned with signs that read “boycott busing,” “gas race-mixers,” and “White Power.” When they arrived at the Chatham County Board of Education, Savannahians already gathered there to oppose busing rejected their participation.

By making reference to the Jewish Holocaust of World War II, the Nazi protesters in this WSB-TV clip use intimidation and the threat of violence to discourage integrationists. Police escort the group out of Savannah city limits in response to the crowd’s resistance to their presence. Although thousands of local protesters gathered throughout the month to oppose the forced busing that came in response to poor enforcement of the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, they rejected Nazi participation in their efforts. They argued that they protested for the freedom to make choices about their children’s education, unlike the Nazis who united on the basis of white supremacy.

Koehl followed the example of his predecessor George Lincoln Rockwell, who founded the American Nazi Party in 1959. Before his assassination in 1967, Rockwell traveled to political events and rallies in his swastika-decorated van to mock and intimidate Freedom Riders. In 1966, the same year Koehl joined the Arlington NSWPP staff, Rockwell renamed the organization. According to statements made by Savannah police chief Al St. Lawrence, Koehl came to Savannah in response to the request of local citizens not affiliated with the anti-busing movement. Koehl told St. Lawrence that the crowd welcomed his group until the men handed out the NSWPP’s newsletter named “White Power.” That’s when the protesters verbally and physically objected to the Nazis, effectively pushing them out of the demonstration.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board had ruled that separate but equal was unconstitutional. This case negated the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that provided the legal basis for Jim Crow laws. The Court had called for desegregation “with all deliberate speed,” but it established no deadlines or guidelines. Ultimate responsibility for enforcement lay with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but he had refused to endorse the decision. Not until 1969 in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education did the Supreme Court give the Brown v. Board ruling more force by establishing guidelines toward reaching the goal of racially integrated schools. 

In the aftermath of the Brown decision, segregationists forged a campaign of massive resistance, often with the cooperation of local courts and governing bodies. Like other social movements of the 1970s and 1980s that came in the wake of black civil rights agitations, the anti-bus activists appropriated strategies made popular during the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Darnell Brawner, former president of the school board, spearheaded Savannah’s own anti-busing movement and founded the Interventors Group along with Henry McDowell. Members of this organization, together with the Chatham Parents Association, the Concerned Citizens Association, and other anti-busing groups, held rallies in churches and stadiums, boycotted local schools, marched at the City Hall and Board of Education, and petitioned governmental officials in their efforts to reverse the tide of civil rights legislation.

They even organized an anti-busing motorcade of four hundred automobiles led by police officers on motorcycles and burned an effigy of Julian C. H. Halligan, the school board president who had urged Savannah residents to concede to busing. Enrollment in Savannah schools dropped by one-third on September 3, 1971, the day of the boycott, and remained low for the remainder of the month. Some parents preferred to keep their children home rather than see them share a classroom with African American students.

Resistance to busing increased in Savannah after United States District Judge Alexander A. Lawrence presented the city’s plan for immediate desegregation in late August of 1971. Elected officials throughout the South, including Savannah mayor John P. Rousakis, stood against forced school desegregation but avoided affiliating with the Nazi group. Antibusing advocates in Savannah worked to conceal their racial prejudices by arguing against forced busing as a violation of parents' rights. By refusing to allow the Nazis to participate in local anti-busing efforts, Savannahians tried to disconnect their protest symbolically from arguments of white supremacy.

Brown v. Board of Education ignited a firestorm of opposition throughout the United States and proved that civil rights conflicts were not limited to the southern states. As African American activists demanded the decision's enforcement in the 1960s and 1970s, busing increasingly focused national attention on issues of race. At Charleston High School in Boston, in a scene reminiscent of experiences described by the Little Rock Nine, police had to rescue minority students from an angry crowd of white protesters. Many believed the millions of dollars school districts spent busing students to fulfill racial quotas would be better served if allocated towards improving poor schools.

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Discussion Questions

1. Read these documents produced by the NSWPP. Why did Savannah residents and other pro-segregationists oppose affiliating with the Nazis?

2. In the wake of national tensions about immigration, many Americans who are pro-immigration have compared the government's treatment of Chicanos to the violations of freedom and human rights that occurred during the Jewish Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement. As this article states, one of the slogans on the Nazis' bus was "gas race-mixers." How does this sign allude to the Jewish Holocaust, and what are the implications of connecting the Holocaust to racial hostilities that target African Americans and/or Latinos in America?

3. Read the article on the Ku Klux Klan in the New Georgia Encyclopedia. What connections and differences do you find between the activities and goals of the Klan and those of the National Socialist White People's Party? 

4. Compose a list of founding dates of the private and public high schools and colleges in your city or town. How many of them were founded or chartered in the late sixties or early seventies? Do you think that any of these schools were organized as a response to the desegregation of the public schools? Why or why not?

5. Read our article in the Freedom on Film Atlanta pages entitled the Desegregation of Atlanta Schools. Does it surprise you that some blacks in Atlanta and Savannah opposed busing? What reasons might black American parents have to consider keeping their children in segregated or all-black schools?  

Take it to the Streets!

Assign members of the class the task of role-playing families adjusting to the first day in a desegregated school system. Make certain to include characters who represent a variety of viewpoints: those who support desegregation (both black and white parents); those who oppose segregation (black and white parents); city officials on both sides of the question; students; teachers; and the media.

Writer: Christina L. Davis  
Editors and Researchers: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Web Site Designer: William Weems     

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