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Nazi rally is nothing new to former ACLU director

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 17, 2009 - Joyce Armstrong went to Nazi rallies in the 1970s. She even took her daughter to one. Armstrong wasn't marching, nor did she sympathize with the group. But as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, the Clayton woman was active in supporting the right of the Nazis to march.

Before Saturday's Nazi rally at the Arch grounds ( for StlToday story on that, click here ), Armstrong talked about of three rallies that the Nazis held in Missouri in the years after the famous rally planned for Skokie, Ill. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that the Village of Skokie, home of many Holocaust survivors, could not deny the Nazis the right to protest, although the Nazis never actually went ahead with the Skokie rally. (National Socialist Party of America v. Skokie http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=432&invol=43)

The ACLU's support of the right of Nazis to march in Skokie had cost the ACLU some longtime members, nationally and in St. Louis. Armstrong feared that St. Louis could become the next Skokie if the city denied the Nazis a permit to march.

To her and to the organization as a whole, the principle was clear. The government can't discriminate against any viewpoint in deciding who gets a permit to march and who does not. "This was free speech in action," she says.

Armstrong and then Mayor Jim Conway happened to be visiting Washington, D.C., shortly before Nazis planned to march in south St. Louis. Armstrong sat down with the mayor to suggest that St. Louis avoid the Illinois town's mistake. Conway agreed.

The protest was set for the Cherokee business district. On the appointed day, the number of anti-Nazi protesters far exceeded the Nazis. They also were more fearsome, Armstrong recalls. "One of the anti-Nazi protesters had this big backpack full of rocks to hurl," she said. "Others had big belts to use as whips."

It may have been the shortest protest march in history. The small group of Nazis, seeing the dangerous situation, sped through the parade route in trucks, driving so fast that the rock-throwers and belt-wielders didn't have time to act, Armstrong recalls.

The other two Nazi protests in Missouri during that era were in Hannibal and Breckenridge Hills. In Breckenridge Hills, the number of riot-attired police outnumbered the half dozen Nazis and the small groups of counter-protesters.

Anti-Nazi protesters this year have been talking about making "lemonade out of lemons." The anti-Nazi group gathered on Art Hill Saturday afternoon. They had asked people to pledge money for every minute the Nazi rally lasts. The money will go for multi-culturalism in St. Louis

That makes sense to Armstrong. The ACLU's approach has been that the way to fight hate speech is with more speech.

That said, Armstrong, who is retired, is staying home this year. "Why would I go?" she asked. "I don't have a job there any more."

 Editor's note: Joyce Armstrong is a member of the Beacon's board of directors.

William H. Freivogel, director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, is a longtime resident of Kirkwood. 

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.

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