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When Malcolm X Met the Nazis

A look at the strange alliance between the Nation of Islam and the American Nazi Party.


Members of the American Nazi Party listened to Malcolm X speak at a Nation of Islam rally in Washington, DC, on June 25, 1961. Contact sheet © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

On Sunday, June 25, 1961, ten members of the American Nazi Party arrived at a Nation of Islam rally in Washington, DC. The party's founder, George Lincoln Rockwell, led them inside the Uline Arena, a quarter-million-square-foot stadium that would later host the Beatles' first US concert. Ramrod-straight, square-jawed, and with a merciless, piercing gaze, Rockwell looked like a Hollywood villain straight out of central casting. ("How much taller he is than Hitler," Esquire noted in an otherwise withering essay. "And how much better-looking.") The Uline had nearly sold out. The Nazis were outnumbered 800 to one.

The fascists hadn't come to make a bloody last stand. Instead, guards from the Fruit of Islam, the NOI's paramilitary branch, frisked the men and ushered them to front-row-center seats. Their crisp brownshirt costumes and swastika armbands stood out against the suits and ties surrounding them. Despite the 90-degree heat, Rockwell and his men waited hours for the event's main attraction. There is no record of anyone cracking a smile at the situation's absurdity.

The night's keynote speaker, NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, canceled his appearance because of illness. According to historian William Schmaltz, Malcolm X delivered a speech, followed by an appeal for donations that singled out the few Caucasians in the audience. Rockwell contributed $20. When Life photographer Eve Arnold raised her camera to capture the Nazis, Rockwell—presumably alerted to her Jewish ancestry by the Muslims—allegedly rasped, "I'll make a bar of soap out of you." (She replied, "As long as it isn't a lampshade.")

Overt anti-Semitism, it turned out, was something the two groups could bond over. While Rockwell pushed his hatred of Jews to frothy extremes, Muhammad backed a range of racist theories, including the hoax that the Jews had financed the slave trade. (Malcolm X was cagier about his anti-Semitism, often deferring to Muhammad's conspiracy theories rather than offering his own.) To publicly rage against Jews in the summer of 1961 may have offended the general public even more than it would today. Six thousand miles away, the Adolf Eichmann trial, in Israel, had captivated the world and dramatically increased coverage of Holocaust atrocities.

Division of the races was another mutual bugbear. Malcolm X's speech that night was titled "Separation or Death." Inside the arena, Rockwell told reporters, "I am fully in concert with their program, and I have the highest respect for Elijah Muhammad." The question of where to send America's blacks—the NOI wanted a chunk of the US, while the ANP wanted a full deportation to Africa—was, he said, his only quarrel with the Muslims.

This wasn't quite true. The Nazis and NOI also disagreed over whether black people were human beings. Over the course of his three-year career as an open Nazi, Rockwell had repeatedly referred to African Americans as "ring-in-the-nose niggers," "basically animalistic," and "no better than chimpanzees." With the alliance, he'd suddenly slapped a massive asterisk onto his own white supremacy.

Remarkably, the NOI had a history of such partnerships. Six months earlier, Muhammad had sent Malcolm X to a top-secret meeting with the Atlanta Ku Klux Klan. In a throwback to Marcus Garvey's 1922 Klan summit, the two groups brokered a bizarre truce: local mosque safety in return for NOI support on racial separation.

But that meeting had served a purpose, no matter how tenuous. The alliance with the Nazis held no obvious benefit for the Muslims. The differences between Malcolm X and Rockwell were existential. Where the former had risen from a life of crime to national prominence, the latter had exerted himself—and destroyed his family and finances—to become a national pariah, sinking from a decorated Navy officer to a delusional Nazi commander in just six years.

Overt anti-Semitism, it turned out, was something the two groups could bond over.

The Washington summit would have provided a bitter contrast to Rockwell's normal, meager gatherings. An audience of 8,000 was something he could have only dreamed of. Even the building's imposing vaulted ceiling hinted at the fascist architecture he saw as his inalienable destiny (throughout his career, he made repeated references to controlling the United States by 1972). For the Nazi leader, the alliance served a fantasy rooted in grandiose absurdism. "Can you imagine a rally of the American Nazis in Union Square," Rockwell later wrote his followers, "protected from Jewish hecklers by a solid phalanx of Elijah Muhammad's stalwart black stormtroopers?"

And where Malcolm X was famously complex, Rockwell self-identified as a cartoon character. With the media controlled by Jews, he'd reasoned, mainstream political protest from the extreme right was doomed to failure through obscurity.

"I tried and nobody paid attention to me," he later told an interviewer of his pre-Nazi political activities. "But no one can ignore Nazis marching in the streets."

Following this logic, the ANP produced a variety of merchandise catering to the juvenile bigot. One item, The Diary of Anne Fink (16 pages of Holocaust atrocity photos with jokey captions), was advertised in The Rockwell Report as "sick humor," an odd allusion to Mad magazine, Lenny Bruce, and a world of Jewish, "degenerate" comedy that the Nazis should, logically, have railed against.

One result of this oafish marketing was that Rockwell recruited exceptionally inept personnel, attracting hordes of Nazis he admitted were "unbelievably stupid." And yet he persisted in shooting for the lowest common denominator's lowest common denominator. The ANP mocked the anti-segregation Freedom Riders with a VW van dubbed the "Hate Bus." Some ANP picketers wore Groucho Marx glasses and rubber noses in their protests. Why would the famously disciplined NOI ally itself with such caricatures?


AMERICAN NAZI PARTY

The ANP was founded in 1959 by George Lincoln Rockwell in Arlington, Vriginia. Rockwell was assasinated eight years later by a former ANP member.


A possible answer came eight months later. On February 25, 1962, the ANP was invited to a second rally, this time the NOI's Saviours' Day convention in Chicago. Rockwell addressed the crowd after Muhammad. Facing an estimated 12,000 African Americans, the Nazi leader pulled no punches.

"You know that we call you 'niggers.' But wouldn't you rather be confronted by honest white men who tell you to your face what the others all say behind your back?"

As a public speaker, Rockwell was entertaining without being particularly authoritative (in cadence, he mimicked comedian Red Skelton). His was not the voice of a führer, and the Chicago International Amphitheater wasn't his Nuremberg Rally. Surely the irony of the moment wouldn't have escaped him; this was the largest crowd he'd ever addressed (and would ever address again).

"I am not afraid to stand here and tell you I hate race-mixing and will fight it to the death," Rockwell continued. "But at the same time, I will do everything in my power to help the Honorable Elijah Muhammad carry out his inspired plan for land of your own in Africa. Elijah Muhammad is right. Separation or death!" The audience teetered between polite applause and boos. Two months later, Muhammad, writing in the NOI newspaper, admonished his flock for their frosty reception: "If they are speaking the truth for us, what do we care? We'll stand on our heads and applaud!"

This mutual nod to "honesty" and "truth" gives us a peek at the possible foundation of the alliance. Rockwell and Muhammad saw each other as authentic, as people willing to speak the truth—their versions of it—no matter the cost. Their marketing to their constituencies depended on this image, and each man drew legitimacy from the appearance of being a straight shooter. Rockwell's existence was useful to the NOI as a recruiting tool, his physical presence a testament to Muhammad's own authenticity.

Malcolm X wasn't part of this legitimacy trap, and he made it known that Rockwell's high esteem wasn't reciprocated. When the Nazi was applauded in 1961 for donating $20, Malcolm X laughed into the microphone and said, "You got the biggest hand you ever got, didn't you, Mr. Rockwell?"

As the civil rights struggles of the 50s gave way to the triumphs of the early 60s, both men found themselves operating in the vast shadow of Martin Luther King Jr. The Nazis, challenged by the juggernaut of legislative triumphs following King's actions, dug in. Malcolm X, faced with a growing gap between his NOI rhetoric and the successes of nonviolent action, softened his tone.

Rockwell and Muhammad saw each other as authentic, as people willing to speak the truth—their versions of it—no matter the cost.

After leaving the NOI in 1964, Malcolm X used the movement's alliance with the Klan as a charge against Muhammad. The following year, he sent a telegram to George Lincoln Rockwell:

This is to warn you that I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad's separatist Black Muslim movement, and that if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other black Americans who are only attempting to enjoy their rights as free human beings, that you and your Ku Klux Klan friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation...

Within three years, both men were dead, allegedly assassinated by former allies.

But the ghost of the alliance lives on today. The Nation of Islam, under the auspices of Louis Farrakhan, maintains an open partnership with white supremacist Tom Metzger. And in the last decade, the American Nazi Party website established a "Non-Aryan Sympathizer Page," offering "a means for non-whites to aid in our struggle" with mail-in contributions.

Malcolm X's posthumous alliance was stranger still: mainstream acceptance by the white-supremacist society he fought against in life. The US government eventually awarded him a postage stamp.

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