In August 1946, hundreds of demonstrators converged on downtown Minneapolis to protest the man best known for promoting fascism in the United States.
Gerald L.K. Smith has been forgotten today, having been long consigned to the proverbial “dustbin of history,” where discredited leaders and wrong-headed ideas molder.
But in 1946 — even in the fresh aftermath of a global war against fascism — Smith was able to attract followers who feared a Communist-Jewish-African-American threat to the United States.
Smith was the Donald Trump of his time. His contemporaries compared him to Hitler.
Smith became visible to a national audience in the 1930s as he searched for the perfect vehicle for his personal blend of racism and anti-radicalism. He first pledged allegiance to Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” movement. He then joined the avowedly fascist “Silver Shirts.” Finally he attached himself to the isolationist “America First” group.
But in the 1940s, the charismatic Smith decided to strike out on his own. He launched his own political party, which he used as a platform for a presidential bid in 1944. This campaign was designed to build a popular following for the agenda of his “Christian National Crusade,” which promised to keep immigration to the United States restricted while also fighting racial “mongrelization,” Communism, and the growing influence of Jews.
Smith had a strong following in Minneapolis, which was known in these years for its anti-Semitism and political polarization, which had intensified in the wake of the 1934 Truckers’ Strike.
The violence surrounding this labor conflict — and subsequent strikes at Strutwear Knitting and Flour City Ornamental Iron Company — prompted some observers to worry that Minneapolis would serve as the launching pad for a radical revolution.
Smith fed these fears during regular visits to the city, drawing hundreds of supporters. Yet ultimately he had fewer friends than foes. Among the city’s labor activists, political radicals, civil rights activists, Jews, Smith was known as “Hitler’s Mouthpiece in Minneapolis.”
In 1946, some of the more militant elements of this anti-fascist coalition resolved that Smith posed a serious threat to civil society. Over the protests of established civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the Minnesota Jewish Council, the American Veterans’ Committee worked with the Socialist Workers’ Party and various labor unions to organize a massive protest intended to confront Smith and “force the would-be Silver Shirts out into the open.”
On August 21, young veterans gathered at the University of Minnesota before moving to downtown Minneapolis. They carried placards that declared: “We Fought Hitler Over there! We Don’t Want a Hitler Here” and “We Don’t Like Bigots, We Don’t Want Hate.” But when they arrived at Smith’s recruiting rally, their demonstration devolved into fisticuffs. Violence erupted after some protesters sought to block Smith from addressing the crowd in the Leamington Hotel ballroom.
The media focused on the clash, dismissing the demonstration as a “brawl.” Hubert Humphrey weighed in on the fracas, condemning both the picketers and the Smith supporters. The mayor positioned himself as the voice of moderation, a palatable alternative to political zealots “who enjoy rabble rousing” and seek opportunities to “disturb the peace.”
Humphrey and his allies believed that Smith was best ignored. This tactic might have robbed Smith of the influence he craved. But the young Americans shown here — many of whom were fresh from grueling battles against Hitler, Mussolini and a Japanese military dictatorship — were not willing to take that chance.
(The top image is from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society. Sources for the text are from the papers of the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Humphrey H. Humphrey Papers at the Minnesota Historical Society.)
The Historyapolis Project seeks to bring fresh attention to the history of Minneapolis and is working to unearth stories that can explain how the city took shape. For more details visit www.historyapolis.com. This project has been made possible by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which is administered by the Minnesota Historical Society. Find it on FB at www.facebook.com/TheHistoryapolisProject