Brown shirts

Chet Dembeck

October 04, 1990|By Chet Dembeck

I REMEMBER the night the brown shirts rallied in Patterson Park. They called themselves the State's Rights Party, and they marched in goosestep, each wearing an arm band with its bizarre lightning bolt insignia.

I think they would have preferred a swastika, but at that time, in the early '60s, the memory of our costly struggle with Nazi Germany was still fresh enough in the minds of working-class East Baltimoreans. Even these neo-Nazis had to be careful.

I was an eighth-grade student at St. Elizabeth's, which stood adjacent to the park, and I remember Sister Regina warning us to stay home that evening. The party, she said, "Not only hates Negroes; it despises Catholics even more."

Her warning, of course, only tempted us. So my friend Mickey and I slipped away after supper, deciding to go straight to the park and have a look.

From a few blocks away we could hear the military marching songs playing through the big, bell-shaped metal loudspeakers. We quickened our pace so we could reach the spot where all the people were milling about. At this point the rally had the atmosphere of a church bazaar.

In the middle of a crowd of several hundred was a makeshift plywood platform that had been thrown together earlier in the day. I'll never forget the funny feeling I got when I saw that hideous aberration of a flag, with a lightning bolt on it, flying next to the flag of the United States. Even though I didn't know why, I instinctively knew there was something blasphemous about putting the two side by side.

The music was suddenly turned down and the first speaker climbed onto the stage with a shiny bullhorn in hand. He was a short, dull-looking, red-headed man of about 40 with a pasty freckled face that became wildly animated as he spewed out a string of the coarsest racial epithets I had ever heard.

Many in the crowd, at first shocked, started to giggle nervously as the speaker played the crowd to a tense crescendo. The mood changed from one of mild amusement to one of ugly hatred.

Mickey grabbed my arm and pulled me off in the direction of home. We didn't talk about what we had seen, but our unusual silence caught the attention of my mother, who was sitting on the front steps as we approached. "What's the matter with you boys? You look like you just lost your best friend."

Later that night we learned that the rally at Patterson Park had turned into an ugly melee, with gangs of whites spilling over into black neighborhoods and beating innocent people indiscriminately.

Miraculously, no one was killed and the troubles ended that night. However, all permits were denied the State's Rights Party for any more rallies in Patterson Park.

Of course, the leader of the brown shirts protested that the group's First Amendment rights had been denied, just as leaders of the "skinheads" claim in 1990.

That's the way I remember it happening in the '60s. Thirty years later, the question is the same: Should we risk allowing a new generation of brown shirts to march and spread its dangerous venom -- under the protection of the First Amendment?

I believe that would be a tragic mistake, and I think Mayor Schmoke agrees with me.

Chet Dembeck writes from Perry Hall.

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