This panel examines art and angry words as sites for the enforcement or resistance of entrenched racial hierarchies.
“Whose streets? Our streets!” is a little bit catchier than “Whose movie premiere? Our movie premiere!” But even that difference shows the power of words to fuel protest movements in any physical or online space. This panel explores how the things we say and the movies we enjoy became embroiled in protests against and for racism in the mid-20th century.
Moderated by Johannes Breit. Johannes is a PhD candidate at Berlin’s Humboldt University writing about Balkanism and the German occupation of Yugoslavia during the Second World War. In the past he has published on forced labor in Nazi Germany, most notably his 2017 book on the Work Education Camp Reichenau in Innsbruck, Austria. His other research interests include visual history, the representation of Nazism and the Holocaust in video games, and the twentieth-century history of Southeastern Europe.
Fascists in Hogtown: Toronto’s Reaction and Resistance to the National Unity Party during the Summer of 1938, by Tyler Wentzell
For most of the Great Depression, Canada’s fascist parties were small, marginal, and disunited. While the Parti National Social Chrétien had achieved a public presence in Montreal, similar organizations on the west coast, the prairies, and Ontario were small in membership and influence. They mostly lurked about in secret meetings in members’ homes. This changed in the summer of 1938 with the establishment of a National Unity Party (NUP). The NUP united the disparate nationalist parties; openly recruited soldiers, ex-soldiers, and police; and held a public rally at one of Toronto’s largest venues: Massey Hall.
This paper examines how Torontonians reacted to the “arrival” of the NUP that summer. Specifically, it examines the tactics employed by a disparate anti-fascist movement, how city officials publicly responded to the free speech debate, and how some members of the local militia and police openly supported the NUP. Drawing upon personal papers, organizational records of the resisters, legal records, and newspaper accounts, this paper concludes that while many vocal Torontonians were vocally opposed to the NUP, the majority were indifferent or even supportive of its stated objectives.
Tyler Wentzell is a Canadian historian, lawyer, and military officer. He has served in the Canadian Armed Forces since 2002 and is presently military faculty at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of Not for King or Country: Edward Cecil-Smith, the Communist Party of Canada, and the Spanish Civil War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020), and has largely focused his research on the evolution of and interactions among interwar years fascist, communist, and anarchist movements. He is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Law where his dissertation focuses on the history and evolution of law and legal norms relating to the use of military force and intelligence gathering in domestic operations. His twitter handle is @tylerwentzell.
Everyone I Don’t Like is Hitler: The Appropriation of Anti-Nazi Axioms by American Fascists, 1944-1949, by Ryan Abt
In the 1930s and early 1940s, American educators perceived of group hatreds as a significant danger when facing the growth of Nazism. They believed that the Nazis succeeded in coming to power and in conquering enemies through “divide and conquer” techniques. These methods fostered group antagonisms, which weakened the Nazis’ enemies. In response, educators seized upon intercultural and unity education to defeat the subversive effects of what they saw as imported “Nazi racial ideology.” These efforts found significant purchase in educational curricula between 1933 and 1945.
By the end of the war, however, organizations which such educational initiatives had denounced, due to either their embrace of fascism or demagogic intolerance, began to use calls for unity to silence progressive educators. Decrying charges of bigotry as divisive, conservative educators depicted intercultural education as communist “divide and conquer” subversion. They, thereby, reoriented American’s understandings of Nazism by focusing on the methods of totalitarianism and ignoring its specific ideological components. This realignment submerged the racial components of the Nazi atrocities and silenced efforts at drawing parallels and lessons in U.S. society.
Ryan Abt is a Ph.D. candidate in United States history who specializes in representations of Nazism in US educational systems between 1933 and 1965. He considers the changing nature of educator’s understanding and presentation of the Nazi atrocities in the period before broad Holocaust consciousness. In 2019, the Yearbook of Transnational History published his article “’No Propaganda Story’: The Prehistory of American Holocaust Consciousness in textbooks, 1940-1962.” He took part in the Auschwitz Jewish Center’s Fellows Program in 2018 and enjoys writing on r/askhistorians as u/kugelfang52. Most of all, he delights in playing with and teaching his two young boys about planets, ants, robots, prehistory, and whatever else they desire.
Bringing the Millennium to Birmingham: To Kill a Mockingbird and Racial Protest in Alabama’s Magic City, by Megan Hunt
On April 3, 1963, residents of Birmingham, Alabama woke to triumphant newspaper reports of ‘a new day’ penned by mayor-elect, Albert Boutwell. Touting himself as a moderate, Boutwell was a segregationist: unlikely ‘to bring the millennium to Birmingham,’ according to Martin Luther King, Jr. For the city’s Black population, barred from downtown employment, this ‘new day’ signified ‘business as usual.’ Boutwell celebrated his victory immediately, at the city’s segregated premiere of To Kill a Mockingbird. Across town, and willfully ignored by those at the premiere, April 3, 1963 marked the beginning of ‘Project X:’ a consolidated effort to draw attention to the city’s entrenched racism as part of a national push for civil rights legislation. Images of city police violently confronting young protestors would cement the city’s reputation for racial hatred and brutality, but ultimately force President Kennedy to acknowledge civil rights as a ‘moral issue.’
This paper argues that the election, premiere, and Project X offer a composite image of the city’s culture and self-image as it entered a defining era of ‘chaos, revolution, and change.’ April 3, 1963 afforded glamour and celebration for some, as other residents began to storm the barricades of a segregated citadel. The Magic City, as inhabited and imagined by each group, could not have been more different.
Dr Megan Hunt is Teaching Fellow in American History at the University of Edinburgh. She is working on her first monograph, Southern by the Grace of God: Religion, Race, and Civil Rights in Hollywood’s South, having previously published on films such as Selma, Mississippi Burning, and The Help. She has also researched and published on the place of African American history in UK schools, with her most recent article available via open access here. Megan also sits on the steering committee of Historians of the Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS) and is a co-founder of The Precarity Project.