BURBANK: THEN & NOW
The City Council regularly grapples with issues that range from the
mundane to the complicated and politically contentious. Recently, the
council has had to hammer out a tough budget, contemplate the future
of the old Buena Vista Library, and tend to other city business. The
City Council of 1963, however, faced a daunting challenge.
By 1963, the civil rights movement had become a political movement
that had moved to the forefront of the national political scene. A
massive civil rights march had been planned for the end of August. At
that time, Burbank seemed far removed from the issues taking shape in
the nation’s capital, until Ralph Forbes sent a letter to Mayor John
Whitney, requesting permission for a rally on the steps of Burbank
City Hall at 10 a.m. Aug. 28. Forbes had also taken out a request
form for the use of city park facilities. Forbes was not a civil
rights activist, but the western division commanding officer of the
American Nazi Party. He wanted to speak against the civil rights
This placed city officials in the unusual position of having to
respond to a person who had beliefs they abhorred, but who had rights
they were legally obligated to uphold. Mayor Whitney wisely referred
the matter to Samuel Gorlick, the city attorney. Gorlick methodically
studied the law and how it applied to the request, in order to create
the city’s legal position on the matter. Harmon Bennett, the city
manager at the time, said, “As far as I am concerned, we are going to
follow the law.” The problem, however, was that it was not certain
what the law was, something made evident when Police Chief Rex R.
Andrews said “the police will enforce the law when it is determined
what the law is.”
After an exhaustive review of the law, the city attorney issued
his opinion on the matter and referred it to the mayor. Based on
Gorlick’s interpretation, Whitney denied the request for a mass rally
on the steps of City Hall by the American Nazi Party. In his denial,
Whitney said, “City Hall is for the conduct of city business and
government, and the use of the steps of the hall to hold a mass rally
would necessarily impede the orderly flow of people desiring to enter
or leave the building on public business, at this busy hour of the
morning.” Gorlick added, “Forbes presumes that the Constitution gives
his group the right to usurp public property whenever and wherever it
elects to do so. In this it is wrong.”
The denial, however, did not put an end to the issue, as Ralph
Forbes was determined to have his rally. He had also made a similar
request to the city of Redondo Beach for a rally in a local park.
Redondo Beach’s denial was largely based on the fact that it was not
customary for parks to be used for political purposes. Redondo Beach
denied his request, and Forbes went to court. Represented by the
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Forbes got a restraining order
against Redondo Beach by a Los Angeles Superior Court. After careful
negotiations between Redondo Beach and Forbes, “reasonable
regulations” were created, and the rally was held. Forbes was
committed to doing the same in Burbank.
It became clear to Forbes that he was going to be arrested if he
held his rally on the steps of City Hall. He decided to set his
sights on another Burbank location. Having studied Forbes’ actions in
Redondo Beach, the city decided that it could not indefinitely bar
him from holding his rally. He received permission to hold his rally
on Aug. 28 -- the same day as the civil rights march in Washington,
D.C. -- on the lawn of McCambridge Park. The city took the steps
needed to ensure a nonviolent event.
The city sent 30 police officers to the park to be a deterrent to
violence. The rally that materialized, however, was nothing that the
Burbank Police Department imagined. At 10:30 a.m., Ralph Forbes and
his two “lieutenants” of the American Nazi Party arrived at the park
to denounce the public accommodation law that was part of a broader
civil rights legislative package before Congress. A large crowd had
assembled at the park. Forbes’ only support, however, was the two
members of the American Nazi Party who accompanied him. Surrounded by
angry Burbankers, Forbes began to read his hate-filled speech, in
which he denounced pending legislation that would enable African
Americans to enjoy the same benefits everybody had. Among other
things, he said that the “civil rights March in Washington is a
Communist-led march.” During his speech, the crowd heckled and jeered
him, shouting “Nazi rat, you’re as bad as the communists,” and “Why
don’t you go home?” Forbes’ speech ended just before 11 a.m., the
time at which his permit for a rally was to expire. He calmly picked
up his briefcase and left with the other members of his party.
The civil rights march in Washington, D.C., attracted more than
200,000 people that day, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
first spoke the now-famous words, “I have a dream.” Burbankers that
day at the park heralded the spirit of that march by denouncing
Forbes and his speech of hate and intolerance.
* CRAIG BULLOCK is chairman of the Burbank Heritage Commission.
Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.