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Burbankers help push Civil Rights

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

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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

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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

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movement.

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

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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 brbnkheritagecom@aol.com.


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