Soapbox Speakers

12. Columbus Circle – Part 1.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Columbus Circle in New York became the gathering place for soapbox speakers. They gathered in the park near the USS Maine monument. Radical longshoreman (dock workers) from Manhattan’s West Side docks spoke at the circle in the early1900s.

By the 1930’s radical activists centered in Union Square, leaving Columbus Circle to non-lefty speakers.

At four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and at seven o’clock in the evening on a week day, speakers would climb their ladders. On top of the last rung of their ladder would be a small flag, or a cross, or some other symbol representing the speaker’s subject. The speakers would be variously engaged in expounding Catholicism, Judaism, Methodism, fundamentalism, modernism, agnosticism, atheism, ant-semitism, anti-“popery”, free will, determinism, relativity, and so forth.

Columbus Circle was more like London’s Hyde Park than Union Square. Religion, philosophy, science, literature, and art became a leading subject in Columbus Circle. In summer, by 8pm or 9pm as many as ten or twelve ladder’s would have speakers, around which clustered the faithful, the skeptical, and the curious.

They could keep such hours because there was still summer light. In some places, when the light went down, the speakers kept speaking under gas light.

Because the leftists monopolised Union Square, right-wing organisations such as America First, Coughlinites, Silver Shirts, Christian Mobilizers, Bundists, Isolationists, and outright Hitlerites were the majority of the speakers.

Most of the right wing groups were ‘Isolationists’, who wanted the US to stay out of all international disputes and not go to war.

‘Coughlinites’ were followers of Father Charles Edward Coughlin, Catholic Priest (1891-1979). He was a popular radio broadcaster sympathetic to Fascist Italy and to Hitler. In 1938, Father Coughlin renamed his movement the ‘Christian Front’ and co-operated closely with the ‘Christian Mobilisers’ who acted as the Front’s stormtrooper.

Coughlin also lent his support to the America First Party, an isolationist group founded in 1940 by General Wood and Eddy Rickenbacker (US, WWI Flying Ace). Charles Lindbergh was its leading spokesman. The America First Party gained support from both left and right isolationists. Nonetheless the party dissolved three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Silver Legion of America were a white-supremacist, anti-Semitic group nicknamed “Silvershirts ” because they modelled themselves on Hitler’s Brownshirts, but dressed in silver shirts. Their founder was William Dudley Pelly (1890-1965). He also founded the Christian Party that ran him for US President in 1936. Pelly was arrested for treason in 1942 and jailed until 1954.

The German American Federation (nicknamed the “Bund”) was an American Nazi organisation established in 1936. The Bund was to consist of Americans of German descent. The Bund supported isolationists and promoted Nazism in America. (It is important not to confuse the US ‘Bund’ with the secular Jewish socialist General Jewish Labour Bund. That ‘Bund’ was an anti-communist, and eventually anti-Zionist, movement based in Europe.)

There was a lot of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the US before Pearl Harbor. One such speaker was nicknamed “Fatima” due to the pantaloons she habitually wore. Her supporters would march to her ladder bearing the Christian cross and American flag. Her performance was trance-like, and as so often happens in such instances, it cast a kind of hypnotic spell over her listeners. She usually drew the biggest crowd of the evening.

One evening one young man could take it no more. He stood behind Fatima, and an opportune moment loudly interjected saying, “Were your born in New York City? Do you know anything about the rest of the United States? Are You not a New York yokel? Did you ever hear of the Ku Klux Klan ? Don’t you know that in most of the United States the people who hate Jews also hate your claque here, the Coughlinites, because they are Catholics? Are you trying to stir up the ugly spirit of the Klan again? When you arouse native American prejudices against the Jews you also arouse them against other minorities, particularly the Catholics. Are you so ignorant of America that you do know these simple facts? Yet you prate about your Americanism!”

The crowd waited for a reaction but Fatima froze in mid sentence, tongue-tied. The crowd exploded in applause.

Steve Maxwell. plnsteve@gmail.com

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