While commentators denounce and rebut Donald Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, some will remember that 70 years ago, another battle against bigotry, as well as anti-Semitism and what the media called “fascism,” was waged by Jewish and Black teenagers on the streets of Los Angeles.
In November 1945, when anti-Semitic agitator Gerald L.K. Smith, a man the B’nai B’rith Messenger referred to as the “Little Fuehrer,” was given a permit by the Los Angeles School Board to speak at Los Angeles Polytechnic High School, a group of Jewish teenagers — many from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights — was among the organizers of a school walkout to protest the actions of the school board.
“We were just radical kids,” Leo Frumkin, one of the leaders of the student walkout, recalled in a recent interview. We were “just fresh coming out of the second world war, with the atrocities that we heard about. There was a guy who was a fascist, and that’s what we were objecting to,” said Frumkin, who was 17 in 1945 and a senior at Roosevelt High.
Although Jewish households participated in L.A.’s economic expansion after World War II, according to “History of the Jews of Los Angeles” by Max Vorspan and Lloyd P. Gartner, it was also a time when veterans were returning home to an uncertain labor market in which they now had to compete with minorities for jobs. “By the end of the war, 150,000 veterans had moved to the city, many of whom were black or Jewish,” David J. Leonard, an associate professor at Washington State University at Pullman, wrote in 2004 in the journal American Jewish History.
As a result, at least some white Angelinos were increasingly willing to accept and openly support white supremacist rhetoric.
Smith (1898-1976) was a former Christian clergyman in Louisiana with a long history in right-wing politics in Louisiana and in Michigan, as well as in white supremacism. Smith founded the America First Party in 1944, for which he was a presidential candidate that year — although he garnered only a handful of votes. Known for his fiery oratory, Smith gave a speech in downtown Los Angeles on March 31, 1945, to around 2,000 in the Embassy Auditorium, during which he referred to Jews as “international moneychangers.” In response, an article in a Los Angeles Jewish publication of the time, the B’nai B’rith Messenger, called upon the “individual Jew” to “become a militant warrior in the fight against the thing that seeks to destroy them.”
After Smith spoke in L.A. again on July 20 of that year, this time at the Shrine Auditorium, a counter gathering drew around 12,000 people at the nearby Olympic Auditorium, where Rabbi Edgar Magnin of Wilshire Boulevard Temple was one of the speakers. And then, in planning to return to L.A., the “Little Fuehrer” applied to use L.A. Polytechnic High (then on the corner of Washington Boulevard and Flower Street) to give his next speech.
Although the Jewish community opposed the permit, it was approved, which meant that this time Smith would speak on public property.
His speech at Polytechnic High was met with between 15,000 and 20,000 protestors; nevertheless Smith applied and was approved for a second permit to speak at Polytechnic High, this time on Saturday, Nov. 3, setting the stage for the student protests.
According to a report in the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 1, two days before the scheduled appearance, “500 teenage boys and girls mostly from Roosevelt High School and other East Los Angles Schools marched with crude homemade placards” in front of the Chamber of Commerce building, where the school board had offices. During the demonstration, three student leaders — Jerry Wagner, Irving Losnick and Bernie Adelman — had an informal meeting with L.A. schools Superintendent Vierling Kersey, who urged them to return to Roosevelt and instead stage a mass meeting there.
They returned, had a meeting, and it was then, according to Frumkin, who was not at the protest and was absent from the school rally because of football practice, that he was appointed to be one of the student leaders.
The next day at school, he and others spread word of plans for another walkout, recalled Frumkin, who is now 87 and retired from a successful automotive transmission business. Born in the East L.A. neighborhood of Belvedere into a secular Jewish family, and made politically aware by his older sisters, Frumkin was a member of the Young Socialist League, a Trotskyist organization, he said.
At the time, Boyle Heights residents were also being warned about the dangers of Smith’s fascist rhetoric by the weekly newspaper the Eastside Journal, whose publisher and editor was Al Waxman (his nephew, Henry Waxman, later became the longtime Westside Democratic representative to Congress). The crusading editor had sounded the call against Smith’s first appearance at Polytechnic High in an editorial, in which he called Smith “the living symbol of Adolf Hitler’s dreams and ambitions,” and urged the community to “form the largest picket line this city has ever seen” at the Nov. 3 speech.
Although not the most sizable, the second day of student picketing was the wildest.
On Friday, at a gathering on the Roosevelt High football field, school Principal Francis L. Daugherty urged the students in the bleachers to return to class but was hooted down, and around 300 students surged across the campus and out onto the sidewalk, according to the L.A. Times. The students then marched about four miles to the school board’s offices, along the way making placards saying “Down with Smith.”
Frumkin, looking to swell the size of the group, ran to nearby Hollenbeck Junior High School. There, 15-year-old Sid Kane, also a member of the Young Socialist League, seeing that school administrators had locked his school’s gates to prevent a walkout, climbed the fence and led a group over, Kane said. Kane also recalls tearing his trousers as he climbed the fence. “There were kids whose families had lost people because of the Holocaust,” he said.
But Frumkin was not yet finished recruiting. Recognizing that Black students also had an interest in preventing the racist Smith from speaking, he borrowed his brother-in-law’s car and drove to Jefferson High School to enlist its students’ help.
“I got up on the lunch tables,” Frumkin said. Then he got back in his car and drove to the Chamber of Commerce building, where he met with four other student leaders.
Outside, the students “formed a double picket line, which grew larger by the hour as students of other schools arrived in automobiles and streetcars,” the L.A. Times reported. As Frumkin arrived, he said, he saw some of those streetcars filled with Black students.
Inside the building, Frumkin strategized with Rita Roth and three other student leaders when, he said, “I heard sirens coming down the street and something instinctual told me they were coming to break up the demonstration.” And so, Frumkin said, “I ran downstairs, and that’s when the cops grabbed me.
A photo that appeared in the Evening Herald Express in 1945 after Frumkin was arrested for his role in protesting anti-Semitic agitator Gerald L.K. Smith.
“They put me in a police car, and there were these students yelling, ‘If you’re taking him, you’re taking us,’ ” Frumkin said.
Eventually, 75 police were involved in breaking up the protest, which included some marchers calling to “make a fight,” the L.A. Times reported. Thirteen people were arrested that day, and 42 others were taken into custody, including “many girls,” the paper said.
At the Georgia Street police station where he was taken, Frumkin said, “We were 17-year-old kids singing union songs like ‘Hold the Fort.’ The sergeant yelled at us, ‘Just get your parents or somebody down here,’ ” he said. “I think my sister came down and got me.”
As punishment for his role in the walkout, Frumkin was suspended from school for a day or two, and “balled out” by the principal. With only one game left in the football season, he was nevertheless kicked off the team. Although he later got his team letter, he was not allowed to stand with the rest of the players when they received theirs. “That was a lot worse to me than getting arrested,” Frumkin said.
Although the B’nai B’rith Messenger condemned the student walkout (“there was no necessity for the children to play truant,” the paper opined), Kane said he saw it as a “protest against fascism and what took place in the Holocaust.” Frumkin, who today remains friends with Kane, saw “fighting fascism” as a “normal thing to do.”
With the student walkouts grabbing headlines in the L.A. Times and Evening Herald Express, when it came time for the Saturday night event, it was no surprise that as Smith and his supporters entered the Polytechnic High auditorium, they were met, according to the B’nai B’rith Messenger, by almost 20,000 sign-waving picketers.
Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon J. Rodman at firstname.lastname@example.org.