Chicken Mascot

The Famed Rockwell Ruckus

A retrospective look at the event that gripped campus and made international headlines.

By Seth Mallios

July 21, 2021

As the world grapples with the disturbing rise of white supremacy, it is worth recalling that nearly 60 years ago, a San Diego State student stood up to similar fascists in one of the most memorable moments in university history.

On March 8, 1962, American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell, who regularly claimed that the Holocaust never happened and sought to revoke African American citizenship, spoke on campus at the Open Air Theatre (OAT) in a Committee for Student Action-sponsored event.

During his address to the crowd of nearly 3,000, Rockwell called Jewish people the “cause of the world’s troubles,” and also vilified “Negros,” “queers” and women, according to reports in The Daily Aztec (DA). One particular person in attendance, a 22-year-old senior physical education major and football player, was moved to counteract the venomous views. “When some guy like Rockwell gets up there and starts knocking your religion and your beliefs, you feel you have to do something about him,” the young Jewish man from Brooklyn, NY, who now chooses to remain anonymous, recalled to the DA soon after the event. Accordingly, he left his seat to confront the hatemonger.

Since Rockwell had brashly invited anyone on stage to debate his points, OAT security let the student through with hardly a second glance. DA reporters noted that the young man initially went for the microphone to offer an opposing opinion, but when Rockwell shoved him away, the student punched him in the jaw with such force that the American Nazi’s sunglasses flew across the stage. Mayhem ensued as friends ushered the student away from the OAT, and Rockwell took refuge in a nearby building.

As Rockwell exited campus, other students pelted him with raw eggs and smashed the windows on his car. Undaunted by this treatment, he later mocked the response to his speech in a post-event press conference covered nationwide as a “pansy picnic.”

A week later, President Malcolm A. Love and the college Judiciary Board let the student off with a warning, merely placing him on disciplinary probation because his punch was not premeditated. The DA declared it “a slap on the fist that slugged George Lincoln Rockwell.” And the incident led to extended campus debates about free speech and how to deal with toxic ideologies that persist well into the 21st century.

Looking back, the man who threw the famous punch — now 81 but still fit with a youthful appearance — isn’t proud of the “10 second” moment. But he insists that he stood up for not only the Jewish people but for African Americans, women and everyone else Rockwell was attacking. “That’s the way I’ve tried to live my life,” he says. “It wasn’t a one time thing.” He strives to see both the good and bad in everyone and to understand all points of view. “I don’t hate anyone,” he says. “There is too much hate in the world as it is.”

Professor of Anthropology Seth Mallios is the university history curator and director of the South Coastal Information Center at SDSU. He curated the exhibition “Nathan Harrison: Born Enslaved, Died a San Diego Legend,” currently at the San Diego History Center.

"The incident led to extended campus debates about free speech and how to deal with toxic ideologies that persist well into the 21st century."