Before it was synonymous with hippies, peace and love, one infamous VW Combi van was riding across America to brazenly spread a message of hate. Pictured at a gas station in 1961 by LIFE photographer Joe Scherschel, the iconic vintage vehicle suddenly loses its charm …
The “Hate” Bus was the disturbing idea of George Lincoln Rockwell, whose name is proudly plastered all over the bus. He was the founder of the American Nazi Party, calling for “white power” and racial segregation. In the early 1960s, he acquired a Volkswagen van and decorated it with messages of hate, white supremacy and anti-semitic slogans. Rockwell personally drove it with a band of party members around the deep south, organising rallies and speaking at Ku Klux Klan meets. These photographs were taken on May 23rd, three days after the Freedom Riders were infamously assaulted at the Greyhound Station in Montgomery.
To further spread his shameful message, Rockwell even founded a small record label, named Hatenanny Records, based on the word “hootenanny”, traditionally referring to folk music performances. With artists including country singer Odis Cochran & The 3 Bigots, the label released several singles that were sold mostly through mail order and at the party’s rallies.
Lincoln Rockwell is pictured above, third from the left, amongst this sad group of men.
An FBI report on the American Nazi Party had this to say of Rockwell:
George Lincoln Rockwell is an egocentric and a chronic failure who created the shabby, small-time enterprise which he named the American Nazi Party in order to abate his tormenting ambitions to achieve fame. Carrying the war-tattered banner of a vanquished enemy the world would like to forget, Rockwell leads his heterogeneous “army” against an imaginary “Zionist conspiracy.” Distasteful costumes, contemptible slogans, and disruptive tactics have brought national attention to Rockwell, inflating him and his group far beyond their due.
Despite his white supremacy beliefs, Rockwell made confusing attempts to form friendly associations with the Nation of Islam, openly praising its leader Elijah Muhammad as the “Black people’s Hitler,” for promoting integrity and pride among his people. The two extreme figures shared pro-separation views and an end goal for a segregated community and in 1961, Rockwell showed up with a dozen of his neo-Nazi soldiers in full garb to a major Nation of Islam rally in Washington D.C. They were seated near the center stage and Rockwell gave $20 in donations.
Rockwell even admired Malcolm X, the controversial human rights activist, who for many years, also advocated the separation of black and white Americans. Rockwell believed he was the true leader of Black America. The admiration was not mutual however, and in 1965, after Malcolm X had grown disillusioned with the Nation of Islam he sent this telegram to Rockwell while he was touring the South on another “Hate Bus” campaign:
This is to warn you that I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad’s separatist Black Muslim movement, and that if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other black Americans who are only attempting to enjoy their rights as free human beings, that you and your Ku Klux Klan friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation from those of us who are not hand-cuffed by the disarming philosophy of nonviolence, and who believe in asserting our right of self-defense – by any means necessary.
To add to his list of hate, Lincoln Rockwell was also a Holocaust denier and in a 1966 interview with Playboy, he told journalist Alex Haley, “I don’t believe for one minute that any 6,000,000 Jews were exterminated by Hitler. It never happened.”
I sure hope that mechanic left a spanner in the works or punctured a hole in their fuel tank…
In 1967, George Lincoln Rockwell was shot and killed outside a shopping center in Arlington, Virginia. One of his own party members was arrested and convicted for his murder.
As for the van, according to the FBI report, the van was repossessed after a loan default.
All images via the LIFE archives.