I had about decided enough had been said about Nazis in Cookeville and that I didn’t need to write about them.
But then I read a magazine article about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German pastor who refused to be silent about Adolf Hitler’s atrocities. Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis in 1943. In 1945 he was moved to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. With American troops closing in, he was transferred to a camp at Flossenburg, Germany, where he was immediately tried, found guilty of high treason and hanged. Bonhoeffer was but one of the 30,000 prisoners who died at that camp alone. From 1933 to 1945, an estimated 17 million people—including Jews, Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, political dissidents and persons with intellectual and physical disabilities– were murdered by the German Nazi regime and their collaborators.
Knowing this, I can’t help but wonder why anyone, anywhere on this planet, would wave a flag with a swastika on it.
But that’s exactly what happened in downtown Cookeville on Sunday morning, January 22, when a group of people gathered on South Cedar Avenue to protest an adults-only “drag brunch” being held at Hix Farm Brewery. Among those standing on the sidewalk near Ralph’s Donuts, which is closed on Sundays, were Proud Boys and others of their ilk, most with noses and mouths hidden by white masks on which creepy smiling faces had been drawn. Some protestors chanted insults aimed at the LGBTQ community. Others, including one individual waving a Nazi flag, shouted anti-Semitic slurs.
Earlier that morning, several members of this group had parked their vehicles in the largely African-American neighborhood near West End Park, located at the intersection of McClellan Avenue and West End Street. The area is considered hallowed ground by many in Cookeville’s African-American community. It’s the site of the old Darwin School, built in 1928 for Black students. Darwin School burned in 1963, prompting school desegregation in the Upper Cumberland.
When some of the folks attending worship services in that neighborhood noticed that license tags were being taped over or changed out on several of the unfamiliar cars and trucks parked nearby, they grew uneasy. A couple of pastors ordered their churches into lockdown.
Was intimidation the intent of those who parked in the West End neighborhood–located more than a mile away from Ralph’s Donuts–that Sunday morning, or were they simply trying to get a little exercise before gathering on the sidewalk to spew hate? Do those who wave the Nazi flag and those who stand in solidarity with them actually know what the swastika stands for? Do they understand what fascism is? Do they really want to live in a country controlled by a dictator? Are they really in favor of economic and social regimentation? Is intolerance toward racial, religious, ethnic and sexual-preference minorities truly a “value” they admire? Is blind nationalism really their goal?
Do these people ever give even the slightest thought to the Allied soldiers who fought and died in World War II to defeat the forces of evil they’re now celebrating?
With all my heart, I wish these misguided souls would slink back to wherever they came from and take time to study what the Nazis stood for and what they did. They could start by reading Anne Frank’s diary and then move on to “Night” by Elie Wiesel. After that, they ought to watch “Schindler’s List” straight through. No muting the sound. No looking away.
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote. “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” May the good people of this community take those words to heart and shout these words so loud that all can hear: Nazis and other haters are not welcome in Cookeville, Tennessee. Not now. Not ever.
(February 18, 2023)