"Pick an unpopular position or cause, and deliver a speech to the class supporting it."
California Polytechnic was a college in the state system, and I'd enrolled in its business curriculum. In 1970 I was just a kid - 23 years old, but already happily married with a house, a mortgage, one child and another on the way. I'd squandered my chance at college right after high school, so I took my studies very seriously when I returned five years later. This assignment required some research, and in a pre-Google world, the best sources were face-to-face.
I'd heard that the headquarters of the American Nazi Party was located in nearby El Monte, California. I obtained the address and called ahead for an appointment, explaining that I wanted to learn about their organization for a school project. I found the place in a decaying neighborhood with crumbling sidewalks and decrepit rental properties. The headquarters building was just a little house, distinguished from its neighbors only by a chain-link fence with a single strand of barbed wire at the top. Except for the weeds where the lawn should be, the yard lacked any vegetation at all.
I stood at the locked gate holding my notebook and waited, not sure about the next step. The front door opened and a Doberman stepped through, pulling on a tightly held leash. Greeter and dog came to the gate, no doubt wary of my suspicious-looking sideburns and shaggy hair. "You Butler?"
It was the man who spoke, but I was focused on the dog. I swallowed hard. "That's me."
He looked up and down the street, pulled a key ring from the reel attached to his belt, and clicked open the laminated Master padlock securing the gate. He motioned me toward the house as he locked the gate behind us. As we walked up the creaky steps onto the rickety porch another man stepped out of the house, holding the door open. As the three of us and the Doberman entered the house the door closed behind us. I heard the unmistakable sound of a deadbolt snapping into place.
The room was dim and sparsely furnished, with a desk, a bookshelf, a table, and a few wooden chairs. A framed photograph of Adolph Hitler stared down from the wall, his eyes fixed on me as I moved. There were a few books on the shelves and stacks of flyers on the table. The softest things in the house were the roller shades covering the windows. Another Doberman entered the room from inside and joined his twin, now released from his leash. They sat quietly as I stood awkwardly.
"What can we do for you?" The second man, an elder of perhaps thirty, wore khaki trousers, a white shirt, and black tie. His sidearm was secured in its holster. His tone was courteous, but not warm.
"I'd like to get some information. I'm doing a report for a college class."
The elder walked over to the table and began to gather some brochures. I noticed that there were voices coming from another room. Several people were apparently talking over some kind of business in a conversational tone. The greeter was seated at the desk folding papers and stacking them neatly in a pile. "Here you go. You can take these with you. They tell all about our struggle."
I took the handful of papers and tucked them into my notebook. "Struggle?"
"Yeah." He looked at me like I was stupid. "Our struggle for racial survival. For workers. Against Jews and Blacks."
I'm not sure what I expected to find here, but in my ignorance I was surprised to see Adolph Hitler. Mein Kampf was on the table, for sale. $2.98 was a lot of money in 1970. "Are you like the German Nazis?"
"We respect them as founders. But here in America we have our own struggle."
"But" They killed six million people, didn't they?"
"That's the Holocaust lie - it never happened. There was a lot of conflict between the government and Jews, but the lie was spread by people who wanted to justify crushing Nazi Germany." He spoke with the conviction of a man who believes his own words.