By Bill Simons
There are newspaper front pages that you never forget. In my lifetime, the headlines following the assassination of JFK and the 9/11 attack remain indelible. So, too, does page 1 of the Sunday, October 31, 1965, issue of The New York Times. Articles concerning the final days of the New York City mayoral campaign, escalating American involvement in Vietnam, the road to Rhodesian independence and machinations to replace ailing Indonesian President Sukarno commanded attention. As substantive as several of the preceding items were, the reason this issue of the Times, originally read by my 16-year-old self, remains burned in consciousness is an article at the bottom of page 1 about Daniel Burros by reporter McCandlish Phillips.
Burros, previously national secretary of the American Nazi Party, was the Grand Dragon – highest-ranking leader – of the New York Ku Klux Klan. A photo of smiling, bespectacled Burros, hooded and robbed in full Klan regalia accompanied the text. A native of Queens, Burros was Jewish, the fact that invested Phillips’ story with significance.
Building upon the original newspaper coverage by Phillips and his associates for their 1967 book “One More Victim: The Life and Times of an American-Jewish Nazi,” A. M. Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb, then, respectively, assistant managing editor and metropolitan editor of the Times, drilled deeply into school, military, legal and employment records to illuminate the trajectory that took Burros from bris to stalwart of hate-groups primed for assault on Jews and Blacks.
Growing up in the Richmond Hills section of Queens, Burros was the only child of older, working-class parents – George and Esther – at a time when certain streets still posed the threat of a pummeling to a Jewish boy. An overprotective mother walked Burros to school. Early on, he impressed elders by his devotion to Jewish studies and mastery of his bar mitzvah portion at Talmud Torah, an Orthodox synagogue. A bright youth, Burros, possessed of an impressive 154 IQ, generally received excellent grades at John Adams High School.
But there were warnings signs. Drawing attention to himself, Burros, in and out of school, expressed reactionary arguments at odds with the liberal milieu around him. Tirades morphed into fistfights. Burros drew incessantly, fixated on soldiers, specifically those of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. He came to view Judaism as overly intellectual, lacking physicality and an impediment to his aspiration to assume the mantle of warrior.
Rejected by West Point, Corporal Burros recorded 17 jumps as a paratrooper in the 187th Army Airborne Combat Team. Repelled by his assignment to Little Rock, AR, to defend Black students integrating Central High School in 1957, Burros exhibited an aberrant extremism that led to a less than honorable discharge.
Burros found purpose, excitement and belonging in a series of fringe hate groups. Even within these factions, however, his incessant talk of Jewish and Black perversion and inferiority, the unfinished task of genocide and the greatness of Hitler created unease. With his brownish-blond hair buzz cut, visceral antisemitism and espousal of Odinism, a religion of war and Nordic supremacy, Burros kept his Jewish antecedents secret from comrades.
Between his stint in the American Nazi Party barracks in Arlington, VA, and his appointment as head of the New York Klan, there were other far-right affiliations. Distribution of incendiary literature and fantastical plans for the coming purification war provided common ballast to these groups. Counter-protests and physical disruptions of civil rights and other liberal events lead to Burros’ five arrests, brief jail time and citation by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Burros’ skills as a draftsman and printer brought intermittent employment. Until managing a relationship with a woman in the last months of his life, he frequented prostitutes.
Courting discovery and destruction, Burros frequently visited his parents in their Richmond Hills neighborhood. On the streets, Orthodox men, bearded and attired traditionally, greeted Burros by name.
The virulently antisemitic Burros finally acted upon his rage to kill the enemy. On October 31, 1965, he murdered the Jew he most hated. After 28 years of obscurity, Burros made the front page of America’s pre-eminent newspaper for a second time. The Monday, November 1, 1965, issue of the Times announced Burros’ apparent suicide, later confirmed by the coroner, by self-inflicted chest and head wounds from a .32 caliber revolver.
Burros had purchased the Times on the morning of Sunday, October 31, read McCandlish Phillips’ article outing him as a Jew, screamed in rage, violently kicked open the door of the room domiciling firearms in the Reading, PA, Klan safe house where he was staying and fatally confronted his self-loathing.
Phillips, a Christian fundamentalist, acknowledged no more than “a vague sense of sadness” over Brurros’ suicide and felt no personal responsibility for the tragedy. Phillips described the shooting as “the G-d of Israel acting in judgment.” Heading a crack investigative team, Phillips’ remarkable research on Burros encompassed diverse and often obscure documents as well as interviews, the final one with Burros himself.
When Burros confessed his desperation and threatened to kill Phillips if he revealed Burros’ Jewish identity, Phillips exhorted him to accept Jesus as his personal savior. The Times took Burros’ death threats against Phillips seriously, providing the reporter with round-the-clock bodyguards.
As with Burros, enigma and isolation obscure Phillips. Phillips abandoned journalism for Pentecostal missionary work eight years after Burros’ suicide. The childless Phillips condemned premarital sex, yet never married. His 2013 Times obituary recounted Phillips’ devolution into an invisible “threadbare existence, preaching the Gospel on the Columbia University campus.” A reader perceived veiled antisemitism in Phillips’ religious writings.
Daniel Burros and Los Angeles Dodgers ace pitcher Sandy Koufax, both born to Jewish parents in the outer broughs of New York City during the Great Depression, rocked the news cycle in October 1965. Koufax affirmed his Jewish identity by refusing to pitch game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday, October 6, 1965, because it fell on Yom Kippur. Twenty-five days later, Burros killed himself, shamed that he had been publicly identified as a Jew.
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.