A liberal academic environment is one where ideas repulsive to current sensibilities can be expressed. The University of Alabama’s issues attendant to freedom of speech during the 1960s are instructive. The Capstone remained a haven of tradition and stability for most of the decade. Nevertheless, progressive expression smoldered in a state where Gov. George C. Wallace, echoing the Ku Klux Klan motto in his Feb. 14, 1963 inaugural address (written by Klansman Asa Carter), declared “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The University of Alabama’s “segregation forever” ended 148 days later on June 11, 1963, when Vivian J. Malone and James A. Hood enrolled.
Frank Rose, in his fifth year as president, sought to make the university a regional center of academic excellence. The more traditionally conservative trustees feared it might become “another Berkeley.” Rose, determined that would never happen, stepped carefully through the state’s political minefield while nurturing a more liberal campus climate.
In February 1966, First Lady Ladybird Johnson gave the keynote address to the first-ever “Alabama Women’s Conference,” held in Foster Auditorium. The following month, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy spoke at the first Emphasis conference, a Student Government Association funded event. Deep in the heart of Dixie, these were bold moves.
In late April 1966, at the traditional Governor’s Day ceremonies, a modest expression of dissent occurred when four young men, one of them a student, and a female student, all dressed conservatively, attempted to demonstrate. Campus and Tuscaloosa police shut it down immediately, arresting the male student and a Stillman College faculty member for refusing to show identification. The Tuscaloosa News billed the incident an anti-war demonstration. It wasn’t. The signs protested Wallace’s attempts at muzzling academic freedom by controlling who could or could not speak on campus.
The university process for vetting speakers required student groups to submit written requests to the Dean of Students office for consideration by a committee of faculty, administrators and students. The committee then passed its recommendation to President Rose for final determination. In October 1968, attempts by the newly founded Democratic Students Organization (DSO) to do away with the process failed. DSO challenged the process by submitting a slate of speakers that included Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver and avowed communist Herbert Aptheker. The committee unanimously recommended against the invitation. Rose agreed. DSO sued and lost.
The decision was appropriate given the state’s political context. At the behest of the Wallace administration in 1965 and again in 1967 the Legislature had considered a “speaker ban bill.” Rose and the university opposed the bill because it gave the state final authority as to who could speak on every public school campus from grade school to colleges and universities. Rose also stated no communist had ever spoken at Alabama and none ever would during his presidency. During Gov. Lurleen Wallace’s administration there also was an attempt to put the state’s colleges and universities under the authority of the state superintendent of education. This failed largely due to Rose’s opposition. In January 1969, Rose resigned effective at the end of spring semester.
President F. David Mathews, Rose’s successor, experienced a tumultuous first year. Student activism, small by comparison to other campuses, increased dramatically during the 1969-1970 academic year. In the spring of 1970, the Emphasis committee tried to invite Yippie activist Abby Hoffman to debate former Gov. George Wallace. President Mathews vetoed the Hoffman invitation, setting off a series of confrontations. When students packed Morgan Hall auditorium demanding Mathews also rescind Wallace’s invitation to speak at Emphasis, he refused. His reason for vetoing Hoffman’s appearance was that wherever he spoke, riots occurred. When a leading student agitator pointed out Wallace’s appearance on northern campuses often ignited disruption, President Mathews responded that Wallace’s Capstone appearances never caused disruptive behavior. The agitator then guaranteed a riot if Wallace spoke at Emphasis 70. Mathews, determined to prevent students from using threats of violence to influence university policy, ended the meeting by walking out. Students disrupted Wallace’s talk at Emphasis 70. Wallace used their behavior to support his stance on maintaining campus order and won the June Democratic primary and a second term as governor.
UA President Stuart Bell should be commended for allowing Students for America First to invite American Renaissance editor Jared Taylor to speak on April 19. The American Renaissance website leaves little doubt as to the organization’s racist agenda. Nevertheless, the principle of academic freedom is fundamentally important. Every student and faculty member can decide whether or not to attend; however, disrupting a speaker who offends your ideas is unworthy of liberal academia. Doing so will play to Taylor’s constituency while diminishing the academic freedom essential to the liberal scholarly ethos. If that happens, the University of Alabama loses.
Earl Tilford earned his B.A. and M.A. in history at the University of Alabama and his Ph.D. at George Washington University. He taught history at Grove City (Pa.) College. Now retired, he lives in Tuscaloosa.