Charlottesville VA – I came here for a panel on Dr. King’s Ill-fated Poor Peoples Campaign of 1968, 50 years past and now aiming to be re-launched.
I did my part in the event (having written a book about the 1968 campaign); but I want to admit here that my mind frequently wandered, hankering to head downtown to visit some of Charlottesville’s new & newly-more historic sites while I was nearby.
Two in particular: the shrouded statue of Robert E. Lee, awaiting its fate, and a few blocks away the graffiti wall on the stretch of 4th Street now rechristened “Heather Heyer Way.”
During the past year, resistance took many forms, and cropped up in many places. It was also exhausting and resisters took many hits. And the struggle(s) are far from over.
I tried to do my share. And in an effort to keep up my own spirits, and maybe offer some tidbits of encouragement to others, I’ve assembled this personal scrapbook. In the age of phone cameras, such documentation has become much easier. If others are moved to share theirs, I look forward to sampling them.
And it all started, of course, before the new year. After November 8, 2016, like many others, I spent many days reenacting this famous painting of “The Scream,” aloud, silently, and in between. I don’t know if it helped or not. Denial is more than a river in Egypt. But then . . . Continue reading A Year of #45. My Year of Resistance.→
A long read. [But there’s a much longer version if desired.]
These excerpts from the full report, linked below, have been compiled to make the substance of it more accessible.
NOTE the principal author of this 220-page report is Timothy J. Heaphy, of a major law firm Hunton & Williams. The firm was retained by the City of Charlottesville to conduct an exhaustive investigation and produce this report.
From Heaphy’s biography on the firm’s website:
Prior to joining Hunton & Williams LLP, Tim was the United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, serving as the chief law enforcement officer responsible for prosecuting federal crime and defending the United States in civil litigation.
During his tenure as United States Attorney, Tim served on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee, advising the Attorney General on emerging policy issues, He has testified before Congressional committees several times on issues ranging from guns to synthetic drugs to sentencing reform.Continue reading The Independent Report on the Charlottesville Riots→
It was only a matter of time before the current furor over sex harassment and misconduct by prominent people added Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the list.
And now his name has surfaced, by way of the FBI in the newly-released JFK assassination papers.
One of these documents, stamped “SECRET” is titled Martin Luther King, Jr. A Current Analysis. Itwas dated March 12, 1968, just three weeks before King was assassinated in Memphis.
This paper, or rather, one section of it, is the topic of a major article by Donovan Harrell, and published by the McClatchy newspaper chain, under the headline JFK files: FBI documents allege Martin Luther King Jr. had secret love child, orgies. It was reprinted in the Raleigh NC News & Observer, which is where I learned about it. And it’s been circulating more and more widely since. (The full text of the FBI paper is here.)
It’s a sign of the times — then and now — that these allegations, under the heading, “King’s personal conduct,” come last in the 20-page paper, and take up only about a page and a half. The sign then was that the FBI was far more concerned in what it considered King’s many ties to Communism, and to present and former U.S. Communists. Allegations about such ties take up the first third of the paper, and are scattered throughout much of the rest.
King was in fact connected to some persons with Communist associations in their past. One of his closest advisers over many years was Stanley Levison, a new York City businessman and lawyer who had once been a high-level member of the Communist Party-USA. But FBI files also state that Levison terminated his Communist associations in 1957, though that shift did not end FBI interest in, or surveillance of him.
No, the McClatchy article is interested in what’s hot now, and that is sex. And for those so inclined, it is not necessary to turn to the JFK files to find such assertions. Major biographies by top scholars include them, and Yale historian Beverly Gage, wrote in the New York Times in 2014 that “King’s extramarital sex life, [was] already an open secret within the civil rights movement’s leadership.”
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once wrote that King was like “a tom cat with obsessive degenerate sexual urges.”
In fact, Hoover evidently became convinced from wiretaps and other surveillance, that by 1964 the FBI had accumulated enough salacious material to force King to retire in disgrace from civil rights activism, or even drive him to suicide.
A notorious “suicide letter” was drafted by one of Hoover’s close aides, and anonymously sent, along with an audiotape full of heavy breathing and the like, to King in November, 1964. As dramatized in the movie “Selma,” King’s wife opened the package.
The letter was only one unsigned page (Full text here). Its punchline was stark: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. . . . You are done. There is but one way out for you. . . .”
King decided to ignore the tape and the letter, as did the news reporters the FBI tried to interest in the tape. It appears that King continued with his extramarital activities until his death in April 1968.
All this is lurid enough; but the question of the moment today is one only implicit in the resurfaced FBI paper: was King a sexual harasser, or even a predator, who forced himself upon any of the many women he allegedly had sex with?
And a related question is, doesn’tthis behavior pattern call into question, or even discredit, his august moral standing? Does King deserve to be, say, enshrined in a statue on the tidal basin in the heart of Washington DC?
I can’t answer the first question, but can offer some perspective as a junior staffer for King’s group in 1964 and 1965. And I have some thoughts about the second.
First of all, though I have no direct evidence about King himself, I can say that sexual harassment of female employees and associates was rife in King’s group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, even at high levels. My late wife Tish experienced it often when she worked in the SCLC office in Selma, Alabama.
Other women staff told me of incidents. And being a young male in 1965, I talked with other males in the group, and things were said that corroborated the other reports, and would not pass muster today.
Indeed, the atmosphere of the movement was sexually charged. This was due to many factors, no doubt, but one that ought not to be dismissed is the impact of charisma. Dr. King was a very charismatic figure; several of his top staff members also had quite magnetic personalities, based on their eloquence, personal bravery in the face of racist violence, and reflected glory by being close to Dr. King.
Such charisma is a fact. It occurs in many professions, and beyond a certain point has little to do with physical appearance. Henry Kissinger proves the rule, and offered one of its most apt summaries: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
I had one real and unsettling experience of this, at the height of the Selma, Alabama voting rights campaign led by Dr. King. It is described in my memoir, Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.
I was very busy in the two hectic weeks after the famous “Bloody Sunday” attack by state troopers and deputies on marchers attempting a peaceful walk from Selma to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery. People from all over the country, shocked by the violence, came pouring into Selma. Coping with this influx was a nonstop challenge. And the role that fell to me for several days was that of chauffeur.
SCLC rented several cars, and I managed to commandeer one. I happily spent several days ferrying various notables, most of whom I had never heard of, back and forth to the airport.
The car brought more than a hint of luxury to my $25 per week standard of living: it was warm, new, and had a good radio. It also served as a useful stage: for a series of rapt, terrified passengers, I turned the journey down Highway 80 into an instant history tour,starting with the full-size John Birch Society billboard near the airport, which demanded that we Get the US OUT of the UN, and do it now. Then, a few miles west:
“Yes, this is Lowndes County, with a population thatis eighty per cent black, but where no blacks are registered; none. They say the last black man who tried to register there was shot dead on the courthouse steps; that’s what they say.
“And there–see that ramshackle old building? It’s a real, functioning one-room schoolhouse (well, three rooms actually), with holes in the floor and walls that let in the winter wind; that’s right, it’s all the public education available for Negroes in the county.”
Twenty or so white-knuckled miles later:
“And don’t miss that bank billboard there, the one that welcomes us to Selma as ‘the city with 100 per cent human interest.’ Look to the other side, and there’s another for the White Citizens Council (a pause for gasps); and they’re both located just about at the spot where the troopers attacked the march–they hid their horses behind that building over there.”
By then, eyes were wide, necks craned.
Once across the bridge, we turned right at the courthouse, where I casually mentioned my own three arrests and a close encounter with the sheriff’s possemen’s wielding electric cattle prods, cruised cautiously past City Hall, describing the two jails it housed, and then jogged again to get to Sylvan Street and Brown Chapel AME church, the movement headquarters.
There I dropped off my passengers, who by now were usually half-dazed with awe at the apocalyptic spectacle they were joining.
One trip turned out differently, though. At the Montgomery airport, looking for the Selma contingent, I saw a stunning blonde, dressed in demure but elegant black, coming toward me. She flashed a winsome smile, said something about coming from Michigan, and asked for a ride to the church.
With pleasure, ma’am, I thought, and welcome to the Southland.
She insisted on sitting up front with me, and listened to my tourist spiel with a semblance of interest. I had some trouble getting through it, though, because she was so good to look at; the black suit, despite its modest cut, only set off her full figure. Then as we approached the bridge, she interrupted to ask if I knew where Dr. King was.
I shrugged. Maybe at the church, maybe somewhere else, I wasn’t sure.
But she persisted. She wanted to see Dr. King. She neededto see him. That, she said, was why she came.
Well, let me think; it was midday, the mass meetings were probably in a lull, and Dr. King could be conferring with staff in the back of the church, or possibly resting somewhere – I knew of an apartment in the projects nearby where he often slipped away for some quiet. But he might be someplace else entirely, coming back later–
But where is he now? She insisted. I need to see him.
And all at once my guard was up. Who was this woman? What was she after? She did not seem acquainted with Dr. King or the movement. But the very elegance of her appearance, I realized, exuded an unspoken awareness of Dr. King’s fondness for female pulchritude. And her sense of mission reinforced my sudden suspicion. She seemed to presume he would want to talk with her, be with her; and she might well have been right.
But for what purpose? By now I was familiar with the steady stream of death threats that Dr. King received. Most were no more than racist invective; but some were serious. I knew at least one such firsthand:
A few weeks earlier, top Justice Department officials had called and begged Dr. King to stop a planned night march, because they said there was a KKK assassination squad ready to attack it, and him, in the dark, and they wouldn’t be able to stop it.
Dr. King at first said no, we would march despite the threats. But he was finally persuaded to back off the plan by the pleas of top aides, who stressed the danger to others in the march.
I was there that night, with other staffers, and heard the calls, and the debate, listening and scared out of my wits. I’d also seen postcards declaring murderous intentions toward King.. Other threats, less dramatic, kept coming.
And for a serious, skillful assassination plan, there would be more than one way to get close to him, to bait a fatal trap. A beautiful woman could be just the thing.
As the memories of the planned night march came back, my responses to my passenger’s queries became suddenly vague; the tour guide banter subsided into bumpkin monosyllables.
I managed to creep through the crowd milling along and into the street, quite close to Brown Chapel, pulled up, and pointed toward the back of the church.
“The offices are there.” I strongly doubted Dr. King was inside; but if he was, he’d surely be surrounded by staff, with dozens of reporters and photographers close by.
She thanked me, snatched up her small travel bag, and was gone, pushing her way into the crowd swirling around outside the building.
That was that; I never saw or heard of her again, and whatever happened, Dr. King survived for three more years.
But I was thoroughly rattled. Even if she was no more than a celebrity stalker, the trip showed how magnetic charisma could be. (Less than two years later, I was part of a similarly convincing demonstration, at Shea Stadium in New York. There I watched nearly 50,000 girls and women shrieking their lungs out for two hours at four complete strangers trying to play music in center field. I saw the Beatles with them that night; and though I couldn’t hear a note the band played, the experience was unforgettable.)
But now let’s return to the other question: does the sexual adventurism of Dr. King and some of his associates along with the atmosphere of sexual harassment this fostered undermine his legacy, and moral stature?
To get at this, I’ll return to Eating Dr. King’s Dinner and note another encounter from 1965 It was in September, several months after the successful march to Montgomery, and passage of the Voting Rights Act, which (for some decades at least), changed the politics of the south, and the U.S.
I was invited to an SCLC staff retreat at the Penn Center on the South Carolina coast. The Penn Center is the successor of a school founded and long operated by Quakers from the North, to educate newly freed slaves after the Civil War. It’s now a cultural center and national monument for the rich Gullah culture of the area; it also hosts small conferences. Dr. King held many retreats there, during the years when official segregation made it difficult to find locations for integrated meetings.
At the 1965 retreat, there were momentous issues on the table: should Dr. King take the movement north, specifically to Chicago? (The answer was yes, in an ill-fated campaign the next year.)
And should Dr. King come out strongly against the rapidly escalating Vietnam War — and thereby defy many powerful people who were warning him to stay away from “foreign policy.” (That answer was yes, too, but it took longer, until early 1967, for Dr. King to take a bold antiwar stance.)
But these big issues of the day are not what is before us now. Instead, what comes to mind is an entirely informal encounter there, between the plenary sessions.
In fact, it happened while we were all standing in line for a meal. I heard Dr. King talking earnestly ahead of me, and tuned in, as by degrees, did most of the rest.
King was talking with James Bevel, his Direct Action Director, and one of the most insightful tactical thinkers, and electrifying speakers, in Dr. King’s inner circle. They were talking, debating really, about sex and marriage.
How the topic came up, I don’t know, but there they were. Bevel, in his tenor staccato, was making the case for what were known euphemistically as “open relationships,” marriages in which the partners were explicitly allowed to seek sexual pleasure with others.
To this Dr. King sounded a baritone bass note of dissent. He had no faith in any such couplings, he said; the right way was the traditional one: monogamy and fidelity.
This was a friendly argument, like a college bull session; voices were not raised, no personal charges were hurled, and Dr. King did not attempt to pull rank. But it was still evident that their positions were deeply felt, and the colloquy was riveting to the listeners.
Surely all of us present knew, by regular hearsay if not personal observation, that neither of these men was exactly a model of monogamy. I would thus have expected Dr. King to go along with Bevel, at least to some extent, if only to provide himself with moral cover for what we all assumed was his habitual practice.
But no. Bevel argued skillfully: love was expansive; possessiveness outmoded, and jealousy a bad habit. But Dr. King refused to budge: one man, one woman, forsaking all others–given the fallen state of human nature, that’s the way it had to be. It was also what the Bible said.
Looking back, this exchange, finally interrupted by the arrival of the food, revealed a great deal. In Bevel there was the spirit of the times, pushing the limits and opening things up, trying to be ethically and situationally inclusive, and to see good in what he, and many others of the time, were doing.
I don’t recall if he did, but he could have parried Dr. King’s biblical references with one of his own, the Apostle Paul from First Corinthians, proclaiming that “All things are lawful for me,” a verse which conventional exegetes are anxious to diminish or ignore.
Dr. King, on the other hand, was tipping his hand as the more orthodox Christian: the standard is there, was his argument. He didn’t say, but the implication was obvious, that his and our failures to live up to it didn’t mean we should redraw the lines, but rather admit that we are sinners. We don’t need new morals, was his point; we need the old remedies: forgiveness and grace.
Put into a gloss on their own, reputedly similar behavior, Bevel was insisting, “I’m not doing anything wrong,” while Dr. King was admitting, “I am.”
At the time, standing transfixed in that dinner line, I was mostly on Bevel’s side, or at least I thought I was. A part of me still is, too, a bit; but time and my own misadventures have lately edged me more in Dr. King’s corner.
Are all things really lawful to me? Maybe more than some people think should be; but even so, there are limits. And do I need grace and forgiveness?
Do I need to breathe?
Suppose for a moment that the bullet at the Lorraine Motel had missed Dr. King thatevening in April, 1968. Suppose he had continued with the campaign there in support of sanitation workers — and then gone on to lead his planned Poor Peoples Campaign in Washington that summer.
Besides these boiling issues (along with the continuing Vietnam War), there were others waiting to ambush him, and one of these was sex.
The male chauvinism embedded in much of his and others’ behavior was corrosive to the cohesion of the movement’s key cadre: marriages were broken up; colleagues parted ways; many rank and file supporters backed away. These patterns were not “victimless.”
Further, it had practical effects: it split the movement between those who were “in the know” about the private recreations of King and others, and the many who did not, or only suspected. That fed an elitism which ultimately generated deep and persisting distrust of exalted “leaders” among many. It also exposed King to continuing, unnecessary risks: of blackmail, exposure in the press, or retaliation from a cuckolded spouse.
Who better to signal some of this internal cost than the movement’s most sophisticated and sardonic chanteuse, Nina Simone, in her 1964 recording of “Go Limp”:
“Oh Daughter, dear Daughter Take warning from me And don’t you go marching With the N-A-A-C-P. For they’ll rock you and roll you And shove you into bed. And if they steal your nuclear secret You’ll wish you were dead. . . .”
Four years later, back to Dr. King: how much longer would his wife Coretta have put up with his frequent philandering? By then the “second wave” feminist movement was taking off, and challenges to male dominance and sexual consumerism were rising, inside the movement as well as outside. King & SCLC were thoroughly male chauvinist; a reckoning was likely.
This is speculation. But in another case, there is, sadly, more: James Bevel was notorious in the movement for his many sexual exploits. By 2005 he had been married four times and had fathered sixteen children by these and other women.
I thought highly of Bevel in my days in the Selma movement. But over time his behavior and political alliances came to seem bizarre and we lost touch.The last time I talked with him was in the 1990s, and he then expressed regret for his behavior in the 1960s, and said he had changed his ways. He wanted me to help him write an autobiography. I demurred; keeping a distance felt safer.
Then in May, 2007, Bevel was arrested and charged with committing incest with one of his daughters in the 1990s. The alleged incident happened in Virginia, which has no statute of limitations on such charges. Three other daughters later said Bevel had had sex with them too.
He was tried and convicted in April 2008, and the testimony included statements of his that resembled the outlook I heard him express that day at the Penn Center, extended across generations. He was sentenced to 15 years, but released in November of that year, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died the following month.
In midsummer, while Bevel was awaiting sentencing, his wife emailed me, to ask that I write to the judge, requesting a reduced sentence.
I agonized about this. There was no defending or mitigating what he had done to his children. I didn’t want anything to do with it. Yet it was also true that Bevel had made signal contributions to the civil rights movement: the whole Selma-Montgomery march, which became the key to the Voting Rights Act,was his idea. This and his other best work had benefitted millions.
What do you do about people who are a mix of good and evil?
Ultimately my resolution was this: I wrote to the judge, but offered no brief for the actions he had been convicted of. Instead I told him of the substantial positive, even historic work I felt Bevel had once done. And I asked the judge to weigh this in a spirit of mercy. I doubt it made any difference, but it felt truthful, if difficult.
I’ve had more time to consider Dr. King. And I find his legacy still endures;Dr. King as a sinner makes sense.And no children were involved, so far as I know. The impact of his charisma, as shown by the episode of the blonde in black in my rental car, was pervasive.
For me his flaws, his sins were dwarfed by his larger witness, and the sacrificial courage he showed facing death threats daily — including the “suicide letter” from the head office of the FBI — until one of them succeeded.
That witness stands, with no need to disguise or dismiss the shortcomings. Is it noteworthy that almost fifty years after his death, there have been to my knowledge, no “women coming forward” in print or other media, to take down his reputation, as, say, Bill Cosby’s or Harvey Weinstein’s has been? Despite the personal and family costs, could there be more to this than meets the judgmental eye?
We’re probably not going to hear much about that in news articles based on the FBI papers released about the JFK assassination. It may be true, I believe it was important; but it isn’t sexy. Or for that matter, even Communist.
— And I can’t forget Florida Governor Rick Scott: he did what it took. So did UF President W. Kent Fuchs; and some others, we’ll get to shortly. [NOTE: Update on shooting arrests below.]
[BTW: I wasn’t in Gainesville, this commentary is based on reports from several respected media who were on the scene, especially: the Orlando Sentinel; the Miami Herald; the Gainesville Sun; and the Washington Post.]
It’s early, but the speech by Richard Spencer at the University of Florida on October 19 could turn out to be an important precedent, and a “teachable moment” for American colleges.
One part of this precedent is that on a 52,000 student campus, the vast majority agreed with leaders of many stripes, and stayed away.
Without an audience, Richard Spencer is just another racist nobody. He’s made a name for himself out of stoking prejudice and he counts on stirring enough emotion to draw crowds and publicity and keep his hateful gig rolling along. There’s only one antidote to this kind of modern-day creep: Don’t make his ruse worth his while. Let him speak, but don’t reward him with your presence. Stay home. Play some Beatles. Imagine.
But we don’t have to imagine: in fact, the auditorium where Spencer spoke was no more than half-full.
Not long ago, over a friendly lunch near a progressive college, I told the story below to a rising young academic.
As he listened, his eyes widened. Then he shook his head, and put down his fork.
“You could never do that now,” he said quietly.
Did I hear regret? Maybe even a touch of apprehension? (Was it: You couldn’t do that now, because “they” wouldn’t let you? Or, “they” (maybe a different “they”) would stop you from doing it, by force if need be?)
I wasn’t surprised at this reaction. Not today. But then, and there, we would have thought it outlandish, even absurd.
“Then” was the fall of 1963; “there” was Colorado State University, or CSU, which was spreading out along the front range of the Rockies, an hour or so north of Denver.
And “we” were Dennis Lone, editor of the Collegian, the campus paper, and me, a budding writer who produced a widely-read, pot-stirring weekly column for his pages.
On a Saturday morning in September, Dennis and I were hanging out in the Collegian office. It was otherwise deserted: the paper didn’t print on weekends.
We were bored. Our social lives were nothing to brag about. The CSU football team was on a record-setting 28-game losing streak. Culturally, CSU was then a backwater, deep in what would one day become “flyover country.”
From a far away Outside World, faint echoes could be heard of civil rights protests and political struggles, but most were shrugged off in what a few of us decried as our “hotbed of apathy.”
I slouched; he smoked. When Dennis, who had been paging through a thick weekend issue of the Rocky Mountain News, said, “Hey, listen to this,” I only half-perked up.
“It looks like James Meredith is coming to Denver.”
I sat up straight. “What?” I said again.
He read a brief notice, announcing that Meredith, who had desegregated the University of Mississippi in September of 1962, was to speak to the Denver chapter of the NAACP.
“Wow, that sounds exciting,” I said.
Meredith’s arrival on the Mississippi campus had set off riots that killed two, and required federal troops to quell. Until he graduated in August 1963, he had federal marshals as constant bodyguards when attending classes.
As Dennis read, I grew wistful. “I wish he was coming to speak here, too,” I said. “But you know this place. . . .”
Dennis looked up. “We could ask him,” he said, with an offhand practicality.
“Could we really?” I said. “How?”
Dennis was a reporter, and he was thinking like one: a former Collegian editor now worked at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. Dennis called him, got an NAACP contact, who gave him an address in Mississippi. But no phone number.
“Oh no,” I fretted, “There’s not enough time to write him a letter.”
Dennis was undaunted. “We could send him a telegram.”
A telegram! I’d never sent one. Didn’t they cost a fortune?
Not really, it turned out, if one kept them brief. And ours was: would he come speak at CSU while he was in Colorado?
I was excited, but still skeptical: A living specimen of that distant Outside World — here, at Apathy State U, up in Backwater County? It seemed very unlikely. But what the hey? The worst he could say was “No.” Worth a shot.
And two days later, Dennis was waving a pale yellow telegram reply in my face: “Meredith says yes!”
That is, James Meredith said “Yes,” he’d be happy to speak at CSU–for $500. (About $4000 in 2017 cash.)
It was a reasonable price. But there was a hitch: we didn’t have it.
But we got past this hurdle: after some pleading, the student legislature reluctantly agreed to underwrite the fee, and we agreed to collect admission of fifty cents each ($4 in 2017 money) to help recover it.
Then Dennis and I shamelessly exercised our media influence to hype the talk: I wrote a column, he published articles, the buzz spread, our hopes were high.
Sure enough: something like 1300 students and faculty filled most of the Student Center’s big ballroom, likely a record. The turnout meant we not only covered Meredith’s fee: the student legislature — to their amazement– actually made a profit.
Further, Meredith’s speech hit the mark. No stemwinder, he didn’t try to compete with Dr. King or other eloquent movement orators. Instead, he calmly told of growing up respectably poor, joining the Air Force, and wanting to use his veteran’s benefits to become the first in his family to attend college, at a state-supported university.
The room was pin-drop quiet as this basically undramatic story unreeled. That’s because, apart from the riots which it evoked, it was very familiar to many of those present: CSU was not an elite school, with generations of legacy admissions. Many listening were likewise among the first in our families to go beyond high school. Veterans’ benefits after World War Two and Korea –and low public college tuitions –played a big part in opening those doors; the same was true for many of the CSU faculty.
So even though Meredith was speaking to a virtually all-white crowd, across unimaginable cultural gaps of slavery and segregation, the basic arc of his aspirations was something many in this CSU audience could relate to at a deep level. The fact that Meredith’s path became a death-defying quest gave it depth without the need for soaring rhetorical flourishes. And among the many who were moved by his words was me.
I was also moved before the speech by an unexpected behind-the-scenes shock: to save on expenses, I had invited Meredith to stay at my fraternity, called FarmHouse. Members were permitted to do this, occasionally, and I hadn’t done it before.
What I had done, though, before I joined FarmHouse, was check its Bylaws, to see if they included discriminatory membership clauses (still common in those days). They didn’t. Their motto, “We Build Men,” was okay too.
Further, in those years FarmHouse regularly won the trophy for the highest grade average of any frat at CSU.
All good. But personal attitudes, unspoken til now, were something else. When word spread around the house about what I had done, I was pulled into an impromptu chapter meeting, and was stunned to hear several members declare that they couldn’t accept having a black person stay in the house. Before I had absorbed these comments, a vote was taken and my invitation to Meredith was overruled.
I staggered out, wondering if I had been teleported to Mississippi, and began writing a resignation letter in my head.
But the next morning, word of this decision had somehow reached the CSU administration. Our chapter president was summoned, and reportedly read the riot act. I don’t know what was said, but expect it went something like this:
“Do you know what will happen when this hits the press? A man who had to have the army escort him into a public university was turned away by a group at CSU? Do you want that spotlight pointed at FarmHouse? And your alma mater? Do you expect us to put up with that?”
The fraternities were private groups, but were chartered by the university; and what CSU gave, CSU could take away.
After lunch that same day, another emergency chapter meeting was convened. The officers told us the house and its reputation were on the line; news of the refusal would be devastating.
Two or three of the hardliners against inviting Meredith stood to agree. They said that “somebody” (sneering in my direction), had snitched to the authorities and betrayed our brotherhood. Now we all had to swallow hard, bite the bullet, and save its good name from the traitor.
Another vote was taken; the invitation was sullenly, reluctantly revived.
Meredith did stay at FarmHouse, without incident. While with him at dinner that evening, I noticed a few absences; no doubt a number of the hard core took shelter elsewhere. But as we left the house for the student center, he never suspected a thing.
No word of this incident leaked out (until now); the FarmHouse reputation was saved. But it ruined my relationships there; I did resign a few months later.
And my conscience was clear. I hadn’t called the administration. My guess was a conscience-stricken officer had done it, or someone else was bragging too loud where somebody outside heard him. Instant karma, even then.
The morning after his speech, Meredith returned to Mississippi; Dennis and I basked in the afterglow of our successful debut as accidental undergraduate impresarios.
A couple of days later, we held an open discussion where students and faculty could talk about what Meredith had to say. Following the meeting, a student came up to us and said, “So you’ve presented one side of the issue. Are you going to present the other?”
Light bulbs appeared above our heads: if we could do this once, why not do it again?
Soon Dennis was back on the phone.
He called the office of Arizona’s Republican Senator, Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was running for president and was an opponent of the civil rights bill then in Congress ; but no dice. I think they figured conservative Colorado was in the bag (if so, they were very mistaken: Lyndon Johnson beat Goldwater by 23 points in his 1964 landslide. But that’s another story.)
However, two pro-segregation insurgents were eager to visit CSU: one was Ross Barnett, at that time the governor of Mississippi who had vowed to keep Meredith out of “Ole Miss”; the other was George Wallace, the sitting governor of Alabama. Both came in January 1964.
By the time Barnett got to CSU, he was out of office, so he traveled on a commercial flight sans retinue. Barnett was fascinating, in a repulsive way: he shouted more than spoke, and in his ranting we could imagine him stumping his mostly rural state, exploiting the fear and rage of a poorly-educated white electorate. But as he finished, I understood much better why it took federal troops to get Meredith enrolled at “Ole Miss,” and a continuous bodyguard detail to keep him alive there.
But Barnett was old news compared to George Wallace who, as a sitting governor, traveled on an Alabama state aircraft with an assortment of aides and bodyguards. Where Barnett voiced the racism of yesteryear, Wallace was preaching an updated racist gospel for 1963–and, we now know, for decades to come. He too was running for president, but as an insurgent Democrat, and would soon be shaking up primaries in seemingly enlightened states like Wisconsin.
Wallace was slick and smart. He fenced deftly and often humorously with our questioning local liberals. His speeches were peppered with attacks on intellectuals and “pinkos,” loud calls to “Send Them a message” about “law and order,” mixed with populist promises of raising Social Security payments. His themes and memes exposed deep veins of rhetorical ore which was to be refined into winning campaign messages by his rightwing populist successors for a half-century to come (and counting). And we got to watch him do it.
After that busy January, Dennis and I were on a roll. We had brought voices from the Outside World into our backwater, and they were stirring the pot, waking us up. Both Barnett and Wallace brought out protest picketers (peaceful), a new thing at CSU. But did putting racist reactionaries like Wallace and Barnett allow them to peddle their political wares, influence students, recruit followers?
Good question. And for sure, the two influenced me. Not to become a supporter; just the opposite. But they, along with Meredith, showed me the reality of forces and ideas that were previously only occasional headlines.
Yet who knows, maybe some among the large crowds we gathered bought into parts or all of their platform. (After all, in 2016, 52 years later, 43 per cent of Colorado’s voters cast ballots for a racist populist, one of George Wallace’s direct heirs. No question: ideas have consequences.)
But after three speeches that had happened almost accidentally, we decided to take a more thoughtful approach. Political and social extremes were becoming more apparent in the country, underscored by the national trauma of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963.
So why not present a series of speeches on the theme of extremism? We had been on both sides of civil rights; what if we next went with a right-wing extremist, followed with a left-wing extremist, and wound up with Attorney General Robert Kennedy talking about the impact of extremism in the country.
(RFK? “Hey,” as Dennis said, “if you’re gonna dream, dream big.”)
We didn’t get Kennedy. And neither of us was particularly political. But like all red-blooded Americans in 1963 and 1964, we knew Communism was The Enemy. So what about a Communist?
Now this, we dimly perceived, could in fact be controversial; while we were vague on the details (I knew nothing of the Hollywood Ten, and little of McCarthyism), we knew that the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover was still warning us that they (or their dupes) were everywhere — even if, in fact, actual Communist speakers often had great difficulty getting a hearing.
Yet we had listened to Wallace and Barnett, and the sky didn’t fall. So why stop now?
But things weren’t quite so easy this time around. Dennis gave it his best shot. But in 1963, after years of hysteria, the American Communist Party barely existed. Its membership had been decimated by years of government persecution and FBI Infiltration. It had also lost credibility with many former members, disillusioned by the party’s unshakably loyalty to the repressive Soviet regime.
The U.S. party leader, Gus Hall, was based in New York. He did give speeches on college campuses, but was an early denizen of “flyover country,” and we failed to tempt him to add a stop in Colorado.
While we worked on finding another suitably notorious Communist, we also set out to get a right-wing spokesman. This one was easier.
What was the most right-wing organization in the country? The Nazi Party, of course. And George Lincoln Rockwell, its flamboyant leader, was only too happy to talk to anyone who would listen. One telegram and he was set to go.
When Rockwell came, we moved to a smaller theater space in the student center, where it was still standing room only. Rockwell’s speech was a bombastic stream of bizarre sociological and anthropological “facts” that added up to, “they’re bad and we’re good.” I remember him saying that there were “breeds of people, just like breeds of dogs.” Dennis and I did not sit on a platform with him, as we had the others; the front row was close enough.
Rockwell caused lots of talk. A few days after his speech, some sociology professors held an open discussion they titled, “Is George Lincoln Rockwell a Closet Homosexual?”
While many dismissed Rockwell as a kind of evil clown, and he was murdered by own of his own in 1967, he remains a cult figure for sectors of the rightwing which are still around.
Meanwhile, after he left we didn’t have any luck booking more speakers.
Which in some ways was a relief; I was a senior, preparing to move on from CSU, and Dennis still had a newspaper to put out. Then one day Dennis got a call at the Collegian office from CSU’s President, William E. Morgan. Morgan, who was genuinely respected by the students and faculty (and by us), told Dennis he had just talked to an alumnus, who referred to our speakers and wanted to know who was going to appear on campus next, Mao Zedong?
Dennis couldn’t resist: “If I thought we could get him,” he said, “I’d send him a telegram today.”
President Morgan said he supported what we had done and still would if we wanted to continue, but wanted us to know that some people outside CSU were taking a dim view of our activities.
He didn’t say anything about our speaker series in public; he didn’t have to. But would Morgan really have stuck with us if we had found a Communist? I believe so, although he would likely have taken some more heat. And as a political appointee, answerable to the state legislature for budgets, it could have gotten difficult for him.
So, given our problems with lining up speakers, the apparent decline in interest among the students, and our own distractions, our series quietly petered out, after what still seems like a pretty good run.
Looking back from half a century-plus, Dennis and I have somewhat different feelings about our season of applying the First Amendment. For Dennis, never one to be burdened by gravitas, it was all a fun adventure, on a par with the time he sent Collegian reporters (including Chuck) to infiltrate the local American Legion stag show and report on which city officials attended. He would have been incredulous if anyone had suggested we couldn’t or shouldn’t bring the speakers.
For me (Chuck) It was also a lot of fun, notwithstanding my frat house ordeal. Yet I also took much of it to heart. And it still seems like something close to what college is supposed to be about, even the difficult parts: hearing and grappling not only with unwelcome and even offensive ideas, but also the people who advocate them.
One more time, I agree with those who say today that speech has consequences: I left CSU after the summer sessions of 1964, and within six months was in jail with Dr. Martin Luther King in Alabama.
“First of all, I pulled some punches with Cuba. Would’ve passed them by completely — the folks there have fer sure suffered enough from the stupid US boycott — but there’s still the official corruption.
And then Florida — which can’t be separated from Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee & Mississippi. First of all, this is the absolute heartland of lynchings; a couple thousand at least, and if you think all that blood doesn’t still cry out like tinnitus in my ears every day, you’re deef as a post.
Next, because I already whacked the Carolinas last year, and NC got enough of the message to elect a Dem guvnor & kinda “repeal” that HB (Hell Bill) Two. It was a start; but that loudmouth Franklin Graham is getting on my last nerve.Continue reading God(DESS) Explains IRMA’S Track→
Politico noted Tuesday the death from cancer of Michael Cromartie, a longtime staffer at the very right-wing but carefully-high-toned Ethics & Public Policy Center (EPPC) in DC.
I knew Cromartie a bit in the ’80s. He & EPPC even tried to recruit me for their efforts to discredit anti-Vietnam protests (in anticipation of defending new US wars).
Perhaps I seemed a good prospect: I could write; I’d been an active antiwar protester, but had also publicly criticized some of the extremists & crazies in the movement; and (not least, for EPPC’s laserlike focus on the Ivies & their ilk) I had attended Harvard Divinity School.
Many Americans of a certain age– who watched the unfolding of the Watergate scandal after the 1972 election, recall it, rightly, as a heroic and spellbinding drama.
In it, unexpected & unlikely champions stepped forth in Washington to snatch truth and the Constitution from the hands of a crooked president and his minions. Two southern Senators, Tennessee Republican Howard Baker and North Carolina Democrat Sam Ervin, aided by dogged special prosecutors, led this successful rescue mission. Continue reading Watergate Reruns, Richard Burr & Other Pipe Dreams→