Commentary

Saunders: 50 years ago, Speaker Ban Law showed state’s fear of change

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJuly 1, 2013 

Jesse Helms, speaking

Senator Jesse Helms speaks to a meeting of the N.C. Broadcasters Association at the North Raleigh Hilton on Nov. 3, 1997.

SCOTT SHARPE — 1997 News & Observer File photo - Scott Sharpe

“Why build a zoo? Just put a fence around Chapel Hill.”

The late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms didn’t actually say that. (Even though it’s frequently attributed to him, one of his pals did.)

It’s too bad Jesse didn’t give us that bon mot, because it’s a great quote that would’ve added to his legend..

Even though he didn’t say it, there is evidence he wasn’t averse to putting a legislative fence around the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – to keep out the commies and rabble-rousers.

Fifty years ago last week – June 25, 1963 – the Democratic Party-controlled legislature borrowed a page from the Politburo and voted to prohibit anyone who criticized the government from speaking at state-supported colleges and universities. Some people think it was taking its marching orders from Helms – the conservative icon-in-training was then an incendiary WRAL-TV commentator who had praised such a ban on-air.

Fear of change

From interviews with people who lived through it and with historians – and from perusing state archives and newspaper clippings of the period – it’s clear that North Carolina in the early to mid-1960s was gripped by a fear of change.

Perry Deane Young was a 22-year-old reporter for United Press International that night 50 years ago when the Speaker Ban Law was approved. He was preparing to file a run-of-the-mill story after a relatively uneventful night. The day before, he said, the legislature had passed a law censoring public television.

Yikes. Big Bird hadn’t even been hatched in 1963, yet PBS was already a whipping boy.

“Nothing was supposed to happen” that night, Young recalled of the Speaker Ban Law. “It was the next-to-last thing. They were just supposed to adjourn. Suddenly these guys asked for a suspension of the rules and introduced a bill not only to ban certain speakers” but to ban from speaking at state schools anyone who had ever refused to take a loyalty oath or had pleaded the 5th.

Outraged journalist

Despite some opposition, the bill passed on a “voice vote,” Young said, and was gaveled into law by state Senate President T. Clarence Stone, who countenanced no dissent.

“With pious outrage,” Young told me, “I rushed down to the press room” and banged out a story for UPI. What his story lacked in objectivity, it made up in passion.

“Reactionaries in the North Carolina General Assembly have ramrodded another censorship bill into law,” was the first sentence of his story, he said.

“WRAL was UPI’s biggest client, and by some weird fluke, Jesse just happened to be there reading the wire” when Young’s story came across.

Helms called Young’s boss’s boss in New York “and demanded that I be fired,” he remembered.

The story was killed, and Young’s editor, Bob McNeil, dutifully gave him the requisite chewing out, Young said, “but the next day he gave me a commendation. He agreed that they were reactionaries.”

Because of the speaker ban, one could assume that pinko commie flag-burners were falling over themselves to ascend the nearest podium and corrupt the minds of students. There at least was a “red scare” such as existed a decade earlier, right?

Not exactly, Young said. “I think you’d call it a ‘black scare,’ because this was the period of the Civil Rights Movement. Everybody misunderstands the speaker ban. It had nothing whatsoever to do with speakers or communists. That’s what’s so hilarious. That was probably the one time there were no communist speakers on (UNC’s) campus.”

Robert Spearman, a Raleigh attorney who served as vice president and president of the UNC student body during much of the ban, agreed. After the ban was put into effect, Spearman said, his successor “said they were looking for a communist but didn’t know where to find one. There were virtually no communist speakers” on campus.

‘Retribution’

“That shows you it was purely a slap back at Bill Friday and the university,” Young said, “because he would not fire two teachers who had been involved in the Civil Rights Movement.”

Darn. Just when I thought my respect for Friday, the late president of the UNC system, couldn’t grow any stronger, I find out I was wrong.

More than a slap at Friday, Mike Hill said, the ban was meant “as retribution against students in Chapel Hill who were protesting for civil rights.”

Hill, research branch supervisor for the N.C. Office of Archives & History, said students in 1963 “were thronging the legislature and the Sir Walter Hotel, where most legislators lived. They were sitting in the lobby, blocking doors, and the legislators got their backs up. They knew it was students from Chapel Hill.”

How’d they know that? I asked.

“Oh, they made that clear. Their hair, their signs. ... This was the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, and they were also involved in protests around Chapel Hill, sitting in at restaurants, that kind of thing.”

Duke’s protest

Students at UNC may have been at the forefront, but Duke University earned government opprobrium, too. When law professor William Van Alstyne wrote a letter protesting the ban, Ralph Moody, deputy Attorney General, asked why Duke, a private institution, was concerned because the ban didn’t affect it.

Moody, you see, had proposed that, even if the ban were deemed unconstitutional, the legislature still controlled the purse strings and could simply refuse to fund appearances by speakers it considered dangerous. Holy mackerel.

Van Alstyne, representing the American Association of University Professors, objected in a 1965 memo to the commission studying the speaker law, and the deputy attorney general responded with his own letter.

“We are somewhat at a loss to understand the interest of Duke University in this matter,” Moody wrote. “One wonders whether the original founders … or the members of the Duke family, who derived their fortune from private enterprise, would be interested in hardcore communists speaking on the campus.”

In other words, the deputy A.G. was telling that august institution, “y’all mind your own bidness over there in Durham.”

Van Alstyne, who is now a law prof at William & Mary, probably knew that if the ban at UNC remained, the legislators would eventually set their sights on private institutions.

If, as Young said, there were no commies on UNC’s campus prior to the ban, they eventually found some: Hill said the students began inviting left-leaning speakers, some of whom were avowed communists, even though they had to speak from the Franklin Street sidewalk to students massed on campus.

Young, author of several books, later worked for UPI in New York and covered the war in Vietnam for UPI. He now lives in Chapel Hill.

“I’ve been going over there for the ‘Moral Monday’ things, and I was trying to tell someone about when that (legislative) building first opened” in 1963, he said. “On Monday nights, the Civil Rights demonstrators would completely encircle it and just overwhelm anything going on inside ... singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘Whose Side Are You On?’

“You know, the rednecks on the inside would just pretend that nothing was going on.”

Young said that in some respects, “things are worse now, because the extremists have taken over.”

“It’s not just a couple of back-benchers. They’re the people who are running the show,” he said. “Before, these people were always kept in check by the leadership, but now it seems that the inmates have taken over the asylum.”

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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