William Aycock had a long and distinguished career at UNC-Chapel Hill, but he will likely be best remembered as a bright shining light in one of North Carolina’s darkest hours.
It was Aycock, as UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor – along with UNC system President Bill Friday – who stood up to a reactionary Democratic legislature when they passed the Speaker Ban Law in 1963.
The stated purpose of the Speaker Ban Law was to prohibit Communists from speaking on state-supported campuses. But its real intent was to lash out against the civil-rights movement.
“The law’s enactment,” wrote historian William Link, “was a defining moment in the history of post-World War II North Carolina.”
Never miss a local story.
There was growing anger in the all-white legislature about the spreading sit-ins and civil rights demonstrations across the state. Many assumed that the social unrest must be the work of the Communists – a notion championed by WRAL commentator Jesse Helms.
The event that precipitated the speaker ban was a demonstration on June 20, 1963, held in front of the Sir Walter Hotel, the city’s premier hotel, where many lawmakers stayed while in Raleigh.
“There was a motley crew in front of the hotel, and motley is what they were because I’m telling you what I saw,’’ recalled Secretary of State Thad Eure, an old-line Democrat, first elected in 1936, who liked to wave the Confederate flag at Carolina football games. (Eure once argued for prohibiting the Moscow Symphony from playing in Chapel Hill because once they had the students enthralled they would reach out and “pour poison in their ears.”)
Genesis of a ban
According to Eure, a lawmaker spotted a white UNC-Chapel Hill professor among the demonstrators and called Friday, the UNC president, to demand that faculty members be barred from such demonstrations, but received no satisfaction.
Word quickly spread around the hotel. Rep. Ned Delamar told Eure the Ohio legislature had just passed a law banning Communists from speaking on state campuses and asked Eure to get a copy. Eure sent a telegram and got a copy by airmail within days – but it turned out it had been introduced but not passed. Eure wrote a North Carolina bill based on the Ohio bill.
The speaker ban was introduced and passed by both chambers within one hour under the suspension of rules on June 25, the last day of the session. No debate, only voice votes.
As soon as they got wind of it, Friday and Aycock tried to head the speaker ban off. But it was too late.
North Carolina would be the only state in the country to pass a speaker ban and the action created a huge amount of controversy. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools threatened to withdraw accreditation to UNC. Professors threatened to leave. Academic conferences boycotted the state.
The first person banned from speaking was internationally renown British geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane (he coined the word “clone” and the idea of test tube babies) who was on a lecture tour of the U.S. Haldane was speaking on a professional subject, but from 1940 to 1949 he had served as chairman of the editorial board of the Daily Worker, the organ of the British Communist Party.
“We are being deprived,” Aycock said, “of the opportunity to learn from visiting scientists who have something worthy to offer us in areas in which we need to catch up. We are in the process of losing our reputation as being a great institution, unafraid of the free flow of ideas.”
In 1965, an invitation to playwright Arthur Miller was canceled because he refused to answer certain questions when he appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Aycock traveled around the state making the intellectual argument of why the speaker ban was a bad law. But it was a tough task, because every night, Helms was on TV talking about how we needed to get rid of Communists.
The legislature amended the Speaker Ban Law in 1965, shifting control of campus speakers back to local trustees. The law was declared unconstitutional by a three-judge federal panel in 1968.
When UNC’s academic freedom was on the the line, Aycock, who died Saturday at age 99, stood tall.