Communists on Campus

Review: Williamson on Billingsley

William J. Billingsley. Communists on Campus: Race, Politics, and the Public University in Sixties North Carolina. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999. vii + 308 pp. Tables, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8203-2460-4.

Reviewed by Joy Ann Williamson, School of Education, Stanford University.
Published by H-Education (August, 2003)

Civil Rights, Communism, and the Fight for Institutional Control

William Billingsley chronicles a disturbing moment in educational history in his Communists on Campus. In June 1963, the North Carolina legislature enacted a speaker ban to prohibit undesirables from visiting public colleges and corrupting young minds. The legislature passed the ban in the spirit of anti-communism, an attitude not unique to North Carolina after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Legislators believed the ban was both necessary and good, particularly since they did not trust public institutions to police themselves with regard to communist sympathizers. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the flagship public institution in the state and a symbol of liberalism, drew the most fire since the campus appeared to allow anti-American sentiment to ferment. The legislature, campus administration, students, American Legion, and a regional accrediting agency tangled over the ban and its application. Conservative members of the legislature and their allies mustered their forces to defend the ban in the spirit of nationalism and argued that a public institution belonged to all of the citizens in the state, most of whom abhorred communist encroachment on American soil. Liberal-minded students and their allies questioned the applicability and constitutionality of the ban, and tested it by extending invitations to controversial speakers. The campus administration attempted to find a middle ground that would protect the institution's autonomy and academic freedom while not alienating the legislature and damning the campus come appropriations time. The campus won back the right to set speaker policy in 1965, but campus administrators created a new policy that mirrored the nullified statutes relatively closely. Rather than a fight for academic freedom, the administration wanted the right to police the campus and to protect the institution from government interference.

Communism is only one part of Billingsley's story. The author identifies race and racial issues as the underlying force that moved the speaker ban forward. He reminds us that these two large historical forces--the Civil Rights Movement and anticommunist witch hunts--occurred simultaneously. In a former Confederate state, racial issues were always present. Internal state politics, local media, and the growing Civil Rights Movement stirred the pot in the early 1960s. The impending defeat of segregation forced conservative elements in the legislature to look elsewhere for support of the status quo. Angry at the manner in which blacks agitated for civil rights and the Supreme Court's support of the liberal agenda, while stripped of a legal sanction for a racial hierarchy, conservatives turned to anti-communist policies as a way to support their image of a good society. Civil rights and communism were inextricably linked. The presence of white students and faculty, particularly those from Chapel Hill, confirmed their suspicions. The conservative defense of racial segregation was outmoded, but their opposition to communism found political resonance. With communism at center stage, legislators managed to conduct the speaker ban deliberations without mentioning race.

Readers will be disappointed only if they are looking for a case study of Chapel Hill and the Civil Rights Movement. The book offers much more than an institutional history. It is a thorough examination of muddy state politics and the delicate dance public administrators had to perform with the legislature and their own campus constituents. It uses the Chapel Hill campus and the speaker ban as a lens through which to examine broader issues of institutional autonomy and how autonomy is influenced by state and national events, political attitudes, and petty squabbles. One of the most provocative themes is the role played by Jesse Helms as he used the Chapel Hill controversy to catapult himself into the legislature. Billingsley's approach is all the more worthwhile since it offers a different look at the campus tensions of the 1960s, a case study of racial politics, and an example of Southern antipathy toward the Civil Rights Movement. The book can be useful as a classroom resource on issues like academic freedom, the role of public institutions in society, and the Southern strategy to halt racial equality. For students, it is a good example of how to reconstruct a thorny chapter in American history.

I find one issue with the book. It is curious that black colleges are not meaningfully included in a discussion of race, politics, and public institutions, particularly since black students were the agitators that provoked the wrath of legislators. Billingsley states that black student radicalism played a large role in the passage of the speaker ban. He also discusses the fact that only a small number of whites participated in the disruptive protests that unnerved and angered legislators enough to retaliate. The legislature was concerned enough about conditions at the public black campuses to pass what were called Negro bills to quash demonstrations spearheaded by black college students, table a bill that would have made black college students eligible for state grants, and threaten a black college president with financial retribution if student activism was not curtailed. Yet, historically black campuses play a minor role in the book, and there are no black actors in the entire speaker ban controversy. This, rather than a fault of the author, may be the result of the racial reality in North Carolina in the 1960s. Certain activities were not worthy of note until white participants, in this case Chapel Hill students and professors, arrived.

Chapel Hill is not an inappropriate lens through which to examine the collision of civil rights and anticommunist sentiment, but the campus had only a few dedicated individuals active in civil rights protest; and the language of anti-communism, not racial equality, dominated the campus. If racial issues were the precipitating factor in the speaker ban, black campuses and their constituents surely could provide another window onto this particular historical moment and bolster Billingsley's larger arguments. First, black colleges could offer another and more glaring example of the legislature's mission to rein in civil rights activity.

Black students at public colleges in North Carolina inaugurated the sit-in movement that swept the South. The speaker ban surely included students from those campuses and civil rights supporters travelling to those campuses. Also, an examination of black campuses further demonstrates the vulnerability of public institutions. Chapel Hill had important national and regional contacts and a level of prestige unmatched by black public colleges. Yet, it still had to bow to legislative whims. Black colleges, beholden to legislative appropriations in ways different from Chapel Hill, were put in a precarious position since it was their constituents who attacked the discriminatory laws of North Carolina. Billingsley's marriage of race and communism is well done. An examination of black campuses could contribute to his argument.

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