Part 2: Freedom of Speech, Assembly, and Association over the Last Century: An oral history account

This is the second of four installments [1] of Dr. Smith’s lecture [2][3]. To read the first part, click here. For subsequent parts, click here and here.

Norman Thomas: Defender of First Amendment Rights for All

After Eugene Debs died in 1926, Norman Thomas became the leader of the American Socialist Party. Thomas was a man of great compassion, highly respected in non-socialist circles for his personal integrity, wit and knowledge. He had been a Presbyterian minister, but achieved international fame as a socialist, pacifist, and six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America. Before World War I he had been secretary of the leading American pacifist organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and became one of the founders of the National Civil Liberties Bureau, the precursor of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Thomas was a stanch and uncompromising defender of free speech in the 1930s and 40s. The ACLU split on its support for Franklin Roosevelt’s 1942 Executive Order for the internment of over 100,000 American citizens of Japanese descent in POW camps. Norman Thomas vigorously opposed the majority ACLU support for this policy. In fact, he nearly severed his long-standing affiliation with the ACLU over its failure to challenge forced deportations and Japanese conscription. By working within the organization, however, he was able to assist the ACLU chapter in California which had voted against the majority in the internal split. The California Chapter pursued the defense of many who had been sent to camps.[4]

Thomas was a very impressive speaker: tall, articulate, quick, and very knowledgeable about current events and trends. Initially, he had opposed our entry into World War II. After Pearl Harbor he supported the war effort, but served as an independent critical voice of the policy of “unconditional surrender” believing that it ill prepared us for peace.[5] I also supported the war, but was rejected for active service in early 1945 because of inadequate vision. I was called up for a second physical, and classification review, in August 1945. During my examination at Leavenworth on August 6, we received the news that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima.

The atmosphere was hushed with the fear and uncertainties of a new era of unimaginable destruction.

After World War II, Thomas traveled, spoke, and campaigned continuously to create the United Nations. He made the news often as a peacenik and antiwar protester. In 1968 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, “for being the principal leader and spokesperson of the peace movement in the United States.”[6] He did not win; he had formidable competitors like my Caltech teacher, Linus Pauling, the only person ever to win two undivided Nobel prizes—chemistry and peace

Wichita Civil Rights Activism in the 1940s

I am unable to pinpoint exact dates, but while still living in Wichita sometime in the mid-1940s, along with my mother, I became active in CORE, originally founded by James Farmer and Chicago divinity student George Houser, as the Committee of Racial Equality. Later the name was changed to Congress of Racial Equality. CORE pioneered the use of nonviolent confrontation of particular acts of racial discrimination.[7] Many of its early members were also active in the Fellowship of Reconciliation. This was a decade before the Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), and two decades before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Let me digress to say something about labels. In my day the polite but implicitly degrading language for African Americans was “Negroes” or “Colored.” In the 1960s and 70s I learned from the young blacks in revolt why this was intolerable. They asked, in effect: “If we are Negroes, why are you ‘Whites’ and not ‘Caucasians’? No way will we comply; if you’re gonna be whites, we’re gonna be blacks.” And so they adopted the proud, in-your-face label, “blacks,” and I still use their word—a word of honor, not disgrace.

Bear in mind that the ancestors of all of us in this room walked out of Africa some 60,000 years ago in the first great globalization movement. Be assured, those ancestors were black, with skin color adapting to northern climates where white skin ramped up the production of essential vitamin D. Literally, we are all brothers and sisters under the skin. Moreover, the newest science findings support the claim that much of the adaptation has occurred only in the last 8000 years.[8]

Our Wichita strategy for change was to confront segregation against blacks by forming a mixed group of three to five people and attempting to buy tickets for the main auditorium of a movie theater. In those days there was no way that blacks could sit anywhere except in the balcony of a theater. Ralph Bunche, long active as a distinguished United Nations special representative, Palestine negotiator, and winner of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize, could not have been seated downstairs in Wichita’s Orpheum Theater; nor could he have bought a sandwich in a downtown restaurant. Moreover, these practices were in direct violation of the Kansas State Constitution, which had prohibited slavery; Kansas entered the union as an “equal rights” state, guaranteeing liberty of religious beliefs, assembly, speech and press for all.

As CORE members, my mother and I, and a few locals were out to challenge a practice that was in wholesale violation of the state constitution. But we had a serious organizational problem from which I would learn a great deal: Black people were not comfortable in joining this protest. In fact we had two friends of the family who exhausted the set of blacks we could identify who were willing to take a public stand. We challenged several theaters; there were no arrests or police interference, because the practice was not enforceable. But we did not change the practice. The attempt failed to effect meaningful change for another two decades, however righteous we might have thought that we were. But the scattered protests helped lead the movement that brought forth Brown vs Topeka, strengthened new sit-in efforts in the 1950s, and The Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Eventually, of course, the overt forms of such practices receded—at least in their most blatant and undisguised form—but out of that experience, and subsequent historical developments, I learned the futility of trying to change the social mistreatment of a group without that group’s willingness to make it abundantly clear they would no longer tolerate the abuse, and to actively participate in changing it.[9] It was the Watts Riot in 1965, I believe, that symbolized and affected lasting change in America, and not only Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964. This is speculative, but I also believe that Watts was more effective because the earlier movements were rigorously disciplined non-violent protests; otherwise the movement could have been crushed, as in the South. Brown vs Topeka, and the 1964 Act surely were consequences of some attitude change, but these judicial and legislatives actions were not sufficient to change on-the-ground practices any more than had the Kansas Constitution, which had been in force far longer. As I see it, change came when defiant blacks, willing to express their discontent openly, replaced the “Uncle Toms”.


[1] This is the transcript of a keynote address delivered at a “Free Speech on Campus” conference on February 25, 2017 on the campus of Chapman University. The conference was sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies and the Federalist Society.

[2] Dr. Vernon L. Smith was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 for his groundbreaking work in experimental economics. He is George L. Argyros Endowed Chair in Finance and Economics and Professor of Economics and Law at The George L. Argyros School of Business and Economics and the Dale E. Fowler School of Law at Chapman University. Dr. Smith has authored or co-authored more than 300 articles and books on capital theory, finance, natural resource economics and experimental economics.

[3] The first draft of this account was written largely from memory, and includes some text from my book now in manuscript form, Narratives of Discovery. I have since searched for documentation to confirm or edit and buttress this report. No one else from the early era discussed here, still alive and known to me, exists. The motivation for preparing this draft was entirely due to the invitation from the Institute for Human Studies to prepare a keynote address for this conference. I am very much in debt to the IHS for the existence of this account.

[4] “During the war, Thomas defended the rights of Japanese-Americans and conscientious objectors. He considered the internment of Japanese-Americans to be one of the most egregious violations of civil liberties ever committed by the American government. Thomas received first-hand reports on conditions in the detention camps from Sam Hohri and other internees. He also corresponded with Hugh Macbeth and Ann Ray of the Northern California Civil Liberties Union, Caleb Foote of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, members of the California State Race Relations Commission and the Japanese-American Citizens League. Conscientious objectors Howard Penley, Arthur Billings, and Herman Benson kept him posted on their hearings, trials, and appeals, while others wrote to him from Civilian Public Service Camps. He also corresponded with many organizations aiding conscientious objectors, including the American Friends Service Committee and the Legal Service to Conscientious Objectors.” (“Norman Thomas papers

1904-1967,” The New York Public Library Archives & Manuscripts.)

[5] “Beginning in 1942, much of Thomas’ correspondence is written on behalf of the Post War World Council. He discussed peace plans, the treatment of defeated Axis nations, the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia, the fate of Yugoslav dissidents, and the political situation around the world with Ely Culbertson, Christopher Emmet, and his many friends stationed overseas.” (“Norman Thomas papers 1904-1967,” The New York Public Library Archives & Manuscripts.)

[6] Thomas’s clear-eyed understanding of the meaning of the first amendment is nowhere better illustrated than his resolutely anti-communist stand, while constantly defending their civil liberties: “Thomas was concerned with the two-fold need to check the spread of communism at home and abroad while defending civil liberties. To this end he joined the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. His correspondence includes exchanges with fellow members James T. Farrell, Richard Rovere, Sidney Hook, and Sol Stein. There is also correspondence with other anti-communist organizations such as the American Friends of Russian Freedom, the American Committee for Liberation from Bolshevism, American Aid to Victims of Communism, and the Council Against Communist Aggression, headed by former Socialist Party Secretary Arthur G. McDowell.

There is also considerable correspondence from Socialists and former Socialists who came under attack during the period of anti-communist hysteria. When necessary, Thomas sent out affidavits attesting to their loyalty and the innocent nature of the organizations to which they had belonged. Correspondents include Milwaukee mayor Frank Zeidler, Travers Clement, Tucker Smith, Walter Bergman, and many socialists purged from government service.

Thomas was also heavily involved in opposition to Congressional initiatives seeking to prohibit the Communist Party, deport foreign-born left-wing activists, and prevent the immigration of individuals not believing in the free enterprise system.” (“Norman Thomas papers 1904-1967,” The New York Public Library Archives & Manuscripts.) .

[7] CORE is credited with the first successful “sit-in” protest of Chicago lunch counter racial discrimination:

“One day in 1942, a young black man named James Farmer walked into a coffee shop at 47th Street and Kimbark Avenue to buy a donut. But the Jack Spratt…counterman’s habit was to make African Americans wait; then he attempted to charge them a dollar for a donut that cost white people a nickel. What the counterman didn’t know was that Farmer, a recent graduate of the Howard University School of Religion, had been studying the philosophies and practices of Mahatma Gandhi…Farmer came back with his friends and filled up the restaurant, demanding to be served. The manager called the police and asked to have them thrown out. But the police said there was nothing they could do. The coffee shop ultimately relented and served them, and Farmer and friends returned several times just to be sure they got the message…Farmer was able to change the way Jack Spratt did business – almost twenty years before the famed lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights era focused the nation’s attention on racial discrimination. (http://interactive.wttw.com/timemachine/jack-spratt-coffee-shop-sit)

[8] “When it comes to skin color, the team found a patchwork of evolution in different places, and three separate genes that produce light skin, telling a complex story for how European’s skin evolved to be much lighter during the past 8000 years.” (http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/04/how-europeans-evolved-white-skin)

[9] In my search of the 1940s, I am unable to find any news or organizational documentation of the mid-1940s Wichita “sit-ins”, but protest events do appear in searches for the 1950s. The later effort was supported by the Wichita NAACP Youth Council but not the National NAACP, which illustrates my point in the text that CORE was the more aggressive representative of black self-determinism.

“Students began organizing sit-ins in Wichita in 1956 with the attempt to desegregate movie theatres and lunch counters that had previously been ‘whites only.’ Although these early sit-ins failed, they laid the groundwork for the Dockum’s Drug Store sit-in in 1958, which academics later recognized as the first successful sit-in of the civil rights movement.

“In June of 1956, the Wichita National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council began planning a sustained sit-in at Dockum’s Drug Store with the goal of being served at the “whites only” lunch counter.

“Before the sit-in began, the students recruited others from the local high school and university to ensure they could fill all of the seats at the counter on a rotating basis. In addition, they held training sessions in the basement of a local church during which they role-played to anticipate possible harassment or other potentially dangerous situations.

“However, a couple of days before the planned start of the sit-ins, the students received a telegram from the NAACP national headquarters informing them that the NAACP did not support the tactic of a sit-in and, consequently, could not support them legally or otherwise.”

The protest nevertheless proceeded according to local plans.

“On August 11, 1958, 23 days after the first day of the sit-in, the storeowner acquiesced to the students’ demands and ordered the manager to serve them, citing the financial burden the sit-in caused as the reason…The integration of Dockum’s occurred without reported problems and there is no evidence that Dockum’s suffered financially from the integration.”

See http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/wichita-students-sit-us-civil-rights-1958

“Following their success, the NAACP Youth Council organized additional sit-ins targeted at other local drugstores and quickly desegregated many of the lunch counters throughout Wichita and inspired other students to use the same tactics in other Kansas cities. Outside of Kansas, the NAACPs adopted the sit-in as a tactic in the civil rights movement and this led to the desegregation of lunch counters in multiple states.”

See the global Nonviolent Action Database at http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/wichita-students-sit-us-civil-rights-1958

 

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