Part 3: Freedom of Speech, Assembly, and Association over the Last Century: An oral history account

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

Living Daily with Civil Rights Challenges at KU, circa 1949-1952

My Caltech undergraduate years were not very activist, as I had lots of high priority studying to do. But in 1948 we did mount a protest of President Truman’s Executive Proclamation re-activating the military draft.

After graduation in 1949, I went to the University of Kansas, where I lived in the Rock Chalk Co-op House. KU was unusual in having many student co-op houses for both undergraduates and graduates. It was inexpensive ($35 per month for room, board, utilities, and laundry facilities), and attracted blue-collar students with little means; also with little love for the sororities and fraternities, and a taste for radical politics. The co-ops provided me with the social life I had had little time for at Caltech.

The co-op house movement had originated in the 1920s, when a local Unitarian bequeathed her residence to the Lawrence Unitarian Church to be dedicated for the use of working women of modest means.[4] Only later did it become a house for off-campus students. It was never University property nor could that have been possible under Unitarian sponsorship because campus housing at the university was to be occupied—listen to this— solely by members “of the Caucasian race.” That may be shocking to you, but 60 years ago no Black, Asian or Hispanic students at KU could live in university housing.

By the time I arrived, KU co-op housing had evolved into five separate off-campus private facilities.[5] All but one was interracial, and we called it the poor girls Phi-Chi—our freedom of speech could often be offensive. A characteristic mark of the self-righteous is the routine use of words that offend others.

The Rock Chalk was typical of Co-op House organization. An elected committee assigned 17 house members to meal preparation, and to clean-up crews, in teams. By trading our initial assignments, individuals were able to adapt to their class schedules, tastes, and temperaments.

We were interracial because this was routine practice in the lives of all of us as individuals, and we infused these organizations with that principle. The co-ops had several Mexican and Black members. We had no quotas and no special acceptance criteria. Everyone who applied was accepted. Blacks and Hispanics were no part of the social mainstream at KU, and were not involved in football, basketball or other KU sports. Of course, there were plenty of great black players in those days, and had been for years, but in basketball they played for the Harlem Globetrotters; in baseball it was the Kansas City Monarchs who sported the great black pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige.[6]

In fact, racial discrimination and segregation were common and accepted everywhere in Lawrence: at the University, in housing, and in ways that I am sure only blacks could really speak to from intimate personal experience. That was the autumn of 1949 and the spring of 1950, four years before Brown vs Topeka and 14 to 15 years before the Civil Rights Act and the Watts Riot.

I used to go to a black bar, the Green Lantern, in North Lawrence, with my black housemate. What made it interesting was that I felt very welcome there, and it was a joyful place that literally rocked in cadence with the jukebox music. But I tried to go in once, unaccompanied by my friend, and the owner politely said that he could not allow me entrance; he could not be responsible for me, unless my friend was with me. I accepted his decision, but I felt the arbitrariness of discrimination. I wanted what could not be: to feel at home and accepted—without a chaperone—in the wonderfully unique Green Lantern. So I walked about three blocks northeast to The Tampico, a Mexican bar where my black friend would never have been able to enter with anyone, even Benny Sanchez, another housemate. I was accepted alone, with whites, or with Benny at the Tampico. Hispanics and blacks denied each other the social opportunity to mix, although I could mix with either and get away with it in the right company. I never understood this phenomenon, although there is no shortage of attempts to explain it. As a honky, I could bridge the racial divide between Hispanic and Black, by moving back and forth across the weaker White/Black and White/Hispanic barriers. And I enjoyed being in that position. If you wanted to learn about life, circa 1949 to 1952, in Lawrence, Kansas, you developed a taste for beer and hit the offbeat segregated bars.

After the first year at KU, I was married; we started the married couple’s co-op and I moved in. The co-op houses had no problems with the university, who not only let us be, but university housing used the co-ops to solve problems created by their exclusion policy. Our problems were with some of our house neighbors, not KU. Let me explain. KU had a young black girl apply who was blind. She needed to live near the campus. KU housing asked those of us living in the married couple’s co-op if we would take her. We held a meeting, and it was a unanimous “Yes”. Moreover, knowing that she was even poorer than we were, we decided to absorb her cost and give her a scholarship.

No one understands the poor better than the poor.

So Beulah moved in. Soon thereafter, because our third floor was not yet occupied, we agreed to let the Graduate Girls’ (sorry, but I intend here to use the unwashed language and titles of the day) Co-op merge with us. One member was black. So one day our neighbor intercepted me and said: “I understand why you took the blind one, but why that other one?” You had to control your anger to live in an atmosphere permeated by this attitude.[7] But most of our neighbors were silent, even if disapproving.

The anti-war co-op house sentiment at KU brought me in close friendship with Bruce, who had been a conscientious objector in World War II. Because Bruce’s pacifism had no religious basis he did not qualify for alternative service, and was incarcerated in McNeil Island Federal prison, known euphemistically as a correction center—Bruce did not feel that he needed correction so much as did the human race!

I received a letter from Bruce dated January 3, 2004, 51 years after I last saw him in Lawrence. He was still supporting peace causes: “I just returned from the 30th [sic: it was the 60th] anniversary of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee at the Japanese American National Museum in L.A. I was in McNeil Island Federal Prison when they brought in 33 of the young men who refused to change from 4C [classification] enemy aliens to 1A [in the] draft until [the] government restored their civil rights and allowed their families to leave [the] Concentration Camp.”

The Rand Corporation, 1957-8; Surviving a Colorful FBI Investigation

In 1957, as a young assistant professor at Purdue, I was invited to work as a summer consultant at the Rand Corporation. This required me to file a background history registration form, in which I articulated all my earlier activist racial and political history. Normally, a summer consultant was given a low-level “confidential clearance” after a routine credit check, provided there was nothing incriminating on your application. Of course my application had red flags all over it dating back to age 16 and earlier. Consequently, the clearance process required a complete background investigation by the FBI. This turned out to have some of the flavor of a Keystone Cops comedy. It is worth a briefing, because it is a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story that characterized the times, and still does with security cases.

The Rand Corporation always had several hires who were awaiting clearance. So Rand leased office space in downtown Santa Monica for employees who were not yet security-clean. I waited the entire summer, working on non-classified problems. Space in the building where I was sequestered was also leased to other users. Next to my office, on the other side of the wall next to my desk, was located the Santa Monica office of the FBI. Moreover, the walls were not very thick, and immediately on the other side was someone frequently on the telephone, and I could hear everything he said. So here I am, age 30, able to eavesdrop on the FBI in Santa Monica, while other FBI agents were back in Wichita checking to see how subversive I had been at age 16. I didn’t bother eavesdropping for the simple reason that none of the conversation was the least bit interesting, and I had work to do to earn my summer salary.

At the end of the summer I returned to Purdue. It was a clear, mild, autumn day with the office windows open. I heard my colleague in the next office greet a visitor, who introduced himself. He identified himself as an FBI agent, and he wanted to ask my colleague what he knew about Vernon Smith! And there I sat within ear-shot of the interview. So much for the government’s security investigation of me in my only direct experience of any such grave and serious matter. It’s not the sort of narrative you get from watching British or American spy-catcher thrillers. I hope the British are a little more circumspect.

That investigational process ultimately ended, and resulted in me receiving not a mere confidential, but a Secret clearance. By that time I was no longer active at Rand. I wonder how many countries so easily enable citizens to overcome their earlier politically unpopular stances. What a fortunate advantage I had to be born in this country, with all its warts, fumbles, and foibles, but free to think, live, choose, and speak; to learn and to correct my own misguided early socialist beliefs without subsequent prejudice.


[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] This history is recorded at http://kuhistory.com/articles/unitarian-utilitarianism/

[5] A historical account of KU Co-ops is published in McElhenie, Fred (2006) Making Do and Getting Through: KU Co-ops, Halls and Houses, 1919-1966, Lawrence, Kansas: Historic Mount Oread Fund. I use this source to confirm what I have written, but it largely concerns earlier and later groups that were not part of the community of co-ops that I have written about, and that were founded on racial non-discrimination. In particular the book refers to the Rockchalk, Hill, Don Henry, Graduate Girl’s, Couples, and Henley co-op houses or groups.

[6] His famous quotes, easily outscore Yogi Berra: “Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common.” And “My pitching philosophy is simple–keep the ball away from the bat.” Again, “Throw strikes. Home plate don’t move.” Another gem, “I never threw an illegal pitch. The trouble is, once in a while I toss one that ain’t never been seen by this generation.”

[7] Eventually, the neighbor sued one of our members twice. The first time for harboring a barking dog—not guilty. Subsequently, the neighbor provoked the same housemate into taking a swing at him. The judge necessarily found the housemate guilty but suspended sentence after many people testified that the guy was a neighborhood pest for everyone, including the police.  

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