I happened to stumble on some old Arkansas Traveler newspapers a few months ago and among them were several papers about a controversy that arose in February 1969 about the scheduling of Muhammad Ali to speak at the University of Arkansas Symposium '69, a student-run lecture series. I recalled that I was an amused spectator and peripheral participant in the events attending the controversy, but did not remember the details or the outcome of the kerfuffle.
I decided to revisit the controversy by reviewing newspaper articles about it in the Arkansas Gazette, Arkansas Democrat, and Arkansas Traveler newspapers. I have written a longer account of the elements of the controversy that I have posted on Scribd. Here I will provide an abbreviated (but still long) version of the story. (The scribd link is as follows: http://www.scribd.com/doc/122793691/Arkansas-State-Senators-Mutt-Jones-Milt-Earnhart-and-Dan-Sprick-take-on-Muhammad-Ali-The-Symposium-69-Controversy )
The Controversy Begins
The controversy stated soon after a story was published on February 13, 1969 in the Arkansas Gazette providing information on the lineup of speakers for Symposium '69. In roughly a month, six senators, an NBC newspaper reporter, a NASA scientist, a civil rights activist, and former heavy weight champion Muhammad Ali were scheduled to appear on the UA campus..
Ali was available to speak at UA because he was no longer
allowed to fight professionally and was making a living by lecturing on college
campuses. He told a reporter that he was
scheduled in 1969 to speak at 64 universities including Harvard, Yale,
Princeton, Notre Dame, and UCLA (Arkansas
Democrat, March 10, 1969, p. 2A).
Opposition to Ali’s UA speech surfaced in articles
published on February 20th in the Arkansas Democrat and on February 21st in the Arkansas Gazette. These articles
described an exchange of letters by the Pulaski Businessmen’s Association of
Little Rock and UA president David Mullins. The Association’s letter asked
Mullins to “take immediate action to prevent Clay or any un-American activity
to reach our campus.” Mullins had responded by refusing to take the requested
action. Mullins wrote, “previous experience with Symposium speakers has
indicated the capacity of students to evaluate and place in proper perspective
the expressions and viewpoints of any speaker...” He continued, “The
presentation of divergent viewpoints is one of the recognized functions of the
Mullins stance won him a favorable editorial in the Arkansas Gazette (“Bravo, Dr. Mullins”) on the following day. The Gazette suggested that Ali had much in common with George Wallace in that
both “have big mouths, are ex-boxers, and both are radicals, each in his own
way even if Ali is essentially a comic figure while Wallace is inherently an
evil, malevolent man.” The editorial suggested that exposure to such figures as
Ali and Wallace “is a consequential help in getting a solid education.”
|Arkansas Gazette, Feb. 21, 1969 p. 1B|
Other criticisms of the Association's letter appeared in Gazette stories. The leaders of a group of Pulaski County civil rights groups called it "racist." The Arkansas Chapter of the ACLU said “the Little Rock businessmen do not understand the concept of free speech
in a free society and that the freedom of all men is best served by insisting
on full respect for the First Amendment.”
Milt Earnhart Proposes a State Senate Resolution
A few days later, on February 25, state Senator Milt Earnhart of Fort Smith introduced a
resolution in the State Senate to condemn Ali’s upcoming appearance at the
University of Arkansas. Earnhart had served in the state House of Representatives
from 1958 through 1967, then had been elected to the state senate in 1968. One of his campaign cards listed among his
qualifications his introduction of a law to outlaw the communist party.
This resolution came to the Senate floor on February 28. It did not go through unchallenged. Debate
of the resolution, according to the Gazette,
was “one of the lustiest oratorical exhibitions of the session.” (Arkansas Gazette, March 1, 1969, p. 11A)
After Earnhart stated objections to Ali’s appearance because he was a draft
dodger and had nothing of value to tell students, state Senator W. D. Moore of El Dorado stood
up to argue that the resolution opposed the concept of free speech. He told the
Senate: “I detest Cassius Clay as an individual…but students had the right to
expose themselves to Clay’s thought.” He said it was wrong to graduate students
from the University without allowing them to be exposed to both sides of
questions. He asserted that the Senate would be doing an injustice if it caused
cancellation of Clay’s speech.
Moore’s arguments were rebuked, according to the
Gazette story, in a series of
“stormy anti-Communist speeches by Guy H. (Mutt) Jones, Dan T. Sprick, and
Melvin T. Chambers.” Included in the speeches were calls to insure that students
were “imbued with ample doses of patriotism.”
Moore engaged both Jones and Sprick to ask each a similar
question: “Are you saying indoctrination by the Russia is wrong but that
indoctrination by the University of Arkansas would be right?”
|Arkansas Gazette, March 1, 1969|
According to the Gazette, the conversation with Sprick continued
“Are we indoctrinating them?”
“You are not letting them hear the
other side,” Moore said and Sprick replied that there was only one side.
“You’ve answered my question,”
Moore said. “There is no side but yours.”
As part of his speech, Sen. Sprick said he was ready to go
to Vietnam immediately to fight, if Pres. Nixon summoned him and “I wouldn’t
have a hunger strike.” Moore replied that he had two sons in the armed services
and a third in officer training. He observed, “They don’t think they have a
patent on patriotism.”
Sen. Sprick condemned UA President Mullins for approving
Clay’s appearance, saying “He’s running a college up there and doesn’t have
anything to say about it, and he’s mealy mouthed anyway.”
In addition to Sen. Moore, two other state senators spoke
against the resolution. One was the only Republican in the state Senate, Sen.
Jim Caldwell of Rogers, a Church of Christ minister. The other was Sen. Clifton
Wade of Fayetteville, who represented the county in which UA is located. In one
exchange, Sen. Chambers asked Sen. Wade if he realized that riots always follow
such college appearances. Wade said that was incorrect.
A voice vote was taken on the resolution and, according to
the Gazette, “a chorus of votes was
heard against it.” The presiding officer, Lt. Governor Maurice Britt, a
Republican, ruled that it passed. The 35-member state senate that passed the
resolution had one woman and no black members. Thirty-three of its members were
white, male Democrats, including two “Mutts,” a “Chubby,” and a “Buddy.”
The following day, a Gazette
editorial praised the debate for showing “that some senators have grown weary
of putting the Senate’s stamp on every demagogic declaration that one of their
number may introduce, whether out of its own ignorance or simply in a play to
the peanut gallery.” It continued:
Senators Moore, Wade, and Caldwell
argued this most elemental case for academic freedom beautifully. About all we
would add is to remark anew the strange sense of insecurity that moves members
of the legislature to oppose letting students hear someone ilke Cassius Clay.
What on earth or in heaven are they afraid of? (Arkansas Gazette, March 1, 1969, p. 4A)
Senator Earnhart Writes a Letter and George Lease Replies
After the Senate resolution passed, a few letters about the controversy -- all but one pro-Ali -- were published in the Gazette and Democrat. Also, apparently some local veterans and civic organizations in different Arkansas cities passed resolutions against Ali's speech. However, it is not clear what most Arkansas thought -- if anything -- about the planned speech.
The Ali matter gained some more visibility on the UA campus
on March 12, the day of the speech when two letters about it were published in
the Arkansas Traveler. One letter,
from Sen. Milt Earnhart, was a response to a letter that had been sent by a
group to students to Sen. Earnhart after he had introduced his anti-Ali
resolution. These students, from Fort Smith, wrote to oppose the resolution. He
addressed his reply to George Lease, the elected president of the student
government who grew up in Fort Smith, even though Lease had not signed it.
|Arkansas Traveler, Feb. 28, 1969|
In his letter, Earnhart suggested that
communists were behind "Clay" and his actions. He wrote: "We are
at a point now, where we must fight Communism everywhere it is detected, and if
you believe a character like Clay is not encouraged by Communists, you would be
more naive than I believe you are!" He asserted the issue was not about
"freedom of speech," but about good taste
Lease responded to Earnhart’s letter by sharply rebuking him
for sending a copy of the letter to Lease’s ailing mother even though he,
Lease, was 22 years old and self-supporting. He asked Earnhart if he sent
copies of letters to the parents of everyone with whom he corresponded.
In a deft move, Lease refused to respond the Earnhart’s
assertions, instead inviting him to speak, along with other state senators, at
a special session of Symposium ‘69. He proposed dates for the appearance and
offered to pay expenses and an appropriate honorarium.
(The texts of the letters are presented in appendix 1 of the full article posted on Scribd.)
The Speeches Are Made
Muhammad Ali and Floyd McKissick made their speeches as
scheduled on the evening of March 12th to a full house at the
Barnhill Field House. The crowd was about 4,000 people, including several
hundred blacks, the largest attendance at a Symposium ’69 event.
In his speech, Ali discussed Nation of Islam doctrine,
strongly advocating non-violence and the separation of the races. He told the students,
“…by nature the two races cannot live together. People, like animals, like to
He explained that the Nation of Islam wants “full and
complete freedom to establish a separate state or territory on this continent
or elsewhere….The land, which must be fertile and minerally rich, should be
supplied by the former slave owners of the United States – the white people.”
The former slave owners were also obliged to financially support the new state during
the first years of its founding. If these things did not happen within a few
years, Ali said, God (Allah) “would destroy the nation with natural disasters.”
In addition to having good things to say about
Gov. George Wallace and his segregationist views, Ali said he had respect for
whites in the South who lynched Negroes who had bothered their women. He pleaded
with Negroes to protect Negro women. (Northwest Arkansas Times, March 13, 1969, p. 1)
editorial made this remark about Ali’s speech:
When the speaker was not advocating
separation of the races, he was praising George Wallace to the skies, both of
which stands seem to accord with the plurality of voting opinion in the state.
One wonders again what the advance fuss was all about. (Arkansas Gazette, March 20, 1969, p. 6A.
The Old Guard Senators Visit UA
Six days after the Ali speech, three state senators and a state respresentative traveled to the University of Arkansas to take part in a special session of Symposium '69. Two of the speakers, Sen. Guy "Mutt" Jones and Milt Earnhart came to explain why Ali should not have been allowed to speak on the UA campus. Sen. Jim Caldwell of Rogers, the only Republican in the state senate, and Rep. Herbert Rule of Little Rock came to defend his appearance.
|Northwest Arkansas Times, March 19, 1969|
Sen.Earnhart spoke first, suggesting that students “talk to
some of the people in your hometowns and see the reaction of these people who
support this university, who are paying taxes and the [income tax] surcharge
and then see it paid over to a draft dodger. He said, “This is not a matter of
questions of free speech or race.” He asked, “What are you trying to do? Are
you trying to disturb your parents and the people of Arkansas?” He concluded,
“Well, you are.” (Northwest Arkansas
Times, March 19, 1969, pp. 1-2; this story is re-printed in appendix 2 of the Scribd document).
Sen. Jones wore a red tie, red handkerchief and red boots and
engaged at times in heated oratory. He
told the audience of about 400, mostly students, “You don’t have a single right
that wasn’t bought with blood. The right to distribute scandalous criticisms
was bought with blood.”
Jones linked Ali to communism. He said, “The
Chinese say they are going to take over the world and the Russians say they are
going to take us from within. They say they are going to do it through college
students and through professors.” He
also told the audience that if there is a last citadel of Christianity, it is
this country. He asserted that no power on earth can stop the spreading of communism
except the United States government. His speech elicited a few cheers and some
Sen. Jim Caldwell of Rogers, the sole Republican in the
state Senate, told the audience that he was happy that Ali came to UA. He said,
“I don’t agree with him, but he should be heard.” He argued that Ali had as
much right to be heard as Mutt Jones.
Rep. Rule of Little Rock was the favorite with the audience.
He noted that a large American Legion Post in Little Rock had called for
legislation that could preclude anyone under indictment for a felony from
appearing on a state supported campus. Rule said that under such circumstances
you couldn’t have had Gandhi on your campus nor Christ nor Socrates. Rule got a
standing ovation when he told the audience, “The University is the last place a
person should be denied the right to state his views. …The University is the
cradle of liberty in this country.”
My Meager Involvement
Before giving my perspective on the meaning of this controversy, I want to confess to my antics in the affair. First, I was one of the smart alecks of the University of Arkansas Young Republican Club who stirred the Ali pot with
a couple of resolutions passed by its executive committee (mainly, Skip Carney
and me, plus some others I don’t recall). One resolution condemned
attempts to stop Ali from coming to the UA as “intolerant, misguided
paternalism that is completely unnecessary and an insult to the maturity of the
students and the responsibility of the faculty and administration.” The second
Whereas, State Sen. Dan T. Sprick
stated on Feb. 28, 1969 that he was willing to go to Vietnam to fight
immediately if President Richard Nixon summoned him; and
Whereas, such a journey by Sen.
Sprick would immediately improve Arkansas and could not hurt Vietnam;
Be It Therefore Resolved: The UofA
YRC urgently requests that President Nixon immediately ask Senator Sprick to go
And Be It Further Resolved: The
Young Republican Club requests Private Sprick to invite Sen. Mutt Jones, Sen.
Milt Earnhart, and Sen. Melvin Chambers join him on this trip.
|Arkansas Traveler, March 10, 1969, p. 1|
I have to admit that I was pleased to note that stories about the Sprick were published in the Arkansas Gazette (March 7, 1969, p. 8A)
and on the front page of the Arkansas
Traveler (March 10, 1969).
Second, I was one of the campus trouble makers
(along with Carney and some collaborators) who handed out leaflets at the entrance to the Symposium '69 session featuring the state senators. Our leaflets contained the “scandalous
criticisms” mentioned in Jones’s speech. These handouts were described in the Gazette (March 20, 1969, p. 18A) story
about the speeches:
Before the lecture Tuesday, several
students handed out leaflets saying “Our special thanks are extended to Guy
(Mutt) Jones of Conway (the Athens of Arkansas) and Milt Earnhart of Fort Smith
for attempting to insure our intellectual pureness and virginity.
We feel that they have attempted to
prevent us from hearing a segregationist theory, which would support Arkansas’s
segregationist actions. They have earned our enduring support.”
(Ali was Cassius Clay before become a Black
Muslim and taking a new name. Ali’s Symposium speech called for the separation
of the races.)
The leaflets also said: “We
furthermore are gratified that these two esteemed, unhypocritical,
progressive-minded legislators would take time from their time to appear on our
campus as intellectual bastions service to provide us with “ample doses of
The leaflets were signed “under
auspices of AHCPMC (Ad Hoc Committee for the Preservation of Mental Chastity).”
We miscreants who wrote and distributed this leaflet were,
instead of being embarrassed by their juvenile actions, pleased that it got
covered in the Gazette and newspapers.
We were especially tickled that the leaflets seemed to upset Sen.
Looking back at the Ali controversy more than
forty years later, it seems that this incident can best be viewed as evidence
of the changes taking place in the nation and Arkansas as the Sixties ended.
Journalist John Starr (1987, p 55) described Winthrop
Rockefeller as the “wrecking bar voters used to dismantle the political machine
that held Arkansas in thrall and was threatening in the mid-1960s to give the
state a governor for life.” In 1969, the wrecking bar was still at work: Rockefeller
had defeated segregationist Jim Johnson in 1966 and Old Guard politician Marion
Crank in 1968, and he brought forward what Ernie Dumas (2012), long-time
political reporter, called “the most ambitious program in Arkansas history.”
According to Dumas, Rockefeller said that this program was what he entered
politics to do.
The Old Guard Democrats wanted none of Rockefeller’s
proposed tax (almost $100 million per year increase) and modernization program,
which included, among other things, a reorganization of state government and
the implementation of the state’s first classification and pay plan. As the Ali
controversy arose, they – under the leadership of Sen. Jones – were fighting to
derail WR’s proposals, and were succeeding.
Perhaps their success in thwarting Rockefeller’s program
reminded the Old Guard of the old days when they could get their way on most
issues. Perhaps in opposing the Ali speech, the Old Guard senators were just reverting
to form, recalling how they had previously restricted speech on state campuses.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, they had used accusations of subversion and
communism to limit who could speak on Arkansas campuses, keeping out people
they labeled “racial agitators,” “communists,” and other bad “outside
influences.” During those years, the Attorney General and legislators had held
hearings on and conducted investigations of “subversives” they claimed were undermining
order in the state.
In this atmosphere, as late as December 1964, the University
of Arkansas had forbidden the use of its facilities for a speech by the
cultural attaché of the Bulgarian Embassy on the grounds that he was a
communist. (He was instead allowed, by a minister, to speak at the Methodist
Because most funding for public universities came from state
appropriations, college leaders tried to avoid offending the elected officials
who proposed and voted on their budgets. From 1954 to 1966, Faubus and his men
determined how much money Arkansas universities and colleges would receive each
year, thus the Old Guard had been in a strong position to influence decisions
about who was allowed to speak on college campuses.
In 1969, however, the Old Guard senators no longer had the
power to exert their will on Arkansas colleges and universities, though they tried
with the Ali controversy. Both university administrators and students were less
willing to submit to the efforts of these legislators to control them. Thus, UA
President Mullins could ignore the state Senate’s anti-Ali resolution, and
students could ridicule its authors, with little fear of the retribution that
likely would have been meted out a few years earlier.
Although, the Old Guard succeeded in killing most of
Rockefeller’s reform program during his last term, the end of their influence
was near. The major elements of Rockefeller’s
program were passed in the following years under the leadership of the three
progressive Democratic governors who followed Rockefeller in office. These
three governors acknowledged that Rockefeller was “the beacon who showed us the
way out of the dark days of politics.” (Blair and Barth, p. 46).
The Ali controversy likely did not hasten the end of the
dark days of Arkansas politics, but it did show the end was near.