Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Arkansas's Old Guard Takes on Muhammad Ali: The Symposium '69 Controversy

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 university.” 

Arkansas Gazette, Feb. 21, 1969 p. 1B
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.”

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.
From Earnhart's blog:

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 as follows:

“Are we indoctrinating them?” Sprick asked.

“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 stick together.”

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) 

A Gazette 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 jeers.

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 resolution read:

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 to Vietnam;

Arkansas Traveler, March 10, 1969, p. 1
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.

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 patriotism”

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. Jones. 

What Did It All Mean?

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 Student Center.)

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. 

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