The AAUP and the Black Freedom Struggle, 1955–1965

Academic freedom investigations in the South.
By Joy Ann Williamson-Lott

This article is part of a preview of the forthcoming spring issue of Academe, which will be published in full in May.

Between 1955 and 1965, the AAUP investigated numerous southern institutions of higher education that had dismissed faculty members for publicly supporting desegregation and racial equality.1 These glaring violations of academic freedom point to an understudied aspect of the southern massive resistance campaign inaugurated after the Supreme Court handed down the 1954 and 1955 Brown v. Board of Education decisions. The violence, voter fraud, legal maneuverings, and economic intimidation to which some white southerners resorted represented the most obvious attempts to maintain the racial hierarchy. But others battled for the hearts and minds of southern youth by focusing on education in general and higher education in particular.

Campus constituents did not respond univocally to federal interventions that chipped away at white supremacy. Presidents at elite, white, private institutions, according to historian Melissa Kean, enlisted “a flexible rhetoric of moderation” that enabled trustees to accept small but significant changes to their institutions, whether in admissions policies or respect for academic freedom. Because these institutions relied on federal aid to subsidize their transformation “from sleepy undergraduate colleges into research universities,” trustees could not violate federal mandates, philanthropic grant requirements, or AAUP-supported principles and procedural standards without damaging their coffers or reputations.2 Although elite white institutions were not hotbeds of dissent, they were the only institutional type that did not fire faculty members who challenged white supremacy in the decade following the Brown rulings.

Trustees at other types of institutions understood their self-interest differently. Like their counterparts at white private institutions, trustees at white public colleges and universities cared about institutional reputation. But many valued the opinions of state residents and regional peers, not a national audience. A protracted battle against enforcement of federal rulings to desegregate southern student bodies only strengthened administrators’ resolve and heightened the regional profile of their institutions. White trustees at Black public institutions—all southern states had exclusively white trustees in control of Black public campuses—cared little about their institutions’ vibrancy and much less about their reputations. Black private institutions, governed by Black and white trustees, enjoyed financial independence from state revenue sources, and several enjoyed regional and national reputations. But these colleges and universities educated Black students in the spirit of racial equality and so became targets for white elected officials.

As the primary organization through which faculty members sought to guarantee their academic freedom and advocate in their own behalf, the AAUP became heavily involved in southern higher education by censuring administrations, issuing resolutions, and publishing reports on the southern situation. As an AAUP committee stated, “In this atmosphere of intensely conflicting feelings, arising out of the encounter between a rapidly changing social situation and an almost pathological xenophobia concerning ideas which are believed to be subversive of the traditional way of life, conditions of academic freedom are precarious.”3

Investigations at Black Private Universities

Fisk University, Allen University, and Benedict College, all Black private institutions, were the first to draw AAUP censure during the height of the Black freedom struggle. All had long supported racial equality, and by the late 1950s all hired faculty members and enrolled students who openly challenged white supremacy. As institutions with private funding sources, they were not subject to legislative whims, public opinion, and the rise and fall of political parties. These institutions, however, found that philanthropic support only buffered the campuses from state influence; it did not immunize them.

In 1950, Fisk University hired Lee Lorch, a white mathematics professor and well-known activist for Black rights. Lorch developed a stellar reputation and achieved the rank of full professor within a few years. He also continued to agitate on behalf of Blacks, focusing on dismantling school segregation locally. In 1954, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) subpoenaed him to answer questions about his alleged affiliation with the Communist Party. According to Lorch, local segregationists prompted the subpoena to punish him for his activism and smear Fisk’s reputation. Lorch testified that he did not currently hold membership in the Communist Party but refused to answer questions about past membership.

HUAC found him in contempt; the next day, Fisk president Charles S. Johnson told the local white press that the institution would consider dismissing Lorch. Johnson, who described himself as a “sidelines activist,” argued that Lorch’s brand of activism inflamed white racism and damaged the struggle for Black advancement. He was a pragmatic president who, in Marybeth Gasman’s words, “most likely viewed Lorch’s dismissal as a necessary sacrifice for the long-term benefit of Black higher education, specifically at Fisk.”4

Johnson’s proposal created a crisis on campus. Many faculty members, students, and alumni petitioned on Lorch’s behalf, and the local AAUP chapter and national office came to his defense. These constituents argued that Lorch’s suspected communist sympathies provided convenient cover to punish him for his activism and that Johnson should not capitulate to local whites fearful of racial progress. The Fisk trustees, a racially mixed group, split on how to handle Johnson’s suggestion to fire Lorch. After a series of contentious votes, the trustees issued their final decision in April 1955: they fired Lorch in a decision that divided largely along racial lines, with all white trustees voting to fire him and Black trustees voting to retain him.5

The AAUP, after carrying out a formal investigation and publishing a report in 1959, censured the Fisk administration. Three years earlier, in 1956, the Association had adopted a resolution on a professor’s “right, both as a teacher and as a citizen, to be active as an individual and as a member of organizations in exerting his influence with respect to problems of providing, at all levels, equal educational opportunity without racial segregation.”6 This resolution had little effect on curtailing abuses at Fisk or in the South more generally.

In 1957, the presidents and trustees at Allen University and at Benedict College, located in Columbia, South Carolina, confronted a dilemma similar to that at Fisk. Both were supported by religious philanthropy—Allen by the all-Black African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and Benedict by the racially mixed Baptist Home Mission Society—and both educated students in the spirit of racial equality and Christian unity. Both institutions had a Black student body, employed some white faculty members, and were run by Black presidents. Allen’s board of trustees, however, was exclusively Black, while Benedict’s board included both Black and white members. Neither institution received state funding, but their teacher education programs required state certification for graduates to teach in South Carolina. The institutions maintained cordial relations with state officials by counseling students to focus on their studies and to leave activism until after graduation.7

The campuses drew negative attention from elected officials as students became involved in the Black freedom struggle. In fact, Allen and Benedict students used their campuses as movement centers to plan and execute attacks on the racial hierarchy, including by making attempts to transfer to the University of South Carolina. Also, Allen admitted a Black transfer student who had been expelled from South Carolina State College (a Black public institution in Orangeburg) for organizing a branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and enrolled a white Hungarian refugee student, which meant that Allen had the only desegregated student body in the state. These actions provoked the ire of Governor George Bell Timmerman Jr., described by one historian as “a humorless and fanatical segregationist.”8

Events at the University of South Carolina are an important backdrop to understanding the context in which Allen and Benedict fell victim to external pressures. In May 1955, Chester C. Travelstead, dean of the University of South Carolina’s School of Education, wrote Timmerman in response to a speech in which the governor condemned the Brown decision and the Supreme Court. In his letter, Travelstead defended the court and offered to discuss the issues with the governor. The governor did not reply but pressed University of South Carolina president Donald S. Russell on the matter. A few days later, Russell queried Travelstead about the letter and expressed his displeasure, but he did not bar Travelstead from writing about or discussing desegregation. In August, Travelstead delivered an on-campus speech in which he related the evils of segregation in the United States to Adolf Hitler’s master-race ideology in Nazi Germany. The trustees fired Travelstead three weeks later without a hearing and over presidential and faculty objections. Travelstead secured other employment, at the University of New Mexico, and never asked for AAUP involvement.9

It was within this context that Timmerman mounted an attack on faculty members at Allen University and Benedict College. At first, Timmerman focused on Allen. President Frank R. Veal, appointed in 1956, sought healthy relations with the governor and state legislators, but Allen’s enrollment of a white student and a well-known Black activist alienated the white power structure. The governor, local white newspapers, and legislators considered such open support for racial equality a hallmark of communism, and Timmerman contacted Veal to insist that three faculty members, Forrest O. Wiggins, Edwin D. Hoffman, and John G. Rideout—two of whom were white and all of whom held liberal views on race—be fired immediately. Veal acquiesced, but their dismissals required trustee approval. Though none of the three faculty members had been involved with the Communist Party, Timmerman used incendiary accusations to fuel negative public sentiment and intimidate the president and trustees into action.10

President Veal’s actions curried favor with South Carolina officials but alienated many Allen trustees. When Veal capitulated to those trustees and delayed the vote on the faculty firings in August 1957, the state board of education, which included the governor, revoked Allen’s teaching certification. According to a report on the board of education meeting quoted in the AAUP investigating committee’s later report, state officials alluded to the power struggle between the president and the trustees and suggested that the board support the president. “If the president of an approved teacher training institution doesn’t want certain teachers,” they explained, “then the State does not want the students who are taught at that institution to receive certification for their work under the unwanted teachers.”11

The battle between Allen University and the state persisted for several months. Several trustees, emboldened by the involvement of the AAUP, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), and the American Civil Liberties Union, “argued that the State was wrongly interfering with the operation of a private institution, that the situation affected every private institution in America, that civil liberties and civil rights were involved, [and] that it would be better to close down Allen and to try to get its students into the University of South Carolina than to ‘surrender’ to the Governor.” On the other hand, other trustees and President Veal argued that the loss of state teacher certification outweighed AME threats to withhold funding and appeals to protect academic freedom.12

Governor Timmerman helped put an end to the controversy. In early 1958, he delivered a set of speeches tying Allen and Benedict—which, until this time, had remained out of the fray—to communism and inflaming the widespread fear among whites of a communist-inspired Black freedom struggle. Timmerman declared that “the presence of Communists at these two Negro institutions is in furtherance of a long-range program to promote racial hatred among young and impressionable Negro students, looking toward an ultimate Communist goal of creating civil and racial disorder.” He also took direct aim at claims to academic freedom, saying, “When academic freedom supersedes loyalty to one’s country, loyalty to one’s State, and to our trust in God, it becomes an instrumentality of treason that profanes the faith of our nation.” Although some trustees vehemently opposed capitulating to external pressures, they could not prevent it. In May, Allen trustees fired the three faculty members. In June, the board of education reinstated Allen’s teacher certification credentials.13

The battle came to a head at Benedict College shortly thereafter. At first, president J. A. Bacoats issued a statement defending academic freedom and the separation of church and state, and he accused the governor of punishing Benedict for its students’ attempts to desegregate the University of South Carolina. But, after the governor’s speeches, Bacoats asked three Benedict faculty members (all of whom were white) for their resignations, reportedly warning that he might have to fire them “for the good of the College.” He also announced a policy to require future faculty members “to sign a statement of non-membership in the Communist Party.” He knew that the board of education would revoke teacher certification and was wary of leading Benedict down that path.14

The racially mixed board of trustees at Benedict was racially split over the firing question. While white trustees, working in concert with the governor, demanded summary dismissal, many Black trustees argued against it. When Black trustees offered a compromise, to prevent immediate dismissal by agreeing that the faculty members’ contracts would not be renewed at the end of the academic year, the white trustees—one of whom was on the telephone with the governor during the meeting—walked out and resigned. Though the Black trustees eventually yielded to the governor’s wishes, many considered it “a partial victory,” since the college was able to retain the faculty through the end of the academic year.15 As was the case at Allen, the ties with the state allowed the governor and the state board of education to exploit intra-institutional fissures and undermine institutional autonomy.

The final actions at Fisk, Allen, and Benedict were identical. All three presidents acted to ensure the survival of their institutions—actions that pitted them against some of their trustees. Johnson, the first African American appointed to the Fisk presidency, and Veal, a recent appointee seeking to rehabilitate Allen’s reputation with state officials, were particularly vulnerable. Their status could explain why both were especially conciliatory: Veal gathered damning information on his own faculty, and Johnson initiated action against Lorch. Bacoats, unlike his counterparts, was drawn into controversy and even had to defend himself after the governor accused the Benedict president of communist sympathies. Still, Bacoats made the tactical decision to fire faculty members in exchange for a cessation of state pressure.

At Fisk and Benedict, the initial divisions among trustees were along racial lines. White trustees were more closely aligned with the state’s interests and had little patience for institutional involvement in the Black freedom struggle. At Allen, though the trustees were an exclusively Black group, they held differing views on the path to Black advancement and the political wisdom of defying the governor. Some sacrificed lofty ideals of racial equality and made the practical decision to protect Allen and the livelihoods of its graduates. Such ideological fissures probably were not new. But trustees’ divergent stances on the issue of racial equality and the role of southern institutions of higher education in social change deepened such divides. State officials and hostile local whites exploited racial and ideological splits and applied pressures that some trustees could not resist.

Investigations at Public White Institutions

Public white colleges and universities were a second set of institutions to be censured by the AAUP for firing faculty members who had expressed support for racial equality. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the growing dependence of southern white institutions on federal aid led to cracks in the coalition between trustees and public officials. Trustees, as gubernatorial appointees, often did the state’s bidding and rid institutions of faculty members considered too liberal, despite the risk of censure by the AAUP. But some began to think more carefully about the damage done by institutional compliance with state interests. The lure of federal aid and funds from private foundations to expand and improve their campuses made alignment with state agents increasingly dangerous to the economic vitality of their institutions.

The trustees’ dilemma mirrored an emerging debate over the meaning of the word public for a public institution. State officials and some campus constituents argued that public white colleges and universities needed to fortify white supremacy, that they were beholden to the white citizens of the state, and that public officials could intervene and fire faculty members if the institutions or the faculty strayed too far from white supremacist mores. Others argued that public funding did not justify legislative or gubernatorial control of intra-institutional policies and practices. This group argued instead that presidents and faculty members had the right to determine campus policies and practices. Academic freedom protections were a particular concern at public white institutions because some faculty members spoke or wrote favorably about desegregation even as elected officials resisted federal enforcement of desegregation orders at those same campuses. Depending on the situation, trustees and even presidents might be on either side of the debate.

In 1957, the trustees of Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) aligned themselves with public officials still reeling from federal interference that ended the Montgomery Bus Boycott and temporarily desegregated the University of Alabama. Together, trustees and officials sought to bolster the eroding Solid South by ensuring that Alabama Polytech did not harbor faculty members who challenged the existing racial order. When professor Bud R. Hutchinson criticized white intransigence regarding desegregation in a letter published in the campus newspaper, the board of trustees refused to renew his contract—an action that would soon prompt the AAUP to conduct an investigation and publish a report. “What is difficult to understand,” Hutchinson wrote, “is the reasoning of those persons who profess decency, a feeling for their fellow man and who boast of their moral standards, yet who nevertheless hesitate to join in the crusade to drive ignorance, poverty and social injustice from our midst.” Hutchinson’s letter caused very little stir on campus. Some faculty members and administrators considered his letter “indiscreet” but not cause for punishment.16

The trustees justified their action against Professor Hutchinson by distinguishing between freedom of speech in the classroom and freedom of publication in the campus newspaper, declaring, “The Board of Trustees will defend any member of the faculty in his right of freedom in the classroom. It cannot relate this freedom to public utterance in the campus paper.”17 President Ralph B. Draughon was unaware of the letter until trustees brought it to his attention. Initially temperate in his involvement and public reaction, Draughon warned trustees that “when you drop a fellow for something he has written he can always claim that his freedom of speech is being violated and that is exactly what was done.” He also wrote to Hutchinson to assure him that he was not going to be fired for any “dereliction of duty, deficiency of character, or unethical behaviour.” Draughon’s position hardened against Hutchinson when the professor sought support from the AAUP and SACS. In a letter to the executive secretary of SACS, Draughon explained that Hutchinson’s department chair warned him to avoid public presentations regarding integration and that Hutchinson’s letter “did not reflect favorably upon Southerners who favor segregation of the races in public institutions of higher education.” By the time reports of the case appeared in the press, Draughon had completely aligned himself with the board and was credited with spearheading the firing.18

The trustees were keenly aware of white sentiment on the issues and promised to do their part in curbing racial liberalism. In explaining their actions to the AAUP, they declared that they knew Alabama (white) residents better than the AAUP did and, as such, were the best judges of the proper course of action. They declared that they “were positive in their belief that irreparable damage would be done in areas of the state they represent unless positive action were taken.” As a public institution, Alabama Polytech relied on state appropriations and the favor of state residents. Compromising academic freedom to secure future funding and goodwill, especially when professors used that freedom to attack white supremacy, was a worthy sacrifice. The AAUP described the rationale, as reported in the campus newspaper, as follows: “The Board is in favor of as much free speech as the financial security of the institution will permit.” After publishing the report of an investigating committee, the AAUP imposed censure on the administration.19

In July, in the same year as the Hutchinson affair, trustees at Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University) acted similarly. Here, they did not even cite spurious charges when firing faculty members; they issued no formal charges at all. Of the three professors fired, one supported the liberal wing of the state’s Democratic Party, another organized adult education discussions, and another conducted a community study of West Texas public high school students and found that most would do their best to accept school desegregation—all of which represented left-of-center politics locally. Many faculty members, the president, the AAUP, and several media outlets believed that these political and social views formed the basis for the board’s action. Moreover, most trustees were new and had no experience with the administration of an institution of higher education. In the words of the report of the AAUP committee that would carry out an investigation at the college, “such concepts as academic freedom and the proper relationship of a board of control to an administration and a faculty” were completely foreign.20

The board was divided over the question of how to move forward after the firings. Most trustees favored creating a committee to strengthen the institution’s tenure policy and protections (though they refused to rehire the faculty members or present them with charges). However, trustee J. Evetts Haley, described by one West Texas newspaper as a “notorious right-wing crackpot with a penchant for joining fascist organizations,” argued that there was no need for a revised tenure statement if that statement stripped the board and the legislature of the power to fire faculty members. During the meeting at which other board members discussed crafting a new tenure statement, Haley demanded that the trustees pledge to run the institution “for the true moral and educational benefit of the young men and women of this sovereign State, irrespective of the left-wing clamor, innuendo and agitation.” His motion died when other members refused to second it. The AAUP, in its later published report, recognized that Haley was in the minority but considered his presence on the board evidence of the harsh climate for academic freedom at Texas Tech.21

Texas Tech president Edward N. Jones was a vocal critic of the trustees. His quarrel with the board was not overtly about control of the institution, though his statements and actions hinted at such. Instead, he focused his criticism on the board’s refusal to present the faculty with formal charges and a formal hearing. Jones was joined by most of the faculty, who signed a resolution criticizing the board for jeopardizing academic freedom and institutional accreditation by interfering with decisions that should have been left to the president and the faculty. He did not persuade the trustees to provide charges or hold a hearing, but his voice added to the pressure on the board to issue a stronger statement about the parameters of a professor’s freedoms.22

Although the trustees ousted the accused faculty members, none joined with Haley in proposing to strip the institution of the power to determine its own policies. Nor did they fire President Jones, despite accusations that he had “joined in with the Left Wingers and the ‘Bleeding Hearts,’ to attempt to embarrass the college.”23 The trustees’ actions were probably influenced by the fact that they were engaged in a bid to transform the institution from a technical college into a university. They needed to recruit faculty members from across the country (including some who might express locally unpopular views), secure funding from the federal government and private foundations, and build new campus facilities with federal aid. In short, the trustees sought to satisfy both those who demanded that Texas Tech fortify the Solid South by firing liberal faculty members and those who desired to transform the institution into an intellectual powerhouse by crafting stronger academic freedom protections.

Splits among trustees were even more apparent at Sam Houston State Teachers College (now Sam Houston State University) a few years later. In 1962 a majority of the board voted to fire Rupert C. Koeninger, chair of the sociology department. Koeninger was no radical, but he spoke at a meeting about school desegregation sponsored by the Southern Conference Educational Fund, an organization some southern officials considered a communist front, and he participated in a student-run drive to collect poll taxes and register voters. More generally, certain powerful trustees argued that Koeninger was “‘out of place in the South’ and should ‘return to Minnesota,’” though Koeninger had been born and raised in Texas, spent most of his adult life there, and had never been to Minnesota. Trustees also threatened to reject the reappointment of the entire faculty if President Harmon Lowman pressed Koeninger’s case.24

The Sam Houston trustees, however, were not unanimous in their opinion. Koeninger wrote that “some of the regents do not believe in thought control and recognize there is need for a variety of opinions.” Also, they realized that the accreditation of Sam Houston and five other teachers’ colleges was in jeopardy. These board members were unsuccessful in their appeals to academic freedom because they were in the minority and, more important, because President Lowman aligned himself with the most powerful board members, including the chair, who supported firing Koeninger. Even when a friendly board member attempted to enlist Lowman’s support for Koeninger, the president refused to speak on the professor’s behalf. As Lowman reportedly told Koeninger, “I did the best I could for you. If I hadn’t done what that board member [the chair] suggested, I think they would have fired me and you, too.” In explaining his decision to the faculty, Lowman pleaded, “This year let us concentrate on teaching the subject matter in our courses. Let us stay away from controversial issues that produce heat.”25

Elected officials in Arkansas took it upon themselves to defend the Solid South when it appeared the governor’s trustee appointees would not. On the heels of the desegregation crisis at Central High School in Little Rock, the state legislature passed Acts 10 and 115 in 1958. Act 10 compelled all public school teachers, including college and university professors, to disclose every organization to which they belonged as a condition of employment. The act was intended to harass the NAACP, which spearheaded the freedom struggle in the state, but the law’s language echoed legislation in other states that particularly targeted Communist Party members. Act 115 took direct aim at racial liberals, making it illegal for state employees to be members of the NAACP. According to historian Jeff Woods, these acts sought to halt school desegregation, assert state authority against federal intervention, and hobble the NAACP, which was considered a communist-supported organization.26

The NAACP challenged the legislation in court after the University of Arkansas in July 1959 fired four professors for refusing to disclose their organizational memberships and a school board fired a Black schoolteacher for his membership in the NAACP. While the NAACP argued that the laws restrained free speech and association, Arkansas legislators argued that they served the interests of state security and sovereignty. Many legislators reveled in the conflict. As the Little Rock Arkansas Gazette reported, they hoped an AAUP investigation and censure would stop “‘the wrong kind of teachers’ and ‘undesirables cold at the state line.’” In part, they succeeded. The AAUP censured the University of Arkansas administration. But the legal battles did not destroy the Arkansas NAACP or the Black freedom struggle in the state.27

University of Arkansas president David W. Mullins and the trustees supported resistance to Act 10 because the act threatened their authority, so the AAUP initially delayed its proposed investigation to allow Mullins and the board time to comply with a 1960 Supreme Court ruling that rendered Act 10 unconstitutional. Only when Mullins and the trustees refused to reappoint the fired faculty members in 1961 did the AAUP launch an investigation. By then, Mullins and the board argued that they wanted to put the negative press behind them. They worried that the legislature might “try to improve on Act 10” and that the institution’s reputation could not sustain any more damage. Also, according to the local AAUP chapter president, Mullins’s was not temperamentally disposed to battle the legislature: “I do not think [Mullins] can be classed as a fighter on these issues; and if he thought trouble would brew, I suspect he would rather not tackle the problem.” Mullins might have taken a cue from Alabama Polytechnic president Ralph Draughon, since Mullins served as his vice president when the AAUP censured that institution’s administration.

Mullins and the trustees eagerly moved to rebuild the university’s reputation in the state and with the legislature. According to Woods, they became “increasingly aware that their [earlier opposition to Act 10] was considered controversial in the rest of the state. Since trustee appointments and [the] university’s appropriations depended on the support of state politicians, neither Mullins nor the board were willing to take any further risks by reinstating . . . or paying retribution to the four former faculty members.”28

The experiences of public white institutions censured by the AAUP reveal a trend of trustees becoming more independent from state officials and interested in the long-term health of their institutions. That interest did not necessarily translate into much definitive action in support of academic freedom, since all the boards ultimately took actions that led to censure. Still, the shift—from the completely conservative Alabama Polytech board to the Texas Tech board with only one problematic member to the split in the Sam Houston board and then to the University of Arkansas board speaking out against a legislative act—demonstrates a growing wariness of the consequences of undermining academic freedom. By the early 1960s, trustees attempted to balance the need for federal support (and the strings attached to it) with a desire to serve their local segregationist constituencies. They refused to allow their institutions to play a large role in the erosion of the intellectual edifice of white supremacy, but they sought to immunize their campuses from legislative or gubernatorial interference and to redefine the relationship between the state and their institutions.

Investigations at Black Public Institutions

Black public institutions experienced the brunt of the damage that state officials meted out. As in white public institutions, the state legislatures provided annual appropriations, the governor appointed trustees (all of whom were white), and state officials and trustees believed they rightly controlled these institutions because of their public status. But Black public campuses received fewer appropriations, lacked the goodwill of state officials, and served a Black clientele in a white supremacist society. Unlike some trustees at private Black institutions who advocated for faculty rights, or those at public white institutions who began to care about the repercussions of curtailing academic freedom, the white trustees at public Black institutions continued to interfere in campus business at will.

In large part, white trustees were so involved in campus affairs because Black student activism surged. Between 1960 and 1964 the Black freedom struggle swept the South. In February 1960, students from Black colleges and universities helped inaugurate the direct-action phase of the movement with sit-ins, boycotts, and demonstrations. They enlisted the support of local NAACP branches and created the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to organize and mobilize against white supremacy off campus. They also targeted their own campuses and rallied against presidents who abridged students’ rights and interfered with their ability to participate in the Black freedom struggle. Faculty members who supported students in their efforts, even surreptitiously, risked being fired.

Black public institutions were the last set of campuses in the South to incur AAUP censure, but not because they successfully defended academic freedom longer than other types of institutions. Instead, white institutional control made speaking or writing about controversial issues immensely dangerous. As a member of an AAUP investigating committee said of the Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning in 1964, “They do not want ‘reformers’ on their faculties who try to change Mississippi ways. They do not mind different ideas being presented as a part of subject matter and on a factual basis, but not to use [the] educational process to ‘reform.’. . . Education is to inform and not reform.” Black faculty members understood the consequences. Certainly, they could be fired. But as the AAUP later reported, “not many faculty members want to risk having happen to them what happened to Medgar Evers.” The presidents at these institutions enforced trustee and state mandates or risked losing their jobs.29

The first censure of an administration at a Black public institution in the South occurred in 1960 at Alabama State College (now Alabama State University) in the wake of student and faculty involvement in the Black freedom struggle. For a time, Alabama State faculty members participated in civil rights organizations, including the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and the Women’s Political Council (WPC), which spearheaded the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955, without retribution. Faculty members, like organizer Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, used the institution’s paper and mimeograph machines to print flyers to publicize the boycott. When he learned of the boycott, President H. Councill Trenholm cautioned faculty members not to neglect their teaching duties or involve the institution in the protests, but he did not prohibit them from participating in activism.30

Everything changed when, in 1960, Alabama State students used the campus as a movement center to plan and execute sit-ins in Montgomery that brought national media attention to the state. Governor John M. Patterson, not President Trenholm or the trustees, threatened to expel one group of student demonstrators and fire a faculty member, Olean Underwood, who was standing in the crowd. The AAUP pledged to support Trenholm “in asserting ‘the right of institutional freedom,’” but the governor dismissed the Association as the embodiment of federal meddling. At the same time Patterson demanded that the Alabama legislature appoint a committee to investigate the Alabama State faculty, that members of the Alabama State Board of Education visit classes to determine the faculty’s fitness, that Trenholm gather personal information on the professoriate, and that those “not loyal to the College” be replaced. The trustees supported the governor’s suggestions and moved to take control of the campus.31

A faculty purge followed. Olean Underwood was fired, followed by Lawrence D. Reddick, a professor of history, who was photographed standing among students during a demonstration. More important, Reddick was a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a friend and biographer of Martin Luther King Jr., which meant that Reddick was a communist as far as Governor Patterson was concerned. Some citizens congratulated the governor on his “manly decision in discharging that Negro agitator,” while others criticized Patterson’s obvious attempt to capitalize on the racist and anticommunist rhetoric of the era. Next came the resignations of eleven Alabama State faculty members who feared for their jobs, many of whom were in the WPC or MIA. Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, one of the most active, defended the group: “We had been loyal to the institution, to Dr. Trenholm, to our profession. We were not subversive. We had just gotten tired of being second-class citizens!” Finally, the governor demanded that the trustees fire Trenholm for having allowed the situation at Alabama State to get out of hand, and the trustees eagerly complied. When remaining faculty members attempted to bolster their rights and the institution’s autonomy by adopting the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure in 1961, the trustees refused to approve it.32

A similar scene occurred at Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University) in 1960. The campus had a brief history of student activism that set the stage. In March 1957, the Student Government Association organized a boycott of classes after Clennon King, a faculty member, published a series of articles in a white newspaper linking the NAACP with communism, providing a thoroughly cleansed interpretation of American slavery, and expressing his admiration for the character of Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Students supported his right to publish such pieces but strongly disagreed with his claims.33

President Jesse R. Otis recommended King’s dismissal to the board of trustees for drawing Alcorn into controversial issues. Though Otis’s actions resembled those of presidents at the other institutions discussed in this article, the Alcorn situation was completely different. Faculty members at the other institutions wrote or spoke in favor of desegregation or racial equality, while King’s articles justified white supremacy. Both sets of communications brought unwanted scrutiny to the campuses, but King’s articles were congruent with the beliefs of white public officials and trustees. Otis’s suggestion that the trustees fire someone they considered an ally did not sit well with them. Moreover, rumors that Otis agreed with the students’ critique of King and was supportive of the Black freedom struggle did not help his case.

The trustees traveled to Alcorn to issue an ultimatum to students: return to classes or be expelled. When students refused, the board expelled the entire student body, fired Otis, and renewed King’s contract. If students wanted to reenroll, the board required them to meet with the new president, John D. Boyd, and to sign a statement promising never to engage in activism again. Most students signed, though they dubbed Boyd a “white man’s tool.”34

The forced truce between the Alcorn administration and the students did not last. For the next several years, students registered their discontent with Boyd’s iron-fisted control of campus life with demonstrations and protests. In 1960, their activism led to the firing of twelve faculty and staff members, including Professor Corrine Craddock Carpenter. Boyd warned the faculty that “any demonstrations at that time might be misjudged as attempts at sympathy (or worse) with the ‘sit-in’ demonstrations” that began in North Carolina in February and spread across the South soon thereafter. In building his case against Carpenter, Boyd offered no evidence of poor work performance but harangued her for encouraging student unrest. Boyd argued that a 1959 faculty committee’s recommendation of clemency for student protesters insulted his authority, and he told Carpenter, who was a member of that committee, that she “should and could have influenced the committee to act differently.” He also blamed her for a student boycott of his inauguration.35

A member of the AAUP investigation team appointed to inquire into the Alcorn dismissals arrived in Mississippi the same day as the Freedom Riders, a coincidence whose significance was not lost on the investigator. In a meeting with the investigating committee, Boyd offered conflicting statements. First, he argued that Carpenter’s views on student protest did not influence his decision. Second, according to the AAUP representative, Boyd “stated in one breath it was ignorance not defiance of the AAUP 1940 [Statement] but in another breath stated he would handle future cases like Mrs. Carpenter’s in precisely the same fashion, guided strictly by what he thought would be best for the institution.”36 The trustees hired him to quash dissent, and Boyd took his job seriously.

The final AAUP report rebuked the president and the trustees. Boyd’s “system of arbitrary dismissals has generated in the faculty deep insecurity and a strong reluctance to express opinions openly,” the chair of the investigating committee observed in a letter to the AAUP staff. “Faculty participation in government, consequently, is at an absolute minimum. Many department heads do not even have a voice in such a fundamental issue as the hiring of new men in the department, or in determining departmental salary increases and promotions.” The AAUP also took aim at trustees who refused to be swayed and never rehired Carpenter or other faculty and staff members who had been dismissed without due process. In fact, the investigating committee “could find no evidence that the Mississippi Board of Trustees was concerned with academic due process in the Carpenter case.”37

Many white southerners believed public institutions of higher education properly served the interests of the white citizens of their states. Asking that white institutions promote the intellectual foundations of white supremacy made sense because their graduates benefited from the racial hierarchy. But at Black public institutions, Black faculty members quietly taught the radical concept of racial equality, whether in biology, sociology, or civics courses, and had done so for decades. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, some translated theory into practice by participating in or supporting students’ involvement in the Black freedom struggle. Across the South, trustees acted against racially liberal faculty members at white institutions, but such intervention did not match the punitive measures trustees imposed at Black colleges. It was precisely because the legal, social, and intellectual foundations of white supremacy were eroding that trustees considered Black college constituents such a threat.


Southern institutions of higher education moved to instantiate academic freedom protections in the next few years for several reasons. First, they were part of the larger southern milieu responding to demographic and economic shifts in the region, enforcement of Supreme Court rulings and federal legislation, and the waning power of anticommunist accusations as the United States and the Soviet Union entered a period of détente in the Cold War. Second, trustees needed federal funding to upgrade their institutions, and that funding came with strings attached—namely, adherence to the provisions of the First and the Fourteenth Amendments. If trustees could not be cajoled into complying with nondiscrimination orders out of a sense of moral obligation, at least they could be persuaded out of self-interest. Third, the constant negative press brought by regular AAUP censure and SACS threats to revoke accreditation marked their colleges and universities as backward—hardly the type of institutions that would attract high-caliber faculty members or federal funding.

These clashes over academic freedom insert colleges and universities into the story of the Black freedom struggle. Scholarship on the movement highlights the importance of Black students, but it is largely their off-campus activities and not their on-campus efforts that are documented. Colleges and universities themselves were important sites for bringing an end to white supremacy precisely because they were colleges and universities—they offered space for freedom of thought and dissent to thrive. Southern institutions sometimes bowed to external pressures to curb those freedoms, but their losses brought more national attention and pressure to bear on intransigent officials who were already losing the battle to maintain the southern way of life outside institutions of higher education. For the most part, the faculty members who challenged southern orthodoxy and the presidents and trustees who supported them did not fit the traditional mold of an activist since they did not join picket lines, sit-ins, or demonstrations. But they did challenge the foundations of white supremacy through their research, public statements, and affiliations. Colleges and universities may not have been the most explosive sites in the Black freedom struggle, but they were vital to sounding the death knell of the racial hierarchy.

Joy Ann Williamson-Lott is dean of the graduate school and professor of the history of education at the University of Washington.


1. This article was adapted from Joy Ann Williamson-Lott, “The Battle over Power, Control, and Academic Freedom at Southern Institutions of Higher Education, 1955–1965,” Journal of Southern History 79, no. 4 (November 2013). Copyright 2013 by the Southern Historical Association. Reprinted by permission of the editor. A lengthier treatment of the topic is in Joy Ann Williamson-Lott, Jim Crow Campus: Higher Education and the Struggle for a New Southern Social Order (New York: Teachers College Press, 2018).

2. Melissa Kean, Desegregating Private Higher Education in the South: Duke, Emory, Rice, Tulane, and Vanderbilt (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008), 11 (first quotation), 2–4 (second quotation).

3. See the AAUP’s resolutions on “Race Matters,” 1956, 1959, 1960, and 1963, in Louis Joughin, ed., Academic Freedom and Tenure (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), 109–12; C. Vann Woodward, “The Unreported Crisis in the Southern Colleges,” Harper’s Magazine 225 (October 1962): 82–89; William P. Fidler, “Academic Freedom in the South Today,” AAUP Bulletin 51 (Winter 1965): 413–21; “Academic Freedom in Mississippi: A Report of a Special Committee,” AAUP Bulletin 51 (Autumn 1965): 341–56 (quotation on 356).

4. Marybeth Gasman, “Scylla and Charybdis: Navigating the Waters of Academic Freedom at Fisk University During Charles S. Johnson’s Administration (1946–1956),” American Educational Research Journal 36, no. 4 (January 1999): 745–53 (first quotation on 745; second quotation on 753); Lee Lorch oral history, in Griffin Fariello, Red Scare: Memories of the American Inquisition: An Oral History (New York: Norton, 1995), 489–99, esp. 492–94.

5. Gasman, “Scylla and Charybdis,” 750–53: Lorch oral history, 492–94; Patrick J. Gilpin and Marybeth Gasman, Charles S. Johnson: Leadership beyond the Veil in the Age of Jim Crow (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), 237–48. Lorch secured a faculty position at Philander Smith College, a Black private institution in Little Rock, Arkansas. Johnson even wrote him a glowing letter of recommendation. 

6. Gasman, “Scylla and Charybdis,” 749–51; Lorch oral history, 492–94; “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Fisk University,” AAUP Bulletin 45 (March 1959): 27–46; Resolution on “Academic Freedom and Racial Desegregation,” in “The Forty-Second Annual Meeting,” AAUP Bulletin 42 (Summer 1956): 338–53, esp. 352–53 (quotation on 353).

7. “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Allen University and Benedict College,” AAUP Bulletin 46 (Spring 1960): 87–104.

8. R. Scott Baker, Paradoxes of Desegregation: African American Struggles for Educational Equity in Charleston, South Carolina, 1926–1972 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006), 108–26; William C. Hine, “Civil Rights and Campus Wrongs: South Carolina State College Students Protest, 1955–1968,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 97 (October 1996): 310–31;  “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Allen University and Benedict College,” 88, 91; Howard H. Quint, Profile in Black and White: A Frank Portrait of South Carolina (Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1958), 94 (quotation).

9. Chester C. Travelstead, “Turmoil in the Deep South,” School and Society 83 (April 28, 1956): 143–47; Alan Wieder, “The Brown Decision, Academic Freedom, and White Resistance: Dean Chester Travelstead and the University of South Carolina,” Equity and Excellence in Education 28, no. 3 (1995): 45–49.

10. EMS [Eli M. Spark] telephone interview with Dr. Robert W. Mance, October 31, 1958 (hereafter cited as Mance interview), Allen University Files, Box 6, Series “Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure Case Files, 1915–74,” American Association of University Professors Papers, Special Collections Research Center, George Washington University (hereafter cited as AAUP Papers).

11. Mance interview; “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Allen University and Benedict College,” 90–94, 103 (quotation on 92).

12. “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Allen University and Benedict College,” 93–94 (quotation on 93).

13. “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Allen University and Benedict College,” 96 (first quotation); George Bell Timmerman Jr., Fourth Annual Message of Governor George Bell Timmerman, Jr., to the South Carolina General Assembly, Columbia, January 15, 1958, 14 (second quotation), South Carolina State Library Digital Collections,

14. “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Allen University and Benedict College,” 99 (quotations); J. A. Bacoats to William Fidler, March 6, 1963, Spencer Kennard to William Fidler, June 5, 1958, and Elmer Million to Gordon Tiffany, May 28, 1958, all in Benedict College Files, Box 15, Series “Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure Case Files, 1915–74,” AAUP Papers; “Bacoats Says He Has Never Been Communist,” Columbia State, February 8, 1958, 1B, 8B.

15. Modjeska Simkins, “Statement to the Board of Trustees,” May 7, 1958, Box 15, Folder Benedict College, Gilbert Dale, AAUP Papers; “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Allen University and Benedict College,” 100 (quotation).

16. “Alabama Polytechnic Institute,” AAUP Bulletin 44 (March 1958): 158–69 (first and second quotations on 159; third quotation on 160).

17. Ralph Draughon to Robert Carr, January 29, 1958, Folder “Faculty (Special Cases [Bud Hutchinson]), 1957–1958,” Box 19, Presidential Records of Ralph Brown Draughon, Records of the Presidents, RG 533, Special Collections and Archives Department, Auburn University Libraries (hereafter cited as Draughon Presidential Records); “Alabama Polytechnic Institute,” 166 (quotation).

18. Ralph Draughon, notes, May 20, 1957 (first quotation), Ralph Draughon to Bud Hutchinson, May 15, 1957 (second quotation), and Ralph Draughon to Donald Agnew, September 12, 1957 (third quotation), all in Folder “Faculty (Special Cases [Bud Hutchinson]), 1957–1958,” Box 19, Draughon Presidential Records; “Alabama Polytechnic Institute,” 160.

19. Frank Samford and Paul Haley, “Statement of the Special Committee of the Board of Trustees and Officers of Administration, Alabama Polytechnic Institute on the Committee Draft for Report on Hutchinson Case,” January 29, 1958, 4 (first quotation), enclosed in Draughon to Can-, January 29, 1958, ibid.; “Alabama Polytechnic Institute,” 165 (second quotation).

20. “Texas Technological College,” AAUP Bulletin 44 (March 1958): 170–87 (quotation on 183); AAUP of Texas Technological College, “AAUP Report on Texas Tech,” [1958], p. 4, Folder 1, Box 1, Censure Records, 1957–1999, Texas Tech University Archives, Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, Texas Tech University, See also William J. Kilgore, “Academic Freedom in Texas,” Academe 65 (April 1979): 177–85.

21. “‘Responsibility’ at Tech,” Rails (TX) Banner, September 20, 1957, 2 (first quotation); “Excerpt from the Board Minutes of August 17, 1957,” Folder 2, Box 1, Censure Records. Complete minutes for the meeting, August 17, 1951, 1 (second quotation), available at

22. “Tech Board Will Be Asked to Explain Ouster Issues,” Lubbock (TX) Avalanche Journal, July 15, 1957, clipping in Folder 2, Box 1, Censure Records; Bamhart and Pray, “Texas Technological College,” 170–72.

23. Paul Wise to W. D. Watkins, July 25, 1957, Folder 3, Box 1, Floyd Alphaeus Wooldridge Papers, Texas Tech University Archives.

24. “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Sam Houston State Teachers College,” AAUP Bulletin 49 (Spring 1963): 44–51 (quotation on 50); Amilcar Shabazz, Advancing Democracy: African Americans and the Struggle for Access and Equity in Higher Education in Texas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 213–14.

25. [Rupert Koeninger], “A Diary of a Personal Disaster,” Austin Texas Observer, November 30, 1962, 8 (first and second quotations); Rupert Koeninger to Jack Kilgore, June 28, 1961, Sam Houston State College Files, Box 127, Series “Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure Case Files, 1915–74,” AAUP Papers; “Koeninger Case Study,” Austin Texas Observer, November 30, 1962, 1, 6–7, 7 (third quotation ); “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Sam Houston State Teachers College.”

26. Jeff Woods, Black Struggle, Red Scare: Segregation and Anti-Communism in the South, 1948–1968 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004); Jeff Woods, “‘Designed to Harass’: The Act 10 Controversy in Arkansas,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 56 (Winter 1997).

27. “Academic Freedom and Tenure: University of Arkansas,” AAUP Bulletin 49 (Winter 1963): 344–51; Woods, Black Struggle, Red Scare, 84 (quotations).

28. “Academic Freedom and Tenure: University of Arkansas,” 344–46, 350; Shelton v. Tucker, 364 U.S. 479 (1960); Woods, “‘Designed to Harass,’” 456–59 (first quotation on 458; third quotation on 459); Harold Hantz to Deen Taylor, June 7, 1961 (second quotation), Folder 4, Box 1, Harold D. Hantz Collection, MC 1039 (Special Collections, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas); Harold Hantz, “Report on conversation with President David Mullins,” April 12, 1961, Folder 4, Box 1, Hantz Collection. Act 115 was ruled unconstitutional by lower courts, and Act 10 was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1960.

29. Joy Ann Williamson, Radicalizing the Ebony Tower: Black Colleges and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi (New York: Teachers College Press, 2008), 83; “Interview with Dr. E. R. Jobe, January 15, 1964,” 1 (first quotation), enclosure in Gladys Kammerer to Kenneth Adams, January 24, 1964; and ”Report of the Special Committee to Survey Conditions of Academic Freedom in Mississippi,” [1964], 18 (second quotation), both in Folder “General Copies of the Report of the Special Commission to Survey Conditions of Academic Freedom in Mississippi,” American Association of University Professors Archives, AAUP National Office, Washington, DC.

30. Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, ed. David J. Garrow (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987), 47–52.

31. “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Alabama State College,” AAUP Bulletin 47 (Winter 1961): 303–9 (first quotation on 304); Alabama State Board of Education Minutes, March 25, 1960, 8–9 (second quotation on 9), and June 14, 1960, Folder 6, Box SG14005, Administrative Files: Governor (1959–1963: Patterson), Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama (hereafter cited as Patterson Administrative Files). The minutes are also available through the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) Digital Collections at voices/id/2794/rec/3 (March 25, 1960) and collection/voices/id/2863/rec/1 (June 14,1960).

32. “Alabama State College,” 305; Kenneth Adams, Alabama Grand Dragon of the Dixie Klans, Inc., to John Patterson, June 18, 1960 (first quotation), ADAH Digital Collections,, Folder 18, Box SG14011, Patterson Administrative Files; Robinson, Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, 168–69 (second quotation); Levi Watkins, ed., The Levi Watkins Papers (4 vols.; Montgomery, Alabama, 1991), vol. 1.

33. Clennon King, “Adam Powell Called ‘Dupe’ to Northern Race Trickery,” Jackson (MS) State Times, March 4, 1957, 14; “Real Uncle Toms May Come from North, Be College Bred,” State Times, March 6, 1957, 22; Jerry Proctor, “King Tries to Stop Student Walk-Outs,” State Times, March 8, 1957, 1. Parts of this paragraph and the five that follow are drawn from Williamson, Radicalizing the Ebony Tower, 40–42, 76–77.

34. Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning, Minutes, March 9, 1957, Box 6183, Series 266, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, Mississippi; “The End of Uncle Tom Teachers,” Ebony, June 1957, 68–72 (quotation on 68).

35. Corrine Craddock Carpenter to E. R. Jobe, June 17, 1960, Alcorn A&M College Files, Box 4, Series “Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure Case Files, 1915–74,” AAUP Papers.

36. E. Philip Trapp to Robert Van Waes, May 29, 1961, Alcorn A&M College Files, Box 4, Series “Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure Case Files, 1915–74,” AAUP Papers.

37. Ibid. (first and second quotations); “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College,” AAUP Bulletin 48 (Autumn 1962): 248–52 (third quotation on 252).