The Battle over Power, Control, and Academic Freedom at Southern Institutions of Higher Education, 1955-1965

By Williamson-Lott, Joy Ann | The Journal of Southern History, November 2013 | Go to article overview

The Battle over Power, Control, and Academic Freedom at Southern Institutions of Higher Education, 1955-1965


Williamson-Lott, Joy Ann, The Journal of Southern History


IT MAY SEEM THERE IS LITTLE LEFT TO EXAMINE ABOUT THE BLACK freedom struggle and its effects on southern institutions of higher education. Exemplary scholarship chronicles how southern officials resisted federal intervention and attempted to intimidate activists into quietude. The Fourteenth Amendment, at the heart of the battle over the desegregation of white campuses, rightfully takes center stage. African Americans and their federal allies demanded desegregation on the basis of equal protection under the law, while white southern politicians and administrators literally and metaphorically stood in the schoolhouse door to prevent it. (1) Yet southern white officials showed the same antipathy toward the First Amendment and the related concept of academic freedom, though their role is discussed to a much lesser degree in the literature. Administrators believed that both, like the Fourteenth Amendment, undermined white supremacy, inflamed racial unrest, and usurped states' rights. The battle at southern institutions of higher education, therefore, was not simply over desegregation but also over the breadth of faculty freedoms. (2)

The southern brand of academic McCarthyism was informed by fear and anxiety about social change as much as concerns over communism. Most studies of academic freedom in higher education focus on nationwide anticommunist sentiment and its impact on northern institutions between the 1930s and early 1950s. (3) Southern academic McCarthyism fed off the earlier era, but this regional phenomenon largely occurred after the faculty purges at northern institutions had ceased and after the Senate censured Joseph McCarthy in December 1954. To the white South, integrationists and communists represented a persistent threat to white supremacy, and southern white officials mobilized to ensure that their citizens, including students, were not exposed to such anti-American ideologies. Southern nationalists, as historian Jeff Woods calls them, mixed "regional separatism" and "patriotic Americanism" in a way that allowed them to consider themselves "the true keepers of the American flame" and to justify regional purges of faculty well into the 1960s. Woods's case study of segregation and anticommunism at the University of Arkansas offers an excellent example of the precarious position of academic freedom at one southern institution. (4)

This article expands on Woods's and others' individual case studies to provide a regional analysis of how the red and black scare affected different types of institutions across the South between 1955 and 1965. (5) In particular, the article examines those institutions that provoked censure from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), an organization dedicated to defining professional standards and values in higher education, and focuses on institutions that fired faculty for expressing liberal opinions on race, including support of desegregation, racial equality, and an end to white supremacy. (6) Some white southern institutions, public and private, did fight to protect controversial faculty, sometimes against vehement public opinion. (7) Moreover, institutions fired faculty for challenging the racial status quo before 1955. (8) However, this article's focus on extreme situations--glaring violations of academic freedom at the height of the black freedom struggle that provoked AAUP censure--offers insight into 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. (9) As federal interventions chipped away at the foundations of white supremacy, officials at some colleges and universities vowed not to allow their institutions to provide intellectual fodder for the unraveling of the so-called southern way of life. …

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