Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge

Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge

Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge

Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge

Synopsis

Priests of Our Democracy tells of the teachers and professors who battled the anti-communist witch hunt of the 1950s. It traces the political fortunes of academic freedom beginning in the late 19th century, both on campus and in the courts. Combining political and legal history with wrenching personal stories, the book details how the anti-communist excesses of the 1950s inspired the Supreme Court to recognize the vital role of teachers and professors in American democracy. The crushing of dissent in the 1950s impoverished political discourse in ways that are still being felt, and First Amendment academic freedom, a product of that period, is in peril today. In compelling terms, this book shows why the issue should matter to everyone.

Excerpt

New York, 1952

Harry Keyishian was a junior at Queens College, New York City, in the fall of 1952 when the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee came to town. Investigations of suspected communist or ex-communist teachers were nothing new by this point in America’s Cold War history, but by 1952 they had reached such a pitch of intensity that the Senate subcommittee (commonly known as the SISS) was just one of multiple government and private bodies competing in a crowded field of political investigators. One of the subcommittee’s primary purposes in coming to New York was to persuade the local Board of Higher Education (the BHE) to be more aggressive in rooting out allegedly subversive faculty from the city’s free public colleges.

The first Queens professor to be called before the siss was the economist Vera Shlakman, an officer in the left-wing Teachers Union, whose campaigns against low pay, poor school maintenance, and racially biased textbooks had antagonized city officials since the early 1930s. Shlakman was the author of a much-praised book, Economic History of a Factory Town, and had been at Queens since 1938, after a PhD at Columbia, a research fellowship at Smith College, and a teaching stint at Sweet Briar. She had found the college “wonderful” when she arrived—the faculty full of European intellectuals, refugees from Nazism, and the students diligent and eager. Like many beleaguered academics in the early 1950s, she objected to legislative probes into her political beliefs, and when the time came, she refused to tell the siss whether she had ever been a Communist Party member. Despite her 14-year tenure at Queens, the bhe fired her two weeks later.

Harry Keyishian, who wrote a column for the student newspaper recounting humorous bits of campus news, and who had up to this point been more interested in girls than politics, joined a committee to protest the peremptory firing of a popular professor. From this modest beginning, Keyishian became, 15 years later, a protagonist in the U.S. Supreme Court’s most important ruling on academic freedom. But now, in 1952, he was just one puzzled . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.