Frank Porter Graham and Academic Freedom

The following is a guest blog post by William A. Link, author of Frank Porter Graham: Southern Liberal, Citizen of the World. Frank Porter Graham (1886–1972) was one of the most consequential white southerners of the twentieth century. Born in Fayetteville and raised in Charlotte, Graham became an active and popular student leader at the University of North Carolina. After earning a graduate degree from Columbia University and serving as a marine during World War I, he taught history at UNC, and in 1930, he became the university’s fifteenth president. 

Brimming with fresh insights, this definitive biography reveals how a personally modest public servant took his place on the national and world stage and, along the way, helped transform North Carolina.

Happy Book Birthday to Frank Porter Graham: Southern Liberal, Citizen of the World, officially on sale today!

In the early twenty-first century,  American colleges and universities are facing a sustained attack from conservative foes in print and in legislatures.  In recent months, legislatures—especially those in states which Donald Trump carried in 2020—have enacted new measures to uproot supposed higher education’s “liberal” indoctrination.  During World War I, university faculty who were opponents of American participation in the war faced censure and even dismissal.  During the early 1960s, the notorious Johns Committee investigated Communist infiltration by closeted gay people that led to firings on the campuses of Florida’s public colleges and universities.

Frank Porter Graham

How campuses became a battlefield in cultural wars has a long history. In November 1931, Langston Hughes, black poet and Harlem Renaissance figure,  visited the University of North Carolina campus.  Hosting a black man at a southern white university was a daring move.  Hughes contributed an essay and a poem to a literary journal edited in Chapel Hill, Contempo.  In the essay, entitled “Southern Gentlemen, White Prostitutes, Mill-Owners, and Negroes,” Hughes addressed the “absurd farce” that was Alabama justice.  Citing traditions of white southern honor, Hughes urged white southerners to “rise up” and free the accused defendants.  He described how the “half-black . . . children of the Southern gentleman” were products of their environment.  His essay traversed numerous racial taboos about white womanhood, but he went even farther in his poem, “Christ in Alabama,” appearing in the same Contempo issue.  “Christ is a Nigger,/Beaten and black,” it read, and “Mary is His Mother—/Mammy of the South,” with “God’s His Father—/White Master above.”  Hughes concluded with the verse, “Most holy bastard/Of the bleeding mouth:/Nigger Christ/On the cross of the South.

On November 19, 1931, Hughes, without incident, visited three classes and that evening delivered a talk before an audience of about 250 students and faculty.  The event provided fodder for David Clark, conservative critic and editor of the Textile Bulletin.  The Scottsboro defendants, Clark maintained, were fairly tried and convicted; he claimed that what occurred at Scottsboro involved “negro fiends” who assaulted unprotected white girls. Abernethy, Clark contended, was a “rabid advocate of communism and constantly a troublemaker.”  Denouncing Contempo for publishing “scurrilous and blasphemous articles,” Clark attacked Hughes for violating racial taboos about sex and race by suggesting that interracial contact might have been consensual.  Morever, UNC liberals, in effect, endorsed the violation of white womanhood, while Communists were using the event to promote subversion of the racial order.  In most of the South, Clark continued, anyone writing such articles would be driven out and “fortunate to escape bodily harm.”  At UNC, in contrast, Hughes was welcomed.

The charge of UNC campus radicalism had a flimsy basis; in the 1930s, radicals remained few and isolated on campus.  In October 1931, a John Reed Club chapter was formed in Chapel Hill, with the purpose of organizing a “cultural movement dedicated to advancing the interests of the working class.”  John Reed Clubs were founded in 1929 as a national organization that was affiliated with the Communist Party and attracted cultural and political radicals.  Sympathizing with Communists’ labor organizing and the defense of civil rights, the Chapel Hill chapter hosted talks by anarchist Marcus Graham and New Masses editor Michael Gold.  The formation of the John Reed Club chapter at UNC encouraged a popular perception of student radicalism.  As the Burlington Times put it, public taxes permitted “the communistic party to organize on the Hill.”  The Daily Tar Heel ridiculed the Times’s concern with the group, an organization of “eight or ten literarily minded idealists” who “occasionally discuss Karl Marx and the Russian experiment over peaceful cups of coffee.”

Though UNC President Frank Porter Graham did not mind controversy, he also believed that opposing forces could be reconciled.  Although he blamed Contempo for providing ammunition to critics of UNC liberalism, Graham defended the principle of academic freedom.  UNC was caught in a crossfire between student radicals and conservative critics and was forced to defend free speech. 

William A. Link is Richard J. Milbauer Professor of History at the University of Florida.