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Instead, he resides in Costa Mesa, living the gypsy-scholar life of an untenured professor, teaching courses here and there at Irvine Valley College, UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and other local campuses while he starts his next book, a study of anti-communism in California institutions—not that Billingsley likes burning bridges or anything.
"It's just a fascinating subject to me," he said. "One of the reasons North Carolina legislators put forth for the speaker ban was that they didn't want UNC Chapel Hill to become 'another Berkeley.' California had a reputation for being a bastion of radicalism, but it actually was one of very few states with its own UnAmerican Activities Committee, one that lasted into the 1970s."
Billingsley's own history is pretty interesting stuff. The 47-year-old was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, to parents who never earned more than minimum wage. His father farmed land he didn't own; his mother's jobs ranged from shucking oysters to emptying bedpans, which isn't exactly an encouraging range.
"She only made it through the second grade in school, while my father claimed an eighth-grade education, though that's dubious: neither one of them could read or write beyond signing their names," Billingsley said. "There was never a newspaper or book in the house. They were people who lived a hardscrabble life, existing from day to day."
Billingsley grew up in a two-room house with a potbelly stove and no bathroom. It wasn't until he was 14 that the family got a TV, and there was no phone until he was 16. "My parents were not malicious people at all, but their sensibilities, like probably most people there, were racist. Probably one of the reasons I was able to transcend that was that I couldn't help noticing that many of the black people I saw lived better than we did."
Among the other things Billingsley transcended—how many Ph.D.s grew up with illiterate parents?—was being born with cerebral palsy. The positive side to that, if there is such a thing, was that he spent a few months of his youth in the Duke University Medical Center, where he developed an awe for higher learning. A more obvious downside is that he has to type with one hand.
He was a middling student in grade school but excelled in junior college. In his earliest teaching job, he was a young Michael Jordan's baseball coach. He was accepted into the doctoral program at Duke, but financial circumstances and a respect for UCI history professor Jon Wiener led him to Orange County instead.
"[Wiener] is an excellent historian, and he had just recently then filed suit against the Reagan administration Justice Department to secure John Lennon's files under the Freedom of Information Act. I thought, 'I want to work with a guy with that kind of moxie,'" Billingsley said.
California history, here he comes.
Communists on Campus: Race, Politics, and the Public University in Sixties North Carolina by William J. Billingsley; University of Georgia Press. 336 pages, hardcover, $29.95.