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By Matt Coker
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Photo by Jack GouldIt's a sure sign of age when the people studying the times you've lived through aren't sociologists anymore but historians. One study I've been reading is Communists on Campus by William J. Billingsley, a North Carolina-born, UC Irvine American history Ph.D. The book explores the events and attitudes surrounding a 1963 North Carolina law banning any speakers on state campuses who were "known" communists or who had exercised their Fifth Amendment rights before any investigative panel.
North Carolina was not particularly imperiled by communist takeover at the time, and Bill Billingsley shows that the legislation was intended instead to stymie student-led desegregation efforts. That's a fine piece of democracy: passing a repressive law in the name of protecting us from a repressive ideology with the actual intent of keeping a large percentage of the population disenfranchised. Would you be surprised to learn that Jesse Helms, the eternal arachnid of the U.S. Senate, played a large part in the passage of this law? Though not then in government, Helms was an influential—and segregationist—North Carolina television and newspaper commentator.
One expects such from Helms. The chilling aspect of Billingsley's book is how passively liberals and educators acquiesced to the law. Billingsley is generous in giving motive and context for school officials—including William Friday, the revered 30-year president of the University of North Carolina (UNC)—who failed to oppose the law and instead quelled campus agitation so legislators might be persuaded that activism could be handled in-house. But his book is a reminder that freedom is precarious when few people are willing to protect it. Ultimately, it was the UNC chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that challenged the law, setting the process in motion that led to a court finding the speaker ban unconstitutional in 1968.
Over a Gypsy Den latte recently, Billingsley said, "What I learned from studying this period is that we need to be extremely vigilant regarding any attempt to abrogate civil liberties or silence dissent. The real crimes against civil liberties in the United States occur in moments of social change and disruption, when there is a mild public hysteria. What disturbs me was the complicity of bona fide liberals in doing this. I think that's what some find disturbing about the book. It doesn't show leaders of the supposedly liberal university being so liberal or so committed to their goals and ideals. That allowed a group that has been historically cast as radical—the SDS—to basically co-opt what was a liberal issue: constitutional liberties. How radical is that?"
Billingsley said state legislators might have been sincere in their anti-communist convictions. However, he said, "A question I put to ones I interviewed was, 'Define communism.' And most of them couldn't. To many of them, I think communism meant any manifestation of social disorder or violation of the 'natural hierarchy' of race. It was a commonplace assumption of segregationists that blacks were satisfied with the racial status quo. So when there was a sudden eruption of what they'd thought were docile black people, the answer to them was that the communists were behind it."
The speaker ban did indeed prevent some civil-rights authorities from speaking on UNC campuses, as well as foreign scientists, playwright Arthur Miller and others. Some politically active students were also purged from campuses by UNC administrators.
Billingsley's linking of university president Friday to certain events has had repercussions, he said, not the least being that this book by a North Carolinian about the University of North Carolina was published not by the UNC Press but by the University of Georgia. While the UNC Press solicited the manuscript, optioned it, and sat on it for the better part of a year, it ultimately declined to publish the book despite positive reader reports and indications it would sell well, Billingsley said. He heard through back channels that some parties in the UNC system didn't want the book published because it presented Friday (who currently chairs the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics) and other officials in a less-than-ideal light.
"The book has caught a lot of flak from some people in North Carolina and from some reviewers, including Friday's official biographer, who said I vilified Friday," he said. "I blanch at that accusation. The previous view many people had of these events is that of conservative hordes led by Jesse Helms being opposed by the forces of light and goodness at the University of North Carolina led by President William Friday. But history is rarely that simple. There were plenty of people on both sides who didn't do the right thing, but I'm aware of the difficulty of the choices they had to make."
Despite revealing its past flaws, Billingsley has tremendous respect for the UNC system (the civilizing influence of which had a lot to do with North Carolina not taking the violent segregationist path neighboring states took in the '60s). He has sought employment there but encountered more difficulty than a published professor might expect. He doesn't know that the controversial content of his book is a factor, "but, like the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean someone's not out to get you."
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.