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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, February 22, 2001. Interview K-0215. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Speaker Ban controversy at UNC

Pollitt argues that Allard Lowenstein's rejection of Jim Crow public accommodation laws resulted in the Speaker Ban law. UNC Chancellor J. Carlyle Sitterson's opposition to the students' proposed speakers led to a lawsuit against him. The students' attorney recalled a similar incident with former UNC President Frank Porter Graham at the turn of the century. The courts ultimately overturned the Speaker Ban.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, February 22, 2001. Interview K-0215. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Well, the way I always understood it is that the sit-ins were going on, and there was a guy named Al Lowenstein, who later became very famous—
Allard Lowenstein, from the Kennedy [assassination]—
Yeah, Al Lowenstein was then teaching at state. And Shaw University had a graduate who was the ambassadress of some African country to the United Nations. So they invited her down to receive an honor of some sort. And Al Lowenstein made arrangements for her to speak to his class as well, as long as she was there. And then he took her to lunch at the Sir Walter Hotel, and at the time the Sir Walter was "the" hotel in Raleigh, and that's were the debutante call was held, and that's where the legislators met for lunch. And here comes Al Lowenstein with this black woman, while the sit-ins are going on, and they were not admitted, they were turned away. But that pissed off some of the legislators. And I always thought that that was why we had a speaker ban. Cause we had no problem with Communist speakers; we didn't have any. It was not an issue. So they passed a law saying that no public university can extend its speaking facilities to people who are, 1, known communists, 2, who plead the fifth amendment in regard to subversive activities, or 3, advocate the overthrow of the government. Those are the three categories. And in due course, the students, Paul Dixon, who was the president of the student body, he and the head of the Di Phi, and the Tarheel and the yearbook, and interfraternity council, whatever you can think of, took the lead and they invited Aptheker to come and speak, and Aptheker was a known communist. He had come back from North Vietnam and they invited him to speak about his trip. And he was turned away. And they had 5,000 students milling around to hear him, and to see what doing. They were up in the trees and everywhere. And then they invited Frank Wilkinson who was the head of the committee to abolish the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and he had pleaded the fifth amendment before some California committee on trees and their subversion—Uncalifornian activities. [Laughter] So he was turned away. So those were the, they now have a case, and it now went to Sitterson, the Chancellor, and earlier the governor who was the acting head of the executive committee of the governors of the University system, earlier there had been a request to hear Wilkinson and Aptheker, and there was a lot that went on, but in any event, Sitterson said no. So they brought the students and they were turned away. And then there was a suit against Sitterson. And Dixon, Paul Dixon, the head of the student body, against Sitterson, the Chancellor. Saying that it's unconstitutional. There was a guy named McNeil Smith, who's a lawyer in Greensboro, who agreed to represent the students. And he had been the editor of the Tarheel in his day, and was in a very prominent law firm, and he agreed to do it. And he wrote to about 50 other lawyers who were graduates of the university, and asked them to sign on with him, and be the counsel of record. And none of them would. Which is shameful. So McNeil—me, I was then the president of the North Carolina ACLU, and Bill Van Alstyne, who was a distinguished constitutional lawyer, professor at Duke, helped him. And I filed a brief, amicus, friend of the court for the ACLU, and Bill Van Alstyne filed a brief amicus for the AAUP. But it was really, so there were three briefs, but there's a page limit, so one brief would take care of these three problems, and the other would take care of the other three problems. So it was one very big brief, exceeding the page limit for one brief. So we argued, and I just checked it out the other day and I didn't think I'd argued—but I had seven minutes, and Bill Van Alstyne had seven minutes, and McNeil Smith had twenty minutes or something.
And what year was this?
'64 maybe. And we won. And there was a federal three judge panel, court, and they agreed that it was unconstitutional. And that ended, the state didn't even appeal to the Supreme Court, so that ended the speaker ban. But the interesting anecdote type thing is that McNeil Smith reserved for a rebuttal, you can reserve three minutes, whatever, he reserved three minutes. And in his rebuttal he said that he had gone to see Frank Graham the previous night to tell him what he was doing, and how he saw it, and Frank Graham told him that when he had been an undergraduate here, he had been the head of the Di Phi or something, and he had, they had invited a senator—Butler, with a funny first name—to come and speak. Well, the senator was a republican. And this was say in 1905 or 06, when Jim Crow was getting underway, and there was a fusion party of blacks and it was volatile. And one president told Frank Graham that the senator couldn't speak on campus. So Frank Graham, and he named them, I can't remember their names, but one of them later became the head of Watauga Bank, and another was a judge, five or six of the students, all who became prominent later on, went and sat on the porch of the president, and they said they weren't going to leave until he agreed to let the senator speak. So this was a sit in by Frank Graham protesting the refusal to let somebody—he said, we have an open campus. McNeil Smith told this little story in his rebuttal. And one of the three federal judges was the grandson of that senator. And I knew what was coming, as I was watching the judge. And his face didn't change one bit. But I always thought that that was the greatest rebuttal: you bring in Frank Graham, you bring in free speech, you bring in your grandfather, I mean, what more can you do. So that ended the speaker ban, and then came the black student movement, and the cafeteria strike and all the rest.